By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008
The boys called themselves the Viking Patrol. The scoutmasters called them babies.
As Cub Scouts, they were so wild that the exasperated leaders insisted that their parents attend the meetings to keep things from getting out of hand. Their first hike as Boy Scouts became notable for the "strike" when the boys lay down side by side on an easy trail and refused to go on after having covered about the length of the Mall.
But something happened to these 11 whiny, quick-to-say-quit goofballs from Boy Scout Troop 681 in Falls Church. It happened somewhere along the way between pinewood derbies and knot-tying in the Scout House, the log cabin where the group met three times a month under the glassy eyes of a stuffed moose. And it happened on 50-mile hikes and canoe trips, under the watch of scoutmasters such as the retired lieutenant colonel who spun war stories and taught them how to set up an L-shaped ambush, Ranger-style.
Somehow, this bunch of undisciplined suburban kids grew into a closely knit crew of slyly ironic, decent, responsible young men whose proudest achievement was a 90-mile hike in the mountains of New Mexico. Now all 11 members of the Viking Patrol, one of 10 patrols that make up the troop, have made it to the rank of Eagle Scout -- a feat that national, regional and local Scouting leaders believe is unprecedented.
Perhaps no one was more surprised than the boys.
"We were kind of the black sheep of the group," Sam Dowell, 18, of Fairfax said.
Only 5 percent of Scouts achieve Eagle rank by age 18, when Scouting ends.
"To have 11 in the same patrol is virtually unheard of," said Gregg Shields, national spokesman for Boy Scouts of America.
Scouting has rarely been cool. But in a world of iPods, traveling soccer clubs, 24-hour cable television and Wii, Boy Scout oaths and three-finger salutes seem more than a little dated. Founded in February 1910, the Boy Scouts of America reached its zenith in 1970 when baby boomers boosted its ranks to 4.3 million, compared with 2.9 million in 2006. When Scouting makes the news these days, it's usually because of its ban on openly gay leaders, a controversy that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
But studies have shown that Eagle Scouts excel in school and participate in their communities, and admissions officers say the achievement can boost their odds of getting into college.
Scout leaders like to note that some pretty famous people were Eagle Scouts, including former president Gerald R. Ford, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong (and two of the other 11 astronauts who walked on the moon), baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and movie directors Michael Moore and Steven Spielberg. (President John F. Kennedy was a Boy Scout, by the way, but not an Eagle Scout, and neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush ventured beyond Cub Scouts.) Eagle Scouts must earn at least 21 merit badges, including 12 required badges in subjects such as first aid, citizenship and personal fitness. The cornerstone of the program is the community service project.
"One of the huge advantages is it's an award that has set nationally recognized standards," said Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions for George Mason University. "Colleges undoubtedly know it speaks to the student's motivation, leadership and commitment."
But the boys in Falls Church's Viking Patrol were nothing like the straight arrows that adorn some of their sashes.
"They were a bunch of ninnies. They were still acting like Cub Scouts and babies," said Assistant Scoutmaster Peter Archibald of Falls Church, whose son, Seann, was among the 11 to attain Eagle Scout. Their first hike was a three-miler along the gently climbing Thornton River Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2001. They griped from the beginning, then quit about two miles from the trail head.
"They lay down on the trail, like railroad ties," Scoutmaster Kevin Coleman of Falls Church said. "I said, 'What are you doing?' They said, 'We're on strike.' "
Coleman, whose 17-year-old son Daniel is one of the 11 Eagle Scouts, threatened to leave them.
"I thought, 'Lord Almighty, I've got a bunch of losers on my hands,' " Coleman said.
Assistant Scoutmaster Richard Choppa, 46, a retired Army officer whose son Nicholas became an Eagle, tried a different tactic, one generally frowned upon by the code of Scout's honor: He told them there was a Dairy Queen just around the next bend. (There was not.)
All agree a turning point occurred during a 60-mile canoe trip in the Adirondack Mountains in 2003. After reaching the impassable Raquette River Falls, the boys had to carry their gear, including the canoes, about 1 1/2 miles over a mountain. Disorganized and weary, they took about twice as long as necessary.
When they finally reached camp that night -- cranky, hungry, exhausted and blistered -- they wanted to bed down without pitching tents, digging a latrine or hanging their food to avoid attracting bears. Scout leaders insisted that the boys make camp properly and left the details to them. After much bickering and complaining, the boys organized themselves. From then on, according to the leaders and the boys, the boys took the direction of the patrol into their own hands and also began contributing to the leadership of the entire troop.
Other experiences piled up. They hiked the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania and bicycled the length of the C&O Canal. They saw meteor showers. They slept in the snow. They heard coyotes call, ran into a bear, observed elk, saw bald eagles. They listened to Choppa explain to them the theory of how to survive an 800-foot fall without a parachute. They matured and discovered things about themselves that surprised them.
Dowell, who speaks with a stutter, became one of their most eloquent spokesmen -- so much so that the group named him chaplain.
Said Dowell: "I would just speak from my heart."
And they were a quirky lot. Campfire chats turned to the merits of Thai-Vietnamese fusion cuisine and the cinematic techniques of Ingmar Bergman or Hayao Miyazaki.
For his Eagle Scout project, John Goodwin wrote a play and staged it with fellow Scouts in local nursing homes, along with Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" skit.
They didn't mind that some peers wrote them off as dweebs.
"A long time ago, I got over the people who say it's not cool," said Goodwin, 18, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, who lives in Vienna and is headed to Columbia University in the fall.
Will Douthitt, 17, the troop's smart aleck, said few of the boys thought about reaching Eagle Scout until they were well down the path toward the goal. But then they hung on, despite punishing schedules.
Douthitt, for example, fit Scouting into a high school routine that included fencing, student government, playing trumpet in jazz band, participating in a model United Nations and volunteering for the Global Community Service Foundation, which took him to Vietnam and Burma last summer.
For their Eagle Scout projects, which required at least 100 hours of work and enlisting other volunteers, most of the boys did traditional trail work or construction projects for local public parks: an erosion-control buffer, bluebird boxes, a horseshoe pit and 30-foot-long butterfly bush planters.
Their crowning achievement was a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M., when the patrol backpacked more than 90 miles. It was a demonstration in the art of setting goals and sticking to them, said Choppa, of Falls Church.
"The goal in life is to raise [these] guys to be able to give back to society. It's breaking the will of the individual to the good of the group, because these kids have strong personalities," Choppa said. "For me, I did it to be with my son, so he's not playing video games."