Illustration by Tom Martin
The pavilion was a flatland of several hundred young men, most of them wearing Class B uniforms—troop-issued t-shirts and green cargo shorts—stained from days of marching. The boys were exhausted. They wanted a patch of shade, a Coke, an unopened can of peaches. Mostly they wanted to find a good deal in the makeshift souk. Do you have the complete Marvel set? Any ghost patches? You got any ninjas? The rules of patch-trading are mysterious to the uninitiated. Negotiations tend to be brief, occasionally chirpy, like Archie and Jughead swapping desserts at lunch. No money is exchanged. No beads are swapped above the blankets. But when the dealing’s done, the traders always express gratitude and shake hands, sometimes with a particular grasp from a private society.
The vinegary stench of sweaty Boy Scouts thickened the air. Already my shirt was wet—and I had been there only an hour—to the point you could grow an orchid on my chest.
When Scouts gather in a horde, as they had here in Mount Hope, West Virginia, at the 18th national Boy Scout Jamboree, aka Jambo, there was going to be some hardcore patch-trading to be found. Imagine Bonnaroo crossed with a religious gathering attended by Comic Con fans, with military fashioning. Previous jamborees had been held in different spots, but this was the first time they’d gathered at Jambo’s new home, The Summit Bechtel Reserve, referred to casually as “The Summit.” Deep in the green mountains of the New River Gorge, a gigantic portion of coal and timber country remade into an amusement park for today’s outdoors-minded scouting teenager, blanketed with wireless so selfies could be shared, dotted with facilities designed by guys who’d built the X-Games.
The Summit possessed the most zip lines on Earth, and the largest man-made outdoor climbing facility. It boasted the planet’s second-largest BMX facility and second-largest skateboard park, all connected by miles of trails, dozens of campsites. The official tagline was “Go Big, Get Wild!” And the whole thing was pretty much just for scouts.
But of all the extreme and unquestionably badass activities the kids wanted to experience during their ten days in West Virginia, patch-trading was it.
Many patches have little value. Some can be worth as much as a 1913 Shoeless Joe Jackson baseball card. Some trade on eBay for thousands of dollars. Personally, I had but one patch, and it was worthless. Until recently I’d never heard of patch-trading, and I was an Eagle Scout back in the day. But then I passed a tent where a Boy Scouts employee was publicizing a new merit badge in software design or something. He gave me a commemorative patch from a stack of dozens. Blue and square, with an embroidered image of a desktop computer. On the open market, it was worth less than an onion.
“Yeah, that one sucks,” Deron Smith said, laughing. Deron is the National Director of Communications for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Like all scouts or officials I met on-site, Deron was gregarious and friendly, well-tanned from days of wrangling journalists under the sun. “Here’s what you do. Go out there, play it up. Find some scouts, tell them how bad it is—and be really theatrical about it, make the badness part of its appeal.” He shrugged. “Maybe they’ll take pity on you.”
We were enveloped in mountain heat, humid as if it had just rained. Thunder crackled in the distance. Thousands of scouts were marching from skeet shooting to whitewater rafting, car design to mountain boarding. But at the visitors’ center, the pavilion had been set aside exclusively for patch-trading: dozens of boys with their patch collections laid out on blankets, and maybe a few hundred more kids milling around the bazaar, looking for—something. I really had no clue.
I approached two scouts with a red wool blanket and explained that I was an Eagle Scout, I’d never traded before, but I did happen to have in my possession something uncommon and perhaps extraordinary: the lamest patch in creation.
Eyes went wide. Hand unfurled.
“That,” the first one said, “is pretty bad.”
“Yeah, I’ve never seen it before,” the second said. “Okay, I’ll trade you. What do you want for it?”
On his blanket was a patch from suburban Connecticut, my home council when I was their age, with an embroidered clipper ship. We traded, thanked each other pointedly, and, as one does, shook hands. The kid’s handshake was damp but firm. Then he and his friend wished me a sprightly good day, and I’ll admit I felt a special silly glow as I walked away with my prize. The kids were just so damn nice.
Behind me, in the center of the many marching thousands bedecked with neckerchiefs—an unarmed corps of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, if going just by the numbers—scaffolding and banners had been refashioned as towers of goodness twenty feet high. They were like the steeples for each family in Game of Thrones, but instead of Lannister or Stark here was a single massive word from the Boy Scout Law—trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, etc.—that had been enlarged into a two-story monument of its own virtue, lining the wide gravel road at the visitors’ entrance. They were the first things a guest saw—imposing, even pompous, though accurate as to what to expect at The Summit. In my four days at Jambo, I would interact with a random sampling of approximately thirty thousand teenaged scouts and scouters (adult volunteers). They came from eighteen countries. There were also six thousand volunteer staff, and fifteen thousand visitors and Boy Scout groupies (!) who’d come to see the sights. And each scout or scouter or volunteer I’d encounter would turn out to be helpful, friendly, outgoing, and kind. No one cut in line. No one frowned, for the most part. Strangers introduced themselves to one another with genuine cheer, and dozens if not hundreds of teenagers waved to me on the trails and said hi when we passed and would offer constantly to shake my hand. It might have been the Friendliest Place on Earth.
Which partially explains why my suspicions were tingling. An initial opinion, formed while driving up from North Carolina, was that the whole spectacle would be a wildly expensive theme-park sham; a whitewash for a corrupt and dying institution; a reboot, as they say in Hollywood, for a 1950s franchise that should better be put to rest.
Deron arrived to whisk me off to see something else amazing—the planet’s second-largest flame-throwing unicycle course, or whatever—but first I wanted to trade up my Connecticut patch. Already I was sick of my little ship; ever since I graduated high school and fled the suburbs as fast as possible, there’s been a quiet voice in my brain muttering things like Fuck Connecticut. I looked around. A kid was squatting near me with a decent-sized spread. I crouched down and spotted a patch from North Carolina, where my wife was born and we’d lived for the past five years. I introduced myself and told my story, offering him my Connecticut patch.
He barely glanced at it. “Not interested.”
I tried the hard sell: “It’s got a boat on it.”
