Day 183: The medal

The new 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from the previous one.


The Medal

I wasn't much of a Boy Scout. I didn't like the men who were the troop leaders, I didn't like most of my fellow Scouts, and I didn't like to camp. The only thing I liked to do was hike, because I was good at it, a stubborn, tough little nerd who would not quit no matter how far the endpoint. (I walked 50 miles in 19 straight hours when I was 12. No surprise I grew up to be a marathoner.)

My father was not the sort of dad who took part in his son's recreational activities. He rarely attended my baseball or soccer games, and never accompanied me on a Scouts outing, but for once. On a sunny Saturday, he joined me and the rest of Troop 270 on a 10-mile walk through the horse farms outside of Lexington, Kentucky. The hike was sanctioned by the Scouts and called the Bluegrass Trail.

Well, he joined the hike. He didn't exactly join me. After a few miles, he lagged so far behind I became worried that he was going to drop out. That was a silly idea, but not to an 11-year-old kid. When other kids fell behind, it usually foretold quitting, which was scorned. I had looked forward to this day, never imagining that my dad would embarrass me by sagging out.

When he caught up to us at a rest stop, I asked him what was wrong. He looked at me bemused. He'd stopped to take some pictures of race horses, and besides, he didn't see any reason to be in a hurry. It's not like he was going to get lost, and he wasn't the only laggard. Among the others was my friend Kenny, who I don't think had ever finished a hike in all his time as a Scout. Kenny was obese, and suffered for it, physically and socially. On this day he was well behind before the halfway point, but at least he had his father with him. Bob was overweight too, and had a bad heart, but he kept trudging along with his boy, and with my father.

Eventually, for the last couple of miles, my dad walked beside me, maybe finally picking up that this is what I'd wanted from the start. We finished the 10 miles and climbed onto the converted school bus that ferried the troop around. On the bus was a surprise. Anyone who completed an official Boy Scout hike was entitled to a medal, but we usually had to order them and wait a few weeks to pin them on our uniforms. But today the leaders had medals waiting for us. I still have mine—a metal horse head appended to a Confederate flag ribbon. (This was 1965, so there you go.)

I happily sat next to my dad, clutching my medal, only vaguely aware that Kenny and Bob were not on the bus. They were still walking. When I realized it, my thoughts were, Whoa, Kenny might make it. My father's thoughts were, Bob shouldn't be doing this with his heart. Looking back at these events with admiration, I understand now that Bob was not going to give up on his son. If the kid had it in him to keep going, he was going to there for every step.

Not much later, they limped into view and then climbed onto the bus, exhausted. Kenny looked more weary than triumphant. Bob was ashen, wincing as he stepped up into the bus. He was one of the troop's leaders, the only one I liked, and now he looked at the other adults and said, "You have the medals?"

No, they didn't. When they'd preordered them, I suspect they could not imagine needing one for Kenny. They had handed out all. They didn't have one for him.

A bad feeling came over me. Not compassion or sympathy for my buddy or outrage at this small injustice, but dread. I was sure of what my dad was about to do. He had already complained to me during the hike that the adults were not making the older, stronger boys look after the younger, less strong ones. Weren't they supposed to be molding boys into responsible men? I just knew he would lean close to me and quietly tell me to surrender my medal to Kenny, my oldest friend. I was trying not to cry. He was right, of course, I knew it even at age 11, but I didn't want to give up my prize. I was proud of what I'd done in front of him, and already hurt, I think, that he hadn't spent more time with me. Not like Bob had been there with Kenny. And now...yeah, I just knew it.

He put his arm around me and leaned close. I looked up, bleak. "What do you think?" he said. "Will Mom fix meat loaf tonight? That would taste good, wouldn't it."