“No, this essay is not about anything relating to moving from place to place. ‘PCS’ is still a term I have firmly implanted into my brain. That, and my father’s social security number. As we all remember, for years we were identified by our sponsor’s Social Security Number. I suppose when you repeat a 9-digit number for the better part of 21 years, it’s hard to get out of your head.”—James Kidd
This is about one place in particular that I was blessed and consider myself very fortunate to have seen while we were stationed in Germany. As you will all come to discover about me, I am a died-in-the-wool Boy Scout.
While I didn’t earn my Eagle (for various reasons, some self-inflicted, others due to a lack of caring leadership), I have been an active member in the organization for decades. My son made Eagle. It was in Mannheim that I was introduced to Scouting to begin with, ironically, by a friend that never went past a few meetings in Cub Scouts.
Being a Scout naturally involved camping. It’s a cornerstone tenet of the philosophy that Sir Baden-Powell believed in with all of his being when he founded the Scouts over a century ago. And as the BSA celebrates it’s 100th Anniversary this year, I am reminded of the overwhelming joy and passion I felt with every trip we took. Sure, many of the camp outs were more of the “weekend out in the woods” types, which were important to the overall development of skills and fostered the continued Scout-led program that was vital to the success of not only the boys in the Troop, but Scouting in general.
But being a part of the Transatlantic Council, Troop 17, Mannheim, Germany, afforded us the opportunity to go to places other Scouts could only vaguely dream of, let alone actually get to. I relate a few of them off and on, like my week-long stay at the International Scout Chalet in Switzerland (Baden-Powell himself picked the location), or Scout-o-Rama at Ramstein AFB, where we pitched an authentic teepee alongside the massive hangers just off of the flight line (the sound of an F-15 Eagle screaming to life at 0400 is a sound I will never, never forget). But the one that stood out for me was one tucked away on a few acres of pristine, manicured land…in a country that would barely register to be big enough to be a state in our country.
Once upon a time, military units could actively sponsor Scout Troops. That meant that when it came to camping trips, we were usually able to secure a bus from the motor pool (many of our leaders were qualified to drive just about anything). When I came to the States, the practice of Troops car-vaning in parent’s cars was entirely foreign to me, as I was used to traveling together wherever we went.
On this particular outing, we meet Friday at the Scout Hut (an old storage building that has long since been torn down) and watched as the O.D. green Mercedes Bus ambled up to the door. Gear was quickly loaded, headcount commenced and completed, and then we were off. Those bus rides were magical. Here we were, a group of boys on a bus…careening around the European countryside together.
This was all well before the advent of iPods, Gameboys and Droids…oh, sure…a few of us had Walkmans (that played cassette tapes! What??), but by and large, we entertained each other throughout the long drives by playing cards, telling stories/jokes or singing song after song (and when you’re up, your up…and when you’re down you’re down…but when you’re only half way up, you’re neither up nor down!). And so, the big diesel Benz kept chugging along, boys being boys, away from their parents, but under the watchful eye of our adult Leadership (God Bless you, Rick Dennis, wherever you are!).
As we crossed the border out of Germany, we noted the continued change in scenery. While it wasn’t as easy as it is now, we still marveled at how relatively easy it was to be entering a completely different country. Most of us who grew up in Europe know exactly how narrow the roads are there (ask me about my best friend’s parents nearly getting their Ford Galaxie stuck in a park house in Paris!), and watching our Scoutmaster deftly execute turns and hopelessly undersized roads up at the helm was entertainment in it’s own right!
There was one glitch in the frivolity, and that came when we actually arrived at our destination. You see, as we all piled out of the bus (in full uniform, no less), our fearless leader made the announcement that getting back home later would perhaps prove to be a challenge. In the excitement, he had left the keys on the bus!
Ah, but we Scouts are a resourceful bunch, somewhere on the order of junior McGyvers! This was Europe, and most vehicles didn’t come with air conditioning, and since our bus wasn’t the grand touring bus that you see these days, resplendent with indoor plumbing, the only other way to get air moving through it was via a pop-up vent on the roof. Looking around, we selected the smallest Scout in the Troop, and working as a team, we got him on the roof.
The small crowd that had formed to watch this was quite a sight to see, and perhaps a big poignant, given what we were about to witness. Bus keys secured, we mustered up in proper formation and began to head in.
In all of my travels, I’ve never come across the absolute hush that fell over all of us. Even being rambunctious teens, we knew that this place expected…no…demanded our respect. Walking in the deafening silence on that sunny afternoon, I was moved to a point I didn’t think was possible for somebody only 15.
It was overpowering, and it didn’t just slowly creep into my conscience. No, the emotions bowled me over like nothing before ever had before, or since. We’d all read about it, learned about all of what this place represented in our history books. But nothing prepared me for what I was feeling inside.
There, far ahead of the group of us, stood a single, solitary marker. I hesitated as I walked up to it, alone. Nobody stood beside me as I stopped just in front of this history-changing sign. Without fear of repercussion or taunting, I openly wept.
For some reason, the tears would not stop. It simply was too much for me to take in, and I wept. And there, in that moment of near disabling sadness, I pulled myself to full attention and rendered the only honor I knew to give…a Scout salute.
I turned slowly, facing the countless thousands of American service members that lay in countless ordered rows. They had all died in defense of not only our country, but in the liberation of so many countries that we now count as allies. They had died for me.
And there at the front, leading the way and reviewing “his” troops in death as he had done so often in life, lay General George S. Patton…there, in the most hallowed ground of the American cemetery, nestled in the still beauty of the Luxembourg countryside.