But he said nothing, merely looked past me over the golden, man-made fields.
Any cool kids in my town whose parents enrolled them in Cub Scouts were gone by the time we were old enough to level-up. It might’ve been because of the program between Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts: Webelos, standing for “We’ll Be Loyal Scouts,” unfortunately pronounced we blow. Or maybe those of us who remained simply didn’t know any better, or maybe we actually liked scouting. This was the late Eighties, early Nineties. I think it’s accurate to say my scouting friends and I qualified as full-fledged dorks: a troop of drama nerds, metalheads, anti-jocks, poor kids, wealthy kids, and a few skaters who somehow weren’t cool, plus the occasional Rocky Horror Picture Show obsessive. The Rush fan. The guy who wore combat boots and a long coat to school because Judd Nelson did so in The Breakfast Club.
I was a Boy Scout the whole way through high school, mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to quit. On the surface, I found it mortifying. The teasing at school, the looks from girls. I dreaded putting on the uniform in public—for parades, car washes, an occasional school event—khaki military shirt, green merit-badge sash, shorts with cargo pockets sewn onto the fronts of the thighs. Like teenagers anywhere, what we wore was who we were. And maybe I had no idea who I was, but I knew that uniform made me feel lame, silly, and fashioned as a pariah. Worse, much worse: it made me feel uncool.
Preparing for this story, I asked my dad what he remembered. “You couldn’t stand putting that thing on,” he said. “You hated it.” Then again, I also signed up for marching band, complete with spats and a six-inch helmet plume, and church acolyte guild, which required a monkish, double-breasted white server’s alb. I look back on myself as a teenager and find an acne-stricken, unathletic kid, who was desperate for an identity and loath to displease.
But there’s another truth that lined my shame: I may have hated being a scout, but I loved scouting. Every month we went on camping trips. We learned how to survive in the woods and fish for dinner. There was also an appealing dark side—chiefly, we set shit on fire. The prototypical scout is a do-gooder in public, misfit on the side. He’s the computer wiz who phreaks payphones, the Young Republican with a shoplifting habit, the throwing-star collector drawing comic books at night. But rarely are scouts burnouts, or disaffected. The boys I knew in Scouts might have been dorks at school, but in our private lives—which inevitably emerged in our scouting lives—we all had one thing in common: we did stuff.
Our town’s troop was fortunate to have an excellent scoutmaster, very adventure-oriented. He raised money to take us backpacking in New Mexico, backpacking in Alaska, sailing in the Florida Keys. I remember some of the rich kids at school going on Outward Bound trips in the summer, and they’d ask me to recommend a pair of hiking boots or a backpack. I always wanted to say, Look who’s cool now. Then there was simply room for teenagers to be teenagers—all of us horny, stupid, confused teenage boys. The first time I saw pornography was during a patrol meeting in one kid’s basement. Boy Scout troops are typically divided into patrols, small groups of kids with older scouts who act as leaders. I was around thirteen. We were supposed to be studying CPR, or tying sheepshanks, but all I remember is the movie, Edward Penishands. One of the older boys had hacked the cable box and found the Penthouse channel. Afterward, I was so disturbed, I broke out crying during the car ride home and told my mom. Ten ejaculating fingers is a lot of ejaculating fingers.
The spring of my senior year, I earned my Eagle. Adults told me how impressive it was, that I should put it on my job résumé someday. Less than ten percent of scouts qualify for Eagle. Steven Spielberg, Michael Bloomberg, President Gerald Ford. Of the 320 pilots and scientists selected as astronauts since 1959, thirty-nine made Eagle, including Neil Armstrong; of the twelve men to walk on the moon, eleven were scouts. I received letters of congratulation from President Clinton, Congressman Shays. Joseph Lieberman, one of our senators from Connecticut, wrote: “You are certainly one of Connecticut’s finest young men.” But I was a self-hating scout—to be accurate, I was pretty much just plain self-hating—and found the whole thing silly. Once I’d graduated high school, I quit Scouts, quit church, got a summer job, shaved my head, and devoted every non-working hour to rock climbing by myself, doing pull-ups at night on the frame of my bedroom door. I couldn’t wait to leave town. I couldn’t wait to read books, drink beer, smoke pot, get laid. Boy Scouts and high school would be behind me forever, and good riddance.
In my second week at college, a blonde with great legs found a photograph of me in my Scout uniform. My mom had probably snuck the photo inside my books. The girl and I were listening to music in my dorm room. She was equally crunchy and a babe—a killer combo for me at that age—great ass, great fleece vest. In the picture I was smiling, wearing a jaunty white turtleneck under my uniform. Probably I thought it matched my sweet bolo tie.
“My brother was an Eagle Scout,” she said after a second.
“Yeah, me too,” I said, cringing, preparing for her to go.
“It’s really impressive,” she said. “I think it’s cool.”
Well, I thought about that for weeks.
The Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, based on the United Kingdom’s Boy Scout Association, which was established by Robert Baden-Powell in 1908. The legend goes that one of the BSA’s founders, W. D. Boyce, got lost one foggy night in London in 1909. Suddenly an unknown scout appeared from the mist and guided him on his way, in the end refusing a tip, saying he was simply doing a good turn. Boyce returned to the States and incorporated the BSA.
The “movement,” as it calls itself, says it’s “the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training.” Currently there are roughly three million youth members and more than a million adult volunteers. On the local level, troops are generally built one per town, perhaps several in a city, and corralled into multiple councils per state. The organization as a whole is governed from a national office in Irving, Texas.
Once every four years or so, since 1937, scouts travel from across the country, even other countries, for two weeks of good cheer at a national Jamboree where they work on merit badges, sing around campfires, and engage in some extreme patch-trading. Previously, the Jamboree was held at different sites around the country, but now, thanks to more than $100 million in private donations, Jambo’s got its new, permanent home at The Summit: a scouting wonderland of man-made lakes, man-made climbing walls that convincingly smack of real rock, concert arenas, kayaking courses, shooting ranges, and so much more, spread over 10,600 acres of land reclaimed from coal mining and logging. The Scouts have built four dams, twenty-four miles of roads, 235 miles of trails, 336 shower houses, and a working post office. They even created a miniature version of the facility, nearly a scale model and complete with a skate park, that’s open to non-scouts, because the general public isn’t welcome on the rest of the property. Even so, several thousand non-scouts were expected to show up over the course of Jambo, both families of participating scouts and random people the officials offhandedly refer to as “scouting groupies,” folks who simply dig the atmosphere.
