Mike Walton (blackeagle)

For my Parents...or for Me?
By: Posted On: 2020-09-21

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Boy Scouts of America media photo used with permission

 

(From "Patches and Pins..." (c) 1987 Settummanque)

In the quietness of my classroom, I am asking myself why 12 years ago, I entered into a conference room at the University of Kentucky's Elizabethtown Community College and for 45 minutes subjected myself to one hell of a thesis defense.

I had dreams after that event for a solid two weeks afterward, the three men asking me questions which I was sure if I answered them incorrectly, they would throw a switch and there I would fall...fall...fall...fall...

...until I woke up, clutching the thin sheet under me. Or hugging my pillow.

The thesis was simple: I was being asked to defend a simple question: do you, Mike Walton, deserve the title "Eagle Scout" - and why?

Many of you know something about "Eagle Scout." My parents, growing up in western Tennessee, heard of the title but never saw a Black person being referred to by that title; my father came closest to knowing someone who carried that title: his white Battalion Commander boss and his white Battalion Command Sergeant Major supervisor.  They are both Eagle Scouts, and when they found out that Sergeant Walton's oldest son would become an Eagle Scout, they kept harping on him to "tell us how close he's getting... how many merit badges he's got left?"

My Dad was proud, but other than the encouragement to me from two men who held the title, he had no clue. 

My mother had less of a clue. She lost interest in my Scouting after "Black Scene" magazine in Louisville published a photo of me along with a one-page description of me earning the William T. Hornaday medal for conservation the year before I earned Eagle. When she returned to the black editor of that regional publication three months later and asked if he would publish the same photo and do a story chronicling how I saved a young boy's life and would get recognition from the Scouts for it, she told me after her meeting what the editor said:

"When he gets Eagle, call me.  In the meantime, one award is enough for our publication."

So to her, this "Eagle Scout" thing must be more important than a lifesaving award. Or a conservation award.  Or a religious medal, or one of the several other things I was blessed to earn or receive during that time.  To her, not seeing any other Black faces touting the award, talking about having the award, must mean that I perhaps was not supposed to get this thing...whatever it was.

I knew EXACTLY what Eagle was all about, on the other hand, but I was too young and respected my parents too much to stand in their faces and tell them why I am striving so hard to do this.  It had nothing to do with my peers -- mostly white, mostly the sons of officers or senior non-coms. It had nothing to do with people I met, mostly white, mostly with stories about how tough it was to earn Eagle during their time.  It had nothing to do with what I read or saw, again white faces; or that Norman Rockwell painting of the mother pinning on the medal to her son's Scout uniform, Scoutmaster and father both beaming with pride. 

It was not anything I wanted to do for them. It was clearly all about me.  

It was me who called people I had no idea about their background and ask them to counsel me on earning a merit badge. In many cases I had to buy the (merit badge) book and give it to them so that they knew what I had to learn, know about, perform, explain, diagram.  It was me who called an old girlfriend -- she hated my guts because I didn't ask her to that year's JROTC ball -- and asked if me and four other Scouts could spend a week on their farm, helping with chores and in the process they could help us all earn a couple farm-related merit badges.  She gained my respect half-way in the week when she realized that I was not there to goof but rather dead serious about learning and being there on their family farm. It was not a "back door" into her heart or her good graces. I was there to earn Agriculture and Farm Management merit badges and parts of six other merit badges. Petra still hated my guts at the end of the week.

It was me who pestered teachers after school and asked them to assist me in earning merit badges in scholarship, reading, printing, and golf.  It was me who spent the extra week at camp, earning a couple of merit badges I was too lazy to earn when my Troop was there the previous week. My parents really did not push me, prod me, or threaten me to work toward the 38 merit badges I sat there with, displayed on the dark green merit badge sash in full view of the three men who held my Scouting future in the balance.

In my day, and where I lived, Life Scouts who wanted to earn Eagle had to plan, develop, organize and complete TWO Eagle Scout service projects. The BSA required only one; if you lived at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the "Eagle Scout Mafia" required you to do an additional one. The "Mafia", a loose group of Eagle Scouts, youth and adult who lived or worked on the base, guided and coached you as you worked on both projects.  The idea behind the "Mafia" project is to test your leadership and management skills and your commitment to Scouting -- you could not use anyone who is a Scout, a Scouter nor the parents of a Scout to complete their project.  The project must benefit Fort Knox or at that time one of the three "military communities" -- Dietz Acres, Rose Terrace, Van Voohris Manor.  My project was to collect 500 paperback and cartoon books and donate them to the child care center. It took me four weeks to do it and I asked everyone I could to help me. 

