When my dad died more than 20 years ago, I was asked if I wanted anything of his. He didn’t have much in the way of material possessions. I responded, “Yes. I’d like his Boy Scout stuff.”
Today, in anticipation of a vote about whether to allow openly gay young men to join the Scouts, I pulled out the box containing Dad’s “personal effects” and laid them out on the floor.
How strange, to see his life as a mere pile of symbols. Meaningless individually, perhaps, but as a group, a life story.
My father was born on August 28, 1923, the first of six children. Skinny and quiet, he played the role of big brother and helped his mom with his brothers and sisters while his father was busy working in sales with a burgeoning oil company.
He joined the Boy Scouts, as so many boys his age did back then, and it helped him gain confidence and develop self-discipline. By the time he was 18, he had earned his Eagle Scout badge, his greatest achievement to that point.
As I looked through the pile of his things, I found other mememtos he had kept. In addition to the badge was his sash containing recognition of all the work he had done to achieve it.
A small cross given to him by his parents bears the inscription, Jesus Christ is Lord. Though his parents followed the Methodist tradition, they were not terribly religious. My grandmother tended more toward Spiritualism. The cross was merely symbolic.
A belt buckle made in England must have been part of his Army uniform when just a year after he completed his Eagle Scout requirements he joined the WWII effort and was sent to Germany. His dog tags, also bearing his mother’s name and address, are attached to a chain with a Belgian coin and a medal of protection.
There is also a tiny Rotary pin from his honorary position in their organization and a stamp with his signature that he perhaps had used to sign official documents of baptism, marriage, and death for those whose services he’d performed.
The most important piece, though, is a simple gold band that represented what would truly be his greatest achievements as husband and father.
But even though my father’s life followed a pretty typical trajectory for men of his era, Dad was not a follower and I think his time with the Boy Scouts of America taught him the kind of leadership he would eventually espouse when, rather than creating expectations that anyone follow his path, he taught others how to find the best in themselves so that they could serve their communities, families, and country to the best of their ability.
I’ll never forget when one of my childhood friends, a boy in whom my dad saw much of himself, a shy and awkward guy who had suffered much derision, asked my father to be the one to present the Eagle Scout award to him in his own ceremony. Short of having been able to pin it on one of his own sons, I think that was one of Dad’s proudest moments.
I don’t know what the BSA is like now. The world has changed drastically since my dad was a Scout; even since my friend was. Challenges abound in helping young boys stay a course that will teach them the values they need to be responsible, upstanding men. The idea of turning any of them away makes no sense to me.
If my father were alive today, he would be calling on the courage and character the BSA helped him develop by encouraging inclusion of all who wish to follow the example set by so many who have benefitted from the organization. It is time to teach young men to value each other in ways that go beyond the inspiration of their hormones. If the BSA is allowed to teach disrespect for anyone, then I suspect the material collection of character that represents my father’s life was all for naught. This is not what his life’s work was about.
Here’s hoping that a new day is dawning in the evolution of character in this country.