It was the fall of 1969 when I brought home a lit­tle slip of paper.  It was only about one and a half inch­es tall and the width of a stan­dard piece of paper.  It was sim­ple and white, with sev­er­al words mimeo­graphed on one side. (Boy, I am old if I can remem­ber the pale blue ink of a mimeo­graph!)  It may have looked inno­cent enough, but in real­i­ty, it was a tiny slip of paper that would impact my fam­i­ly for years to come.  It would also have an impact on me for life.

I was liv­ing in the small town of Moun­tain Home, Ida­ho.  My father was a jet engine mechan­ic for the Air Force, so we tend­ed to move around a lot.  In fact, in the six­teen years I went to school, I attend­ed twelve dif­fer­ent schools.  By the time I turned 8 years old, I had already been in three dif­fer­ent schools, includ­ing one in Eng­land.

The slip of paper?  It was an invi­ta­tion to join Cub Scout­ing.

Now, you have to imag­ine me as a young man that wasn’t known for Scout like behav­ior.  I had my own desk in the prin­ci­pals’ office, and if some­one was in trou­ble it was like­ly to be me.   My Dad was get­ting some gas one time up in Boise and hap­pened to notice a stick­er on the car next to him iden­ti­fy­ing the car as com­ing from our town.  The two dads got into a con­ver­sa­tion, only to find out that their chil­dren were in the same class.  “Oh, you’re  Rot­ten Ralph’s dad.”  Need­less to say, my rep­u­ta­tion was not one either of my par­ents were hap­py with.  So they decid­ed to get me involved with Cub Scout­ing.

Our local pack didn’t have room for me, unless my moth­er was will­ing to be the Den Leader.  For the next year, every week we would have den meet­ings at our house.  My Mom was a very artis­tic per­son, so at our den meet­ing we were always mak­ing some sort of craft project.  My favorites were build­ing a pad­dle­boat with a rub­ber band engine, mold­ing and paint­ing wolf and bear plas­ter casts and also mak­ing a race car out of a genius kit.

At my first dis­trict wide event, a Cuboree, we com­pet­ed in all sorts of games like, roost­er walks, pota­to sack races, three legged races and even a big tug of war.   All of the Den Lead­ers com­pet­ed in a nail pound con­test.  My moth­er was a tomboy from the deep South.  She not only knew how to use a ham­mer, she had helped her father build the house that they had lived in.

Each leader had six nails that had been start­ed into a 4X4 just far enough to stand up straight.  When the whis­tle blew, the lead­ers would all start pound­ing.   All of us Cubs were cheer­ing as loud as we could.  It wasn’t even close.  My mom fin­ished first!  What a great day.  I didn’t win any rib­bons, but I was proud of my Mom for win­ning the den lead­ers nail pound con­test.

Every­where we moved, I would find myself ahead in math, or behind in math.  Ahead in Eng­lish, or behind in Eng­lish.  I was nev­er at the same place as the oth­er stu­dents and nev­er seemed to real­ly fit in.  But in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, I could walk in and the lead­ers would know exact­ly where to put me.  It was the one con­sis­tent part of my life when I was mov­ing all of those times.

The last time my fam­i­ly made a move with the Mil­i­tary was between my Junior and Senior years of High School.  It was a tough time to move, but I found myself back in Scout­ing once again.

The Troop I joined was noth­ing like the Mil­i­tary troops I was used to.  With only a hand­ful of boys and very lit­tle pro­gram, they seemed to spend more time play­ing bas­ket­ball then any­thing else.  When I got there, the leader real­ized that he had a Scout­ing skills expert on his hand, and I start­ed run­ning most of the pro­gram.  We quick­ly shift­ed from hoops to real Scout­ing pro­grams, and our lit­tle troop grew into a much larg­er troop.

One tra­di­tion this troop had was for me to tell one of my sto­ries dur­ing each of the Court of Hon­ors.  Lit­tle did I know that it would be one of these sto­ries that caught the eye of man that would become a men­tor for my Scout­ing career.

He was a Dis­trict Exec­u­tive, there to deliv­er a char­ter.  The sto­ry I told was about a big scary goril­la.  It was a fun­ny sto­ry and I didn’t think too much of it.  It made qui­et and impact on our guest.  After the meet­ing this guy I had nev­er met walked up to me, intro­duced him­self as Mike, and asked if I want­ed to come to sum­mer camp and serve as his pro­gram direc­tor.  What he didn’t know was that I had already filled out an appli­ca­tion and was going to turn it in that week.  It was, I believe, a moment of divine inter­ven­tion.  We would become an amaz­ing team.

