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Payback Time


Bob Hyman

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 out.

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 books.

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 lashings.

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 like this?"

"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 me.

"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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