Scouts and Symbols

July always takes me to camp, where this reflection begins. I am an old Scout. The Scouting movement has been my principal civic service ever since I was a boy. I am an Eagle Scout, a recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, and I sit on the board of the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Washington.

Reading this far you’re forgiven for that eye roll, for thinking that I was about to comment on the news four days ago about Scouting welcoming gay adult leaders. So I will remark: This is an entirely appropriate opening, long overdue, an event for which many of us old Scouts have worked for years, quietly, tirelessly, inside. The Scouting way.

I’m going in another direction entirely.

Camp Minsi TurtleThis story starts in 1969 at Camp Minsi BSA in the Pocono Mountains. I was working there the summer before my sophomore year in high school, a member of the camp staff. I’d been a camper at Camp Minsi for three years culminating in that Eagle Scout Award, and this would be my first of four long good summers as a staffer. I was young and eager, a skinny athlete, and I smiled a lot. My boss was a man named Jack Waidner, who happened to have been my eighth grade social studies teacher. It was fairly common then for schoolteachers to run Scout camps for their summer jobs, and Jack was phenomenal at it. He knew from experience that to make successful Scouts—to mold them into successful leaders—you have to keep young people engaged.

One day around peak summer, like now, he introduced me and a few of the other first year staffers to a visiting old Scout. This is an archetype, of course: contentment well past cynicism, a grizzled fellow, wizened from navigating the world, getting gray, dedicated, centered, experienced, and above all a confident woodsman. In my recollection he was ancient. Doing the math, he had to have been about sixty—my age now—because he started out by telling us that he was a Scout in the 1920s.

Sitting around in the staff campsite as the sun set (it’s what you do in camp), the guy told us some stories. He illustrated them with stuff he pulled from a box holding a bunch of his Scouting memorabilia. It was interesting—just interesting—until he showed us an item that made our eyes go wide. He grinned and nodded. We knew right away that this wasn’t the first time he’d generated this reaction.

The item was a Scout neckerchief that he had worn as a teenager, when he was our age. It was a faded well-worn personal treasure with an American Indian teepee hand-painted on the square point, the part you see on a Scout’s back right below the nape of his neck.

fleur plus swaswtikaHis neckerchief was covered with swastikas. Each one was about a half inch square, carefully applied, row after row, some a little crooked. In all a couple dozen dark pencil marks.

We were Scouts, but we were also late sixties teenagers and highly politically aware. We only knew one thing about the swastika—it was the Nazi symbol and stood for every evil in the world. All of us on that camp staff were sons of World War II combat veterans.

The old Scout explained that the swastika used to be a Scout symbol when he was a boy. If you did a particularly fine Good Turn for someone, your Scoutmaster would put one on your neckerchief. If Scouts performed a service project, each of them would get a swastika. A patrol leader who managed an outstanding camp inspection would be rewarded with a swastika. A lot of swastikas on your neckerchief—like this one—showed that you were a Good Scout.

Later I found out that the founder of the Scouting movement, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, validated what the old Scout at Camp Minsi showed us. Here’s what he wrote in his book What Scouts Can Do: More Yarns, published in 1921:

On the stole of an ancient bishop of Winchester, Edyndon, who died in 1366, is the Swastika or Scouts’ Thanks Badge. It was at that time called the “Fylfot,” and was said to represent Obedience or Submission, the different arms of the cross being in reality legs in the attitude of kneeling . . . This symbol was used in almost every part of the world in ancient days, and therefore has various meanings given to it . . . Whatever its origin the Swastika now stands for the Badge of Fellowship among Scouts all over the world.

I learned a phenomenal lesson of camp that summer, which was probably what my teacher Jack Waidner intended. By the end of the National Socialist era in Germany, all of the millennia-old nuances of semiotics surrounding the swastika symbol had been overwhelmingly subsumed into only one meaning: Nazi, and only one moral response: hatred.

Confederate FlagsThe meaning of symbols changes, sometimes very fast.

Forty-four days ago a white supremacist mass murderer shot and killed nine African American congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. In that horror, in that moral indecency, the shooter’s blatant embrace of the Confederate battle flag accelerated—and should now end—the national turmoil of debate that has been ongoing since the civil rights era: the confluence of “heritage” and hatred.

In one act, that young man—don’t dare say he was disturbed, he was murderous and evil—cemented the current meaning of the Confederate battle flag.

I understand and respect heritage. But we have an American swastika now. The term isn’t even new and is certainly not my invention.

Flight Jacket FlagScouting rightly abandoned the swastika because of the Nazi co-optation of an ancient symbol.

The same co-optation of the Confederate battle flag has occurred.

There ought to be a symbol of what is good and right, just and equitable, independent and unprejudiced about the American South. A symbol of unity, truth, inclusiveness, reconciliation.

Maybe there is.

It’s the flag I wore on the shoulder of my flight suit when I flew in Beirut.