I never did interview any of the groupies, but from what I could tell by their veneers—old men in their childhood uniforms; obese women in large American-flag tops and shorts—they weren’t unlike Disney addicts, those adults you occasionally meet who turn out to own a condo in Orlando and buy season passes to Disney World, and eat off Disney china back home, and who quickly turn defensive if you inquire out loud why they like that mouse so much. Basically, some people just really love the Scouts.
The morning I arrived, the scouts had been at The Summit for several days, trekking from one activity to another, trailed by their gasping scoutmasters. And not just boys. Since 1998, the BSA has included an auxiliary wing called Venturing, designed to keep older boys from quitting with high-adventure trips—and girls. Yes, Venturing troops are often coed. (Many people don’t realize it, but Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA are entirely separate organizations.) And this year, for the first time in Jamboree history, the girls had been invited to attend. I met a girl at one of Jambo’s rock climbing walls, Madeline Desnoyers of Boston, age fourteen, and asked her why she’d chosen Venturing over Girl Scouts. “Girl Scouts, you don’t do as much leadership stuff,” Madeline said. “You definitely don’t do as much extreme outdoors stuff.”
Also, the King of Sweden was here. He’s a former Boy Scout, and thus sort of a scouting ambassador. In the motel dining room that morning, people were asking, Have you seen the King? Did you know the King is here? I also heard more than one joke involving former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, an Eagle Scout himself, perhaps hiking the Appalachian Trail nearby.
The highway to The Summit was crammed with cars, many with NRA stickers and reminders to “Support the Troops.” Each morning, a bus took us media folk up to the visitors’ center. I was the only non-local reporter, and the only former Eagle Scout—at least, that’s how I thought of it, though at breakfast I was chided by a tubby scouter, who reminded me that an Eagle Scout is an Eagle Scout for life, present-tense. “You know you’re out of scouting awhile when you put it in the past tense,” he said sternly.
The only national news story I’d seen so far about Jambo itself had been negative. The headline on CNN was: “Boy Scouts ban obese kids from outing.” It was an easy sound-bite—and, at times, it did seem like the only thing the Scouts had done for the past twenty years was ban people—but it wasn’t the whole story. Any scout who could afford the travel costs and admission ticket was welcome to attend Jambo, assuming he was at least eleven and a First Class–ranked scout, a rank that takes approximately a year of scouting to earn. But participants also needed to be relatively fit, since they’d be hiking up to ten miles a day. So the Jamboree organizers had implemented a body-mass-index requirement—admittedly a pretty crude metric for fitness. But then the Scouts weren’t exactly known for nuance.
The larger story, of course, was what people within Scouts referred to informally as “The Decision,” the recent vote by the BSA’s approximately fourteen-hundred-member National Council to lift its ban on gay scouts. The Decision overturned a policy that, until only recently, had been described by the BSA as the “absolute best” for the organization, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000’s Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. But overturning the ban was long overdue. It had provoked controversy and lawsuits, and become a severe liability for the Scouts. Government organizations stopped sponsoring troops. President Obama publicly opposed the ban, and so did Mitt Romney. Adult Eagle Scouts even began returning their badges in protest. Now the membership requirements read: “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”
The response, however, was mixed. Many who’d fought for gay scouts now wanted to see gay adults allowed, or “full inclusion,” and many who’d fought against the inclusion of gay scouts had campaigned out of fear of that very outcome. “Avowed homosexuals,” as the BSA put it, over the age of eighteen, remained forbidden from participating in Scouts—as scoutmasters, assistant scoutmasters, or in any capacity. So if you were a seventeen-year-old gay Eagle Scout, which was now perfectly okay, and you enjoyed scouting so much that you wanted to help out your troop as an assistant scoutmaster, maybe even become a scoutmaster someday—well, too bad. Turn eighteen, and you’re done.
It wasn’t a popular position in popular culture. Only a few weeks before Jambo, Carly Rae Jepsen, the singer behind the pop smash “Call Me, Maybe,” cancelled her appearance at Jambo’s big closing show. She tweeted: “As an artist who believes in equality for all people, I will not be participating in the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree this summer.” This echoed a statement made by the band Train back in March—the band behind the soft-rock supernova “Drops of Jupiter”—who likewise bagged on Saturday’s concert, over the gay-adults ban.
And let’s not forget, gay or straight, if you’re an atheist, even an agnostic, you’re definitely not wanted either.
The morning was foggy and cool. Officials buzzed around on ATVs, barking into handheld radios. Scouts hiked past in twos and threes, in windbreakers and knee-socks and shirts stretched out by constant wear. Lots of kids had solar panels clipped to their backpacks, to charge their devices. Deron said he’d overheard a kid telling his mom on the phone that he’d traded some patches for a solar charger, adding, “Yeah, it was a pretty good trade.” We commandeered an ATV and drove up a series of dirt roads and switchbacks to an outcropping overlooking The Summit. From the top, Jambo lay below us in an immense gorge bordered by lakes, a grassy valley teeming with scouts like so many hundreds of ants. We met Dan McCarthy, a former deputy chief of naval operations, who’d overseen The Summit’s development. Dan was old, tall and silver-haired, and wore hiking boots, shorts, and a scouter’s uniform shirt. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. When I added that I was an Eagle Scout, his face softened, his eyes smiled. This would happen repeatedly over the following days: recognition that I was from the flock and could be trusted.
I asked Dan about the obesity story. He frowned. “Not a single kid was denied the opportunity.” I pressed him. He insisted. He himself had prepared for Jambo, he said, by losing nearly seventy pounds.
I must have looked skeptical.
