“Are you all right?” the lifeguard screams. “Do you need help?”
I’ve swallowed a lot of lake water and can’t answer. Gasping for breath, I glimpse my fellow Scouts lining the dock.
We’re at Camp Minsi in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, trying to earn our swimming merit badge. What they can’t vocalize I can see in their wide eyes: The old guy might die!
But I manage to catch my breath and paddle to the ladder without needing rescue. I climb up, embarrassed and exhausted. One boy looks up at me with a puzzled expression and asks, “What are you doing here?”
Good question. Forty-five years ago, after earning the rank of Bear in Cub Pack 47, I quit Scouting—I stank at tying knots.
However, when a man reaches middle age, funny things happen. The work-life climb is no longer well-defined and becomes more about finding a sturdy rung and hanging on. Those buds you once shared so many good times with turn into Buds you share mostly with yourself.
And if you ever happened to come across the Scout Law, you might realize that you haven’t been as “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent” as planned. Indeed, what grown-up wouldn’t benefit from a week at summer camp in Wi-Fi-free woods with plenty of time to whittle down life’s priorities? Who wouldn’t enjoy sitting around a campfire eating cherry cobbler bubbled in a Dutch oven and laughing until his stomach hurt?
So in an inspired moment, I approached the Boy Scouts of America and asked whether there was any way I could take up where I’d left off so long ago. Was it too late for me to become an Eagle Scout? Yes, they said. The cutoff age for Eagle is 18, and I’m seven presidents beyond that. But I could attempt to become the world’s first Bald Eagle Scout. I already had the “bald” part down. “Eagle” would take some work.
Matthew Cohen for Reader's Digest
It’s 6:30 a.m. on July 14, the first full day of summer camp, but already our troop’s 17-year-old senior patrol leader is whacking my tent flap and yelling “Wake up!” as reveille rat-a-tats in the distant woods. Perhaps because of the bugling and the ache in my back from spending the night in a tent, it feels like the dawn of war.
I dutifully don my uniform shirt and neckerchief, report for morning inspection and camp flag raising, and then join my troop as we trudge to breakfast at the central dining hall.
Three times a day, nearly 300 ravenous boys descend upon this hall in an attempt to stoke their raging metabolisms. Here, in the days that follow, I will watch in horror as “Fat Joey” casually chews ketchup packets until they pop inside his mouth. I will observe another youngster consume 35 iced slushies in seven days, each containing 28 grams of sugar, some along with a shot of Pop Rocks. (No wonder he wakes up one night screaming about a snake in his tent.)
And in this same hall, I—a grown man—will be dressed down by an irate scoutmaster in knee socks for joining the line too early at the salad bar. “Please sit down!” he yells.
But on this first day, I remain pleasantly naive. Breakfast ends with everyone standing for the rousing sing-along classic “I’m Alive, Awake, Alert, Enthusiastic!” Those are the only words, and it’s sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Each time you say “alive,” you touch your ankles; “awake,” your hips; “alert,” your shoulders; and for “enthusiastic,” you raise both arms in the air. And you do this faster and faster for what seems like 50 verses—with 300 kids.
Pumped up on empty carbs and camp anthems, I burst through the door after dismissal into the fresh mountain air, flush with promise for a new day and a new adventure.
Unfortunetly, my merit-badge classes (with the exception of my near-death experience in Swimming) turn out to be boring affairs. First Aid ends up feeling a bit like a video game as kids keep asking how to medically treat fantasy: “So what do you do if someone gets stabbed in the eye with a sword?” Then, after a succession of instructors in Orienteering, most of us are, ironically, totally lost.
The event I had been anticipating most—the postlunch “siesta”—turns out to be the busiest time at our campsite. Kids are cleaning latrines, building fires, and hitting things with a large ax to screams of “Break it!”
It’s refreshing to see boys being encouraged to be boys. Everyone is running around with knives or spears, and not once do I hear anyone scream, “You’re going to poke your eye out!” Kids roam over the thickly wooded 1,200-acre property untroubled by ticks or ragweed. Shotguns are blasted, tomahawks thrown, and arrows fired—all by kids.
