Boy Scouts, John Wayne, and the United States Naval Academy
The year was 1978.
I was still twelve. Almost thirteen. We had a Scoutmaster named Dave Watson.
We nicknamed him “Swat.”
Why? We heard he had blown his thumb off in an accident with a shotgun and had it sewn back on. When he reached out with his big hand he couldn’t quite grab you, he just swatted you. (I don’t know to this day if that story was true.)
Swat was a big bear of a man. We always hiked behind him in the mountains because he cleared a big path and made it easy.
But he taught me to do hard things.
To hike one more step when I couldn’t. To plan for an activity when my friends were all out playing. To stick by my “buddy” even when he wasn’t the coolest kid to hang out with. To clean up after they went home.
I’ll never forget Swat.
He helped me finish my eagle, along with my mom. He impacted dozens and dozens of boys. I still remember his stories around the campfire at the end of a weeklong scout camp on Friday night. They were welded into my soul.
His example shaped my life. I want every young person to have a positive experience like that.
Starting your own business is hard. Keeping it going is very hard. Being an entrepreneur is hard. But because of Swat, it doesn’t seem quite as hard.
For several years I worked closely with a woman in my church whose son wrote home to her once and mentioned something about that first word of the Scout Law…
She read the letter to several of us and I paraphrase what the young man said:
“Mom, I’ve come to learn that being trustworthy is even more important than being loved. A parent loves every child in the family, but they need to be able to count on those children to do what they are asked to do… that is trustworthy.
I’d say that the Boy Scouts of America did its job in that family. There are thousands of stories just like that for every value in the Scout Law.
I’ve had several employees who didn’t learn that…. I had a few business partners who didn’t learn that. One cost me $70,000, I call it my “MBA” from the School of Hard Knocks.
There are 12 values that provide the boundaries within which the Boy Scouts try and operate, based on the mission and vision of the Scout Oath.
Stephen R. Covey taught us that values are neutral unless you measure them against something. They are, by definition, what we “value,” or care about. People care about very different things, sometimes completely opposite things. Some values diametrically oppose each other. Everyone chooses the values they will live by.
Mother Theresa had values. Hitler had values. Martin Luther King had values. Ted Bundy had values. Lord Baden Powell had values. Lenin had values.
Today organizations and famous people espouse their values. Hollywood has values. Professional sports has values. Bill Gates has values. Oprah has values. Mitt Romney has values. Barack Obama has values.
The other night I again watched the 1972 movie The Cowboys with John Wayne.
He had strong values.
I didn’t agree with all of his methods, but his values resonated. He taught one of the boys in the movie to overcome his stuttering by getting him so mad he finally turned on Wayne and cussed him up one side and down the other. One of the first times the Lord’s name was used in vain in a movie. It became clear later it was for the boy’s own good. He learned to speak without stuttering that day.
Tough love I guess.
Many say John Wayne was the physical embodiment of America. The Cowboys director Mark Rydell, coming strongly from the left, crafted this work of cinema art with John Wayne, strongly from the right, to synergize a story of the American West that stirs the soul even today, in 2013.
It took both of them…
Some claim it was Wayne’s favorite movie he ever made. The story of a cattle rancher that couldn’t hire men to take his large cattle herd to market because there weren’t any available. So he recruited a bunch of boys to do a man’s work. The gruff Wayne takes the boys riding and camping into the wilds, on the high adventure of their lives. He uses some very tough methods at times.
They grow up quickly.
They do hard things… very hard things.
One of them dies along the way… trampled by the cattle.
Things turn from bad to worse when Bruce Dern, the friendly neighborhood cattle rustler with his dozen men, shows up again to take away the cattle, just miles from the final destination. John Wayne protects the boys and stands alone as he calls Dern out in a fair fight, and wins. His taunting challenge is one to be remembered:
“I’m thirty years older than you are. I had my back broke once, and my hip twice. And on my worst day I could beat the hell out of you.”
It’s only when he turns his back on Dern that he is shot in the arm, the leg, the back, and then the stomach.
One of the few movies that John Wayne actually dies in. His last few words will soften the hardest heart. I won’t spoil it for you.
The boys decide to take the cattle back and finish the job Wayne started. They had made a promise, had given their word, a verbal contract, an oath, to the old cattle rancher.
Grudgingly led by Roscoe Lee Browne, the best actor on the set, with perhaps the most moving scene in the whole movie and almost any movie, they succeed. They do hard things. They put it all on the line. They fill their hands and grow up in a single day. They face down the most difficult challenge of their lives. A challenge they never saw coming.
They live up to the oath they made.
Society judges the value of the values in question based on their result over time and their impact on the world.
The year was 1982.