My actual project, which still stands at Fort Knox, was the Historic car/bike trail I mentioned earlier.

True to my nightmares, the three men looked at my uniform. They questioned every piece of cloth attached to it.  They asked me to stand and give the Scout Sign and state the Oath or Promise and the twelve Laws.  They had me to sit down and ask me what does "honor", "doing ones best", and "morally straight" meant to me.  They then asked me why did I miss eleven days of school this past semester. They asked about a trip I took to St. Louis and what things did I learn from it.  They asked me about Belinda, my girlfriend at the time and how did she encourage me toward that evening at that meeting with those men.

They asked about Susan Pennington. I was almost in tears when I explained that I did my best but sometimes doing ones best was not enough. Sensing that they prodded too much down that trail, one of the Board members simply stated "you did do your best. We have documentation to that effect." I am glad they did not ask me about the scar. Or whether my parents knew really what happened.

They did not. Someone knew, however. Someone told that Board all of that information. They were outstanding investigators, those three men -- and whomever else they "employed".  Oh, I told myself. I DID write down the names and addresses of seven people who knew me well enough for a reference.  Including "Mushroom" -- Bel. It was part of the application.

They asked about my camping and hiking and swimming experiences. They asked about what I loved and hated about going to summer camp and my counselor-in-training experience.  They asked about my Troop and Explorer Post (I was a member of both) and their leadership. They asked about how I learned about what Scouting was since neither parent was a Scout.

At the end of the nearly hour long "review" of my life with Scouting, Colonel Richard Harland, a decorated Marine officer and a linchpin in community life in Elizabethtown (and at that time, the District's Commissioner) asked me "Mike, if we were to tell you this evening that you did not meet the standard for becoming an Eagle Scout, what would you say and do?"

I lowered my head and thought for about five seconds, then I raised my head and looked him in the eyes.

"I will find out what I need to do to come back and try again. I will earn additional merit badges, work in my Post and Troop, and come back here.  Can I do this?"

Colonel Harland stated, "You can.  Thank you very much for your candor."

I stood and was escorted out the conference room and my Dad was asked to come in.  My Dad later told me that "they just wanted to see how you would react to what he (Harland) asked you..." They sat around for ten minutes just jaw-jacking, my Dad said.

While I was sweating bullets and probably had to go pee badly in the lobby.

They asked me finally to come in, whereby each man shook my hand and congratulated me.  "If you show a quarter of what you've showed us this evening, you will be an excellent Eagle Scout," the chairman of my Eagle Board spoke. "We are highly recommending you for Eagle and we hope that the National Committee will see our glowing comments when your application reaches them."

He then looked at me and my Dad.

"It is clear that you earned Eagle for yourself. Not for your parents, your Scoutmaster, nor anyone else. When you become a Scoutmaster, remember that. Eagle isn't anything you earn for anyone but yourself."

The reason why I had nightmares for two weeks afterward was because you are not granted the title "Eagle Scout" until after the BSA's National Court of Honor approves the application. The local Eagle Board of Review is a nominating body -- a thesis defense. Your recommended application and materials are sent to the BSA National Office. The BSA approves the award and sends notification to your local Council. I have read whereby not every kid in Scouts earned Eagle. A small percentage do.  

Surely I answered the questions correctly. Maybe someone told them that I skipped school four times that year.  Maybe someone told them about being late for the plane trip to Atlanta with the rest of the Jamboree participants. Or about the time I had everyone attending a basketball game to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance instead of the National Anthem. Perhaps Belinda told them I said the slang word for "sex" to her a couple of times -- or more.

Maybe my mom's fear was rightfully placed -- Black people don't get to be Eagle Scouts.  That's not right -- I've met a few Black adults who said they were Eagle Scouts. 

Could it be a lie?  All of it?  I kept falling and falling...I stayed up one night just so I would not have to endure the dream.

My Scoutmaster called me on November 23rd, 1975 and told me over the phone that Halsey Cory, the same man who that previous year awarded me the Hornaday, a Certificate of Heroism, a Honor Camping Award, something called the President's Award, and informed me that I was selected to take part in my first World Jamboree -- that Halsey Cory, Scout Executive of the Old Kentucky Home Council, said "was there any doubt? Your Eagle Scout application was approved!"

And as I sat there, looking around my classroom before standing and solemly turning the lights out, I still wonder:  Did I break some racial rule, some glass ceiling by being a Scouting overachiever?  Is this where all of the hatred and pulling back of my contributions stemming from? Is this the punishment coming due to me?

