Sunday, August 31, 2008

On the value of Scouting - A Scouter's Essay

Reprinted with permission - Copyright 2008 Michael Pocalyko

Camp Minsi continues great traditions

Friday, August 1, 2008

Michael Pocalyko

In the extraordinary unsettled summer of 1968, the Lehigh Valley was a hot place in weather and in politics. That didn’t matter to me. I was headed to Camp Minsi in the Poconos. It was the last summer that our national treasure of a Boy Scout camp, built by Bethlehem Steel in the 1950s, would be run by the old Bethlehem Area Council. Five months later three Scout councils would merge to form the Minsi Trails Council, now widely regarded as among our nation's finest. I hear this when I visit national Scout events: “So which council did you grow up in? Minsi Trails? What a great place.”

Today is one of those personal milestones that are meaningless outside your family, but that really define which young-guy lessons you carry into grownup life. Forty years ago, Aug. 2, 1968 at Camp Minsi, I became an Eagle Scout. That's Scouting's highest award, and it means as much to me as the university degrees and professional achievements I've collected since that day. Improbably young when I hit the mark at age 13, I sat down that Friday morning at a picnic table in front of a few stern, caring men -- likely younger then than I am now -- for my Eagle Scout Board of Review. They talked to me kindly in those dense woods about Scouting, ''conservation'' of natural resources, responsibility, being a man, and what today we'd shorthand as ''giving back.'' I think I answered their questions pretty well. In my memory of that day I was nervously talkative but not glib. I passed the board and was recognized that evening at the camp-wide campfire as a new Eagle Scout, along with David Belzner and Charles Ortwein of Bethlehem and William Scheidler from Hellertown.

Much has changed in Scouting and American society since then. It is worth looking back on this personal anniversary to what I learned at Camp Minsi and in Lehigh Valley Scouting.

Scouting may be the last place a young man can still learn to be a regular guy, with all of the manylayered implications of that expression. At Camp Minsi, I was raised into a sort of Emersonian self reliance embedded within a system of values that are truly timeless and transcendent -- the Scout Oath and Scout Law. Here I'm with E. O. Wilson, Harvard professor and the country's best-known naturalist, who once invited his readers to come up with a better code for life, “particularly in 56 words.” In truth, “regular guy” penetrates deeper meaning within Scouting's peculiar sociology. Boy Scouting imparts genuine psychological centeredness to young men at a time when, let's face it, guys are gooberish and struggling. I know I was in 1968. Scouting gives boys a safe place where failure is fine if you learn to fix it, where success is measured against demanding standards and never against other Scouts. I don't know any place else where you're encouraged to be kind and friendly and tough all at once, where rough-cut teenagers and reverence for nature meet in dwindling wilderness and an ethic of service.

Our leaders at Camp Minsi in the '60s, including my father, once lived a kind of woodsman Scouting before World War II. Our Scouting was in turn more primitive than the program is now. What I learned from the woodsmen could be called subliminal lessons of camp: There's time and place for everything, including being profane. Scouts know the difference. Hard work is better than brains. But you can't be stupid, and that's independent of being educated. Fitness matters in the woods and every other unforgiving place. Respect knives, fire, and firearms -- but man, they are cool. There will always be jerks, but you don't personally have to be one. When you give a guy crap, make sure it's because you care about him and never to put him down. Everybody screws up. Every Scout started out as a Tenderfoot, so give that new kid a lot of breaks, just like you got. Becoming an Eagle Scout, taking on any real mantle of leadership, isn't yours by natural right or because of what you've done. It's because of what's expected from you. And that's a whole lot more than you think.

From time to time, national Scouting gets yanked into the values wars. Every time that happens I don't like it. As antidote to anger I recall Camp Minsi, including my four years on camp staff. America, the Lehigh Valley, and the whole Scouting movement were all simpler then. Not better. Simpler, standing solidly on common ground. That time is worth recalling because Scouting is yet an exemplar for America, showing how common ground endures at the core of what we believe. That principle is also why I still wear a Scout uniform with the pride and humility of that kid who stood up at the campfire 40 years ago.

Michael Pocalyko, a Bethlehem native, is CEO of Monticello Capital in Reston, Va., and on the executive board of the National Capital Area Council, Boy Scouts of America. His e-mail address is

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