Sun Sets On "The Best Troop Under The Sun"
My Beloved Boy Scout Troop is Latest to Fall Victim
To Changing Youth Tastes, Conflicting Values Systems
"381! 381! The best troop under the sun! 381! 381! The best ... son of a gun!"
So went the cheer that we would yell at the top of our lungs at least once during every one of our Scout meetings, and especially if we were competing against another troop in some kind of contest. I was a proud member of this Westminster, Maryland-based troop for five years from 1969 to 1974. Of the four Boy Scout troops in Carroll County at that time, Troop 381 was largest (70 boys strong) and proudest.
And now, almost 60 years after its founding in 1964, I received the sad news that Troop 381 will cease to exist, because it no longer has enough members (5 is the minimum) to be officially chartered by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). In the ultimate irony, the news was delivered by Troop 381's first-ever Eagle Scout, Dave Rogers, who has for a number of years gamely tried his best to keep the troop going as its Scoutmaster.
As many observers have noted over the last decade or so, the Scouting movement, founded more than 100 years ago with a certain set of assumptions in place about gender roles, religion, morality, and a number of other issues, has of late found itself in a no-win situation. Its membership has sharply declined for reasons that span the political and moral spectrum. When the BSA responded to increasing calls for inclusion by announcing that girls could be Scouts, some families pulled their sons out, believing that the organization should remain for boys only. Many took issue with the admission of gay scouts and leaders, believing that it was counter to the Scout Oath, in which a Scout promises to keep "morally straight." Others looked askance when atheist Scouts were allowed, pointing again to the Oath's promise by a Scout to do his "duty to God and my country," and to obey the last of the 12 Scout Laws: to be reverent.
My personal journey with the Boy Scouts has shown me that people with integrity, who are great leaders and care deeply about helping boys and girls become good, caring, self-confident, and talented people with a healthy regard for the natural world and how to respect it, make great Scouts and leaders. Character knows no race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Simply put, a good person is a good person.
And I experienced many as a Boy Scout, for which I remain eternally grateful. My Scouting journey started in Pullman, Washington, at age 10 in Troop 450, where I earned my Tenderfoot badge, which was, as tradition dictated, pinned on upside down at my first Court of Honor (the ceremony where new ranks and awards are bestowed) until I had done my first Good Turn (the Scouting slogan is "Do a good turn daily.") As my family moved each of the next four years, I would become a member of six different troops.
My second one was Troop 7 in Portland, OR, led by an outstanding Scoutmaster named Rodney Williams. I was only in Troop 7 for a year, but some of my strongest Scouting memories are with this troop. I still remember a weekend camping trip in 1967 to Camp Meriwether on the Pacific Ocean coast: the weather was sunny the entire time, and I stood on a bluff watching the sun set on the ocean horizon.
Mr. Williams taught me an early lesson in hygiene that I never forgot. We had all cooked our dinners over a fire, and I had fried my hamburger in one of those metal mess kit pans. When I was done, I hastily folded up the kit and shoved it into my backpack. About an hour later, we were sitting around the campfire talking, and Mr. Williams asked me about my dinner. Then he said, "Did you wash your dishes?" I lied that I had. For reasons still unknown to me, Mr. Williams good-naturedly said, "Why don't we take a look?" At that point, I knew I would be found out; but I also discovered that I kind of liked the fact that the Scoutmaster was paying this much attention to me. I took the pan out, and Mr. Williams trained his flashlight beam on it, revealing a greasy mess of fat and pieces of hamburger. "We didn't do a very good job, did we?" he asked me rhetorically. What else could I say? The first Scout Law is "trustworthy," so my first lie was already haunting me. I had to admit that, no, I guess we hadn't. Mr. Williams then gently and in the most caring way told me the importance of cleaning and sanitizing dishes after cooking, or you will become "sick as a dog." This extraordinary leader took the time to teach a boy in his charge a basic life skill. The lesson has stayed with me for 58 years.
I experienced Scouting midwest-style when my family moved us to Ames, Iowa. For reasons I don't know, the first troop I joined, Troop 158, was called "The MacDonald" troop, and used the MacDonald tartan as its neckerchief (the scarf scouts wear around their necks as part of the official uniform). I transferred to Troop 142 about midway through year, and found its scouts and leaders much more to my liking. The Scoutmaster was a large, gray-headed bear of a man named Barney Cook, another excellent leader. I attended my first week-long summer camp at age 13 at Camp Mitigwa, having finally achieved the rank of Second Class.