Did I do all of this for others or myself. Only time will tell.

 

 

(From "Patches and Pins..." (c) 1987 Settummanque)

In the quietness of my classroom, I am asking myself why 12 years ago I entered into a conference room at the University of Kentucky's Elizabethtown Community College and for 45 minutes subjected myself to one hell of a thesis defense.

I had dreams after that event for a solid two weeks afterward, the three men asking me questions which I was sure if I answered them incorrectly, they would throw a switch and there I would fall...fall...fall...fall...

...until I woke up, clutching the thin sheet under me. Or hugging my pillow.

The thesis was simple: I was being asked to defend a simple question: do you, Mike Walton, deserve the title "Eagle Scout" - and why?

Many of you know something about "Eagle Scout". My parents, growing up in western Tennessee, heard of the title but never saw a Black person being referred to by that title; my father came closest to knowing someone who carried that title: his white Battalion Commander boss and his white Battalion Command Sergeant Major supervisor.  They are both Eagle Scouts, and when they found out that Sergeant Walton's oldest son would become an Eagle Scout, they kept harping on him to "tell us how close he's getting... how many merit badges he's got left?"

My Dad was proud, but other than the encouragement to me from two men who held the title, he had no clue. 

My mother had less of a clue. She lost interest in my Scouting after "Black Scene" magazine in Louisville published a photo of me along with a one page description of me earning the William T. Hornaday medal for conservation the year before I earned Eagle. When she returned to the black editor of that regional publication three months later and asked if he would publish the same photo and do a story chronicling how I saved a young boy's life and would get recognition from the Scouts for it, she told me after her meeting what the editor said:

"When he gets Eagle, call me.  In the meantime, one award is enough for our publication."

So to her, this "Eagle Scout" thing must be more important than a lifesaving award. Or a conservation award.  Or a religious medal, or one of the several other things I was blessed to earn or receive during that time.  To her, not seeing any other Black faces touting the award, talking about having the award, must mean that I perhaps was not supposed to get this thing...whatever it was.

I knew EXACTLY what Eagle was all about, on the other hand, but I was too young and respected my parents too much to stand in their faces and tell them why I am striving so hard to do this.  It had nothing to do with my peers -- mostly white, mostly the sons of officers or senior non-coms. It had nothing to do with people I met, mostly white, mostly with stories about how tough it was to earn Eagle during their time.  It had nothing to do with what I read or saw, again white faces, or that Norman Rockwell painting of the mother pinning on the medal to her son's Scout uniform, Scoutmaster and father both beaming with pride. 

It was not anything I wanted to do for them. It was clearly all about me.  

It was me who called people I had no idea about their background and asked them to counsel me on earning a merit badge. In many cases, I had to buy the (merit badge) book and give it to them so that they knew what I had to learn, know about, perform, explain, diagram.  It was me who called an old girlfriend -- she hated my guts because I didn't ask her to that year's JROTC ball -- and asked if four other Scouts and I could spend a week on their farm, helping with chores and in the process, they could help us all earn a couple of farm-related merit badges.  She gained my respect half-way in the week when she realized that I was not there to goof but rather dead serious about learning and being there on their family farm. It was not a "back door" into her heart or her good graces. I was there to earn Agriculture and Farm Management merit badges and parts of six other merit badges. Petra still hated my guts at the end of the week.

It was me who pestered teachers after school and asked them to assist me in earning merit badges in scholarship, reading, printing, and golf.  It was me who spent the extra week at camp, earning a couple of merit badges I was too lazy to earn when my Troop was there the previous week. My parents really did not push me, prod me, or threaten me to work toward the 38 merit badges I sat there with, displayed on the dark green merit badge sash in full view of the three men who held my Scouting future in the balance.

In my day, and where I lived, Life Scouts who wanted to earn Eagle had to plan, develop, organize, and complete TWO Eagle Scout service projects. The BSA required only one; if you lived at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the "Eagle Scout Mafia" required you to do an additional one. The "Mafia," a loose group of Eagle Scouts, youth, and adult who lived or worked on the base, guided and coached you as you worked on both projects.  The idea behind the "Mafia" project is to test your leadership and management skills and your commitment to Scouting -- you could not use anyone who is a Scout, a Scouter nor the parents of a Scout to complete their project.  The project must benefit Fort Knox or at that time one of the three "military communities" -- Dietz Acres, Rose Terrace, Van Voohris Manor.  My project was to collect 500 paperback and cartoon books and donate them to the child care center. It took me four weeks to do it and I asked everyone I could to help me. 

