A Gathering of Eagles

Finally, with a cheer, we began to move, taking our place between an Eagle float and a big, helium-filled Eagle balloon. I glanced over at the bomb disposal guy -- God knows how he was managing inside his personal sauna. In the front row, Santa looked like he was melting. The merit badge boys seemed fresh, but some of the elderly guys behind me already appeared soaked.

But we held our heads high, sipped water bottles, and tried to keep our ranks straight as we marched. That got easier when, after the asphalt blast furnace of the intersection of 7th and Constitution, we were met by the roar of the crowd.

Now, I’m not a big fan of parades -- I don’t go to them or even watch them on TV. And being an adult Eagle Scout is largely the private matter of a nod of mutual recognition when you meet one of your counterparts in business ... but this was something different. And unforgettable.

When the reviewing stand announced our arrival, a roar went up from the thousands lining the route. People cheered, waved, pointed us out to their children, even saluted as we passed. It was an overwhelming, even emotional, experience. Here in the 21st century, after more than a decade of controversy, Scouting has increasingly become a secret society, something you don’t much discuss with your more sophisticated, bien-pensant friends and neighbors. And to now find yourself marching with legions of Scouts, representing “the PhD of Boyhood” Eagle award, before thousands of people cheering your achievement, was far more overwhelming than even the heat.

Around me, my fellow Eagles held the flags we’d been given just a little higher. For each of us, becoming an Eagle was one of the defining events of our lives -- our first truly important achievement -- and now we had been allowed to honor that award by representing it before the world.

Or at least a large part of the world. What was equally striking about the parade, besides how many people were there, was just who wasn’t there. I have an old Sunday rotogravure from 1937 about the original BSA parade in Washington. It seems to have been supported by an endless list of VIPs, right up to President Roosevelt himself. This year’s parade featured a smattering of mid-level celebrities -- but not a top elected official in sight.

One obvious reason was that Congress is on vacation. But that doesn’t explain the no-show by the executive branch. And while the last progressive president put Scouting front and center to his policies for getting America’s youth through the Great Depression, the only sign of our current progressive president, in the midst of the Great Recession, was an image on the side of a balloon.

Why the difference? God and gays, of course.  Regarding the first: having known Zambian Boy Scouts who were confirmed Animists, and having seen Scouts pass their Eagle boards merely by professing to believe (as did Einstein) that the universe is not random but has a larger purpose, I’m confused how people can believe that Scouting is a Christian-only organization.

As for the gay "problem," the Boy Scouts has only itself to blame for letting lawyers write its official position. Unofficially, Scouting has, properly, never concerned itself with the sexuality (in any form) of boys. Until the risks of lawsuits, it had its own "don’t ask, don’t tell" attitude about the orientation of its adult leaders. These days, especially in places like Northern California, where I live, we seemed to have quietly reached our own separate peace on the matter.

In other words, a large segment of our society -- including much of the ruling class -- chooses to believe a stereotype and turn its back on an organization of 4 million boys and adults, supported by a majority of the population and capable of drawing thousands of enthusiastic supporters for a parade in the sweltering heat of high summer in the nation’s capital. It is a stunning, even appalling, disconnect at a time of unprecedented numbers of fatherless boys and unemployed teenagers, and an unequaled need for trained young leaders. The unspoken message of the front of Sunday’s parade was: here is the bright young future of America. And the message of us in the Eagle ranks was:  here’s what Scouting can do. But the people who should have heard weren’t listening.

We understood that. And still, as we started to drip with sweat and the older guys started to limp on their bad hips and arthritic knees, we kept our pace and our chins up and acknowledged every cheer. Even Santa and the bomb disposal guy maintained their stride. Once an Eagle, always an Eagle.

As we (with great relief) neared the end of the parade next to the Washington Monument, I spotted a little Cub Scout, no more than seven and one of the tiniest on the parade route, waving his flag. I finally broke ranks and hobbled over to him. He and his parents were astonished to see me.

“Here,” I said, handing him my flag, “I’ll trade you.”

With the briefest hesitation, he made the swap.

“This was in the Parade of Eagles,” I told him. “Keep it with you. And ten years from now bring it to your own Eagle Court of Honor. Then pass it on.”