He was crying when I made it back to camp. Apparently the other leaders held a meeting while I was leading an activity and voted unanimously to ask him to leave the troop. Like the boys, they forgot that voices carry between tent walls and he - plus half the troop - had heard every word. Yes, James was struggling in the troop. Yes, he and his parents had been called to multiple meetings with the troop committee to discuss his behavior. Yes, the Scouts were the only positive thing going in his life, and he now knew he would be asked to leave.
He came to me and asked for help.
I was livid at the next committee meeting. Almost shaking as I spoke, I demanded to know first why the option of removing a boy from the troop even came up and second why I hadn't been involved.
"We knew you'd get upset."
"Of course I'm upset! Removing a boy from the troop is unacceptable under all but the most extreme circumstances."
"Fine, he can stay, but only if you take personal responsibility for him and his patrol."
Despite having made the decision to finally say goodbye to the Boy Scouts, I was pulled back in. Not just as a leader, but as a leader assigned specific responsibility over an entire patrol - their meetings, their advancement, their behavior on outings. I had only ever seen one boy removed from the troop, and I was not going to let that happen again.
The first time had been when I was still a Scout. It was my fifth year in Scouts, and I was once again the Senior Patrol Leader - this time for my final summer camp at Camp Meriwether on the coast. My friends were all there, and we were having a blast. Even Patrick, who had always been kind of an outcast with the troop.
Among other things, Patrick had a huge temper problem. His mood swings were so extreme they were moderated by medication. He knew the consequences of losing his temper, so when he felt a "moment" coming on he'd excuse himself to go for a walk and calm down. Now one of the "older Scouts," he was required to spend quite a bit of time with the newer guys teaching Scout skills. Unfortunately, working with kids was not one of his strong points.
At breakfast midway through the week, our Scoutmaster forgot Patrick's pills. He was already having trouble keeping calm, and asked repeatedly for help from the adults. "Wait until later today, you'll be fine." But he wasn't.
During breakfast, one of the younger Scouts thought it would be fun to show off his skill at blowing snot bubbles. One happened to pop ... and ended up all over Patrick's breakfast. He'd had it, but rather than blow up in the cafeteria, he promptly left the room to go for a walk. During this walk, he came across some far-less-than-mature staff members who thought it would be fun to steal his hat - a birthday gift from his now-deceased grandmother - and throw it in a tree.
Patrick fled to our cabin, as he had no where else to go, and started taking out his frustration by beating his sleeping bag. About this time, the troop came back to camp and we heard him crying/screaming in the cabin. A well-intentioned adult went in and, to keep Patrick from hurting himself (thinking something else entirely was going on), wrapped him in a bear hug and tried to tackle him to the ground. Patrick threw a punch in self-defense when he was grabbed from behind.
Striking a leader is one of the few things on the "do not pass go" list in Scouting; he was out of the troop that afternoon.
"OK, guys, we're going to build a bridge. Go walk around in the woods and find as many downed branches and tress as you can and bring them back here. We'll use them to pave a dry walkway across the marsh."
Gearing up for Camporee once again meant yet another work weekend at the old nuclear-plant-turned-park we used for a campground. Sometimes it was clearing the parking lot. Other times it was tidying up trails around the park. This year, we were bringing the Sea Scouts to Camporee and needed a dry, safe way to reach the shore of the Columbia river from camp. This meant building a temporary bridge with scavenged materials across the marsh between camp and the river.
Of the 40 Scouts in the troop, only James and Michael offered to come help.
Our job consisted of finding thick, downed branches in the woods. We used a couple of downed trees to frame the bridge and nailed the smaller ones as crossbeams so nobody would fall through. It was tedious work, but was made easier when we found an old dock that had floated ashore. About half of the bridge was built out of real lumber!
It was lunchtime, and I sat down with my dad and the Scoutmaster to eat. James and Michael were nowhere to be seen, but I was sure they'd found some new friends among the other troops helping with the workday. Chris, the Scoutmaster, was really happy with how much James had grown since the leaders' vote 3 years before.
