The Trail to Eagle Scout

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AS a Scout earning a swimming merit badge, I had trouble with the sidestroke. Dad took me up to the lake at Camp Tamarancho in the rolling, oak-spotted hills north of San Francisco. The late afternoon sun lay lazily on the docks that stretched along the lake where Scouts still swim in the summer. We had the lake to ourselves. As I stripped down to my bathing suit, Dad quickly flipped through ``The Boy Scout Handbook,'' glanced at the cover, and laid it on the dock next to my clothes. He didn't have to read about the sidestroke and swimming merit badge; he knew what the book said. ``Jump in,'' Dad told me, as he sat down on the dock and put his bare feet in the water. ``Now remember, reach up and pick the apples off the tree and put them in the basket.''

The other day, a friend dropped by with a copy of the new edition of ``The Boy Scout Handbook.'' On the front cover are four simple words: The Trail to Eagle. I flipped through its pages, remembering countless stories from my travels down the trail to Scouting's top achievement. Funny thing is, although I'm familiar with almost everything in this book, I can't recall ever having sat down to read it.

I come from a family three generations thick with Eagle Scouts. Gramps and Dad always kept plenty of copies of the handbook around for my brother and me and our friends. I always had a copy stuffed in my back pocket at troop meetings. It came in handy during knot-tying relays, first-aid competitions, and map and compass games. Once, our troop built two 25-foot signal towers for a Scout festival. The handbook gave us all the information we needed for the project: selecting and cutting poles, designing and lashing the towers, and semaphore.

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When I was 13 years old, the scoutmaster of another troop invited a friend and me on a backpacking trip in Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada. Steep-walled granite canyons, chiseled by glaciers and glowing red and white with sunlight, accepted no argument from humans. Streams lined by meadows of lupines and azalea flowed like fountains.

The scoutmaster challenged us as much as the mountains did. We learned not to cook or clean dishes within 100 feet of the lakes and rivers we camped near. We always walked on the trail in single file, so as not to widen the path. And we made sure our campsites were left cleaner than when we found them.

Scouting is about leadership and teamwork. The group was behind schedule one day of the trip. The scoutmaster sent three of us ahead to try to reach our destination, set up camp, and get the evening meal going for the rest of the group. I was one of the three because I had been on the trail before.

At one point, the path dipped into a pond and disappeared. The three of us split up and searched for the trail, staying within voice range. ``I've got it,'' Ben called out. Rob and I joined him, and debated for a minute, unsure if what Ben found was the trail or a deer path. We decided to take it, and promptly got lost. After hours of backtracking we found the trail again, and caught up to the slow group at the campsite just in time for dinner.

After breakfast the next morning, I packed up my gear, but still needed my cooking equipment. The dishwashers that morning hadn't finished them, so I did them myself.

The last night of the trip, we sat around a campfire and listened to our leader. ``I've seen some Scouting on this trip,'' he told us. ``We sent a fast group on ahead and it got lost. But the important thing is that they stuck together, used their heads, and found their way. Scouting is common sense. Always think.''

He went on, ``I saw a Scout who, when he finished his responsibilities, picked up a dirty pot and helped the rest of the group. That is what Scouting is about.'' And I could tell from the tone in his voice that he wasn't just talking about scrubbing a pot on a pack trip.

As soon as I was old enough, I worked at Marin Sierra Scout camp in the northern Sierra Nevada for several years. During my younger Scouting days I earned many merit badges and burned many meals there. Early one morning, a young Scout in my swimming merit badge class asked me for extra help with his sidestroke. I grabbed a towel and met him at the waterfront.

We had the lake to ourselves. We walked out on to the docks that stretch out over the water. The boy stripped down to his bathing suit, tossed his clothes in a pile, and laid a copy of ``The Boy Scout Handbook'' next to his clothes. I glanced at the cover for a moment; I knew what it said about the sidestroke. ``Jump in,'' I told him, as I sat down on the dock and put my feet in the water. ``Now, remember, reach up and pick the apples off the tree and put them in the basket.''

This new edition of the handbook is impressive and encouraging; it greets the reader with a hardy official Boy Scout left-handed handshake and smile. It speaks about outdoor adventures, caring for the environment, and community awareness. It urges guys to lace up their hiking boots and strap on their backpacks. And it seems to know its place: A Scout learns with his feet on the trail, not with his nose in a book. that, is ``The Trail to Eagle.''

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