I was happy to read today the Boy Scout will welcome girls. It’s about time. When I was a kid in the 60’s, joining the Cub Scouts then graduating to the Boy Scouts was cool. We proudly wore our uniforms to school assemblies and flashed our merit badges like gun notches. Oh no, they didn’t help you get girls, but it also told them you were probably not a bad risk…in a pinch. In later years, the scouts became supremely uncool to the point where strolling down the street in your khakis and neckerchief could get you beat up.
But here’s the thing. There isn’t a day when I don’t use some skill I learned in the scouts. Maybe it’s tying a knot, using a jackknife safely, performing some sort of first aid or cooking a meal or kayaking. However, the most important thing I learned in the scouts was how to push myself beyond self-imposed limits. Here’s how it went down. I was 11 years old and not a good swimmer. I could flail around and remain afloat but that was it. During a two-week summer stint at Ten Mile River Boy Scout camp in the Catskill Mountains, they offered a chance to earn the much-coveted Mile Swim badge that you could have sewn onto a bathing suit. Was an effin’ big deal. My older brother already had one but just didn’t see it happening for me. Our wonderful scoutmaster, Don Schneider had been a tailgunner in WWII. A tough guy who had a soft, but firm, touch. “Eddie!” he called out to me. “You’re down for the Mile Swim tomorrow! Show up at the lake at 9am.” Uh, what was he smoking? I could barely survive a puddle, let alone swimming for a mile in a 50-foot deep lake. So I nervously questioned his judgement asking, “You know I can’t swim. Do you wanna see brown coming out of my bathing suit?”
“Shit!” he retorted. “Just jump the fuck in the water and keep going! You can do it! You don’t jump, I’m tossing you in!”
Well, a good scout obeys his scout master and I showed up at the lake at 9am the next day, shivering not from the cold water but sheer fright. I was joined by 10 or so other guys with the obnoxiously confident looks of someone who was just about to paddle around the wading pool. The lifeguard stood on the dock and gave us our instructions. “When I blow the whistle, jump in! You have to do 26 laps around the course. Time limit, 90 minutes. You touch anything like a dock or buoy or boat, and you’re done! Ready!” BLOOOWWWWW!
Right behind me Scoutmaster/holder of Torture merit badge, Schneider gave me a push. Uh oh. Feet couldn’t feel the bottom..keep moving! I kept moving and flailing and quickly learned you could save a lot of energy by flipping over to your back every once in awhile. I got dangerously close to the dock a few times but never touched. After awhile I realized I had done 7 laps, then 10 then 18, then finally I heard Don scream to me “one more and you’re done!” And then I was. Somehow I had swum the mile when only the day before it seemed way over my head. My brother was there to greet and congratulate me. I had so much adrenalin flowing through me I immediately jumped into a canoe and paddled across the lake and back, then jumped back in the water for a victory lap. In the next few days my new aquatic confidence powered me to earn swimming and canoeing merit badges.
The experience had a lifelong effect on me. My wife always jokes how I’ll say “I can do that” when faced with a challenging or unfamiliar task. That attitude got me through many professional challenges including reinventing myself from a broadcast to print journalist when I was unexpectedly laid off from CNN when it offloaded hundreds of employees as part of the disastrous Time-Warner/AOL merger in 2001. It happened again when I was offered the chance to move to the corporate world as Fiat Chrysler’s first head of corporate communications social media. It also helped me take up skiing at age 30 and ice hockey at 46. I still do both.
The short answer is my experience in the Boy Scouts made me a person who more often than not says “yes” to new experiences that may test my mental and physical abilities. Because I hate to think of what my life would have been had I stood my ground with Scoutmaster Schneider and said “no.” That’s no way for a boy…or girl to live.