The old, black-and-white photo arrived in an e-mail sent to the Times Free Press a few weeks ago: Seven fresh-scrubbed lads from Dayton, Tennessee, in their crisp Boy Scouts of America uniforms.
But what was the story behind this photo? What prompted those smiles under the crew cuts?
The photo was taken in July 1953, before a cross-country trip for about 70 Tennessee Valley boys and six scout leaders traveling to the first Boy Scouts Jamboree on the West Coast.
The Los Angeles Times reported that about 50,000 scouts from the then-48 states and several countries converged on the Irvine Ranch near Newport Beach, California, in July 1953 for a week of camping and scouting fun.
Celebrities drawn to the Boy Scouts Jamboree included Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Art Linkletter, Will Rogers Jr., Danny Kaye and then-Vice President Richard Nixon, according to various press reports.
For the boys from Dayton, the bus trip to California and back was just as memorable as rubbing shoulders with the Hollywood big shots.
"I've still got my uniform," said Charles Whittemore, a retired TVA engineer who was 12 at the time of the trip. "I can't imagine ever being that small."
"It was the trip of a lifetime," recalled Jimmy Cunnyngham, a former studio photographer from Dayton who was 13 in 1953. "One week to travel, one week at the ranch and a third week to return home. Along the way, we visited the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City [Utah] and Reno, Nevada."
At least three of the Dayton boys in the photo are still living: Whittemore, Cunnyngham and Tom Taylor, a retired CPA.
The boys, part of Troop 111 out of Dayton, joined a larger Chattanooga contingent for a two-bus caravan out West. Together, they were known as Jamboree Troop 30.
The Boy Scouts Jamboree was national news in 1953. The Chattanooga Daily Times featured regular dispatches from the California event.
Buddy Langston, a Chattanooga scout, was the designated scribe for Troop 30. In one newspaper report he described a convocation with Vice President Nixon that included the lighting of 40,000 candles. The United Press wire service also reported that Nixon traded one boy an engraved fountain pen for a rattlesnake skin.
Tragedy was reported at the jamboree, too. A scout from Kingston, Tennessee, named A.V. Edmunds, 14, was stricken with polio at the event and later died. A boy from the Midwest, meanwhile, fell off a passenger train en route to California and died of his injuries, according to news reports.
Whittemore and Cunnyngham remember the 1953 trip as one of the highlights of their childhoods. Neither got homesick, they said.
"We were gone 29 days, and I don't remember even thinking about wanting to go home," Whittemore said.
"They kept us entertained," he added. "We had all kinds of activities, shooting bow and arrows, orientation with the compass, lots of things.
"I remember swimming in the Pacific Ocean," he said. "I ran in and it was so cold I ran right back out."
Cunnyngham remembers getting a mohawk-style haircut and waiting for his friends to follow suit. Instead, they were called back to a bus, he said, leaving him with a hard-to-explain hair-do.
The Boy Scouts of America organization was established in 1910. Membership peaked at about 4 million in the 1970s. In recent years, the number of Boys Scouts in the United States has fallen to around 2 million.
Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts of America filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to mounting lawsuits surrounding alleged sexual abuse, including some cases going back decades. Local scout officials have said the bankruptcy of the national group will not affect the routine business operations of Chattanooga-area troops.
Meanwhile, the 2021 National Boy Scouts Jamboree has been postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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