It's been decades since I first attended Boy Scout camp at age 12. We had a large troop. Not being among the popular boys in the troop, I was relegated to the tent of misfits. We brought all of our own food and prepared meals over a campfire.
There were all kinds of activities. We swam in the lake, canoed, rowed, played with frogs and tadpoles, participated in campfire programs, bought stuff at the trading post, played games with each other and with other troops, attended flag ceremonies, went on hikes, tied knots, went to church in an outdoor chapel, carved wood, and did a host of other things.
Last week at that same Boy Scout camp, the program director stood before the boys and told them that their mothers had shed a tear upon their departure because they knew they were saying goodbye forever to their little boys. They knew that when their sons returned they would be changed forever and would be well on their way to manhood.
It's odd what a week at Scout camp can do for a young boy. Most never forget it. Not all of the memories are fond. Camp can be fun, but it is also filled with challenges. Boys expand their personalities as they grapple with these challenges with varying degrees of success. For the umpteenth time I watched this transformation take place in the lives of a number of youth last week.
We started out with rain. Actually, the rain started just as we were finishing tent setup. Then it turned into a real gully washer. We donned rain gear and realized that we were better off than the troops that weren't yet setup or that had yet to arrive. We grappled with wet and mud for the first couple of days, but the boys seemed to take it all in stride. Besides, the rain seemed to break for program events as if it were on a schedule.
During a break in the rain we went to waterfront to do the swim check in the chilling waters of the lake. Most of the boys passed. One that is a good swimmer climbed out early, although, he has passed the test in the same lake previously. Another boy that is a poor swimmer quit early too. But later in the week he returned and completed the test for the first time in his life while two of his friends swam alongside.
I watched boys fetch water, cook, clean dishes, and clean the kitchen area over and over again throughout the week. Some became quite proficient at these tasks. Some did them willingly and energetically. Others, not so much. Almost all of the boys became good at taking precautions against bears. The boys consistently received high marks on morning inspections.
Some boys were self starters, making sure that they got to their merit badge classes and passed off all requirements. Others needed constant supervision and seemed rather oblivious to many badge requirements. Most of the boys were somewhere in between. But by the end of the week, most of the boys felt pretty good about their achievements.
When the troop went on an eight-mile hike, we put the two slowest boys at the head of the column along with a staff member. The adults brought up the rear. We had a great hike. The two 'slow' boys stayed up front and wouldn't let others pass them. It was quite remarkable to watch.
I saw two boys get into a real knock-down fight over the rightful temporary possession of a piece of troop equipment. I watched a patient scoutmaster take each boy aside for a personal chat. Although they were still angry with each other, both were genuinely contrite about their bad behavior. A couple of days later I saw them sharing candy with each other.
Occasionally I had a few moments to sit peacefully in camp. During these brief respites I could always hear the joyful sounds of a couple hundred scouts scattered over half a square mile having a great time. Sometimes it was pretty loud. I also occasionally awoke in the middle of the night to dead silence—much deeper and more profound than ever occurs even in the suburbs where I live. Then there were the times staring up through 70-foot high spruce trees at more stars than most of the boys had ever seen.
I watched a stepfather sleep on the ground and gingerly hike trails nursing a foot injury to share an experience with his stepson. His gentle ways were a good example for me, and I'm sure, for the other boys.
The boys looked up to the two camp staffers and the commissioner assigned to our troop. These high school aged young men tirelessly served our troop and provided great role models for the boys.
Our troop did a service project paving a chronically wet section of trail with paving stones that another troop had hauled in from a nearby Forest Service quarry. One eager young man broke a water line on the third swing of his mattock. This created a lot of mud and got a number of people wet until some of our adults succeeded in patching the line. We were muddy, but we finished the project.
I saw 14 boys sit around a campfire near the close of the week telling each other what the experience had meant to them. Many were quite emotional and felt comfortable shedding a few tears in front of their companions. I watched grown men and young boys choke up as a tattered American flag was lovingly committed to the flames of a campfire as the haunting melody of Taps floated out across the glassy lake after sunset.
When we awakened the boys on the last morning in camp, they eagerly broke down the gear and hauled it the long distance to the parking lot, making many trips carrying heavy loads. In almost precisely two hours the campsite was emptied out and we were on the road home.
A boy probably doesn't realize what a week at Boy Scout camp does to him. The fruits of that week bubble up for many years afterward in myriad ways. But it's certain that every boy that spends a week at Scout camp comes away changed—hopefully for the better.