I didn't learn how to swim until I was 15 years old. There were several reasons for this, although I don't think I ever articulated them as I grew up. Most of the time it was simple a matter of me saying "I don't know how to swim" and leaving it at that. Now that I am older, I can point out that I really don't like swimming. When I get into a pool, even a wonderfully heated one, my body temperature plummets and my lips turn blue in about 20-30 minutes. I will still go swimming every now and then, usually to make Gretch happy (because she loves swimming) but personally, I could never go swimming again and probably be perfectly content.
The reason I finally decided it was time to learn how to swim was that I wanted to become an Eagle Scout. In the Boy Scouts of America, the Eagle is the highest rank a youth can achieve. My three oldest brothers didn't earn it, but the next two did and I wanted desperately to be the third in my family to accomplish this task. I had started participating in the Boy Scouts when I turned 11, after earning my Webelos badge and Arrow of Light in Cub Scouts. I easily earned the rank of Scout and Tenderfoot and then I stalled. For four years.
You see, in order to become a Second Class Scout, you have to know how to swim. And you have to know how to swim to become a First Class Scout. In reviewing the requirements posted online, I believe there have been some changes, but the basic requirement to know how to swim has always been a part of advancement in the BSA. I had completed all of the other requirements for these ranks, and I had earned several merit badges. The only thing keeping me from moving past Tenderfoot was the whole "I don't know how to swim" thing.
And then I realised that I only had two and a half years before my 18th birthday and if I didn't get moving, I wouldn't have enough time to earn my Eagle. After earning First Class, you have to be actively involved in your troop for 4 months before becoming a Star Scout. Then it takes another 6 months to earn the rank of Life Scout. Add six more months, minimum, before you are even eligible for consideration for Eagle, and that gave me a very small buffer to earn my Eagle. Oh, and my birthday is in January, which means any learning-to-swim would probably have to wait until summer, since I knew I'd need someone who actually knew what they were doing (i.e. a trained swimming instructor), and swimming classes weren't offered during the winter, even at the indoor pool in Eureka (the only indoor pool in the area, if I recall correctly). So swim lessons would have to wait until June, which knocked off six of those buffer months.
Another problem was purely pride. I was a 15-year-old boy who didn't know how to swim. There was no way I was going to go to my local park pool to take swim lessons with toddlers. Fortunately, my parents were incredibly supportive of this decision. So they helped arrange for me to take lessons in Peoria, which was close by but far away enough that I wouldn't know anybody. Except my sister Amanda who, at 13, also didn't know how to swim and also wanted to learn. So she and I went to the Peoria Park District's Lakeview Aquatic Center and learned how to swim in just a few short weeks. I learned how to do some very basic strokes, such as the freestyle (maybe), American crawl (I think), and the sidestroke. I was also taught the backstroke and the breaststroke, but I was terrible at both and never really learned them. The swim instructor also taught us how to jump off a diving board and not drown in the deep end, how to tread water, and how to float (another thing that I don't really do).
Then the test came: could I swim well enough to pass of the requirements for Second and First Class? I had a fantastic mentor in Scouting. His name was Jim Fairbanks and he did everything he could to help me advance. We met up at a pool, started going through the requirements and, whether from nervousness or whatever weird ailment I had that day, I managed to fail when I started coughing horribly and threw up my cheeseburger I'd had for lunch. (It is weird how things like that stick in your memory.) But you know what? At this point I refused to give up! We tried again a week later and I did it! I passed off the minimum requirements for swimming! You'd never think it now, but I can honestly say right now, as I am typing this, that that moment on that day was one of the single greatest accomplishments of my young life. (Oh, how I wish I knew exactly when it was, but I somehow didn't find it necessary to record this accomplishment in my otherwise incredibly detailed journals.) It was on this day, sometime between 1 June and 12 July 1998 that I finally realised something that I should have known long, long before: the only thing stopping me from achieving my own personal greatness is me. If you really want to do something, anything, you will find a way to do it. It may take an incredibly long time, it may result in hundreds, even thousands, of failed attempts, but if it is important, you will find a way.