“Diet and exercise,” he replied. “I made it a point to get out and hike every day.”
For the rest of the day we toured the sights. Kids were blasting away at shotgun-shooting stations. Scuba diving in pools. Downhill mountain-biking on steep forest paths. Some kids, Deron said, were off-site for the day, volunteering in the community; every troop at Jambo was required to do a day of service. And every kid I interviewed was having a grand old time, even if the food could have been better. None had a strong opinion about the decision to allow in gay scouts. If there was a collective opinion, it was “No biggie.” That night, at the motel’s impressively dank and seedy bar, under a din of Skid Row and cigarette smoke, I interrogated the PR squad about the CNN story. They said McCarthy had it right, though they couldn’t guarantee some scoutmaster somewhere hadn’t forbidden a fat kid from attending and not informed them. However, they pointed out, it was actually the scoutmasters who’d been most troubled by the rule—the cliché of the pot-bellied scouter being so true that many adult volunteers and staff had been in violation of the BMI rule and forbidden to attend.
I brought up how polite all the kids were. How exceedingly nice. In a day of interviews, not a single one wasn’t polite, engaged. They were almost too pleasant, especially when they learned I was an Eagle Scout. I felt welcomed—too welcome.
“Oh I know, they’re like that, it’s bizarre,” one of the PR women said. She turned to another. “When was the last time you had ten fourteen-year-olds fighting to open the door for you?”
It almost felt like coming home, I was starting to accept, grudgingly.
Some patches are as small as quarters. Others are as large as dinner plates. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of varieties. Depending on the patch, they can be sewn onto a uniform, worn on a jean jacket, kept as souvenirs. The idea is simply fun: scouts are meant to swap patches amongst themselves in a tiny ceremony of friendship that’s semi-economic, semi-sentimental, and never about money. The transactions happened everywhere. I saw scouts laying their blankets down beside roads trafficked by tour buses, setting up in fields, or on a switchback in the woods, tempting hikers out in the middle of nowhere.
Inevitably, a few patches become more valuable than others. The kids knew the pecking order; they could rank a patch like it was on the NASDAQ. Before Jambo, the different councils had created their own patches and handed them out to their own scouts so they’d have something to trade. Hence the diversity and volume at Jambo. Furthermore, some councils did a more creative job than others, meaning the most coveted patches tended to be colorful and ornate, or feature characters, like the astronauts from the Central Florida Council’s patches, or surfers from Orange County. The most desirable and sexiest were those that drew on popular culture, using a character from a video game (Halo), or a movie (Star Wars). But that required licensing, meaning someone from the council had needed to work an inside connection at Microsoft or Lucasfilm to get permission.
This year, many scouts told me, the most popular patches were the Marvel set: patches with characters like Thor or The Hulk. Seemed that a council somewhere had had a hook-up with the makers of Spiderman, and now everyone wanted a piece. In fact, the Marvel patches were so rare I hadn’t even seen one.
But the weirdest thing about patch-trading wasn’t the kids. It was the adults. In the visitors’ center pavilion, a few middle-aged men had set up shop, with suspiciously large collections—blankets upon blankets, patches upon patches. It was as if they patch-traded for a living somehow, caravanning from one jamboree to the next, in the manner of Widespread Panic fans. And they brought with them the scent of the forbidden: cash.
Andrew Lama is a perceptive, polite, eerily confident sixteen-year-old scout from suburban New Jersey who considered The Summit’s zip lines and climbing walls both exciting and troubling—well-intentioned and really cool, but perhaps simply a humongous publicity stunt for the BSA to direct attention away from its policies of exclusion and bigotry.
“It’s a total rebranding effort,” Andrew told me. “First they allow girls. Then they’re promoting adventuring during the opening stage show . . . ” He trailed off and shook his head, for the moment seeming like a world-weary politician.
Andrew and I were meeting several days into his Jambo experience. He wore shorts, baseball cap, and glasses, and often flashed a bright, easy smile. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that he was popular with his teachers. We’d come to know each other because I’d reached out before the Jamboree. Andrew is a scouting activist: he’s a member of Scouts for Equality (SfE), a national organization that had fought the BSA’s ban on gay teens, and now was trying to end the exclusion of gay adults.
Andrew had brought along his friend Bobby—scouts were required to tour Jambo in pairs, a mandated buddy system. The two of them were excited to have a chance to charge their smartphones at the visitors’ center, but he was also eager to talk, and he made clear that he was all for allowing girls at Jambo and adventuring. Both were fantastic. But it was the rationale behind the initiatives he worried about, whether it suggested real progress, or simply cosmetic repair.
Leading up to Jambo, Andrew began a campaign on the White House petitions website asking President Obama, who serves as the Honorary President of the BSA, to take a more public stance on the membership policy issue, as the ban on gays is called. By July, it had garnered three thousand signatures. Ninety-seven thousand more and it would have required an official response from the White House.
It’s not unusual for sitting presidents to attend jamborees. George W. Bush came in 2005, Clinton in 1997. Since I’d arrived, a big topic of discussion among adults was whether Obama would appear at the big final concert or not. Several scouters told me conspiratorially that he would, that they had a connection inside BSA leadership but it was all hush-hush.
The second most popular subject was the location of the Swedish king; people wanted their royal selfies.
I asked Andrew if the May decision was something the scouts discussed among themselves.
“Oh sure,” Andrew said.
“Honestly I think most scouts don’t care,” said Bobby.
“Lots of kids just joke about it,” Andrew said. “There’s jokes going around. People were telling them on the bus ride down.”
“Like, That looks like a January 1st kind of kid.”
“Oh yeah,” Bobby said, “It looks like he’s going to enjoy the new year.”
“Yeah,” Andrew said. “Hold on buddy, save that for January 1st.”
Andrew had joined SfE because a scouter he knew had asked him to do something to oppose the rule. The reason was actually a lot more complicated than that, but he wouldn’t go any further on the record about it, fearing his friend would be kicked out of Scouts.
“What about the dark side of Jambo?” I asked. “Are kids drinking alcohol? Doing drugs?”
“That’s what we expected,” Andrew said.
