Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lessons from the Varsity fo Life by Robert Baden-Powell

This was a great book! I was surprised. The autobiography of Robert Baden-Powell the founder of the worldwide organization Boy Scouts. (22 February 1857 – 8 January 1941) He is British and some of his words are unfamiliar but if you imagine Monty Python it kind of makes it come together for me. 316 pages of his sketches, a few photos and his take on his childhood through military service, to being an old man touring the world organizing Boy and Girl Scout clubs! Surprisingly only 90% of the book is about Boy Scouts and the rest is what he calls, "life number one", all about his time in the military or before that just growing up. Scouting was "life number two" and he was getting on in years by then yet he fit so much into this part of his life. (He also wrote a bunch of other books about the scouting part of his life so I think he didn't want to repeat all of them here.)

The book starts out with an apology. He didn't want to write about himself but someone convinced him saying, it might be helpful to young fellows (including girls) in aiming their lives. So he didn't make it a formal biography starting from baby to whatever but he rather wanted the book to be a "sort of hotch-potch or plum-pudding". Then he says something like good luck finding the plums but they are somewhere in the stodge! So right from the beginning you are put at ease and you start to chuckle. He has a good sense of humor and never really gets full of himself. He just tells stories about the things he remembers, the places he has been and how he got there.

His education was traditional only he didn't fit the traditional mold. He gives his mother a lot of credit. He said, "It was her influence that guided me through life more than any precepts or discipline that I may have learned at school." He didn't get very good marks from his teachers and he wasn't very good with mathematics. He hated learning Greek and Latin and still thinks it is a waste of time for young people. He has some pretty strong opinions about the public school system too. He said that his biggest education came from a variety of things, home, school, sports (like big game hunting)and traveling... He said, "The secret of sound education is to get each pupil to learn for himself, instead of instructing him by driving knowledge into him on a stereotyped system."

BP loved theatricals. A teacher encouraged the boys his age to do "play-acting". and they learned public speaking and self-expression. All this helped later in his career as a spy. Also he would sometimes hide from his teachers out in the woods and trap rabbits and climb trees. He would learn to be really quite and creep around to get close up to a bird or squirrel. All of this without knowing it was an invaluable education for later in life.

BP loves the sea. His brothers did too. They were always having some adventure cruising round the coast of Scotland and England at all seasons of the year. They were always getting in to trouble but this helped them gain useful experiences for life. He learned discipline, endurance of hardships and faced dangers while at sea.

BP was very talented. He performed in quite a few plays and he liked to draw. He even tried a bit of sculpture but said he just didn't have enough time to pursue this pleasure. He played the flugel horn and violin. He could also sing. He also like to make others laugh, or what he called, "giving amusement to others".

He liked to fish and shoot. He tells some really good stories about some of the adventures he goes through chasing after Pigs and killing them with a stick. Very dangerous! He always said this about Pig Sticking, "Don't knock it till you try it." I think I will pass. My favorite stories are the ones about the elephants and the Hippos. He has a great respect for Elephants and is always in awe at their abilities and intelligence. One time he was hunting a hippo in Africa. The Natives were very hungry, in fact near starvation. When hunting hippos you need to be very patient. They always come up in the same place for a breath of air. He was lying on his back to get a steadier aim and so the natives gave him the nickname "M'hlalapanzi", which means - the man who lies down to shoot. Anyway he got it right in the eye and the bullet went straight to the brain. The hippo sinks down to the bottom but eventually bobs to the surface dead. First the natives "cut a square hole in his side, just big enough to admit a man, and one man accordingly went in with a knife and fetched out all sorts of tit-bits in the way of chunks of liver, hear, etc., which he handed to his friend." He was covered with blood from head to foot. They then chopped out large chunks of raw meat and hundreds of natives came to get their piece. Many were to hungry to wait and cook it so they ate it raw. Blah!

Hunting isn't as popular now as it was back then, luckily later in life BP enjoyed Big Game Kodak-ing, for taking a picture of the animal was a very recognizable form of sport too. I like this also. Now the big game hunter can be a naturalist and can still learn invaluable lessons in the jungle. You need to be just as sneaky and quiet and patient to get the best shot on film.

BP was a scout (spy). While in the Army he would go out ahead of the main body and gain information about the enemy. To be a scout you need to be plucky, hardy, resourceful and rely on your own ability to make your way without help from others. You also need to be be courageous, energetic, cheery, hopeful, trusted and never really seeking applause for your work or service. It was very dangerous for BP to do this. Most of his scouting career was in Africa and India. He loved disguise, and learned about this in his short acting career.

