Going Back to Boy Scout Camp
The Confidence Pole
As I clipped the carabiner hook onto my harness, I took a deep breath as my eyes scanned up the 25 foot telephone pole before me and tried to imagine how I was going to perch myself in a standing position atop its 12 inch diameter apex, let alone leap from it into the mid-day air to catch the metal ring dangling high above me. One thing at a time.
'People do this all the time', I told myself. 'Don't think about it - just do it.'
I walked up to the pole, placed my feet on the metal rungs sticking out on either side of it and shimmied up as quickly as I could. My mind stayed blank and focused. At the top, I paused, and tried to figure out how I could transition from a climbing position to one where first my upper and then lower torso could fit onto the small space. I tried one way, retreated, then another, feeling like a dog trying to find the right position to lie down. At last, I pushed myself into a sitting position, then, with my hands clinging onto the edge of the crown, squeezed my feet in between them like a frog, and squinted up at the ring, dangling in the air ten feet before me.
"Raise it!" I commanded.
I knew I didn't want to be standing and contemplating this move any longer than necessary. As soon as the other leader raised the ring, I pushed myself to a full standing position and leaped into the air, grabbed the ring and let myself fall through the air, only to be caught by my harness. I had conquered the "Confidence Pole" at the COPE (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) Course at the Boy Scouts' Camp Lassen.
It's a much different experience going to a Boy Scout Camp as an adult. I vaguely remember going when I was a Scout myself (photo above). I was a tentative kid; stubborn and unwilling to trust the other Scouts and leaders enough to take such risks. I don't know why that was. One of my older brothers told me I'd once said, "I'm never going to get hurt, because I'm always going to be careful." People who know me now see that if I ever encounter something that is potentially daunting, my first instinct is, "Well, I have to do that then!" Taking on the COPE course was one of those.
The Scout experience feels a lot different now, from an adult perspective, in 2011. Is it different, or am I different? Certainly, my son is much more outgoing and social than I was. I encouraged him to join Scouts because I recalled it was a good program for building character, confidence and leadership. My unfounded hesitancy was based on impressions I'd received over the past several years that it was an exclusionary organization, out of touch with modern times. Having just spent a week at one of these camps, I now disagree. It's an imperfect world, and the organization has made some tough choices, with which I may not agree. The bottom line is whether it supports the kind of growth in character and self-esteem I want to instill in my son.
Absolutely. And that's what truly matters the most.
The Boy Scout experience
One of the most significant (and challenging aspects for parents) is that it is a boy-led program. That means the older boys (14-18 years old) lead the meetings, organize the events, prepare the meals, and make the major decisions. Not to say we adults don't intervene when necessary, but like in the real world, every person needs to be able to figure things out on his/her own, including making mistakes and learning the cause and effect of his/her actions.
Failures are much better teachers than successes.
At the same time, it teaches restraint in us parents as we watch things unfold in ways we may not have wanted, but which work anyway. In a world of control freaks, a great life lesson!
We arrived Sunday and the boys decided where to pitch their tents, and made determinations of sleeping arrangements. BSA has very strict rules about never allowing adults and children who are not theirs to be alone together - anywhere. While frustrating, it is a fact of modern life, and the rule of "two deep" at all times is a prudent one. The boys then have a series of merit badge classes they are able to take at several times during the week, including Archery, Rifle Shooting, Leatherwork, Metalwork, Wood Carving, Emergency Preparedness, Swimming, Canoeing, and the list goes on. They set their schedule, and are responsible to attend the classes they choose, and to do the required work. There are over 100 merit badges on subjects that surprised me in their breadth: Architecture, Astronomy, Citizenship in the Community, Nation and World (3 separate badges), Climbing, Cooking, Crime Prevention, Dentistry, Environmental Science, First Aid, Home Repairs, Inventing, Life Saving, Music, Personal Management, Public Speaking, Reading, Soil and Water Conservation and Veterinary Medicine. And this is just a sampling.
Then there are rank advancements, from Tenderfoot to Eagle, that involve reading up on first aid skills, money management, wilderness skills, etc. Being boy-led, it's up to the boys to initiate their advancement, which means they set the goal, they make the calls to ask for merit badge counselors, they have to complete the requirements - not the parent.
Being a first year Scout, my son divided his time between the instruction on advancement to First Class (the third rank), and Rifle Shooting, which he absolutely loves. And I alternated between taking runs and hikes alone through the woods, and discreetly checking up to help him stay focused on his commitments. Comically, on about my third morning taking solitary hikes, a motorist stopped by me and warned me of the potential for mountain lions in the area. Hey - I've encountered one alone before; the way I look at it is it isn't so important that the lion can take me, but that the lion thinks I can take him! Call me crazy (though not so much as The Grizzly Man ... may he rest in peace!)
The Scout Law says a Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. When I was young, I thought that was a lot to absorb; after all, I just wanted to be accepted, and left alone. I wasn't thinking about the broader impact of my actions, and whether I needed to be shaped in order to both live a richer, more balanced life, and to provide value to our way of living as a citizen. I now get it.
Sometimes I wish I could cast a spell to reduce the political rhetoric and misunderstood ideology and just spend our intellectual and emotional attention on simple things that matter immensely. While leaders are yelling at each other like second graders, they're taking their eyes off the actual doing of providing safe, appropriate, helpful, nurturing communities and programs. As I've witnessed with my own eyes, the Boy Scouts program is well-rounded, it fills an incredible character vacuum, and it supports and reinforces positive behaviors in boys who are not yet mature enough to figure this stuff out on their own.
So here I am - a father, who wants fervently to provide a healthy and nourishing landscape for my young son to be able to flourish in the world. I don't know how long it will last. I quit when I was about 14 because my friends dropped off and the Scouts left in my troop were just not cool, in my opinion. As another Scout leader told me, he quit because of fumes - car fumes and perfumes. I have no delusions, and am sure my son will have similar thoughts soon.
I'm just happy for the experience. In some small, simple but significant way, my life feels a little better for having been there for my son, and for myself.
And that's a good thing.
Part two - the following summer (aka The Return to Scout Camp)!