The Muck Hike is the purest expression of this freedom to experience dirt and danger. It’s a mile-long trudge through chest-high sludge. Everyone emerges from it like a swamp thing. But they all have smiles on their filthy faces. In these days of free-range chickens and cattle, the Scouts are raising free-range boys!
“If we see a Scout heading toward a cliff, we’ll let him step off,” explains one scoutmaster, “as long as it’s not a big cliff. That’s how they learn.”
Kids also learn through failure at this camp. One out-of-shape youngster had been eagerly anticipating learning to kayak. But he was a tight fit, and after capsizing in the lake, he had to swim his boat to shore because he couldn’t climb back in. At home, he might have been coddled, but out here he had to deal.
I start to realize that what’s awful about camp is also what’s great about it: You’re not insulated from nature as most kids and adults are these days. You’re part of it, living in the raw, as we were meant to be. Which is memorable.
Consider: On Monday night, severe thunderstorms sweep through camp and pummel my tent. Rain drips on my forehead; everything I brought is damp. I lie awake in the middle of the night wondering why I’m here, both literally and metaphorically.
On Wednesday, after the weather clears, one of our Eagle candidates builds two tree platforms, a monkey bridge, and a zip line—in less than five hours. No nails, just rope lashings.
On Thursday night, we build a campfire. I sit around it with 30 kids and realize that my sense of humor has not matured one iota in the past 40 years. Fart jokes, teacher pranks, and falling over backward in your camp chair are just as gut-busting now as they were when I was in Scouts.
On Friday morning, we have pizza—for breakfast!
By Friday afternoon, the kid who drank all the slushies is out of money. To feed his sugar addiction, he resorts to accepting dares whereby he eats fishing bait for cash. He starts by swallowing a mealworm for 50 cents, then a night crawler for a buck, and finally a butterworm for $2 (but we make him hold it on his tongue for 30 seconds). He heads for the camp’s trading post with a wad of dough. (Check out these 13 funny campfire stories you’ll want to share this summer.)
Matthew Cohen for Reader's Digest
Being in the woods for long periods encourages contemplation. Perhaps one reason guys my age start feeling adrift is because we have little left to moor ourselves to. We’ve moved around, the kids have grown, and our accomplishments aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be. I mean, what exactly have I built? A garden shed? A 401(k)? My great-granddads would laugh at that.
That’s why it was important to make my service project meaningful. This is the bar exam for Eagle Scout candidates. You must conceive, design, finance, and ultimately build or execute some project that enhances the world around you.
Some kids clean up cemeteries or build benches at churches. But as a Bald Eagle candidate, I knew mine had to be much grander. It had to be a project that was commensurate with my life knowledge and experience.
The scenes that kept coming back to me involved the boy in the kayak and those meals in the dining hall. I realized I might be able to help these kids while addressing the national problem of child obesity in my own small way through Scouting.
So I spent 60 hours (the Scouts like when you track things) creating the plan for a summer-camp competition called Fittest Scout. Points are awarded for making smart nutritional choices (e.g., having oatmeal for breakfast instead of a grape slushie) and participating in various physical activities. Boys with the most points at the close of the week earn the title of Fittest Scout. The unit with the most combined individual points is the Fittest Troop. There’s even a Fittest Scoutmaster category.
I’m proud to say it was a hit. The head of my local council even offered to test it at camp in the future. (Don’t miss these 15 amazing campsites that should be on your bucket list.)
Matthew Cohen for Reader's Digest
At the end of summer, Troop 1600 holds a Court of Honor, where Scouts are singled out for various achievements. Parents (and wives) are invited, a campfire is lit, and snacks are served. This Court of Honor falls on my 30th wedding anniversary. My wife is expecting big things. I tell her to dress warmly and bring a flashlight.
As we sit on logs, the scoutmaster calls me up with the rest of the kids to receive my merit badges. Everyone applauds me, the Bald Eagle.
I miss the next meeting because after the last meeting I’m, well, grounded. I’m bummed because the troop is nominating new patrol leaders. It’s an important step for the kids, being recognized by their peers. One of the scoutmasters calls me the next day. “When I asked for nominations for senior patrol leader last night, one Scout raised his hand. He wondered if he could nominate you.”
Maybe I’m a better man than I thought.
(Next, find out what 4-H taught these celebrities about life skills.)