One time the American press put out a story, "BADEN POWELL SHOT AS A SPY". 1916 - shot to death by English soldiers on his return to England as a German Spy. He got a big kick out of reading his epitaph. He had such a great sense of humor even about this!

Spy's need to notice the small things and reading a meaning from them: Observation and Deduction. He had a lot of fun as a soldier working as a spy. He proved to be so good at this that it helped in his career in the Army. He learned valuable lessons that he later was able to teach to others and also to young boys in the Boy Scouts program. Observation and deduction can come into use in all sorts of times in ones life.

BP records in this book all kinds of great stories about the natives and fighting or working with the people in Africa and India. He talks about the wonderful leaders he served under and how he learned something important from each one of them. He is considered a national Hero for his actions during the Siege of Mafeking in Britain. He later becomes a Inspector General of Calvary. This was a great honor and only those that work really hard and are well rounded get this position. He was in a position to make changes and help soldiers have better skills and even living conditions. He made a huge difference in many lives. After his retirement he starts the Boy Scouts and with the blessing of the King Edward VII, who thinks he can accomplish a lot more serving the young people of the world when staying in the military, he makes an even bigger impact on the world.

So in his Life Number Two the Boy Scouts are organized. There was a need, like there is today, for the youth in our nation to have Character Training. He said, "He had young men and women that could read and write and were well-behaved and smart looking in a parade but without individuality or strength of character, utterly without resourcefulness, initiative or the guts for adventure." These typed of youth would not be ready to really be good citizens of any nation. Too wimpy. "Civilization is driving Nature farther and farther out of reach of the majority, until realization of its beauties and wonders and our own affinity with God's creations, is becoming lost in the materialistic life of the crowd, with is depressing conditi9ons of work and hectic search for pleasure among man-make squalid surroundings of bricks and mortar...our sons will grow brains instead of brawn." This realization inspired BP to write the book, Aids to Scouting and then Scouting for Boys.

The Aim of the Boys Scouts is: to improve the standard of our future citizen hood, especially in Character and Health. The Attraction: Plan it around principles of being an educational Game. An education in which the boy would be insensibly led to educate himself. The Code: The Scout Law- Honor, trusted, loyal, useful, friend to all, courteous, friend to animals, obey orders, smiles and whistles under all difficulties, thrifty, and clean in thought, word and deed. The Promise:Do his duty to God and King, Do a good turn daily, Obey the Scout Law. Organization: Troops the Patrols and Packs for Cubs. I find all of this very inspiring and hopeful for our boys today too! He talks about the uniform and the Garters and the scout Badges. The Motto "Be Prepared" and the significance of the fleur-de-lys, all very facinating.

The Scouting movement just took off and Scout Troops were forming on their own all over the world by 1920's. Also BP got married and his wife was a great help in the Scouting movement. I learned that an organization was also started for girls called Girl Guides, which later becomes what we know today as the Girl Scouts.

Baden-Powell said and I paraphrase it here...that he was so lucky to live in the most interesting evolutionary epoch in the world's history, with its rapid development of motor-cars, aeroplanes, wireless, Tutenhamen, the Great War and the World convulsion and so on...and he has met with a remarkable amount of kindness everywhere, not only from friend but strangers as well. Also to have the luck to live two distinct lives, one as a soldier and bachelor and the second as a pacifist and a paterfamilias both having the common attribute of Scouting, and both intensely happy. That doesn't mean that he didn't have difficulties and trials to face, but those have been like the sprinkles on top of the icing on the cake.

Overall I have found this book surprisingly fascinating. I haven't thought about the era he lived in and the wars he fought in. I didn't realize there was so much done by British Soldiers in Africa and India so far away with such different cultures and traditions. Baden-Powell had such a rich life because he was happy. He made the best out of every situation and found the humor in situations that others would just be overcome with. He had a vision to help the young people in the world and he was in a position to make a difference so he did, despite being very old, slightly crippled and retired. He could have just sat down and drank tea but he got up and went!

This book also helped me realize that even though this is 2009 we also have a need for Scouting in our Nation. Boys are surrounded by technology and things that make life easy. They can read and write but what do they do when something is hard or challenging? Are they prepared to lead and make a difference? Are they brave and creative enough to use skills to figure hard things out in times of emergency? Scouting helps them with the things they aren't learning in a public School, it gets them out in nature and it provides opportunities to stretch a little through camping, leading their patrol or organizing service projects and carrying them out they are learning what it will take to be be a good citizen and the leaders of tomorrow. They are our future and Scouting helps them prepare!

Whole Book and I recommend it to everyone that is raising children especially if you have boy that will be a Cub Scout soon!

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