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I come from a
Scouting family. My Mother was my first Den Leader;
my Dad was my first Scoutmaster. Scouting was
an integral part of my childhood. Not just for me,
but for my three younger brothers as well. When I
grew up and had sons of my own, my wife and I
wanted them to experience some of the same Scouting
values and traditions I had learned as a boy. So we
started our payback experience. We got actively
involved with our local Scouting organization. Over
the past twenty-five years, we have had the
privilege of watching many young boys grow up into
fine young men. Not just our own four sons, but
boys from a wide cross-section of society. This is
a story about one of those boys.
Jim was about nine when we first met him. He was
living with an Aunt. She contacted the Pack and
wondered if Scouting had a place for a boy like
Jim. You see, Jim wasn't your typical nine-year
old. He had experienced a very traumatic childhood.
His father had been in the Army, but was killed
while on active duty when Jim was just a baby.
Jim's mother tried to raise him on her own, but
failed miserably. She fell into a life of poverty
and despair, and turned to drugs and alcohol. Jim
spent his early formative years neglected and
abused; left alone for long periods of time; often
locked in a closet so she couldn't hear him crying.
When Jim's mother went off to prison, he was
rescued by the child welfare department. By then,
he didn't cry anymore. After a series of state
agencies and foster homes, he ended up with his
aunt. He was one of those "basket cases" you hear
about - kids who somehow get lost along the way -
and the kind you never expect to amount to much.
Our Leaders welcomed Jim into the Pack. They worked
with him ... boy did they work with him! Not just
on the normal Scouting activities, but on things
you don't normally have to teach a nine-year old
Cub Scout. Things like how to brush your teeth and
comb your hair; how to button a shirt or set at the
table. Sure, he had problems. He was uncoordinated
and slow. He had a hard time communicating. He
couldn't walk more than a few steps without falling
down. But, somewhere inside that shell you could
tell there was a nine-year old boy trying to get
Jim was a good Cub Scout. He loved his uniform and
wore it everywhere. He never missed a meeting or
activity. He made great progress. But when the
other boys crossed over into the Troop, Jim wasn't
quite ready. We kept him in the Pack for an extra
six months, and with a lot of hard work - mostly on
Jim's part - he finally earned his Arrow of Light
and crossed over to join his peers in the Troop.
Now, as a Boy Scout, Jim didn't have it easy. Boys
in the 11 to 13 year range are not the most
compassionate in the world. No, they didn't make
fun of him. But they didn't go out of their way to
make life easy for him either. They expected Jim to
carry his own weight, just like everyone else in
the Troop. They made him the Troop Librarian. He
used to carry around a box with all the merit badge
pamphlets, and pass them out to the boys as they
worked on their badges. He did a pretty good job at
it. We didn't know it at the time, but Jim was
secretly reading and memorizing everything in those
Learning new skills was difficult for Jim, but once
he mastered something he never forgot it. I
remember one weekend campout. It was free time and
all of the boys were out playing Capture the Flag;
all, that is, except for Jim. There he sat, in the
campsite, with his Scout handbook open in front of
him, tying and re-tying all of the knots and
He continued to make progress, and by the time he
was thirteen, he was elected Patrol Leader of the
Flaming Arrow Patrol. He was a good Patrol Leader.
He was also a good recruiter. He had a knack for
recruiting boys that the other Patrol Leaders
didn't really want in their patrols. You know the
type; boys who were a little bit different, a
little slower, or a little less popular. It didn't
matter to Jim.
Before long a strange thing started to happen. The
Flaming Arrows consistently won all of
our Troop's inter-Patrol competitions. They were
earning more Merit Badges than all of the
other patrols combined. And you could always tell a
boy from the Flaming Arrow Patrol; at
any board of review they really knew their stuff.
Jim continued to develop. In school, he caught and
even surpassed many of his peers. He
ultimately became a straight-A student. By the time
he was sixteen, the boys in the Troop
elected Jim as their Senior Patrol Leader.
As the boys' elected leader, Jim made a priority of
teaching the other Patrol Leaders.
Physically, he grew stronger and led the Troop on
many long-term backpacking treks in the
mountains and deserts, canoe and raft trips down
the Colorado River, and more twenty-mile
day hikes than I care to remember. He was really
into the high adventure types of outings.
I remember once we were standing on the summit of
Mount Whitney. We had climbed it
from the back side on the eighth day of a ten-day
backpacking trip across the high Sierra
Nevada mountains. The rest of the boys looked a bit
ragged that day, gasping for breath at
the summit. The air is a little thin at 14,500
feet. But not Jim. There he stood, tall and
proud, grinning from ear to ear. He saw me watching
him and asked, "Mr. Hyman, would
you ever have believed that I could do something
"I always knew you could," I replied. "The secret
was getting you to believe it."
Over the years, I have had the honor of watching
many young boys start out on that long
climb toward Eagle. Not all of them make it. But of
all who reach that lofty goal, I can't think
of anyone who deserved it more than Jim.
And after he made Eagle, he stayed on with the
Troop. He became our first Junior
Assistant Scoutmaster. He formed and led the
Leadership Corps. And then, one day, he
graduated from school and left us to join the Army.
He told me it was something he owed to
the father he had never known.
I didn't hear from him for a long time after that.
Then, one day, I got a call. It was Jim. He
was stationed somewhere in Kentucky, training for
some type of Special Forces
assignment. He couldn't talk much about it, but
just wanted me to know how valuable his
Scouting experience had been to him in his Army
career. I wished him luck and didn't hear
from him again for several years.
Then, one day, out of the blue, I got another call.
He was out of the service by then, and
living somewhere in Indiana. Like many young
adults, he was having it rough; married and
working two jobs trying to make ends meet. He was
also going to college on the GI Bill. He
said he wanted to be a teacher. I wasn't surprised.
He told me he had been thinking a lot about
Scouting. He wanted to start a new Troop, and
to work with disadvantaged boys. Again, I wasn't
surprised. I asked him if he missed all the
fun we had years earlier. His answer did surprise
"I guess it was fun, now that I look back on it,"
he said. "But it sure didn't seem like fun at the
time. It was downright hard work!"
"I don't understand," I replied. "I thought that
you really liked Scouting."
"Oh, don't get me wrong," he continued. "I really
loved Scouting. It gave me a place to
belong. I remember how good I felt when I learned
something new or did something for the
first time. That's what I want to do now - to pay
something back - to make young boys feel
as good about themselves as I did about myself."
It was then that I finally understood what payback
is all about. You see, until that moment I
had thought that payback was something that I was
giving. It wasn't. It was something that I
was receiving. And it happens every time I see one
of those young men grow up and begin
to pass on the Scouting values and traditions to
the next generation. Good luck to you, Jim.
It's your turn now. May your payback experience be
as enjoyable for you as mine has been.
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