Craig Jones Legacy Columnist
oming back through the community boathouse parking lot at the end of my run a couple of seasons ago, I saw boys working on what looked to be an enclosure for the two dumpsters there. This would render them less of an eyesore in this beautiful spot by the Merrimack River in northern Massachusetts. I saw older men there, too, with saws and horses set up. A boy was using one of those big vibrating tampers to pound the dirt flat. The who, what, and why of this had remained a mystery, until it went “ding” and I thought “must be an Eagle Scout community service project,” one of the requirements, in addition to all the merit badges and leadership positions, for the award.
I walked over and asked, and was answered “yes” by an older gentleman who told me his grandson, the one with the tamper, was finishing his Eagle work. I said oh, man, I thought that might be it and said, “I am (not was, we don’t say that) an Eagle, too, from a boyhood troop in Maine.” He said he was from Presque Isle, Maine, way the hell up north.
By this time his grandson had come over, curious, and I retold how I was an Eagle Scout, from ’69, and he asked where’s that (meaning where is that unit located)? I said that’s NINETEEN 69, when I was sixteen, but my troop was in Hallowell, Maine (a New England city also on a beautiful river, the Kennebec). Troop 647, at least back then.
Two of the other helping boys were Eagle Scouts too, one father said. By one count at least four, this being the latest, Eagle projects have been recently done here in this park. I got back to my run and said thanks for your service, it’s beautiful, and it’s a great brotherhood.
I felt that deeply, and I feel it every time I meet someone of my cohort or a teenager or a man of any other age who reached that pinnacle of Scouting. By any measure it has enriched my life way beyond what it cost since I received my own Eagle award in 1969, 52 years ago.
I’m still grateful for what Scouting gave me, even as I have watched the movement bob and weave over the years and survive and change and somehow still stay much the same. The Boy Scouts of America was forced to rethink positions on gays and girls (some of whom have now become Eagles, themselves) and parts of the handbook that seemed less relevant. I watched Charles Whitman, a notorious Eagle Scout, carry out the mass shootings from the Texas Tower in Austin. I got my own award three years after that.
Scouting in America has fallen on some hard times, no question, in the wake of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to deal with a large number of sexual abuse charges. It’s been sobering that something so important to me as a boy could at the same time be so imperfect. I remember an article in the Smithsonian on the occasion of BSA’s 75th anniversary, its Diamond Jubilee, during which time I was working for the movement as a professional.
The author went back to his own Scout Troop to see what had stayed the same and what had changed. He said (not verbatim here) that the organization didn’t do everything its founder had envisioned and didn’t save the world, but by God, it did two things most impressively. It helped him survive his boyhood and engendered a long-lasting love of the out-of-doors.
To these I also assent, personally. I can embrace and hold dear all that becoming an Eagle Scout meant to me, and I can at the same time watch a high-profile institution like this get hammered, sometimes justifiably, for outdated ideas.
That, in itself, is worthy of my undying gratitude, because that is the way real life is. Nothing you believe in is perfect. I’m grateful for whatever confluence of factors originally led me into scouting. For my mom being a Den Mother, for all the men who coached and counseled me and taught me, a young boy without his dad since age five because of an untimely cancer death, and for all the outdoor skills I first learned there.
everal years ago, my friend (also an Eagle Scout) asked me to have a speaking part in his son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor, the ceremony where the award is given in front of friends and family. I eagerly accepted.
I said, here’s what I know: None of this recognition means squat, until and unless you supply it with meaning. It doesn’t come already equipped, like toys don’t come equipped with batteries. Life should come equipped or printed with “meaning not included.” I said, I don’t remember one word of my court of honor 48 years ago, but I know this–that whatever any one told me it meant, I had to make it my own over the years and live into what I personally thought it meant.
For that reason, I could tell the audience and the newly-minted Eagles that not for one second of my life since getting the award have I not been proud of what I did. No matter what turmoil was going on in the movement or changes in the handbook or whatever part in the so-called culture wars the Boy Scouts of America has played.
The Boy Scout camp I attended for several of my boyhood summers was recently up for sale, due to the local council’s fiscal woes. The ongoing corona virus pandemic decimated the council’s ability to raise money for Scouting activities.
One insider noted “It’s an emotional thing and not everyone is happy about it, but ultimately it’s to save Scouting in central and southern Maine. We’d hate to see it but it is possible people could be upset. There are people who grew up with this camp; it’s dear to their hearts.”
That is sure true for me. I remember the waterfront and the dining hall and working on advancement through the various ranks. I remember hearing three counselors play Leroy Anderson’s Buglers Holiday around a huge campfire. I was a trumpet player and it made a lasting impression. We heard a dramatic rendering of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart around that same fire circle.
I remember failing to complete my swimming merit badge one summer because I didn’t get the elementary backstroke exactly right. “No compromising on standards here” was the enduring message. Every year we got chills as someone retold an updated version of the story of Three Fingered Willie (you can actually look this up on Google; I could hardly believe it), and you always heard the frightening scratching noises right behind you.
I have my BSA compass here on this desk, as I write, with plastic lanyard and whistle attached. I probably made the lanyard out of plastic string at that camp. I keep it here to remind me to stay on my path, remembering where I came from and where I’m going.
As I look back to that boy I was, I still see the father of the man, as immature and wide-eyed and cocky and yet afraid as I really was. I love that callow 16-year-old boy now, and I’m grateful to be able to say that, because it hasn’t always been true. Both strains are in me, the failures and successes and nonsense and brilliance all braided together, just like the Boy Scouts of America.
I closed my remarks at that Court of Honor with a quote from historian Howard Zinn, who once wrote “We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Becoming an Eagle Scout contributed mightily to how I think human beings should live, however short I might fall in living out this infinite succession of presents.
In the immortal words of the philosopher Steve Miller,
Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
Into the future…
I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me