'MOM YOU REALLY don't have to go yet." That is an 11-year-old Boy Scout preparing to go on his first week-long camping trip. We have another hour before our bus pulls out of Falls Church, on its way to the Goshen Camping Center in the Shenandoah Valley. As assistant scoutmaster (ASM) of Troop 100, I am responsible for keeping our troop in good order until time to leave. Most are keeping a stiff upper lip. I am roughly in the same boat. I've been at this scouting game only a year myself even though I'm the oldest ASM in Washington's oldest troop.
Our 29 scouts for this camping trip range in age from 10 1/2 through 16, and include two adolescent senior patrol leaders (SPLs), four patrol leaders and a quartermaster (QM). We have three adults for the whole week: Ralph, Tom and me. Paul, another ASM, arrives later. Only first names are used in our troop. I'm five times older than our youngest scout, but I'm Ed -- nothing else.
It is raining steadily when we unload at Goshen and hike to our camp site. We find out soon enough that our area has been under repair since 1975 and there are still some rough edges. Certain of the two-man tents have to be moved to higher ground, and our two-hole toilet needs repair.
Unpacking in the rain in a strange area doesn't lend itself to frivolity. On top of everything esle I am stung by a bee, and it starts to sting and swell at bedtime. Am I too old for this sort of thing?
The whippoorwills finally put us all to sleep. Monday
Up at 6 to help the SPLs get the scouts up. I'm usually Easy Ed, but not at 6. The ground is still wet, though the rain has stopped.
Our daily 7 a.m. staff meeting (three adults, SPLs and QM) is taken up with the daily schedule and deciding on the winners of the previous day's contests, such as best meal, best pioneering project and overall honor patrol. Quick recognition for work well done is important. Wooden beads and other insignia are presented every day at assembly to decorate a winning patrol's flag.
We have Cobra, Fox, Pine Tree and Stag patrols -- teams of five to eight boys that work together in contests, games, hikes, canoe trips. They eat and sleep together -- keeping each other from getting homesick. The patrol leader quickly learns what it means to lead. Have you ever seen a 13-year-old start coaxing, yelling at, leading 11- and 12-year-olds?
The troop officially gets started each day at 8:30 assembly after breakfast and KP. Our assembly area doesn't have a flagpole, so we throw a rope over a tree limb, hoist our American and Troop 100 flags and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Not bad, but clearly a field expedient. A Top priority is to find a tall, stately, dead tree that could be moved to our assembly area.
The day couldn't be busier, what with shaping up our campsite and getting organized for swimming, first aid and pionering (which involves lashing together towers, bridges and other structures.) We are fortunate to find a beautiful dead tree for the flagpole. No one has time to get bored. Tuesday
We have a sharp disagreement at morning staff meeting over which patrol won yesterday's "invitation" contest. Staff members are invited to patrol meals on a rotational basis. (The only perks we get as staff are no cooking and no KP.) It's tough to decide which one was best.
Today I have "Diogenes" come at me with a lamp at breakfast time: Am I an honest man? he asks. At lunchtime a "Noah" comes to invite "two humans" to eat on his ark filled with many clamoring animals. Two other staff people are "taken" by Darth Vader as prisoners, only to be freed and fed by Members of the Rebellion. Another patrol sends two emissaries to invite me as U.S. ambassador to an official meal in Pintreenia. Three men once rowed up in a "gondola" to invite Ralph to a spaghetti meal.
A special contest for today is for the patrol that collects the most sassafras root or bark -- this is leaf recognition with a special motive. The troop plans to make root beer for our big Friday night meal. Tom is the number one helper on stewing the roots, adding carbonated water and capping the bottles we brought.
Tension over who won this special contest comes out during the evening evaluation period. I met with the Fox Patrol every evening and during the day too, but this is the first time they show real spark. For one reason or another, the Fox Patrol hasn't won a first in any big contest. They are not lazy, but sometimes weak in taking the initiative. This was the hardest they had worked as a team, and they are worried that they still might not have won first. Wednesday,
Everyone is relieved when Ralph announces that the Fox Patrol has actually won a first prize.
