I am browsing a shelf of antique books. I come across the “Official Boy Scout Handbook” published in 1945.
The binding is cracked with age. In the back pages are ads for Louisville Slugger, “Boy’s Life,” and Goodyear bicycle tires. It’s a tiny book, it would fit easily into the back pocket of your Levi’s. The cover is illustrated by Norman Rockwell.
I flip it open.
Chapter One. “What Is a Scout?” the title reads.
“A Scout!” it begins. “What fun he finds hiking into the woods! He tells north from south by the stars. East from west from the shadows… His Scout ‘good turns’ to someone each day make him many friends, for the way to HAVE friends is to first BE one.”
I was in Boy Scouts. Every boy my age was. We had meetings at the Methodist church. We sat in the front pews and tried to impress each other with bodily noises and anatomy tricks. My father was a Scoutmaster and a lifelong Scout. He knew how to swallow his own tongue.
“Scouting,” it says in Chapter Two, “knows no race or creed or class. Troops are found in Catholic Parish, Jewish Synagogue, and Protestant Church. It is available to both farm and city. It is found in schools—it serves the rich and poor alike.”
There was an all-Black troop across town that went camping with us. We were all friends. Their Scoutmaster was a Church of God preacher. He led our hikes by teaching us to sing “In the Sweet By and By.” He showed me how to use a whetstone. He taught us to say grace like we meant it. That sweet man came to my father’s funeral with his whole troop.
“Our America is a melting pot,” the handbook says. “Our strength has come from every people… In a world which blacks out individual freedom, our America must stand as a lighthouse to freedom—loving men [and women] everywhere.”
There was a poor kid in our troop named Todd. He didn’t have enough money for a uniform, and he had no mother to sew patches onto his uniform. He was being raised by his father, a millworker. So we all chipped in to buy Todd a uniform and neckerchief.
Then, one night at Scout meeting, several local mothers taught us to sew. Every boy helped sew patches onto Todd’s uniform that evening. Then we ate pound cake.
“The Scout helps others as he would want them to help him—but does it with no thought of return—just for the pleasure of doing it.”
I remember when Charlie Atkinson’s family didn’t have the money to send him on the camping trip with the rest of the troop. Camp admission cost $35.
Our Scoutmasters announced that either we all went to camp together, or nobody went. So that summer, 22 of us mowed lawns for cash. We wore our uniforms when we went door to door, drumming up business. We sweat like dogs.
Chapter Nine. “To perform artificial respiration, turn patient face down with one arm extended overhead… Do not quit! Even if no immediate results are seen, do not give up until at least two hours’ effort has been made…”
Last year, in Columbia, Missouri, Joseph Diener, 16, and Dominic Viet, 15, were riding bikes when they happened upon a woman drowning.
“We could see her sinking down…” said Dominic. “We didn’t have time to think about the risks, we had to get her out.”
She survived. Both boys had recently earned merit badges in lifesaving.
A few years ago, 12-year-old Jake Little, of Esperero Canyon Middle School in Tuscon, Arizona, was in Spanish class when he noticed something wrong with his teacher. “I saw her get up and gasp for air, and her face turned red…”
She was choking to death.
“Everyone didn’t know what to do…” said Jake. “So I rushed up and gave her the Heimlich maneuver. I do not consider myself a hero, I consider myself a normal Boy Scout.”
Membership within the Boy Scouts of America has declined by two thirds since 2019. When I was a kid there were 5 million Scouts in the world. Today, there are nearly 700,000. The number keeps going down.
At this rate, Scouting could disappear within the next few years. There are many naysayers who fervently hope it does go away.
Over 110 million Americans have participated in the Scouts. Eleven of the 12 men who walked on the moon were Boy Scouts. Five U.S. Presidents were Scouts. My grandfather was a Scout.
Personally, I will never forget standing in a Methodist church, wearing a khaki uniform, showing three-finger salute, reciting an oath before my flag and my friends:
“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
I don’t care what you’ve heard, there is no such thing as a former Boy Scout.