A mid­dle-aged man braves bugs, leaky tents, and a mess hall with 300 scream­ing kids to see if he fi­nally has the mak­ings of a Boy Scout

Reader's Digest - - Humor - BY JOE KITA FROM MEN’S HEALTH

ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?” the life­guard screams.

“Do you need help?”

I’ve swal­lowed a lot of lake wa­ter and can’t an­swer. Gasp­ing for breath, I glimpse my fel­low Scouts lin­ing the dock.

We’re at Camp Minsi in Penn­syl­va­nia’s Po­cono Moun­tains, try­ing to earn our swim­ming merit badge. What they can’t vo­cal­ize I can see in their wide eyes: The old guy might die!

But I man­age to catch my breath and pad­dle to the lad­der with­out need­ing res­cue. I climb up, em­bar­rassed and ex­hausted. One boy looks up at me with a puz­zled ex­pres­sion and asks, “What are you do­ing here?”

Good ques­tion. Forty­five years ago, af­ter earn­ing the rank of Bear in Cub Pack 47, I quit Scout­ing—i stank at ty­ing knots.

How­ever, when a man reaches mid­dle age, funny things hap­pen. The worklife climb is no longer well-de­fined and be­comes more about find­ing a sturdy rung and hang­ing on. Those buds you once shared so many good times with turn into Buds you share mostly with your­self.

And if you ever hap­pened to come across the Scout Law, you might re­al­ize that you haven’t been as “trust­wor­thy, loyal, help­ful, friendly, cour­te­ous, kind, obe­di­ent, cheer­ful, thrifty, brave, clean, and rev­er­ent” as planned. In­deed, what grown-up wouldn’t ben­e­fit from a week at sum­mer camp in Wi-fi-free woods with plenty of time to whit­tle down life’s pri­or­i­ties? Who wouldn’t en­joy sit­ting around a camp­fire eat­ing cherry cob­bler bub­bled in a Dutch oven and laugh­ing un­til his stom­ach hurt? So in an in­spired mo­ment, I ap­proached the Boy Scouts of Amer­ica and asked whether there was any

way I could take up where I’d left off so long ago. Was it too late for me to be­come an Ea­gle Scout? Yes, they said. The cut­off age for Ea­gle is 18, and I’m seven pres­i­dents be­yond that. But I could at­tempt to be­come the world’s first Bald Ea­gle Scout. I al­ready had the “bald” part down. “Ea­gle” would take some work.

IT’S 6:30 A.M. on July 14, the first full day of sum­mer camp, but al­ready our troop’s 17-year-old se­nior pa­trol leader is whack­ing my tent flap and yelling “Wake up!” as reveille rat-a-tats in the dis­tant woods. Per­haps be­cause of the bugling and the ache in my back from spend­ing the night in a tent, it feels like the dawn of war.

I du­ti­fully don my uni­form shirt and neck­er­chief, re­port for morn­ing in­spec­tion and camp flag rais­ing, and then join my troop as we trudge to break­fast at the cen­tral din­ing hall.

Three times a day, nearly 300 rav­en­ous boys de­scend upon this hall in an at­tempt to stoke their rag­ing me­tab­o­lisms. Here, in the days that fol­low, I will watch in hor­ror as “Fat Joey” ca­su­ally chews ketchup pack­ets un­til they pop inside his mouth. I will ob­serve an­other young­ster con­sume 35 iced slushies in seven days, each con­tain­ing 28 grams of sugar, some along with a shot of Pop Rocks. (No won­der he wakes up one night scream­ing about a snake in his tent.)

And in this same hall, I—a grown man—will be dressed down by an irate scout­mas­ter in knee socks for join­ing the line too early at the salad bar. “Please sit down!” he yells.

But on this first day, I re­main pleas­antly naive. Break­fast ends with ev­ery­one stand­ing for the rous­ing sin­ga­long clas­sic “I’m Alive, Awake, Alert, En­thu­si­as­tic!” Those are the only words, and it’s sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Each time you say “alive,” you touch your an­kles; “awake,” your hips; “alert,” your shoul­ders; and for “en­thu­si­as­tic,” you raise both arms in the air. And you do this faster and faster for what seems like 50 verses—with 300 kids.

Pumped up on empty carbs and camp an­thems, I burst through the door af­ter dis­missal into the fresh moun­tain air, flush with prom­ise for a new day and a new ad­ven­ture.

Kids run around with spears, and not once do I hear, “You’re go­ing to poke your eye out!”

UN­FOR­TU­NATELY, my mer­it­badge classes (with the ex­cep­tion of my near-death ex­pe­ri­ence in Swim­ming) turn out to be bor­ing af­fairs. First Aid ends up feel­ing a bit like a video game as

kids keep ask­ing how to med­i­cally treat fan­tasy: “So what do you do if some­one gets stabbed in the eye with a sword?” Then, af­ter a suc­ces­sion of in­struc­tors in Ori­en­teer­ing, most of us are, iron­i­cally, to­tally lost.

The event I had been an­tic­i­pat­ing most—the postlunch “si­esta”—turns out to be the busiest time at our camp­site. Kids are clean­ing la­trines, build­ing fires, and hit­ting things with a large ax to screams of “Break it!”

It’s re­fresh­ing to see boys be­ing en­cour­aged to be boys. Ev­ery­one is run­ning around with knives or spears, and not once do I hear any­one scream, “You’re go­ing to poke your eye out!” Kids roam over the thickly wooded 1,200-acre prop­erty un­trou­bled by ticks or rag­weed. Shot­guns are blasted, tom­a­hawks thrown, and ar­rows fired—all by kids.

