07 March 2012

Merit Badges

"Where are the wine reviews?" Patience, young grasshopper. There's some wine in the cellar downstairs, and a couple of wine reviews that I haven't posted yet, but I've finally worked my way through the waves of Christmas/New Year's Eve/Valentine's Day wines, and am currently in the ebb before the next big wine marketing holiday: St. Patrick's Day. Yes, there are wines with green labels and wines with Irish names, and all joking aside, there are various bottles on their way. This blog won't stop if the faucet gets turned off, but it will give me a chance to focus more on food and beer and cocktails and essays and other fun stuff.

I had planned on writing a long essay about getting my Cooking merit badge in Scouts, but when I went to grab my old sash it was notoriously missing. And now I don't think I ever earned it, though I certainly met all the requirements and did all the work. (The white sash is a separate one for the Order of the Arrow, an honor society. Longer story that I won't get into here.)

What are merit badges, and how do they work? As you advance through the ranks, you have to have various required merit badges (silver border) and enough electives (green border). The requirements have changed a bit over the years, but in general it's always been around 11 required badges and 10 electives, plus all of the various other requirements, leadership roles, and community service to make it to Eagle, which I did in 1991. You can continue earning merit badges until you turn 18, which is why I have a total of 36. For the required badges, you generally have assigned instructors and very rigorous rules. For electives, you're either getting it at camp through organized classes, or you're seeking out an expert in the field to teach you the subject because you're interested in it. Some people get every merit badge, but it's very rare. Some of these badges involved a few days, some took years, some I barely remember, and others almost killed me. I've always wanted to list them out, so here goes...

From left to right, top to bottom, more or less in chronological order from 1986-1993:
  • Citizenship in the World: Basically social studies class with a bit of geography thrown in.
  • Swimming: Surprisingly difficult, with a lot of attention on how not to drown. More survival if you fall out of a boat than learning specific swimming techniques, though we were tested on all of those as well. This one was a make or break moment for a lot of guys over the years.
  • Safety: Pretty general subject, but some good common sense stuff.
  • Home Repairs: I don't remember a lot of this, aside from basic plumbing and carpentry.
  • Traffic Safety: Essentially Driver's Ed long before you can drive. I think this was probably more intensive in earlier days, as I've met guys at reunions who talked about learning to drive via our Scoutmaster and having him take them to their license tests.
  • Rifle Shooting: For this we shot .22 calibre rifles and I was a good enough shot to pass. My brother is an expert marksman and in our family there are lots of guns, but the sport never quite clicked with me, even while shooting oddballs like a .50 calibre black powder rifle.
  • Reading: I think I had to do a book report for this, and since I was a kid who sometimes wrote term papers for practice in the summer, I was way overqualified for this one.
  • Genealogy: Very interesting, and I got to do a lot of work with a few relatives who were really into the subject.
  • Shotgun Shooting: Basically like rifle shooting, except that I really enjoyed shooting clay targets with a 20 gauge. The Roommate has a 16 gauge in the closet that doesn't get any use, so I should probably take up this gentleman's sport again at some point.
  • Pioneering: Making structures based on chopping down saplings and binding them together with rope. Surprisingly difficult to pull off well and safely, and you learn a lot of primitive engineering techniques.
  • Aviation: A cherished memory, and something of a rare badge to earn. Dad had his single engine pilot's license and needed to get some hours in, so we did all of the preflight checks and filed a flight plan and everything else required for the badge while flying around south Memphis/northern Mississippi.
  • First Aid: One of the best I ever took, and I've used the lessons learned with this badge many times over the years.
  • Mammal Study: The first goofy summer camp badge I ever earned, which involved writing a report on river otters and building a habitat for various ground rodents.
  • Canoeing: Loads of fun, and I loved canoeing for years afterward. It was good to learn some proper technique and how to recover from a tipped canoe in a safe environment.
  • Indian Lore: A simple look at Native American culture, and may have indirectly influenced my later choice for an Anthropology major.
  • Wilderness Survival: Probably my favorite of all time, since it involved going out in the woods, building your own shelter, and sleeping in it overnight. Multiple other tests for managing to live in the woods on your own without the benefits of civilization. I've always felt that if society completely collapses, I'll be fine for a good long while.
  • Basketry: As much of a joke as it sounds, though I still have the little wicker basket from 1988 and keep change in it.
  • Citizenship in the Nation: Another social studies class.
  • Woodcarving: I think I made a neckerchief slide and learned how to not cut myself, which was a bit late judging by the scars on my fingers.
  • Leatherwork: Arts and crafts time, with emphasis on stamping patterns into leather sheets.
  • Citizenship in the Community: Social studies class. By the way, these were good classes, I just don't have a lot to say about them.
  • Nature: Normally a simple badge, but in my Troop it was a requirement for Eagle and our Scoutmaster made up his own requirements. We had to be able to identify more than 40 trees (even in the winter, without leaves), plus bird identification and other requirements. This one took me years of hikes through neighborhoods and forests.to finally earn it. It drove me crazy at the time but I can still identify trees at a great distance or sometimes just by a piece of bark.
  • American Heritage: More social studies.
  • Camping: This was something you sort of earned out of endurance, by completing a number of nights spent outdoors and the ability to pitch a tent and build a fire and not starve over a weekend.
  • Environmental Science: Fellow Scouts of my era will know why this one was difficult, but I'll leave it at that. Another one that took months of work.
  • Sailing: The most fun I ever had with a merit badge. Tiny one-person sailboats with a single sail, one seat, and a dagger board you had to drop through the hull before going out on the water. Learning to tack into the wind and not get hit in the head with the boom, and then you learn to catch the breeze just right and you zip across the lake while you're just two feet above the surface... heaven.
  • Lifesaving: The one that damned near killed me. It's all about how to save someone who is drowning, which is accomplished by taking a 13 year old and having to rescue drowning adults, who punch you and try to dunk you and otherwise act like a frantic, scared drowning victim. Also fun was diving into a murky lake to pull up a cinder block (the "victim") before brain death occurred. You dive, hear the minute count, you dive again, etc., if you fail, the victim dies. Keep at it until you can save the victim in time. This one made me angry at the time, but I'm so glad that I went through that training.
  • Communications: Public speaking and letter writing and other good gentlemanly skills. I'm still exceptionally polite on the phone because of this and my parents' upbringing.
  • Personal Management: A difficult one that involved six months of work. This was basically an economics class, which involved learning about banking and taxes and other things. As part of the class I had to meet with a loan officer and go through a sample credit approval process.
  • Pottery: Everything from here on out is just gravy, since I'd already reached the rank of Eagle. Can't remember anything about this one, but I had a fun week at a new Scout camp.
  • Archery: A lot of fun, and I still have my old scores and worksheets from this for some reason. I love archery.
  • Sculpture: Like pottery, I have no memory of this one, and probably don't deserve it.
  • Rowing: I worked hard at this one, though I didn't really enjoy it. Canoeing is great because one person can lift a canoe and paddle it and they're pretty quick on rivers. Rowboats are heavy, slow, and you can't see where you're going. I'd hop in a canoe in a minute, but you'd have to force me back into a rowboat.
  • Horsemanship: A great class that involved not only riding but also grooming, including cleaning the hooves. Along with earning a lot of respect for horses, I also managed to get bit and kicked by a new animal. (Before collecting wine grapes, I loved to list off all of the various critters that had gnawed on my flesh. Getting bitten by snakes is painful, but moles have a certain rage that is just scary.)
  • Backpacking and Hiking: The last two were earned as a result of two separate treks at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico, in the lower range of the Rockies known as the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Each trek involved two weeks in the mountains, carrying a pack between 40-50 lbs. depending on water and provisions, and days that included waking up in snow and spending the day slogging through hot desert with sand and cactus. Those experiences could fill an entire book, and serve as a fitting conclusion to the sash and to this post.


