A Gathering of Eagles
When it is 95 degrees, the two guys you don’t envy are Santa Claus and the man in the bomb disposal helmet and gear.
There were a couple hundred of us, mostly old guys, hiding from the heat by standing under the trees on the Capitol Mall. What distinguished us from the 10,000 or so other marchers resting under the trees beside us was that they were all under 18-years-old and wearing Boy Scout uniforms, while we ranged in age up to seventy-one and were mostly wearing white shirts and khaki trousers.
We were the Eagles, designated as the closing contingent/grand finale of the 100th anniversary parade of the Boy Scouts of America -- and our task was to march with the parade down Madison, turn right on 7th, then left for about a mile down Constitution Avenue ... all the while trying to look like exemplars of that most famous of boyhood achievements: Eagle Scout.
Towards that end, other than the white shirt/khakis ensemble, we were asked to wear symbols of our profession. Hence the heavily sweating, white-bearded guy in the Santa outfit. “It’s all velvet,” he said with dismay, holding an ice pack to his neck. And miserable as he was, it must have been nothing compared to the military officer in full camouflage fatigues who, just before we formed up, put on his thick, heavy Hurt Locker ensemble, complete with massive helmet.
There were others. An Army colonel in full dress uniform and ribbons. A doctor in his white smock. A couple younger guys in their old Scout uniforms, both with more than 100 merit badges each on their sashes. An old Scout in a uniform that must have been from the 1940s. Even the Bermudan diplomat, with his blazer, tie, red shorts, and knee socks, looked visibly uncomfortable. As for myself, all I could manage to represent my thirty years as a journalist was a satchel over my shoulder and a MEDIA identification card around my neck.
My 14-year-old was a couple hundred yards down the Mall with Troop 466, Sunnyvale, California. With me were two other middle-aged Eagles, one a Silicon Valley senior executive, the other a software engineer who had been a Scout (and Knight of Dunamis) with me when we were my son’s age.
Exactly why a group of Northern California boys and their dads were in Washington, D.C., in high summer taking part in a parade is a bit complicated. Ever since my oldest, 19-year-old son became a Scout I have (like many former Scouts) re-involved myself with Scouting after a quarter-century long hiatus. My self-assigned task has been to work with the older boys, creating unique experiences to keep them involved with Scouting as they finished their Eagle awards. Towards that end, over the last few years I’ve led them on a 192-mile hike across northern England and on a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail in Oklahoma.
This year, the summer adventure -- which I am still in the midst of as I write this -- is Civil War related. We’ve traveled back to D.C. to be part of the parade (the first for the BSA since 1937), then traveled up to Leesburg. Here, as part of Eagle service projects for two of our Scouts, we’ve worked on the restoration of Ball’s Bluff battlefield and federal cemetery, the latter the second smallest in the nation. This has meant, for one team, three days of stacking or chipping a couple dozen fallen trees as they are chain-sawed, and clearing trails of overgrowth; and for the other, the solemn work of cleaning headstones, weeding and seeding a new lawn, and installing a flagpole -- all done in near silence. (You can read about it here.)
From here, we will put on accurate Civil War uniforms, travel to nearby Morven Park, and spend three days in a full Civil War immersion experience -- camping, marching, shooting, campfires, etc. -- courtesy of volunteers from the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry re-enactors. We’ll also help in the restoration of some winter huts used by soldiers after the Ball’s Bluff battle. The biggest challenge facing the 71st Penn will be preparing us in the traditional manual of arms in preparation for our final test: conducting, in our Civil War uniforms, the flag raising ceremony Monday morning at the National Jamboree in front of an audience that could number in the thousands.
But, before everything else, we had to survive the parade.
After a couple hours of waiting, and at about the time my son and his troop were completing the march, a young man with a bullhorn got us on our feet and into formation on the street. The heat and humidity was overwhelming -- and in the few minutes we waited there, the hot asphalt was already beginning to burn through the soles of our shoes.
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.”