The Muck Hike is the purest ex­pres­sion of this free­dom to ex­pe­ri­ence dirt and dan­ger. It’s a mile-long trudge through ch­est-high sludge. Ev­ery­one emerges from it like a swamp thing. But they all have smiles on their filthy faces. In these days of free-range chick­ens and cat­tle, the Scouts are rais­ing free-range boys!

“If we see a Scout head­ing to­ward a cliff, we’ll let him step off,” ex­plains one scout­mas­ter, “as long as it’s not a big cliff. That’s how they learn.”

Kids also learn through fail­ure at this camp. One out-of-shape young­ster had been ea­gerly an­tic­i­pat­ing learn­ing to kayak. But he was a tight fit, and af­ter cap­siz­ing in the lake, he had to swim his boat to shore be­cause he couldn’t climb back in. At home, he might have been cod­dled, but out here he had to deal.

I start to re­al­ize that what’s aw­ful about camp is also what’s great about it: You’re not in­su­lated from na­ture as most kids and adults are these days. You’re part of it, liv­ing in the raw, as we were meant to be. Which is mem­o­rable.

Con­sider: On Mon­day night, se­vere thun­der­storms sweep through camp and pum­mel my tent. Rain drips on my fore­head; ev­ery­thing I brought is damp. I lie awake in the mid­dle of the night won­der­ing why I’m here, both lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally.

On Wed­nes­day, af­ter the weather clears, one of our Ea­gle can­di­dates builds two tree plat­forms, a mon­key bridge, and a zip line—in less than five hours. No nails, just rope lash­ings.

On Thurs­day night, we build a camp­fire. I sit around it with 30 kids and re­al­ize that my sense of hu­mor has not ma­tured one iota in the past 40 years. Fart jokes, teacher pranks, and fall­ing

Sit­ting around a camp­fire with 30 kids, I re­al­ize my sense of hu­mor hasn’t ma­tured in 40 years.

over back­ward in your camp chair are just as gut-busting now as they were when I was in Scouts.

On Fri­day morn­ing, we have pizza— for break­fast!

By Fri­day af­ter­noon, the kid who drank all the slushies is out of money. To feed his sugar ad­dic­tion, he re­sorts to ac­cept­ing dares whereby he eats fish­ing bait for cash. He starts by swal­low­ing a meal­worm for 50 cents, then a night crawler for a buck, and fi­nally a but­ter­worm for $2 (but we make him hold it on his tongue for 30 sec­onds). He heads for the camp’s trad­ing post with a wad of dough.

BE­ING IN the woods for long pe­ri­ods en­cour­ages con­tem­pla­tion. Per­haps one rea­son guys my age start feel­ing adrift is be­cause we have lit­tle left to moor our­selves to. We’ve moved around, the kids have grown, and our ac­com­plish­ments aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be. I mean, what ex­actly have I built? A gar­den shed? A 401(k)? My great-grand­dads would laugh at that.

That’s why it was important to make my ser­vice project mean­ing­ful. This is the bar exam for Ea­gle Scout can­di­dates. You must con­ceive, de­sign, fi­nance, and ul­ti­mately build or ex­e­cute some project that en­hances the world around you. Some kids clean up ceme­ter­ies or build benches at churches. But as a Bald Ea­gle can­di­date, I knew mine had to be much grander. It had to be a project that was com­men­su­rate with my life knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence.

The scenes that kept com­ing back to me in­volved the boy in the kayak and those meals in the din­ing hall. I re­al­ized I might be able to help these kids while ad­dress­ing the na­tional prob­lem of child obe­sity in my own small way through Scout­ing.

So I spent 60 hours (the Scouts like when you track things) cre­at­ing the plan for a sum­mer-camp com­pe­ti­tion called Fittest Scout. Points are awarded for mak­ing smart nu­tri­tional choices (e.g., hav­ing oat­meal for break­fast in­stead of a grape slushie) and par­tic­i­pat­ing in var­i­ous phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties. Boys with the most points at the close of the week earn the ti­tle of Fittest Scout. The unit with the most com­bined in­di­vid­ual points is the

Fittest Troop. There’s even a Fittest Scout­mas­ter cat­e­gory.

I’m proud to say it was a hit. The head of my lo­cal coun­cil even of­fered to test it at camp in the fu­ture.

AT THE END of sum­mer, Troop 1600 holds a Court of Honor, where Scouts are sin­gled out for var­i­ous achieve­ments. Par­ents (and wives) are in­vited, a camp­fire is lit, and snacks are served. This Court of Honor falls on my 30th wed­ding an­niver­sary. My wife is ex­pect­ing big things. I tell her to dress warmly and bring a flash­light. As we sit on logs, the scout­mas­ter calls me up with the rest of the kids to re­ceive my merit badges. Ev­ery­one ap­plauds me, the Bald Ea­gle.

I miss the next meet­ing be­cause af­ter the last meet­ing I’m, well, grounded. I’m bummed be­cause the troop is nom­i­nat­ing new pa­trol lead­ers. It’s an important step for the kids, be­ing rec­og­nized by their peers. One of the scout­mas­ters calls me the next day. “When I asked for nom­i­na­tions for se­nior pa­trol leader last night, one Scout raised his hand. He won­dered if he could nom­i­nate you.” Maybe I’m a bet­ter man than I thought.



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