As with any organization that depends on volunteers to function, Scout troops vary in quality. So much depends on who has stepped up to serve as Scoutmasters, Assistant Scoutmasters, and board members. The troop I joined when we relocated to Hershey, PA, Troop 78, had weak leadership at the time. I recall that the Scoutmaster at that time seemed to be content to let Scouts do pretty much what they wanted to do at the weekly Scout meetings. The coolest thing about that troop was its unique "chocolate" neckerchief, which was dark brown with a white border and featured a patch that showed the street signs of Hershey's most famous intersection, Chocolate and Cocoa avenues. I turned 14 in January of 1969, and was wondering if Scouting was going to be in my future. Girls were starting to look a lot more interesting.
When my family arrived in Westminster, where my parents ended up staying for the next 16 years, I decided to give Scouting one more shot. I showed up in the parking lot of Westminster Presbyterian Church on a hot, muggy August evening, where the Scouts of Troop 381 were gathering for the first meeting of the school year. A man wearing a straw cowboy hat and glasses looked at me tentatively and said hello. He was doing that to all the boys, it turns out, because it was his very first meeting as the troop's new Scoutmaster, and he was a raw, untested rookie. He had two sons in the Scouting program that had gone through Cub Scouts, and now he was graduating along with them to the Boy Scout level.
The Scoutmaster's name was John J. Rush. No one knew it then ... least of all him, no doubt ... but Mr. Rush would go on to serve as Troop 381's Scoutmaster for the next 37 years, leading thousands of young men through the Scouting program with his special brand of humor, cajoling, and no-nonsense iron-fistedness when the situation called for it. He guided more than 100 young men to Scouting's highest rank of Eagle Scout ... including me. I was Troop 381's third Eagle Scout, earning mine in 1971 at age 16.
When I joined Troop 381 in 1969, I had earned the rank of First Class. It was about then that we began hearing about the next World Jamboree, which is Scouting's version of the Olympics: A gathering of Scouts from all over the world at a huge campsite where boys from vastly different cultures came together with the common thread of being a Scout. There are games, dinner exchanges, special programs, complete with opening and closing ceremonies very similar to those at the Olympic games.
The 13th World Jamboree was scheduled to be held in Japan in July of 1971. During a dinner table conversation about that one evening, my dad without prompting offered this proposal: "If you can make Eagle Scout by the time the jamboree comes, I'll send you." Up to that point, I hadn't given any serious consideration to earning the rank of Eagle. Only two percent of all boys who participate in the Scouting program ever achieve it, so I knew it must be hard.
But the promise and the mystique of a possible trip to Japan brought the Eagle badge into laserlike focus for the then-14 year old. Three more ranks -- Star, Life and Eagle, each progressively harder than the last -- lay between me and that dream trip, and I had a little less than two years to do it. I would have to earn at least 21 merit badges, 11 of them required for the Eagle rank, and I would have to hold some kind of leadership position in the troop pretty much the whole time to fulfill requirements for each rank. It seemed a daunting task.
But the carrot had been securely tied to the stick, and from that moment on, there was no turning back. Through it all, my biggest cheerleader, and sometimes my biggest obstacle, was Mr. Rush, who quickly learned how to push young mens' buttons in just the right combination to make them want to achieve. I earned my final merit badge in May of 1971, and passed the Eagle Board of Review soon thereafter. I did it just as much for my beloved Scoutmaster as I did to fulfill my desire to attend the jamboree.
And, though they may not have counted on me actually earning Eagle, my parents made good on their promise. In July, I boarded a chartered jet at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., filled with Scouts from the Baltimore-Washington area and flew to Kyoto, Japan, where we began an unforgettable 10-day tour of the country before arriving at the foot of snow-capped Mt. Fuji for our 10-day jamboree adventure.
I stayed involved with Troop 381 through high school, just wanting to remain a part of such a great troop. My five years with Troop 381, with Scoutmaster John Rush as its amazing leader, changed my life. It did the same for two generations of young men who would follow. The Troop 381 family has remained close-knit over the years. The troop itself may transition to the annals of Scouting history. But as long as the boys who experienced Troop 381 are still around and still hold the memories of all those great Scouting activities that were made possible by a whole lot of good people, the family will endure.