I'm not sure when it hit me, but at some point last Thursday night, I realized, without question, that I was the dumbest guy in the room.
I've had this feeling before. Wide-eyed in the delivery room as my wife gave birth to our children. Anytime I visit my mechanic. Or stockbroker (Enron is not going to rebound, he keeps telling me). Braiding my daughter's hair, which ends up looking more like a bird's nest than pigtails.
But last Thursday, surrounded by 80-some-odd Eagle Scouts, I was undoubtedly the odd man out. The weakest link. A true tenderfoot.
They called it a Gathering of Eagles: A celebration of Eagle Scouting attended by more than 80 Eagle Scouts from the 11 nearby counties that make up the Cherokee Area Council. Held at St. Jude Catholic Church, the night brought together our city's best and brightest.
It was intimidating. There were more medals and badges than Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. More decorated people than a home in the Hamptons.
It was unsettling. I thought of the Secret Service rule that prevents the president, vice president and Cabinet members from being together if the nation is attacked. What would have happened to our city's repository of outdoor knowledge and citizenship if the sky had fallen in Chattanooga on Thursday night and landed on St. Jude?
It was also inspiring.
"Out of every 100 boys that begin Scouting, only two or three make it to Eagle," said Scott Fosse, Scout executive for the Cherokee Area Council.
If you were to start as a first-grade Cub Scout, it would take at least a decade to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Who pledges to work for a decade (that's 10 years, right?) with one goal in mind? Heck, Britney Spears once got married and 55 hours later called it off. Eagle Scouts need longer than that to put together all the parts of their uniform.
"It's a journey," said Tom Edd Wilson, president of the Greater Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. "Jesus Christ and the Boy Scouts of America have influenced me more than anything else in my life."
Wilson, the event's main speaker, was last year named a Distinguished Eagle Scout. So was Neil Armstrong, the astronaut, and Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker (and this paper's Lee Anderson).
"There is no greater representation of American citizenship and American character than the young men who become Eagle Scouts," Wilson told me. "These are the most trying times I've ever lived through in my life. It is harder than ever for young people to grow up with a good foundation.
"And that's exactly what the Boy Scouts provides."
To reach Eagle Scout, one must earn more than 20 merit badges and learn along the way the most vital skills: ecology, first aid, citizenship, orienteering, taking care of yourself in the woods, serving others around you.
I feel like our pop culture offers merit badges in Dorito-ing, screen-staring and online insulting.
"I have a 10-year-old son," said Jim Ingraham, Eagle Scout and vice president of strategic planning at EPB. "When I was his age, I spent my summers in the woods, building treehouses. In this era, kids are inside, playing Playstations, Xboxes and [Nintendo] DS."
Xbox. Nintendo. Those aren't even real words.
Along with earning a sleeve-full of merit badges, Eagle Scouts must also carry out a community service project. Throughout it all, they continue to embody the Scout Oath: A vow of duty to God, country and other people which asks the Scout to "keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight."
They're like monks. With multitools.
"We take kids hiking. We get them outside. We teach them to tie knots, cook over an open fire, fish, practice first aid, learn how to be safe," said Ingraham. "We teach them not to spray graffiti on rocks, to respect the environment, to find the North Star.
"Many of the kids are brought to us by single moms who realize their kids need an adult male to talk to them about right and wrong."
Our culture seems knotted up worse than five half hitches and, while there are many solutions, we must not overlook the importance of what the Scouts are trying to do. It's like an old formula. Time in the woods plus positive influence plus life skills equals noble men and women.
"We have more than 5,000 Scouts in the area," said Fosse, "with more than 2,000 volunteers. This community is very generous."
And yes, Wilson still has skills.
"The one thing I know is that I can walk out those doors into any kind of weather and start a fire," he said.
We sure could use some sparks.
David Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...