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The Cub Scout Oath

By Bryant Burroughs


            In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, a cloudless day in 1957, seven-year-old Chris sat in the clawfoot bathtub with a bar of Ivory soap. Normally he’d be outside playing, adding another layer of dirt instead of scrubbing it away, but not on this day. In two hours, he would recite the Cut Scout oath and be inducted into Pack 23. 

            He repeated the oath in his head as he scrubbed. On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

            For weeks, he’d worked to memorize the words that each of the new scouts would recite, one by one, in front of family members and fellow scouts in the Pack 23 clubhouse. Forty words, and Chris knew them perfectly.

            Born a year and a week after his parents’ wedding, Chris had been named after his dad. A smart boy, he loved to read and wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up, just like his dad. He also wanted to be a baseball player, and at age seven could throw, catch, and hit better than kids a few years older—probably because his dad had been playing catch with him for as long as he could remember. The thump of a baseball hitting a glove was their favorite sound.

            Of all that came easily to Chris, one thing did not. For most people, talking was as natural as breathing, but it was torture for him. He strained to start and keep up a smooth flow of words. Sometimes he repeated the first syllable or paused between phrases or even became blocked completely.



            At first, his parents had assumed it was a phase. They didn’t make a big deal of it, not wanting to add to Chris’s frustration when he tried to speak. Day after day, they encouraged their son. Night after night, after Chris was in bed, they talked about what they should do for him.

            “The doctor can’t tell us the cause or how we can help,” Chris’s father, CJ, said. “That’s his job. He’s the expert, not us.”

            “Maybe Dr. Burks is right,” Maddie, his mother, said. “Chris is so smart his thoughts go faster than his mouth can form the words.”

            A natural encourager, Maddie knew her husband was frustrated by his inability to help their son. But this was one thing CJ couldn’t fix by willpower alone.

            “He’ll grow out of it,” she said. Reaching to caress CJ’s hand, she held it, sensing there was more bothering her husband, something personal and painful.

            Finally, he spoke quietly. “What if it’s true that most stutterers—” He blew out his breath, as if unable to say the words. “If they’re usually the first-born sons of overbearing fathers. Am I to blame? Have I caused this?”

            She took his face in her hands, waiting until he met her eyes. “Some fathers are too demanding of their sons, but you are not one of them.”

            He looked at her in thanks for what she’d said, but Maddie knew he still blamed himself.

            “Our son loves you,” Maddie assured him. “He wants to be just like you—to please you. It’s good that a son loves his father so much.”

            The bathwater had long turned cold when his mother called through the bathroom door. “Mind if I come in?”

            “Sure, Mom,” Chris answered.

            She knelt on the mat next to the bathtub and smoothed his damp hair. “Let’s get you some more hot water,” she said and turned the hot water knob. “Excited about tonight?”

            “Yeah! Will you help me put on my …”  Neckerchief was a tough word, and he stumbled through it. “I want it to be perfect.”

            That’s a trait you get straight from your dad, Maddie thought to herself, thinking of all the times she’d seen CJ fix the knot in his tie before he went to court. “You bet I will,” she said. “Would you like to practice your oath one more time?”

            Chris tensed, but gamely nodded. Inhaling deeply, he rushed into the recitation. “OnmyhonorIwilldomybesttodomydutytoGodandmy c-c-country and t-to ob-b-bey the S-S-S-“ He paused for another breath. “o-bey the S-Scout…Scout L-L-L…Law.”

            “That’s wonderful, son!”

            Chris knew he had completed only half the oath. He steeled himself for the rest of it. “Uh, to-to h-help other p-p-p-people at all times.” He knew what came next. “To keep myself uh, uh, phys-… uh, to k-k-k-keep myself, uh, phys-phys-phys…” He stopped and dropped his chin toward the bathwater.

            Maddie got up from the bathroom mat. “Why don’t you dry off? I’ll get your Cub Scout uniform ready for you”

            Chris gave her a subdued nod.

            “Quite the crowd,” CJ said as they parked on 12th Street and walked toward the alley leading to the scout clubhouse. Inside, they found seats in one of the rows of folding chairs.

            Seeing all the people, Chris trembled and looked toward the door. He wanted to run away.

            Promptly at six-thirty, Mr. Reed, the Pack 23 Den Leader, rose from his chair at the front of the room and addressed the audience. “Welcome, parents and friends. It’s a big night for us. We’re here to induct nine new Cub Scouts into Pack 23.”

            The room rang with claps and whistles, but Chris’s heart raced with fear.

            “First, let me invite all the members of Pack 23 to step to the front and stand behind me,” Mr. Reed said.

            The gathering clapped again as about fifty boys in full Scout uniform made their way to the front and dutifully lined up in two rows behind Mr. Reed, exactly as they had practiced. Their uniforms were identical, except for their neckerchiefs, the color of which indicated their rank: orange for Tiger, red for Wolf, light blue for Bear.

            “Now for the good part,” Mr. Reed continued. “As I call your name, those of you who tonight are joining Pack 23 with the rank of Lion, please step forward and stand in a row facing me.”

            One by one, Mr. Reed called out nine names of the boys in their yellow neckerchiefs.

            Hearing his name, Chris forced himself to walk forward and stand as Mr. Reed had instructed. Feet planted, knees locked, he tried to quell his shaking.

            Mr. Reed addressed the nine Cub Scouts facing him. “I’m proud of each of you standing here. As you learned during your training, there are expectations that come with being a Cub Scout. Tonight, you will pledge yourself to these expectations.”

            He paused to look briefly at the audience, then returned his gaze to the boys. Chris felt his body quaking, sure that everyone else around him could see it.

            “Please raise your right hand, while I read the words of the oath,” Mr. Reed said. “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

            Looking at the faces of each boy, Mr. Reed asked, “Will you so dedicate yourself? If so, please respond by saying, ‘I will.’”

            In the heartbeat of a pause that followed, Chris’s eyes widened, then he joined eight other voices answering in unison. “I will!”

            Mr. Reed beamed. “As Den Leader, it is my honor to welcome you to Pack 23. Everyone, let’s give these new Cub Scouts a hand!”

            Families stood to applaud, and the older scouts scrambled to clap the backs of their new pack-mates.

            CJ looked down at his wife, whose smile betrayed nothing. But when Mr. Reed glanced over, Maddie mouthed, “Thank you.”

Bryant Burroughs writes stories and poems as reminders of those things he hopes are real and true. He and his wife, Ruth, live in Upstate South Carolina with their three cats.

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