After winning, the Fox Patrol begins to show a different spirit: more teamwork, more group decisions, a clearer sense of belonging. A patrol gate goes up with the Fox symbol. Even a lantern tree surprises everybody -- a first for the troop. Members of the Fox patrol start getting to meetings on time. Fox meals are on time, with its yells heard first. A lot of people say it won't last. I disagree. Fox Patrol is now pulling together to win honor patrol. It's a new Fox spirit. Thursday
Stag Patrol completes a gate for the troop site, which is declared permanent by the camp staff and given a name. Every rank from Tenderfoot to Eagle has to such a public project attached to it.
ASM Paul arrives and begins getting another big project under way -- a 15-foot tower. Patrols send groups to help and learn pioneering skills. All patrols need brushing up on knots, lashing and splicing rope.
I feel good seeing Fox Patrol members really active in helping with the tower and volunteering to clean up various parts of the troop site like the toilet area.
Sandy, our youngest scout, with only two weeks in the troop asks me to work with him on his citizenship skill award. Citizenship is my speciality -- from the basic skill award needed for Tenderfoot rank to the three merit badges needed for Eagle (Citizenship in the Community, in the Nation and in the World). Sandy has already studied hard and is prepared to answer questions on the history of the flag, rights and duties of citizens, ways to fight crime by helping law-enforcement agencies and how to save resources. Over the next couple of days he will complete his test question, help raise, lower and fold the flag -- and lead the troop in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Our troop spends several hours this afternoon in an intertroop field contest. We're camping with 250 other scouts in this portion of Goshen. There is good competition over a wide range of activities: fire-making, knot-tying and rope-lashing, stretcher-racing, leaf recognition, tripod-making and basket ball shooting. All events emphasize patrol competition. All our patrols do well, coming in first, second or third. Not bad at all -- in fact, we win a watermelon. Friday
Smiles and cheers all around when Ralph calls patrol leader Philip forward at assembly to get the honor patrol ribbon for Fox Patrol. They finally made it.
While at camp headquarters this morning, I have a cup of coffee with other adult volunteers. There are seven of us, and our discussion quickly shifts to a worry that I have heard emphasized throughout my year as ASM: the shortage of adult volunteers.
Several note the smallness of their troop, adding that they are getting a larger number of applications from boys, but need adults willing to help. Troops and Cub Scout packs drawing from various areas -- white, black or Hispanic -- lack adult leaders, either men or women. All of them stress the need for more adult volunteers as ASMs, committeemen or women, merit badge counselors or other advisers. We all agree that BSA can no longer stand for "Baby Sitters of America."
This is the evening of our big dinner. Ten camp staffers are invited to join us for homemade root beer, quiche and ice cream, with each patrol's special topping (another contest). All this is to go with the hamburger, potatoes and other basic foodstuffs supplied by the commissary but cooked by the scouts.
After dinner and KP, the scouts head for the lake and a game of water polo. I beg off. I may not be too old for a lot of things -- but water polo right after a big dinner? Saturday
Troop spirit droops a bit when we line up in front of our tower for a souvenir photo before taking it down. All flags are flying -- American, troop, four patrol and staff flags. Where has the time gone?
After dinner and assembly, we go to the large campfire ceremony with 10 or 15 other troops. Interesting to compare this campfire with the one a week ago. We now know, even sit with, scouts of other troops -- not strangers anymore.
This same feeling is more apparent at our own troop campfire. A number of scouts speak out with feelings of their own, even from a few who were virtually tongue-tied a week ago.
It will be hard to leave Goshen, but I'll be happy to get back to warm water for showering and shaving, reading a newspaper again and kissing wife and family. Still, there are few experiences in the world as rewarding as watching and helping boys grow successfully into manhood. Never too old for that.