My first scoutmaster was Bob Porter. He had a son close to my age with whom I was friends. Bob took over the scoutmaster job from Vern Hadley when he was called to a different position.
Scouting ran deep in Vern’s veins. He was my oldest brother’s scoutmaster. The summer my brother turned 12, Vern had the troop make their own lightweight backpacking tents and food. Stuff like that wasn’t much available commercially at the time — at least at reasonable prices. Then Vern took the large troop of boys on a 50-mile hike in the High Uintas. I had assumed that Vern would be my scoutmaster too, but it was not to be.
Bob was a great guy. He worked in law enforcement for a federal agency. I severely over-packed for my first overnight hike to Malan’s Basin. I thought I was going to die hiking up the Taylor Canyon switchbacks. The rest of the troop went on ahead. Bob stayed back and trudged along with me mile after mile until we trundled into camp after dark, long after the others had their tents pitched for the night. Bob somehow kept me going without taking my pack. He never complained.
A few months after I came into the troop, Bob was transferred out to the West Coast with his job. His family visited a couple of times after that, but I eventually lost track of them. When Bob left, Al Parks was tapped to be our scoutmaster. We called him “Big Al,” because he was very tall. He always wore leather shoes. He quipped that his shoe size was 2½: two cow hides and half a keg of nails. I didn’t know much about Al at the time except that he had a perpetual project trying to keep a Triumph Spitfire running.
Big Al didn’t know much about the Boy Scout program when he became our scoutmaster. He hadn’t been much involved as a youth. But he had taken a turn in the military. How different could the scouts be from the Navy? A friend of mine that retired from the military jokingly tells me that the main difference is that the Boy Scouts have adult supervision.
But Big Al was willing to learn. He threw himself into adult scout leader training. Before long it seemed like he was running troop meetings with 24+ boys present with ease. In reality he was simply implementing the patrol method first taught by Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell.
Many scoutmasters never learn to implement the magic of the patrol method. They end up working much harder than is necessary to produce relatively substandard results. Good scoutmasters understand that scouting isn’t really about rank advancements, merit badges, and awards. It is about learning leadership through the patrol method.
When I advanced to the ranks of troop leadership, our leadership corps found itself meeting weekly at Big Al’s house to nail down the weekly meeting and to extend future planning. Big Al focused on doing what a scoutmaster needs to do while the youth leaders led the meetings and kept the boys in line.
It is difficult to describe the intense sense of camaraderie that developed from our involvement in our troop with Big Al as scoutmaster. Being a youth, I never focused on the sacrifices Big Al was making for us boys. He had a wife and kids. The troop’s youth leaders became very familiar with them. But they gave up a lot of time with Al so that he could serve us.
Back in the days when I served a mission for the LDS Church, it was common to dedicate the program portion of an entire weekly congregational worship service to the departing missionary. Big Al had made such a difference in my life that he was one of the key speakers at my ‘farewell,’ although, he had since moved from our congregation.
A few years ago, I got to thinking about Big Al. I see one of his sons fairly often because he works in one of the more prominent businesses in our community. But it had been years since I had seen Al. Having gained some maturity and some appreciation for the sacrifices scouting leaders make to run a decent program, I started to realize what it must have cost Al and his family for him to be our scoutmaster. So I wrote him a letter thanking him for all he did for me when I was an obscure boy trying to find his place in the world.
I suppose that the greatest teachers in our lives never cease to teach us, although, our association with them may diminish or cease.
Big Al came to my Dad’s funeral. When he came through the line, he said, “You wrote me a letter a couple of years ago. It made me cry.” There was a look of gratitude in Al’s eyes. My small act could in no way repay the sacrifices Al had made for me and the other boys. As he expressed appreciation for my letter, Big Al taught me once again.