“Totally,” Bobby said, nodding.
“Except the most underground thing is patch-trading.”
I stared blankly at Andrew. “What?”
He whispered, “We heard about a kid buying a Marvel patch for $300.”
Bobby leaned forward, rocking in his seat: “You can get kicked out if you’re caught paying cash for patches.”
“You should check out eBay,” Andrew said ominously. “Stuff there goes for thousands.”
Around us, fields and slopes burned a hazy yellow in the sun. I only had them for another minute. I had to ask: “Do you guys ever feel like dorks, being scouts? Like there’s a dork factor that just won’t go away?”
Both nodded, smiling.
“It’s like a sonic boom with people,” Andrew said. “It’s always a barrier. But once you punch through it . . . Like, if you tell one person you’re a Boy Scout, they’re like ew. But if you tell everybody on Facebook I’m a Boy Scout, then they’re like, Okay, cool.”
“Yeah,” Bobby said, “like, ‘If he thinks it’s fun, then who cares?’”
Andrew laughed to himself under his breath. He glanced away, then looked me in the eye. “This kind of sounds weird? But it’s like you have to come out of the closet as a scout.”
One evening I ate pizza with an Eagle Scout boy band. The Konzelman Brothers were a roots-rock/bluegrass/alt-country group of five brothers from Washington, every one an Eagle Scout, every one a fiddler, and all rustically handsome and styled like a team of anorexic lumberjacks. In other words, they were a typical contemporary young-dude band, and if they called each other bro, and collectively referred to themselves as “the bros,” then no one was surprised. Only they were also polite, friendly, outgoing—the whole Scout Law personified in skinny jeans. I pictured them opening for the Black Keys, then offering to change the oil in the groupies’ cars.
I was on hand because a friend of a friend had invited me. Alvin Townley is the author of Legacy of Honor, a book about driving around the country and meeting famous Eagle Scouts. After dinner, we went out to the parking lot and watched the bros chat up a pretty girl by her car. I mentioned to Alvin the band’s pitch-perfect wardrobe, as compared to a Boy Scout’s typical dorky clothes.
Alvin shook his head. “But see, in scouting,” he said, “the uniform’s the equalizer. I’m not saying the current version is perfect. But it makes it so it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is.”
If there were ever raised a Statue of Scouting, on its base should be inscribed, Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled teenagers, and we will dork them out.
Years earlier, a French friend once asked me to define the difference between ‘geek’ and ‘dork.’ I’d said something about how a geek, fundamentally, is a person of interests, and through the pursuit of his interests—comic books, computer games—he becomes a person of interest. But the dork was already interesting, just not in a socially approved fashion. He’s apart from the group, outside the herd. Something about him is basically different, even wrong—a screw turn from the norm. He laughs at the wrong times, laughs too hard. He causes people to cringe; he doesn’t know his place. He sees the world differently, but he doesn’t know this at first, so he’s bewildered to find himself misunderstood. Eventually his comfort in his own (dorky) skin makes others uncomfortable in theirs—a perfect scenario for high-school isolation.
But dorks recognize dorks. There was never a moment in Boy Scouts when I felt like I didn’t belong, even if I didn’t want to be there. Especially then. Boy Scouts aren’t necessarily geeks any more than scouts are athletes or non-athletes, nerds or non-nerds. But all Boy Scouts are dorks after a fashion. When I became aware of the Scouts’ ban on gays, around the same time I was becoming disillusioned with the organization, I remember wondering, But why would a gay kid want to join Scouts? Why seek out further ostracism?
That night, in the middle of dinner, I received a text message from my wife. She was on a business trip and wanted a glass of wine after a long day. But the place where she was staying had no corkscrew—could I help?
“Guys,” I said, “my wife needs our help.”
Six Eagle Scouts swiveled.
“Is she okay?” someone asked.
“She needs a glass of wine,” I said, and explained the situation.
“Tell her, go in the closet,” one said immediately, “take a wire hanger, unbend the top screwy thingie—bam, instant corkscrew.”
“Better idea,” said another. “Does she have a pen?”
“Take the pen and push the cork down into the bottle.” Several of the bros nodded. One said, “She might need to hold it down while she pours, but that should work.”
I texted the instructions. A minute later, she sent back a picture of a glass of wine.
Wandering the grounds of Jambo under a scorching sun, along dirt roads where troops marched up to seven kids wide, I received dozens of earnest high-fives. This was a thing: boys high-fiving anyone within arm’s reach. White boys, black boys, troops from Japan, kids from Canada draped in Canadian flags, positive and cheery to a man—and girls, too, of course! With t-shirt sleeves rolled up to their sunburned shoulders, teenage girls slapping hands with the teenage boys passing them, everyone shouting, Hello! Hey! Where are you from? Scotland! Scotland?! SCOTLAND RULES!
And then, nearly every thirty minutes on the trail, I’d hear a rousing fraternity chant of drink drink drink drink drink drink drink drink—because the scouts had been instructed to remind one another to stay hydrated from their water bottles.
I mean, it was adorable.
In the skate park, which was even more impressive than Deron had promised, with concrete ramps and bowls and grind-rails as far as the eye could see, I spoke to Jordan Hale, an eighteen-year-old Eagle Scout from Stanton, Texas. Jordan was tall and lean, Keanu-handsome, wearing mirrored sunglasses and skateboarding sneakers. I asked him about joining Scouts as a skater. After all, in my town, those things were mutually exclusive, skaters being the most rebellious of outsiders, scouts the least.
“At first?” he said, with very pure bro inflection, “Yeah, I was like, I don’t get this. But then I was like, dude? Forget it. You get to do things most kids don’t. Most kids don’t do anything. They just hang around town. Like one time one kid popped off at me, ‘Dude, Boy Scouts is stupid.’ And I’m like, ‘Dude, have you ever gone scuba diving?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you ever gone rock climbing?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, you’ve got nothing.’”
“So you don’t feel that dork thing then?”
I gazed at my reflection in his sunglasses. A long pause. He shrugged. “The uniform kind of makes me feel dorky, but no, I don’t feel it. I embrace it. I’m like, Hey, Boy Scouts, let’s do this.”