I earned Second and First Class on 12 July 1998. And then I started working with a vigor toward Star, Life, and, ultimately, Eagle. Once again, Jim Fairbanks was my mentor and my guide. There were many weekends when my mum would drop me off at his place in the morning and he and his wife would work with me on passing off merit badges and completing requirements for rank advancement.
It finally came time to design, plan, and implement my Eagle Scout Project. I will openly admit that this was not a difficult choice for me. My brother Anton had done a similar project four years earlier and it had become something I was passionate about doing: blood donation. I started donating blood with the American Red Cross when I was 16, the earliest I could, and donated faithfully every 56 days until I left to serve a full-time mission for my church a few months before my 20th birthday. After my mission I started donating again. (I eventually switched to donating with Community Blood Services of Illinois due in large part to my friend Scott working for them, and have continued to donate, although not as frequently as I used to.) My project was to chair a blood drive for the American Red Cross. I had to find a location, gather a team of volunteers to schedule blood donation times, assist the Red Cross staff during the drive, track all of the data, and organise promotional efforts. I had to study the manual on chairing a blood drive, I had to monitor progress leading up to the event, stay on site throughout the day of the drive, and provide follow-up support afterwards. And, for me, the hardest part: I couldn't do it all on my own. I had to lead others and trust them to do their jobs.
My blood drive was on Monday, 9 October 2000, Columbus Day before my 18th birthday. After finishing all of the other requirements, I had only one final requirement: my Eagle Scout Board of Review. I had to get letters of recommendation requests prepared and sent out on 2 January 2000 (recorded in my journal!) to Jim Tallman (HS band teacher), Jerry Madsen (HS English teacher), Lee Kinsinger (family doctor), Julie Robinson (family friend), Laurie Hawley (Operation Snowball director), Doug Mullen (my bishop at the time), Kathy McNamara (fourth grade teacher), and Pete Dombrowski (mentor at the Illinois Teen Institute) and then I had to meet with a panel of BSA leaders who would examine my work as a Scout and ask me anything they wanted to. The one question I remember from my Board of Review was the last one asked of me: If you could describe your Scouting experience in one word, what would it be? My response was: Fun. This led to a follow-up to ask me to elaborate. I explained that I had a lot of challenges, but I stayed with it because it was fun; if it hadn't been fun, I wouldn't have done it.
I received my Eagle on 23 March 2001.
And now it is almost 13 years later and I am once again a part of the Scouting program. I have been a Webelos den leader for three years, a Cubmaster for about six months, a BSA merit badge counselor, and, as of this past Monday, a member of an Eagle Scout Board of Review committee. Which leads me to the actual purpose of this post.
Gretchen's brother, Jonas, turns 18 this coming Wednesday. He, too, has had a multitude of trials as he has worked toward earning his Eagle. From lost records to lack of mentors to time conflicts to difficulties caused by physical challenges, Jonas has had to overcome a lot in his years as a Boy Scout. But he did overcome. There were tears, there was frustration, there were arguments, but through it all he persevered and succeeded. Last Sunday I got a call asking if I would be willing to serve on his Board of Review committee. I met with other Scouting leaders from our local unit and a representative from the Prairielands Council and we talked to Jonas and listened as he shared his experiences with Scouting. We read about his goals for the future, heard more about his Eagle Scout Project (interviewing WWII and Korean War veterans and recording the interviews for archiving with the Library of Congress), and learned about his own leadership skills.
We were impressed. Here is a young man who has overcome great odds to achieve something that had not happened in his family in 85 years. Here is a young man who has a plan for his future, who has learned to use his struggles as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, and has come to understand that not everything comes easy, but if you are willing to set your mind to it, you can succeed. And he has learned for himself that things worth doing are worth doing right and worth doing well. When nearly all of the records from his first years in Scouting were lost, he didn't despair and quit. He did them again. When he had surgery to fix his cochlear implant and lost a huge chunk of his long-term memory, he worked to re-learn that which was lost. When I think about what it means to be an Eagle Scout and I think about my brother-in-law, I see leadership in action.
I am proud of Jonas. I am proud to call him brother, and proud to call him a fellow Eagle. And I have never been more pleased to sign my name on an advancement record than I was last Monday, when I scrawled my signature stating that I certified that he has met the requirements of the Boy Scouts of America and is truly worthy of that highest of honours: the Eagle Scout.