Summer camp was pretty cool. Hikes and backcountry camping trips were our bread and butter. But the event of the year for Boy Scouts was the Camporee (pronounced camp-o-ree).
The Camporee was not always held at the same location, but it was always held somewhere huge. Dozens of Boy Scout troops from across the region would take part. We’d be assigned a camping area, set up our tents, and get down to business.
The business of proving which troop was the best.
I can’t speak for other councils, but in the Toqua district of the Great Smoky Mountain Council, our Camporees had two major awards.
The Tower award was for the team with the highest overall score in the Camporee. Yes, of course there was a score. There were in fact several scores, all of which would be added together to form a total score. The score included:
- Campsite inspection. At some point during the Camporee, someone would come by and inspect our campsite to make sure we’d set up our tents well, used ground cloths properly, didn’t leave trash out, etc. Basically, are we good at setting up camp and respecting the environment.
- Attendance. If you are a registered member of the troop but you don’t show up to the Camporee, your troop gets dinged. As you might expect, pressure was high to attend.
- Patrol flag. Each patrol (a troop is made up of several patrols) creates a flag. How cool is your flag? There were several extremely vaguely-defined criteria that we would try to meet.
- And finally…field events. The Camporee consisted of several different events testing patrols on a variety of core Scouting skills. Knot tying, first aid, orienteering, building a shelter, starting a fire, identifying plants…all of these areas and more were fair game for field events. Each patrol competed separately and the scores of each patrol in the troop were averaged to get the troop score.
There were sometimes additional ways to increase your troop’s score (bonus events we could compete in, extra tasks to perform, etc.), but the goal was that the winner of the Tower award would be objectively the most skilled troop in the district.
The Spirit Award
Scouting is not just about skills, though, it’s about character. In fact, many of the Old Guard will tell you that building character is the most important aspect of Scouting (and indeed, the cynical might even say that the primary purpose of Scouting has always been giving young men something to do that will largely keep them out of trouble, if perhaps instill a degree of pyromania). The Spirit Award is a subjective award designed to reward the troop that shows the best Scout spirit.
There are a number of ways to show Scout spirit. Being encouraging to one another during the events and making sure that everyone got a chance to participate was a big one. Everyone wearing their uniforms properly, showing up on time, and generally being Good Kids was of course a must. Good sportsmanship was important, as well as showing pride in our troop and our patrol.
So, back to the story
For some troops, just attending the Camporee was the highlight of the year. And along the way there were a number of minor awards that many troops would shoot for. Not my troop, though.
My troop was in it to win it all.
We had…a bit of a reputation, you see. If the Camporee was a sports movie from the 80s, my troop would be the antagonists that the plucky underdogs had to beat. Because we were the…overdogs? abovedogs? Oh, top dogs. We were the top dogs. Our name was on the Tower more than any other troop’s, and we were going to make sure that lead only got larger.
And we did. For the first two years I was in that troop, we won the Tower. Our scoutmaster wasn’t just leading a troop, he was building a dynasty. And he took it very seriously…there was no cheating, no shenanigans, and it was very important to him that we understand the value of good character and a good attitude. He was the real deal…but you’d better believe that he wanted to win.
And win we did.
One thorn in his side, though, was that we had never won both the Tower and the Spirit Award. We’d won both separately, but never together. After my second year in the troop, he worked his contacts in the leadership to figure out what the deal was. The word came back that it just wouldn’t be right, wouldn’t be fair, for the same troop to win both awards. It would discourage the other troops. His argument was that it would inspire the other troops to step it up in order to beat us, but it fell on deaf ears. The only way we would win the Spirit Award was to lose the Tower.
Well, not on his watch. A few months before the Camporee, he laid out his plan. His plan for us to be so amazing that it would be so obviously unfair for us not to win both awards that the leadership would have no choice but to give us the double victory.
Here I should mention that our troop had a bit of a barnyard theme going on. It was pretty normal to name patrols after animals, like mountain lions or deer or bears. We were the Flaming Cows, and the other patrol was the Bloated Goats. Yeah, it was like that.
We were of course practicing knots and knife skills and fire building and whatnot until we could do it in our sleep. Everyone could use a compass and a map, of course, so compasses were confiscated and we would use the Sun. Maps were taken away and we’d rely on finding running water or trail markers. We learned how to set up our tents in the dark with no lights other than the campfire. We chose the rainiest days to go camping so that we would know how to properly make a tent as waterproof as it could be.
But also, we started the Spirit Machine. We wrote songs about our patrols and about our troop. We designed the most elaborate patrol flags ever to be seen by humankind — all-natural materials, of course, built using lashing with leather cord and hemp rope and clever woodworking. We practiced marching in formation while singing our chants and songs and holding our flag high.
We made road signs for all the entrances to the campsite which read, in the style of the old Burma-shave signs, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the barn” and put them up along the roadside on the day before the Camporee started. Nobody was going to arrive without seeing that we came to play.
Part of the campsite inspection was the troop roster. Our roster was no printed and laminated sheet of paper, oh no. Each individual scout used a wood burner to etch his name on a wood block which was then chained together with all the others in an artful display. This display was prominently hung under our main tent.
After the start of the Camporee, if there was a single molecule of trash anywhere in the campsite, an eagle-eyed Flaming Cow or Bloated Goat would scoop it up and put it in garbage bags properly stowed and labeled and carted out at the end of the event. We shook hands with the troops who were there at events when we arrived and wished good luck to the troops competing after us. Our campsite was like a model home in a housing development. Every evening, we marched around the entire campground — probably two miles in circumference — singing our songs and chants and wishing all the troops a good night.
As for the competitions…well, we dominated. We were going to get the unprecedented three-in-a-row Tower victory. But we would not know until the awards ceremony whether or not we would receive the Spirit Award.
Well, to make a long story slightly less long…we did it. We won both.
I learned many things from Scouting. I learned some knots, which have served me well to this day. I learned how to set up a tent and a campsite properly and with respect for the nature all around me. I learned how to start a fire with just about anything (I still have a flint and steel set which is quite reliable at getting a flame out of newsprint or dryer lint). I learned how to use a map and compass, and how to not panic when I’m lost and have neither. I learned the value of a good attitude, of having fun, of teamwork, and of sportsmanship.
I also learned that when someone tells you that it’s not possible to achieve your goal it becomes extra delicious when you prove that person wrong. Not every obstacle can be powered through, but sometimes, just sometimes, when someone tells you that it’s not possible to get what you want, you can let your actions do the disagreeing.