The Wine Commonsewer said...

I am impressed. Moreso, because I was the laziest Boy Scout ever. I was in it for the camping trips. I may have the record for the longest time in grade as a Tenderfoot in all of BSA. The Scoutmasters actually threatened to give me the boot, which gave me some incentive. I attained 1st Class within about 60 days, which may also be a record.

On another note, I was the food guy for my platoon (or whatever we used to call them). Loved the job, and my fellow scouts loved that I loved the job.

Benito said...


As I've said in our private correspondences over the years, my Troop was run by a unique combination of WWII and Vietnam vets from every branch of the military, and adhering to the Scout rules from the 1950s. Marching drills, uniform inspections, projects that involved clearing an acre of all vegetation... When I graduated high school several people asked why I didn't join the military, and I said, "After eight years, I'm ready for a taste of civilian life."

My time in Scouts is nothing compared to actual military service, but as much as I loved all the marching and drills and everything else, I was ready to live life as a civilian who wasn't constantly preparing for WWIII. The skills and lessons I learned in those years are useful every day of my life, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.


Carolyn Blakeslee said...

Although most of the girls spent our Girl Scouts meetings on the rotary telephone at the far end of the room, I paid attention (as well as the weekly 10-cent dues) and learned the basics of cooking and first aid, both of which have served me well all these years. (Pilot training and other things came later in my civilian life.) Thanks for the memories.

Benito said...


Thanks for the input from the Girl Scout side of things, though we never had mixers or any contact at all with the girls in green. Summer camp movies are notoriously misleading. ;)


Allen said...

August 2012 will be the 100th Anniversary of the Eagle Scout Award. Being an Eagle is great, but having two sons that Eagles from the same troop is amazing. Thanks Ben and John for all the hard work.

Eagles don't make excuses, they make a difference.

Benito said...


It's been a great journey so far. Thanks for everything.