ScoutingOctober 2002

The Color Guard

By Edward Fensholt
Illustration By Bob Dacey

A father's moment of pride in his son's rite of passage marks another step in letting go.

He stands in the late morning sun in front of the fallen tree trunk that some older Scouts had wedged into the ground to serve as a flagpole for the weekend campsite.

Only 11, he is one of the smallest and youngest Scouts in the troop of about 100 boys. On his first Scout camp-out, he now stands at the head of the troop, picked at random to lead Sunday morning's closing flag ceremony.

He is not entirely sure of his duty, and great is the potential for his embarrassment in front of his new peers. Greater is my heartache at his pending humiliation.

I am new to Scouting's concept of a boy-led troop. The notion of letting the boys run the show, letting them stand (or fall) on their own has not made much of an impression on me during the weekend.

This is mainly because I arrived unprepared to not intercede, to not offer—or even insist—that he accept my help.

While camping with his patrol, I have retrieved so many misplaced parts of individual cook kits that I must be entitled to some kind of merit badge. I've scrubbed dishes because I deemed the water too hot for his 11-year-old hands, lit propane burners by myself because I judged the task too dangerous for a Scout to assist me. I've demanded that he put on sweaters, take off jackets, and change socks. Has he brushed his teeth? Filled his canteen? Safely tucked away his Boy Scout Handbook?

More than once it has occurred to me that my behavior simply means I do not want to let him go. As the last of the Scouts straggle into the gathering around the flagpole, he shifts his weight from one foot to another. Twice his hands creep toward his pants pockets, but he pushes them back to his sides.

I am at war with myself. With every fiber of my paternalistic soul I want to edge over to him, to whisper some encouragement, review the commands he will give, and remind him not to mumble.

But the Scoutmaster and assistants are moving into formation, along with two dozen other dads. I cannot help him now—but I also cannot keep myself from wanting to do something.

He's only 11, I silently protest. Perhaps if I just...

"Scouts, attention!" snaps a voice at the head of the formation. It is his voice. There is the muffled sound of a hundred sets of heels coming together, a hundred sets of hands dropping to sides.

The voice again. "Color guard, attention! Color guard, advance!"

Two young Scouts step forward and grapple with the flagpole halyard. But I am not watching them. I am watching him. He is standing ramrod straight. In his face I see...what? Anxiety? Uncertainty? Maybe. But he is not afraid.

"Scout salute!" he barks. His right hand snaps upward, three fingers pressed against his forehead. A hundred other hands follow suit.

"Color guard, retire the colors!"

He continues to press three fingers against his forehead, even as he breaches protocol by craning his neck to watch the Stars and Stripes ease toward the ground. The flag settles lower, lower, flapping in the breeze, until one of the color guard seizes it.

"Two!" he cries, then drops his salute and moves to the flagpole, where he unclips the flag from the halyard.

He steps away. The color guard, with great care and all the solemnity young boys can muster, folds the flag. Then the senior patrol leader, all of 14 years old, steps forward. "At ease...," he says.

One hundred sets of shoulders slump.

It is over. The senior patrol leader drones on with routine announcements related to breaking camp, about assembly points and equipment loading, and what gear goes in what trailer.

But I am not listening. I have looked away. I do not want the other dads, or him, to see. I pull a paper napkin from a pocket, pretend to clean my glasses, quickly wipe my eyes.

I have made too much of it, I know. If I were to ask him, "How 'bout it?" he would shrug. "No big deal," he'd say.

He is my firstborn, and I am proud of him. Yet it's more than pride, this lump in my throat. It is relief and joy. It is delight and surprise to see Scouting draw from him an ability and a mettle I did not know he had.

It is an utterly unconditional love for a son. And it is a tinge of sorrow at watching him take another step from beneath my wing. Away from me.

Somebody calls, "Dismissed!" I turn and trudge slowly through the beaten grass, toward the end of the field. I am walking alone, and he does not run to catch up to me.

Over my shoulder, I see him falling in among his patrol. They are laughing, snatching caps from each other's heads. I smile. So much to learn, I think.

Not them, me.

Someone yells, "Hey, look, a snake!"

Over my shoulder, I see them running toward the crowd of boys forming around the just-discovered reptile. I start to shout a caution, but I catch myself, swallow it.

I'm learning.

Edward Fensholt is a registered Scouter with Troop 315 in Olathe, Kan. (His son, Ed, is a Life Scout in the same troop.)

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