In 2010, reporters Jason Felch and Kim Christensen of the Los Angeles Times got their hands on the “Perversion Files,” thousands of private documents maintained by the BSA for nearly a century on “ineligible volunteers,” as part of the organization’s efforts to keep pedophiles away from scouting.
The journalists spent a year poring through it all—1,900 files, 3,100 case summaries—and went on to interview victims, parents, and BSA officials. What they found was gut-wrenching. To grossly summarize, the records show the BSA consistently attempting to handle cases internally, frequently not reporting them to police, occasionally not even to a scout’s parent. In case after case, year after year, the BSA’s system failed to prevent abuse in every state in the country, even abuse by repeat offenders, who found ways to sneak back in and abuse again.
One article reports that “in 1987, a Scoutmaster at a camp in northeast Georgia was accused of fondling a boy in a sleeping bag. The local Boy Scouts executive, Wayne Brock, followed Scouting procedures and documented the allegation before forwarding it to the group’s Texas headquarters, where it was added to confidential files on leaders suspected of molesting children. The Scoutmaster was expelled and left town in a matter of days. The police were never told, interviews and records show.”
Wayne Brock currently serves as the Chief Scout Executive of the BSA.
On the website, the Times set up a search engine where reports could be explored by year, troop, or geographic location. I punched in Connecticut: eighty results. I paused, then typed in Darien, the town where I grew up. One record appeared, file date: August 18, 1966. An individual had been expelled from the Boy Scouts for confessing to sexually abusing minors at summer camp. The file even included a letter from the man’s psychiatrist, petitioning the Boy Scouts on his behalf to readmit him two years later, in which he credited the predator for being a good worker and family man. There was no mention of whether the police were ever involved. The man’s listed address was a mile from my parents’ house.
I sat back from my desk that night and stared at my neighbor’s cabin glowing in the woods, its front porch lit by a string of colored Christmas lights, and I felt impotence, disgust, and rage.
At the motel, I brought up the child-abuse cases with the PR managers. We were drinking in the bar. A sudden wind of emotion blew up inside me—and went into a long, angry, admittedly semi-drunk harangue about my disgust with the BSA’s pathetic policies and its inept old men in the leadership, their patterns of heinous behavior, and the frankly vomitous similarities between the BSA and the Catholic Church, an institution I loathed. Eventually I ran out of steam and got up to buy more drinks.
Late one afternoon a heavy thunderstorm rolled through Jambo, sending scouts running for cover. Rain pounded the media bus as we returned to the motel. After a long day of reporting, I decided to skip the bar and attempted to use the motel’s gym—because, after a certain point, talking to fourteen-year-old boys was like interviewing drugged gorillas, and I could use the exercise. Andrew and Bobby were right: the kids simply didn’t care about gay scouts. I’d ask them about the May decision and they shrugged their shoulders. I’d ask about gay scoutmasters and they rubbed their noses. Only when I asked about patch-trading did their eyes light up.
Unfortunately, the motel gym was a smoking gym: the room reeked of cigarettes, and there was even an ashtray by the door. Not that I would have accomplished much—the room’s contents were two dining chairs, two dumbbells on a white plastic rack, a rolled-up yoga mat, and a coaxial cable bristling from the wall. Of course, I should have been used to the smoke by now, seeing how my room, the only one available for many miles when I’d called, was not only a smoking room, but located on the motel’s designated smoking floor. So I gave up and wandered back to the bar to rejoin the publicists for alcohol and Metallica.
At the scouting tables, people were taking bets on the likelihood of Obama’s appearance. The PR women were shaking their heads, smiling, half “no,” half “I really shouldn’t say.” But two scoutmasters at the bar told me in loud beery tones that the president was coming, don’t be stupid, of course he’d come.
Each day was the same: interview scouts, roam the grounds, return to the motel to type up my notes, then drink with the press flacks until it was time to crash. No one on the PR staff asked outright, but they were worried about what I’d write. They kept doing me favors: they put me on a helicopter for a better view of The Summit’s scale; they tried to secure me an audience with the King, but he turned them down. Of course they were worried about what anyone wrote—as the Boy Scout motto goes, Be Prepared—but these were high-end hired guns, who specialized in difficult cases. One woman used to be the deputy director of communications for Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced Illinois governor. Two others recently consulted for BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Their expertise wasn’t being wasted. Following the May decision to allow gay kids to participate, Dr. Richard Land, a top leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, had predicted a “mass exodus” of scouts from the organization. A written resolution from the group said, “We express our well-founded concern that the current executive leadership of the BSA, along with certain board members, may utilize this membership policy change as merely the first step toward future approval of homosexual leaders in the Scouts.” Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, told Fox News, “Churches are finally going to have to come to realize—there is a point when you say, ‘Sorry, no more.’”
Then, in Florida, a group called On My Honor, founded by an anti-gay activist and Eagle Scout, John Stemberger, made hay in the media around the May decision, then started a new organization, Trail Life USA, aiming to compete for kids as an alternative to the BSA, no gays allowed. So the publicists had their hands full, never mind the revelations, still emerging, from the Los Angeles Times series.
It didn’t help that the BSA’s leadership had dragged their heels for years while addressing past failures. Not until 2008 did adult volunteers in scouting become required to undergo a criminal background check. It took another two years before the BSA required any suspected abuse be reported to law enforcement. Meanwhile, lawsuits put the Scouts under siege. For example, by the family of a scout who was sexually abused in 2007 and then told by a Scouts executive not to inform the police, because “the Scouts do their own internal investigation.”
One abuser, who molested more than a dozen children through scouting over nearly two decades, told the Times that if someone had called the police when he first admitted to the BSA about his abusing three boys, back in 1979, it “probably would have put a stop to me years and years and years ago.”