I was in my junior year in high school and applying for scholarships and appointments to the Air Force and the United States Naval Academy. I was amazed that both Academies asked if I was an Eagle Scout. Their profiles both showed an inordinate amount of Eagle Scouts in their alumni compared to the normal population. I decided to fly out and spend a week during the summer at the Naval Academy and see if I could handle it. It was brought up several times while I was there.
Being an Eagle Scout obviously meant something. I recently have found that 11% of boys in the US are members of the Boy Scouts of America, 2% are eagles. 11% of Annapolis Midshipmen are Eagle Scouts, 25% are Boy Scouts.
I decided to go the Naval Academy the following year. My appointment was from Orrin Hatch. They cut my hair. I had to memorize my chain of command all the way up to Ronald Reagan. I had to memorize the officers of the watch and the menu of the day… every day. We had to know two front-page articles and a sports article every day before breakfast or we got demerits… every demerit was at least an hour of marching at the worst possible time of the day.
We were there the year BYU, Ty Detmer, and Lavell Edwards won the national championship and I also memorized the articles about the Superbowl of the Washington Redskins.
It was hard… very hard. I marched a lot.
I remember being at parade rest on the parade grounds with my left hand in the small of my back, my bayonet forward, and sweat rolling down the middle of my back causing an itch that couldn’t be scratched… not then at least. It was 98 degrees, and about that same level of humidity. I had never seen heat like that in the mountain west. But it was ok, I had done hard things growing up as a Boy Scout.
I was 17.
One day on the parade grounds, I noticed the plebe in front of me starting to sway. We had been warned of the symptoms. He had locked his knees. He was going to fall… backwards this time. My choice was obvious even though I knew the consequences. I moved my bayonet from out of the middle of his back, threw my piece to the ground, moved out of rank and tried to leap forward to catch him. All I did was slow his fall, but I stopped his head from hitting the ground with full impact.
They came and got him.
And I got in trouble, again, for moving in the ranks.
I couldn’t understand why.
Many years later I realized it was a time-proven model to grow men out of boys and put them in charge of leading the greatest military in the world. Flying those 30 million dollar jets was no small thing. The whole game was about how we react and lead in a no-win situation. If I moved I was in trouble. If I didn’t help my comrade I was in trouble. Which trouble was worse?
It was about leadership. It was about service. It was about being trustworthy in any situation.
Once again, I was marching. But that time it was worth it.
At the end of Plebe Year we climbed the greased Herndon Monument to take the Plebe cap off and to put the officer-style cap on top so we could end the most difficult summer of our lives.
I was one of the guys holding up that last row or two of Plebes as one of our tallest class members reached to his very limit and exchanged the two hats. You can’t even see my face in the pictures, just my grease-smeared back. We had taken off our t-shirts to wipe away the grease so we could just hold on to that two story granite pillar. Many had fallen to the ground in the early stages when the grease was still very thick. But we did the very hard thing and ended that summer of hell. It was amazing though, as hard as it was, you couldn’t pull us away. One of those love/hate situations you will never forget.
We all did a very hard thing.
I have a bond with my classmates of ’87 that is strong today even when I’m old and fat. Dieter Rademacher, Jonny Hayden, Howard Merritt, Steve Cote, Jim Lelio, and many others.
I watched our First Class men and women throw their caps in the air as they graduated.
That day they took an oath: To lay their lives on the line, if necessary. My late roommate Jonny Hayden was the gunnery officer on the ship that fired one of the first shots of the Gulf War. I hear a few of my classmates aren’t with us anymore.
To uphold our constitution and to protect our freedom.
Not a just recommendation or a guideline…
As I sat in that audience watching, I was struck with the impact of them taking that oath. I never got to. Once upon a time I had it memorized and had to quote it dozens of times or I marched:
“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
Many was the time my mind reviewed the only oath I had ever taken up to that time in my life… when I was a Boy Scout.
On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.
I think I have rehearsed the words of that oath well over a thousand times…
It means something.
I mean it when I say it.
I feel it when I hear it.
In my heart…
Now the year is 2013.
I have four boys and a girl. Mostly grown up.
I was their Cubmaster. Their Scoutmaster for 8 years.
Then an Assistant Varsity and Venture Leader. A Unit Commissioner. Last May I was asked to be a District Chairman over three cities. It isn’t nearly as much fun working with a bunch of old guys as with our youth.
But I do it.
I’m a volunteer. I’ve never been paid a dime. In fact, I’ve shelled out more money than I care to remember because I want my boys, all boys, and girls, to learn what I learned…
Duty to God and my country.
How to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.
I want my children and newly born grandchildren to learn values…
I want them to hear stories around a campfire.
To feel that tingle that goes up their spine as they come face to face with greatness… and truth. I want leaders who tell stories that teach values, stories of Baden Powell and Scoutmasters minutes.
Dave Elkington and I, and all entrepreneurs, want to hire young people that know their values, and live by their values.
And know the meaning of trustworthy.
And an oath.