I encountered this group of German scouts on a train platform in Gallivare in Northern Sweden earlier this week.They had just completed their trip and were taking the train south to Stockholm and then home. They had no adult leader or chaperone, just the five of them on an adventure in a foreign country. A safe and developed country, to be sure, and no doubt one or more of the group had a cell phone or credit card in case of emergency, but nonetheless they had to rely on each other and make their own decisions as they went.
Seeing them evoked powerful memories for me. Since early childhood, I had been completely captivated by the romance of scouting. My father had scouted in occupied France even though the Nazis had outlawed the movement. For both of us, what drew us to scouting was not merely the activity, but the joy of being left alone by adults to achieve some goal – hiking to a preset destination, building a backcountry camp or even designing and building our own cabins or whatever. Scouting built in me a sense of self-reliance and perhaps some leadership too.
I still think fondly of those adventures, but with some embarrassment, perhaps feeling that my backcountry activities seem antiquated and no longer relevant to youth today. They are, perhaps, too sophisticated, too cynical, and their parents too unwilling to cut the apron strings, lest independent teens run into danger or some less than satisfying experience. Far better, parents think, to entrust them to responsible adults who will oversee all aspects of the experience. So I’ve just assumed that scouting, to the degree that it’s survived into the twenty-first century, has been drained of all its core element of teen autonomy – and of any prospect of true adventure.
These boys almost seem to have walked onto the train platform from another century. Their uniform shirts are faded, showing they wear them for trekking and not merely for public show or ceremony. They carry bedrolls. Bedrolls! As a young scout, I saw pictures of bedrolls in pre-war manuals, but I never saw anyone carrying them.
But best of all, these young seemed totally focussed on each other and completely happy as members of a group. Knowing that teenage boys can burn almost infinite calories, I gave them the last of my chocolate, and wished them well. I couldn’t even find the words to tell them how enchanted their memories of this time would become as time passed. But they’ll find that out for themselves. I’m just happy to have viewed, for a minute or two, what could have been the most golden moments of their lives.