My actual project, which still stands at Fort Knox, was the Historic car/bike trail I mentioned earlier.

True to my nightmares, the three men looked at my uniform. They questioned every piece of cloth attached to it.  They asked me to stand and give the Scout Sign and state the Oath or Promise and the twelve Laws.  They had me sit down and asked me what does "honor," "doing ones best," and "morally straight" meant to me.  They then asked me why did I miss eleven days of school this past semester. They asked about a trip I took to St. Louis and what things did I learn from it.  They asked me about Belinda, my girlfriend at the time and how did she encourage me toward that evening at that meeting with those men.

They asked about Susan Pennington. I was almost in tears when I explained that I did my best, but sometimes doing one's best was not enough. Sensing that they prodded too much down that trail, one of the Board members simply stated, "you did do your best. We have documentation to that effect." I am glad they did not ask me about the scar. Or whether my parents knew really what happened.

They did not. Someone knew, however. Someone told that Board all of that information. They were outstanding investigators, those three men -- and whomever else they "employed."  Oh, I told myself. I DID write down the names and addresses of seven people who knew me well enough for a reference, including "Mushroom" -- Bel. It was part of the application.

They asked about my camping and hiking and swimming experiences. They asked about what I loved and hated about going to summer camp and my counselor-in-training experience.  They asked about my Troop and Explorer Post (I was a member of both) and their leadership. They asked about how I learned about what Scouting was since neither parent was a Scout.

At the end of the nearly hour-long "review" of my life with Scouting, Colonel Richard Harland, a decorated Marine officer and a linchpin in community life in Elizabethtown (and at that time, the District's Commissioner) asked me "Mike, if we were to tell you this evening that you did not meet the standard for becoming an Eagle Scout, what would you say and do?"

I lowered my head and thought for about five seconds, then I raised my head and looked him in the eyes.

"I will find out what I need to do to come back and try again. I will earn additional merit badges, work in my Post and Troop, and come back here.  Can I do this?"

Colonel Harland stated, "You can.  Thank you very much for your candor."

I stood and was escorted out of the conference room, and my Dad was asked to come in.  My Dad later told me that "they just wanted to see how you would react to what he (Harland) asked you..." They sat around for ten minutes just jaw-jacking, my Dad said.

While I was sweating bullets and probably had to go pee badly in the lobby.

They asked me finally to come in, whereby each man shook my hand and congratulated me.  "If you show a quarter of what you've shown us this evening, you will be an excellent Eagle Scout," the chairman of my Eagle Board spoke. "We are highly recommending you for Eagle, and we hope that the National Committee will see our glowing comments when your application reaches them."

He then looked at my Dad and me.

"It is clear that you earned Eagle for yourself. Not for your parents, your Scoutmaster, nor anyone else. When you become a Scoutmaster, remember that. Eagle isn't anything you earn for anyone but yourself."

The reason why I had nightmares for two weeks afterward was that you are not granted the title "Eagle Scout" until after the BSA's National Court of Honor approves the application. The local Eagle Board of Review is a nominating body -- a thesis defense. Your recommended application and materials are sent to the BSA National Office. The BSA approves the award and sends a notification to your local Council. I have read whereby not every kid in Scouts earned Eagle. A small percentage do.  

Surely I answered the questions correctly. Maybe someone told them that I skipped school four times that year.  Maybe someone told them about being late for the plane trip to Atlanta with the rest of the Jamboree participants. Or about the time I had everyone attending a basketball game to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance instead of the National Anthem. Perhaps Belinda told them I said the slang word for "sex" to her a couple of times -- or more.

Maybe my mom's fear was rightfully placed -- Black people don't get to be Eagle Scouts.  That's not right -- I've met a few Black adults who said they were Eagle Scouts. 

Could it be a lie?  All of it?  I kept falling and falling...I stayed up one night so that I would not have to endure the dream.

My Scoutmaster called me on November 23rd, 1975 and told me over the phone that Halsey Cory, the same man who that previous year awarded me the Hornaday, a Certificate of Heroism, an Honor Camping Award, something called the President's Award, and informed me that I was selected to take part in my first World Jamboree -- that Halsey Cory, Scout Executive of the Old Kentucky Home Council, said "was there any doubt? Your Eagle Scout application was approved!"

And as I sat there, looking around my classroom before standing and solemnly turning the lights out, I still wonder:  Did I break some racial rule, some glass ceiling by being a Scouting overachiever?  Is this where all of the hatred and pulling back of my contributions stemming from? Is this the punishment coming due to me?

Did I do all of this for others or myself? Only time will tell.

 

7

 

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