I paid my bill at the bar and retired to my room. Outside, the rain had stopped, the parking lot was beginning to steam. Cars glowed in the last remaining light. I sat in the open window and lit a cigarette—I quit smoking years ago, but there was just something about staying in a smoking room, on a smoking floor, in a motel with a smoking gym. Undoubtedly, this trip had made me nostalgic. I remembered my old Scout handbook, how I used to read it in bed late at night with an Army-surplus flashlight, trying to memorize all the useful information. Orienteering. Animal tracking. How to build a cave for shelter in the snow. Boy Scouts had given me my love for the wilderness. It gave me friends, adventures, confidence. The same organization that had betrayed so many, had probably made me a better person, a better man—to whatever degree a man can claim such a thing while smoking a cigarette, intoxicated, dangling out a third-story window.
Then my phone dinged. I had several texts from Andrew Lama. The previous day I’d asked him to be my mole, my guy Friday inside Jambo in case any shit went down on the patch-trading circuit. Already he’d let me know that scouts were hacking the portable generators around The Summit, setting up unauthorized smartphone charging stations—behavior that rang very true to the scouts I remembered.
An adult at the visitors center building is trading old Scout gear (one I saw was a Valley Forge Jambo neckerchief from 1964) and all he wants is 3 council shoulder patches to get it.
Another one: Someone’s got a flask for trade. First time we’ve seen that.
The next message was a picture of a patch from an Ohio council with a leaf that looked like marijuana. Another was a patch Andrew had picked up for himself, from the Green Zone Council, Baghdad, Iraq. Scouts typically collected a certain kind of patch: patches with planes on them, patches from their home state. Andrew had told me he liked to collect patches with a good story behind them.
And maybe it was the beer, or the nicotine, but it occurred to me that this was exactly how I’d collect patches if I were a scout again. That perhaps, and I admitted to myself this was weird, Andrew was my scouting doppelgänger. He liked debate, track, foreign policy. He was president of his high school’s Model UN club. He was a dork through and through, as far as I could tell, but in a manner I could now admire—different from the pack, but in possession of his difference—and really, who cared about all this dork bullshit I kept bringing up?
And would I have had the balls at sixteen—the selflessness, and, frankly, plain decency—to be a straight kid taking a stand for gay rights?
Would I have been as good a scout?
I probably shouldn’t even be an Eagle Scout, not believing in God and all.
The Boy Scouts of America is not a religious organization per se, but it is religious. Belief in God is required for membership, though any god is fine. Jews are welcome, as are Muslims and Sikhs. But no atheists, no agnostics, at least none “avowed,” as the Scouts might say. Baden Powell once remarked, “There is no religious ‘side’ of the movement. The whole of it is based on religion, that is, on the realization and service of God.”
My own personal religious beliefs are parked at the last Texaco station before the highway exit to atheism. As a scout, I mumbled along during the Scout Oath (“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…”) because I didn’t care—didn’t care enough not to say it, either. Like when I go to church with my mother at Christmas and repeat the prayers: I’m there for her sake, not mine. I mentioned this to several people at Jambo and they warned me off saying so in this article, fearing the BSA would revoke my Eagle. But there again: who cares?
The Scouts do. In 1973, ten-year-old Claude Taylor was expelled for crossing out the word “God” from his Cub Scout promise. A fifteen-year-old in West Virginia was booted in 1985 because he wasn’t religious, though he was reinstated after going on the Phil Donahue Show. In 2002, Eagle Scout Darrell Lambert, nineteen, was expelled for not being able to express a belief in a “supreme being.” When I think of organizations similar to a Boy Scouts of America, Alcoholics Anonymous always comes to mind. Free to join, free to stay, and popular with millions, but with a few hard-and-fast requirements, like a belief in a higher power.
Granted, AA still makes room for atheists; the “higher power” can be the program of AA itself. Worldwide, different scouting organizations take a softer line on religious faith. Scouts Canada explains a “duty to God” as the “adherence to spiritual principles.” In the UK, Scouts describing themselves as “humanist, atheist or no faith,” can modify the Scout Promise—the British equivalent of the BSA’s Scout Oath—so that “to do my duty to God” becomes “to uphold our Scout values.” It’s also worth noting that gay scouts and adults are welcome in, among other groups, Scouts Canada, Scouts Australia, Ring Deutscher Pfadfinderverbände of Germany, and the Swedish Guide and Scout Association.
In my last hours at Jambo, among so many people I suddenly called friends, from press flacks to scoutmasters, I couldn’t find balance. One moment my only thoughts were bigotry and negligence, cover-ups and abuse. The next it was camaraderie, decency, and all those kids shaking hands. I couldn’t see a way forward, and a lot of me didn’t want to. A lot of me just wanted to quit.
On the day of the big closing show, I spent hours hiking through the woods, watching kids glide through the air on zip lines and disappear into the foliage. Fat old scoutmasters trundled slowly behind their troops on the trails, leaning on hiking poles, huffing and puffing. I’d heard that morning that a scouter had died earlier in the week at Jambo—a sixty-six-year-old volunteer merit badge counselor from Ohio, who suffered a heart attack while walking from his camp.
I stopped at one point and a pair of old men tromped past me, complaining loudly about the gay-scouts decision, how it would be The End of Scouting. These were the first negative words on the topic I’d heard all week.
One last time, I begged Deron to find me the Swedish king. He promised to try again. After lunch, I started making my way to the concert arena and passed the religious area: tents staffed by members of many faiths holding services or chatting with scouts. Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans. There were Mormons over here, and over there was a mosque with an inflatable minaret. Next came tents for different scouting societies—honor societies, Eagle Scout societies. I passed one tent with a sign, ask the man. Inside, an old scouter, Anthony DiSalvo, age eighty-four, was telling an audience how he’d attended nearly every Jamboree since 1937, the year FDR visited and was awarded an Eagle badge. Three times while I stood there, DiSalvo told the same story about the 1950 Jamboree, in Valley Forge, how scouts in those days had to dig their own latrines, and can you imagine the smell after a week, with all that poop?
Whether he repeated the story because he knew teenagers loved a good poop joke, or he simply forgot he’d already told it, I couldn’t tell.