Mike is the most cre­ative camp­ing pro­gram guy that I have ever been around.  He had a flair for devel­op­ing camp wide pro­grams that cap­ti­vat­ed the imag­i­na­tion of young peo­ple.  The three sum­mers that I had the priv­i­lege of serv­ing as his pro­gram direc­tor, were leg­endary sum­mers in that camp.  Twen­ty-three years lat­er, they are still run­ning many of the same pro­grams we imple­ment­ed that first sum­mer.

We start­ed with four weeks and less than 500 campers.  The next sum­mer we ran six weeks with more than a 1000 campers.  The third sum­mer was 8 weeks and more than 2500 campers.  All on a prop­er­ty that didn’t have a lake for boat­ing, and had food served out of shed with all campers and staff eat­ing all meals out­side.

What Mike was great at was tak­ing an activ­i­ty and turn­ing it into an adven­ture.  We could turn any­thing into pro­gram.  We were look­ing to design a pro­gram that was self-work­ing for Thurs­day night.  We want­ed our lead­ers and as many staff as pos­si­ble to be able to join us for our Order of Arrow cer­e­mo­ny, so we need­ed some way of enter­tain­ing sev­er­al hun­dred young peo­ple for a cou­ple of hours each week.

Mike decid­ed that we should have a movie night.  We would show a silent movie that we would check out from the library and serve root beer and piz­za.  Sounds pret­ty dull so far, but it became our most pop­u­lar camp wide pro­gram.   Mike’s plan had a lot of adven­ture built into it.

At din­ner on Sun­day night, the first meal of our camp­ing week, the nature direc­tor would announce to the entire camp that he had found some lit­ter on a camp trail.  He would hold up a string of root beer cans.

Mike was a large and very tough look­ing guy. He stood about 6 foot 4, and his arms and legs had these huge mus­cles that made him look like the biggest and mean­est guy you would ever meet.  For­tu­nate­ly, the truth was some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent.   Mike would scowl.  He would slow­ly make his way to the micro­phone, and then he would do it.  He would ban root beer from the camp.

Now being the rebel rous­ing pro­gram direc­tor, when he would hand me the micro­phone and strut away, I would shake my head and our con­ver­sa­tion would go some­thing like this:

Mike, no more root beer.  Are you sure?”

No more root beer!”

Come on Mike, you can’t ban root beer because some­one left a few emp­ty cans on the trail.”

There will be no more root beer!”

And then the staff would soft­ly start chant­i­ng; “We want root beer.  We want root beer.”  The kids would join in, and rock the house.  “WE WANT ROOT BEER, WE WANT ROOT BEER.”  Every­where that Mike went Scouts were chant­i­ng that they want­ed root beer.

Every day after lunch, I would hold a meet­ing of all Senior Patrol Lead­ers.  At the one on Mon­day I would announce my dis­gust at the root beer ban and tell them that they were free to protest this ban in a Scout­like man­ner.   My only rule on this was that I had to know of every­thing that they were plan­ning so I could coor­di­nate our efforts.  This made it so that no one would get hurt, and pranks wouldn’t be pulled that would cause the pro­gram to lose ener­gy.  I also start­ed work­ing with the SPL’s to smug­gle in root beer for our Thurs­day night pro­gram.

At the Scout­mas­ter meet­ing, Mike would let all of the lead­ers know that this was the plan.  He encour­aged the lead­ers to let their kids have some fun with this and to clear every­thing with me.  We called it, “orga­nized chaos”.

For three sum­mers, every week of camp was filled with zany root beer activ­i­ties.  Bar­rels paint­ed to look like root beer cans would appear.  Kid­nap­pings of staff mem­bers, held ran­som for root beer.  T-shirts, bought months in advance, would mag­i­cal­ly appear with a “We want root beer” theme.  Lit­tle gro­cery stores in the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties would sell every drop of root beer that they had.  Every day the ener­gy would build, so that come Thurs­day night, every Scout in camp couldn’t wait for the silent movie, piz­za and yes, root beer.