"He's turning in to a pretty good leader. I had my doubts, but you've done good work."
"Really, everyone can be a leader. They just need the right motivation. Give him something productive to do and he'll get it done before you know it. He's just young. Leave him on his own and, ... well ... idle hands ..."
Suddenly, James' absence from lunch was worrying. I excused myself and took the short walk back to the riverbank where we'd found the old dock. Sure enough, there were James and Michael. Along with the dock, they'd found a huge chunk of styrofoam and a rope.
Michael was sitting on the styrofoam about 20 feet from shore. James was getting ready to pull him back in, just waiting for the wake from a container ship to reach him.
"Guys, this is not the way you talk me in letting you do things on your own."
James panicked and pulled Michael in as quickly as he could. They both apologized and refused to look me in the eye as the tore the styrofoam block to pieces. I kept a close eye on both of them the rest of the day - and they excelled with every task I gave them. To show my thanks for not getting anyone killed on the river, I sprung for Dairy Queen on the way back to town.
"You really care about us, huh?"
"James, you're a great guy and a fantastic leader. Michael would follow you anywhere. I just wish you'd lead him in a better direction. I trust you. That's no small thing, don't squander it."
One of the most frustrating things with Boy Scouts today is how "safe" everything has become. I'm a huge fan of safety, particularly when youths are involved, but there is a line between a safe activity and failing to prepare a teenager to handle problems on their own. One of the newer versions of the Scout handbook has removed several first aid instructions and replaced them with "call 911" or "ask an adult."
I know men today who are alive only because of the things the learned in Scouts. These lessons are no longer being taught.
Another skill that has waned in recent years is fire building. As a kid, I was required to learn multiple ways to build a fire. Matches, flint & steel, battery & steel wool, magnifying glass, even rubbing two sticks together. Boys today are often handed a butane lighter and kiln-dried firewood and told it's good enough.
At a camping trip near the coast, I challenged the boys to best me in a fire building challenge. I gave them a brand new box of strike-anywhere matches and said they had an hour. "Just don't bring the box back empty." I built my own fire in 3 minutes using a flint & steel set with some charcloth.
About an hour later, there was still no fire in the boys' campsite. I shouted through the trees for a status update, and didn't hear anything promising. A few minutes later one of the youngest boys came up to me and sheepishly held out my match box. "It's not empty ..."
There was one match left.
I called over to James and asked if he was ready for a challenge. He just grinned. I handed him my flint & steel and a sheet of charcloth and sent him over with the younger Scouts. An hour or so later, every single one of them had built a fire without using a single match. Many of them are even teaching this skill to new Scouts today.
I didn't even bother to put on my Scout uniform before going to the Court of Honor. It would be my first one in 19 years without a uniform, but I was trying to prove a point - I was done. Tonight was my last night as a Scoutmaster and the boys would have to move on.
I ran into one of the boys' mother as I walked into the school. "I didn't expect to see you here tonight," she pointed out. I had announced my resignation due to some major lapses in judgement by the other leaders and publicly stated that I couldn't continue with an organization making such reckless decisions with the lives of other people's children.
"I'm not here for me," I responded. Pointing to the patrol for which I'd been responsible for the past 6 years, "I'm here for them."
In six years I'd grown to know and care for every boy in the troop, not just my patrol. But my patrol was special. They weren't always the best, the fastest, or the smartest, but they were the most passionate. Every one of them loved Scouting. And, as of today, every one of them had earned Scouting's highest rank.
Tonight they were all brought in front of the troop and recognized as a group for earning their Eagle badges. They weren't just all Eagles, they were the first patrol in the 35-year history of the troop to all earn the rank before turning 18. All of them, including James.
As James stood in front of his peers, I couldn't have been more happy. The other boys took their seats, but the Scoutmaster held James up for a minute as he made a second announcement. Not only was James among the troop's newest Eagle Scouts, he was also the troop's newest Assistant Scoutmaster.
After getting to know James over the past 6 years, I can't think of anyone more qualified to step up and lead. As I finally step down from my role with the troop, I know the boys' future is in good hands.