My cell phone rang. Deron said the King sent his regrets, but he wasn’t talking. Dozens of scouts flowed around me, headed for the concert. The amphitheater was massive, a bowl with a stage at the bottom big enough for a symphony orchestra, and then multiple video screens that could be seen from a mile away.
Earlier in the week, I’d made contact with a Connecticut council, my home group. They’d sent a big troop and we’d coordinated to meet at the concert. I found them embedded near the stage, among thousands. Their scoutmaster Mike and I were about the same age, we even grew up in neighboring towns. He was ebullient and funny, and also adamant that Obama would appear today—Mike had it “on good authority,” he said, and winked. “Trust me, I’ve got a source.”
I gave him the scoop on my week so far, and mentioned patch-trading.
“Yeah, patch-trading’s the thing,” he said, nodding. “They’re crazy about it.”
I told him about my Connecticut ship patch.
“Let me see it.” Mike examined both sides, then gave me a glancing look, filled with scorn and amusement, as if to say, That’s all you’ve got? He told a scout to throw him his backpack.
“We need to get you something,” Mike said, “a little bit better than that.”
Between that moment and ninety minutes later, when I boarded the bus back to the motel and packed my bags, there would be a number of highlights. An orchestra of Boy Scouts played for the crowd. A pop singer, Sarah Centeno, presumably the last-minute replacement for Carly Rae Jepsen, bounced around prettily and did a cover of the Miley Cyrus song “Party in the USA,” in which she inserted “BSA” for “USA” each time she hit the chorus, and the crowd went bananas, thousands of teenage boys and girls gleefully jumping up and down, not just singing but screaming along, and I’m fine to say I was singing my heart out, too, and, yes, moving my hips like Yeah (as instructed). Then the mood turned serious and the entire crowd recited the Scout Oath in unison, raising their hands in the Scout salute, and without realizing it I found myself reciting from memory, hand raised, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty . . . ” thinking in the moment, I know these people.
Between acts, one of Michael’s assistant scoutmasters turned around, taking in the rainbow spectacle, thousands of kids grouped together by their variously colored troop t-shirts, and said to me, “Look at that. I love it. It looks really inclusive.”
But the high point was when Michael gave me a gift of a dozen patches sporting characters like Storm from the X-Men. Spiderman. The Hulk. I flipped through the Marvel set slowly and Michael beamed, knowing I knew exactly what it meant, that I now held in my possession an extremely rare complete collection of 18th National Boy Scout Jamboree Marvel patches, and that my home council from Connecticut had been responsible for the most prized patches on Earth.
“You realize,” I said in awed tones, “that around here, you are the source of cool.”
Mike laughed. “That’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
It not only felt like gold in my hands, it was likely worth the same, too.
Obama never did show up, but the King of Sweden appeared. People stood, applauding and shouting. He bounded onstage in a dark blue scouting shirt, with a blue neckerchief, flowing white mane of hair and a jubilant smile. He went straight up to the microphone and declared, “You look just fantastic! You’re fantastic people!”
Followed by, once the roars died down, “I am the King of Sweden, that’s one thing. But I am also a scout.”
One of my pet theories at Jambo, caroming around inside my mind while I held my reporting notebook under a fifteen-year-old’s nose, was that scouting was actually a terrific organization for gay teenagers. Perhaps, at least by design, one of the best. Outsiders belong in Scouts. It’s a system in which kids get an opportunity to build confidence and make mistakes. Test themselves safely, and be supported by other kids their own age. Scouting, when it works, reaches out to the lonely and strengthens the weak; takes the misunderstood, the wild, the neglected, and gives them ways to be rewarded; connects a kid who knows only his inner life to the majesty of the wilderness; shows a young person what becoming an adult means in bigger terms than popular culture. Fundamentally, it’s an old system, built around old ideas—honor, courage, and compassion most of all.
In October 2013, former defense secretary Robert Gates was announced as the next president of the Boy Scouts’ national executive board—the same Gates who oversaw the military’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gays to serve openly for the first time in the military. He’d join a troubled organization: this past February, the Walt Disney Company announced it would pull all funding to the Scouts beginning in 2015, because the BSA discriminated “in a manner inconsistent with Disney’s policies.” Mickey Mouse wasn’t alone: United Way, Lockheed Martin, the Merck Foundation, and other groups were also cancelling or threatening to cancel contributions, likewise over the continued ban on gay adults.
Then, also in February, Pascal Tessier, a seventeen-year-old Scout from Maryland, became the first openly gay scout to earn his Eagle. Last I checked, the BSA had yet to comment, but a spokesperson for Pascal’s regional council told a reporter, “We’re proud of Pascal, as we are of all of our Eagle Scouts. He’s been very brave in how he’s pursuing this, and that’s one of our core tenets.”
But only two months later, the Boy Scouts of America stuck to another of its core tenants: the ban on openly gay adults. In April, the BSA discovered that a church-based troop in Seattle had a gay Eagle Scout for a scoutmaster: Geoffrey McGrath, 49, a software engineer who’s married to his longtime partner (not that it should matter if he’s married or not, but still). The BSA ordered the church to fire McGrath. It refused. As a result, the BSA revoked the church’s charter, basically saying its program, kids, and leaders were perhaps scoutish, but nothing the BSA would recognize. The church’s pastor told the New York Times she didn’t care; the troop would persist, if without official oaths and patches. “We’re going to stand firm,” she said. “Geoffrey attends our church, and this is a way to support our youth in the neighborhood.”
It’s difficult to imagine the Scouts continuing long into the twenty-first century without the courage of scoutmasters like McGrath, scouts like Pascal and Andrew Lama, and thousands more. Scouts and scouters who represent an oath of conduct the BSA has long claimed, and long betrayed. The children in scouting are wonderful children. The culture I remembered, and that I witnessed at Jambo, is inspiring and compelling, and relevant to youth today. But what repels me and surely many who read the papers is the harm and disgrace repeatedly committed by the elders who remain in charge. If the Boy Scouts don’t outgrow their governors, they may not grow at all.
Pascal will turn eighteen in August. He has said in the press he intends to apply to become an adult leader in his troop. On my honor, I hope the Scouts do what’s best.