On Thurs­day nights I would make 50 gal­lons of root beer, mix­ing water, sug­ar, root beer extract and dry ice for car­bon­a­tion.  You could smell the stuff for miles. Mike would show up towards the end of the par­ty, after attend­ing the Order of the Arrow cer­e­mo­ny, to dis­cov­er that we were all drink­ing root beer.  Each week I got fired that night.

Mike would hold up a can of root beer, the kids would chant, “Drink it. Drink it. Drink it.”  Mike would screw up his face, and slow­ly lift the root beer, like he was about to have to swal­low the worst tast­ing med­i­cine in the world.  When the drink reached his lips the camp would go wild.  Mike would get a big smile, act all sur­prised, and say,  “This is pret­ty good stuff.”  He would then chug down the rest of his root beer.

The amaz­ing thing is, the root beer ban was only one of about four cam­p­wide pro­grams that we would build up to such a fren­zy each week.

By the time Fri­day night camp­fire would come around, every Scout in camp felt like Mike was their best friend.  When he took to the stage at camp­fire, it was mag­i­cal.  He had them, and the sev­er­al hun­dred guests and par­ents in the audi­ence, in the palm of his hand, and he would take advan­tage of this moment.  It was like every­thing we had done for the entire week was just a pre­lude to this talk.  In truth, it prob­a­bly was.

He would tell the sto­ry of a young man that was hurt­ful to oth­ers, some­times phys­i­cal­ly, but most of time it was ver­bal­ly.  He would call peo­ple names, belit­tle oth­ers, get into fights and do every­thing he could to make peo­ple feel as low as pos­si­ble.

His father, real­iz­ing that his son was behav­ing mean, rude and like a bul­ly, decid­ed to try and do some­thing about it.  He gave the boy a block of wood, some nails and a ham­mer.  He told the boy to pound a nail into the block every time he hurt some­one with what he said or did.  Every time he said some­thing nice or did some­thing help­ful for a friend, he could pull one out.

From time to time the father would check on the block of wood.  Each week, more nails would appear.  After sev­er­al weeks, the block was filled with nails.  What else could this father do to show his son that he couldn’t treat peo­ple so bad­ly?  When the block was so full that there wasn’t room for even one more nail, a change start­ed to hap­pen.  Each week, a few of the nails would be pulled out and no more would be added.

After a few months, the boy had some­thing he had nev­er had before, friends.  He also had a proud father.  When the block was com­plete­ly free of nails the father pulled the son aside and told him how proud he was.

But the young man wasn’t proud.  He looked at the block and told his father, “Being mean was easy.  The nails went in easy.  Pulling them out was hard­er.  But no mat­ter what I do, the holes will always remain.”

Each week as Mike would tell this sto­ry, I knew that I need­ed to retreat behind the audi­ence.  I rec­og­nized a boy like the one in Mike’s sto­ry.  Even though I had heard this sto­ry numer­ous times, each time I heard him tell this tale, it would remind me of myself and of my Mom at the Cuboree.

Less than a year after that nail pound con­test, it was con­firmed that my moth­er had leukemia.  With­in two years, she would suc­cumb to the dis­ease that rav­aged her body.  My best mem­o­ries of her are as a Cub Scout leader.

For me, the nails dri­ven into her block were not nails of being hurt­ful, but nails of her love. She had a son that was hurt­ful to oth­ers, and she decid­ed to pound the nails of her love into him.  And even though her life was cut so short, and she would nev­er see how much her efforts had changed her son, the holes left by those nails would always remain, and they would remind him of her for the rest of his life.




  1. Darryl Alder
    Darryl Alder ( User Karma: 8 ) says:

    Ralph I was touched by your per­son­al per­spec­tive on nails in wood. I won­der if the “put­ty” of help­ing oth­ers you have used for so many years, has made your block of wood whole and new again.

    1. Ralph Voelker
      Ralph Voelker ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Thanks Dar­ryl. I strug­gled with the deci­sion to give this sto­ry to you guys for print. Main­ly because I think I tell it way bet­ter than it reads. Every Scout that comes into our care has a sto­ry to tell. I don’t think my sto­ry is unique. When I tell this sto­ry I have been blessed to have so many peo­ple come up to me and talk about sim­i­lar themes in their lives. The years a young per­son has in Scout­ing are so short and this pro­gram has such huge impact. Thanks for pub­lish­ing these ram­bling sto­ries of mine and I hope folks enjoy them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

thirteen + 20 =