First thing you have to know is, there were a lot of clever, talented, handy Scouts in our troop but none of them were in my patrol. Our Scoutmaster had kind of stacked the deck: all the good looking, intelligent boys with a future went into two different patrols who could drive each other to greatness in their competition. All the rest were put into my patrol. The Scoutmaster didn’t particularly care for me.
In later years, when I was standing up front for top achievement awards he tried to cover his tracks and say that he gave me all the losers in order to challenge and build my leadership potential. That was hardly the case. He just wanted the weak links out of the troop’s strongest chains.
So, that being said, when our troop entered the Klondike Derby with three patrols there were two who were pointed at the first place finish line and one that most likely wouldn’t even finish.
The Sad Truth
We were called the Aardvark Patrol, a name that suited us well: not very cool. The other patrols were Dragons and Eagles, names that inspire pride and ferocity. And then there was us—the Aardvarks—sort of plodding in the mud and scrounging for scraps.
None of the Aardvarks had rank; the merit badges were few and far between, and most of them were lucky if they could get their uniform on facing the right direction. You probably think I’m kidding.
Please don’t imagine I write this with any irony or regret, because I loved those boys, and there was a certain sort of freedom and unexpected joy about being an Aardvark. We couldn’t really disappoint anybody because no one expected anything from us. They didn’t really even see us. If we showed up, we added numbers and volume and that was about all.
The day of the Klondike Derby we were given one of the troop’s sleds that was beat up, half broken and strung together with wire. The troop number was mostly rubbed off its side, and our leaders gave this particular sled to us so they could feel safe knowing we weren’t advertising we belonged to them.
The Klondike Derby course was designed to challenge the basic skills of a scout: first aid, fire building, signaling, map and compass, knife and ax—all of those arts of the outdoors that only survivalists and scout nerds care to perfect.
Patrols had to drag/push their sleds, piled heavy with equipment, from station to station through the snows across the Scout Camp, and rack up points by accomplishing winter Scout challenges more quickly than anyone else. For smart kids these stations were only moderately challenging, and for them the competition was more about racing between stops with the greatest possible speed.
When the gun went off at the starting line those Dragons and Eagles and forty other patrols flew into the completion with bravado and glory while the Aardvarks were still trying to tape Beetle’s boots together.
We weren’t exactly sure where to go, and went wherever somebody pointed us—somebody whose face was bright red from angry shouting and frenzied gesturing. We staggered through the drifts laughing, pulled the sledge up out of the ditch with loud braying donkey sounds. Dashing through the snowy fields the kids mostly barked like a pack of howling sled dogs.
We always made fun of ourselves, it wasn’t anybody else trying to belittle us—we were actually too pathetic for that. Mostly folks just hoped we’d get out of the way without any broken bones or visible bloodshed.
Here’s What Happened:
The Aardvarks were perpetually stuck in Tenderfoot skills—they had been tying knots for years. For years. When it came to tying knots they didn’t have to think twice…it was what they knew best, it was virtually all they knew. When those other Scouts were piling up merit badges for lifesaving, citizenship, electronics, the Aardvarks were tying knots, tying knots.
So when the Klondike Derby judge told Nate and Harlan to tie a sheepshank, the two of them did it so fast the judge wasn’t even looking. I don’t think he had even started the stopwatch. They were shoving off for the fire building station and never saw the look on the judge’s face. That stunned look.
Fire building involved flint & steel and it was a skill Aardvarks had never particularly mastered. They knew how it was supposed to go—they had been attempting it for years—they just never could get it to work according to plan. At the Klondike Derby, however, Todd slapped those rocks together and on the first strike a brilliant spark flew and lit the tinder. Those kids’ eyes went wide with astonishment, and they all puffed eagerly at the flame until it took, and then quickly burned through the twine in record time.
“Haw Haw Haw,” the judge said with an uneasy glare, “Beginner’s luck!”
The Skills You Can’t Teach
It was like that all day—one fortunate and unexpected fluke after another.
The most astonishing moment came at the signaling range. The patrol split up and faced each other from 50 yards apart, where one team flashed the semaphore flags and the other team decoded the message. You have to realize that the Aardvarks had not, any of them, come close to mastering the skills of signaling with flags. There wasn’t one of them could spell. It’s possible they couldn’t read.
The judge handed the flag crew their designated message and the boys made a valiant effort to relay some words using only the part of the alphabet they actually knew. The receiving group was fifty yards away, there is no way they could have overheard anything the flag boys were saying. There was no way they could possibly interpret the senseless, spastic flag waving. But they quickly figured out how many words were in the message, and suddenly Beetle announced to the scribe what the message was. They all quickly agreed, and turned the paper over to the judge.
The judge had watched the entire fiasco. He was ready to dismiss them. He took the paper like it was a joke and we all watched his jaw drop. Not only were the words correct, they were delivered in record time. My kids couldn’t even tie their shoelaces, but they had no trouble reading each other’s minds.
Beetle couldn’t decipher what the flags were trying to spell, but he knew what the flagman meant to say.
At the awards ceremony that evening I had the satisfaction of watching my Scoutmaster go dead silent when the Aardvarks took the Second Place ribbon and neither of his other patrols placed in the running. When the Aardvarks name was announced there was an awkward mix of polite applause and stunned confusion.
I sent Beetle and Nate and Harlan up to receive the ribbon, and as they shambled up to the front in their taped-together shabby clothes, suddenly the other scouts—all 400 of them—could see what had happened: that the invisible loser patrol had defied all the odds and shown up in the winner’s circle. At once the tepid applause took steam and volume, and then it turned into a mighty roar. The clapping, the shouts, the cheers echoed off the forest, over the hills and it seemed like it would never end.
After that no one even wanted to see who won the competition.There are many kinds of victors, and most often the best of them don’t take first place.