by Ralph Voelker
Authors note: I originally wrote this story a few years ago. Today I had to make some changes. I was excited to do so. I look forward to attending the Court of Honor for a young lady and have to change it again.
I am an Eagle Scout. When you say the words out loud, they just have a magical ring to how they sound as they roll around your mouth and project into the world…Eagle Scout. I am an Eagle Scout today, will be one next week and will still be one two decades from now.
I earned this award in 1977 and I have to admit that it is getting hard to remember a time when I wasn’t an Eagle Scout.
There are many awards that are worthy and show a youth recipient has done a great deal to achieve them. But it is difficult to compare any of these awards to the public recognition of what it means to be an Eagle Scout.
When I was serving as the Scout Executive of a small council in California, we had the honor of one of our council’s Eagle Scouts returning to speak at our Eagle recognition dinner. He had grown up on Camp Staff, gotten a law degree, started a career as a judge and finally became a judge on the 9th circuit court of appeals.
He told the story of being nominated by the President for the 9th circuit and needing a confirmation from the US Senate, but because the opposing party to the president held power in the Senate, he couldn’t get a vote. Finally, he got a meeting with the chair of the judiciary committee. When he got to the gentleman’s office, they stood at a fireplace that was covered with photos of the Chairman’s Scouting experience.
“I understand that you are an Eagle Scout.”
And with those words they began a conversation. They had never met before that day and yet they had a common bond of experience. They knew what each had done to earn the award and talked about their experience as young Scouts.
Politics were never discussed, and it was only week later the judge received a unanimous vote of the full senate.
You just never know when you say those magical words, “I am an Eagle Scout”, and a door opens.
When I was a young District Executive, I went on a vacation with two other professional staff members. We went to hike the Grand Canyon. All three Eagle Scouts. As we were getting our packs ready at the top of the canyon, it was amazing how similar our Scoutmasters had prepared us for this moment. Each of us had group responsibilities that we had prepared in advance. We packed our packs in similar ways and even had similar habits on the trail.
Along the trail we found a group that was in way over their head. We stopped for a bit, chatted and gave them enough of our water to make sure they got to the next water station. It was late afternoon and they had a long way to go.
One of the people in the group mentioned how they weren’t as prepared as us. We just thought we were normal, yet the reality is that Scouts are never normal. Especially Eagle Scouts.
Over the years I have spoken at hundreds of Eagle Scout Court of Honors. Every Mom and Dad have been extremely proud that their son was about to become an Eagle Scout. I have never had a parent of an Eagle Scout question the value of their son’s Scouting experience.
None of the ceremonies are the same, yet all are similar. The Eagle Scouts come from every race, creed and religion. They come from small towns and large. They come from every economic background. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them earn it right before they turn 18 and others earn it as fast as they can after joining Scouts. Most are somewhere between.
But for all their differences, there are those things that are always the same. They each overcame all sorts of obstacles. The small ones first and then the harder ones. They each had to learn to lead a small group. They each were thankful of the volunteers and fellow Scouts that had helped them along the way. They each did a project of significance for their community. If there were a monument or plaque on all 2 million of these Eagle Scout projects, we would be tripping over them all the time!
They each had to earn that last merit badge that they had put off to the end. Normally this is Personal Management, one of the Citizenships or Communications. Each showed that they could break down a big goal into smaller parts and slowly but surely check off the boxes and achieve an even bigger dream.
They each persevered and became an Eagle Scout. Like I said at the start, it just sounds good when you say the words out loud! I am an Eagle Scout.
But, does every Eagle Scout know exactly what this achievement is going to mean for them for the rest of their lives? A better thought might be…it is likely that none of them understand how this award will follow them with expectations throughout their life.
There was a young man who thought he understood what it meant to be a Scout. You see, he was already an Eagle Scout. He wore the badge proudly; his uniform was covered with all sorts of additional symbols of his achievements in Scouting. It would take him 30 minutes of preparation to put on his uniform each time he went to a meeting or a gathering. Every award and pin had to be exactly in place. But as much as he thought he understood what being a Scout was, he didn’t really have a clue as to the foundations that had been instilled in him.
The Troop was having a Court of Honor one night. He went to support the younger Scouts even though he wasn’t getting any awards himself. He sat in the front row with all of the Scouts, watching as badges, patches and pins were awarded to the young men that had earned them.
When he heard a commotion in the back of the room he turned to see what the disturbance was. And as he turned he saw someone lowering his father to the ground and his father looked very pale… and very, very dead.
He loved his father very much. He jumped up, ready to rush to him. But something in his mind went, click, and instead of rushing to him, he allowed his Scout training to kick in and went to the phone. He called for help.
He rode to the hospital with the rescue crew working on his father. It was only a few minutes of a ride. When he got out he went to the waiting room where over the next hour the rest of his family joined him.
He spent the night in the hospital waiting room, wearing a full Boy Scout uniform, wondering if his father would live or die.
I share this story for my father is alive today, and I am the Eagle Scout that made that call.
As I sat in that hospital room I began to realize that it wasn’t the uniform that made me a Scout. It wasn’t the badges, patches or pins. It wasn’t even the medal that made me an Eagle Scout.
It was the choice I made when I was 11 years old when I first raised up those fingers into the Scout Sign and repeated that Oath and Law. It is the choice that all Scouts make when they choose to live their life in the fellowship of Scouts and Scouters around the world. It is the choices that a Scout makes in how they will live their daily life.
It is how I choose to treat people, how I choose to make decisions and how I choose to do things when nobody but me knows what choice I made. That is what being an Eagle Scout means to me. I am an Eagle Scout and I am a better person for it.
I don’t think my Scouting story is unique. For years I have told numerous Scouting stories, as speeches. Many of you that know me can probably hear my bass voice telling these stories just like I was there in real life.
At the end of one of those talks, it isn’t unusual for someone to stop me and tell me a story about their Scoutmaster or a parent that has passed away. It isn’t unusual for someone to tell me that this program saved their life, or how they used their skills to save someone. Every young person that joins us has a story to tell. Thank you to all Scouting leaders that help write these stories. Thanks for helping me and millions of other young men and women become Eagle Scouts.
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