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: 9 ) 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!

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