In a letter to his daughter dated January 26, 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote that the first insignia of the eagle looked more like a turkey, and suggested that the turkey was actually a better symbol of America than the eagle in any case. “The eagle is a bird of bad moral character…too lazy to fish for himself…” Franklin suggested that the turkey was a more noble symbol. “The turkey is a much more respectable bird. He is a little vain and silly, a bird of courage.” Later he published the idea in an essay entitled: “Turkey versus Eagle, McCauley is my Beagle.” I have no idea who McCauley was, perhaps he was a Beagle Scout.
What if people had taken Franklin seriously and made the suggested change? One result is that the highest rank that a Boy Scout can earn would be Turkey Scout. But since anyone who mattered realized he was joking, Boy Scouts can earn the lofty rank of Eagle Scout. I am an Eagle Scout. Until recently it was a fact that did not engage my attention in any way. Here’s the story:
When I was 17 years old I was already two years retired from the Boy Scouts. But the troop was going on a trip and needed a lifeguard as well as a photographer. There was a lack of adult leadership. I was recruited and signed on. It was a great trip, and in the process I earned two merit badges. I was only a merit badge and a community project away from Eagle Scout. The merit badge was simple: coin collecting. I’m not sure why I hadn’t done it before. The community project was harder then I had anticipated, but I could see astronaut and scholarship written all over my future. So I did it. They gave me a Court of Honor, which I recognized at the time was my single act of fulfilling any and all obligations I may have had for my parents. You get Eagle Scout, not bank president. At the ceremony I was presented with a silver ring which I sold in 1980 when the price of silver was high. In the case with the silver ring was my Eagle Scout badge, firmly stapled into place. It never left that case, was never sewn onto the uniform that I never wore again. I did keep my merit badge satchel for a while, but eventually gave it to a friend. I was making a statement to myself. This is definitely not going to be the high point of my life. My brother John ended the ceremony playing taps on his trumpet.
You may be wondering what kind of job I did as the trip photographer, documenting my last trip as a Boy Scout. I was adequate at best. At the parent presentation of our trip I addressed the group with a slide presentation. At some point I went completely off topic and got rather giddy. It could have backfired, but instead I had the whole room laughing uncontrollably. In retrospect, that may have been my high point as a scout. It would have earned me Ben Franklin’s coveted Turkey badge, a gobble-gobble moment.
My parents moved from Minnesota to Sun City Arizona in 1996, and I spent many weekends helping them get ready. They had to get rid of a lot of stuff, including box loads of momentos. I recall declining the Eagle Scout badge in its fancy little case. I thought we had agreed it would be thrown out.
About seven years ago my brother John had a chance encounter with a classmate named Paul. Paul was very excited: “I rescued Jim’s Eagle Scout badge from a garage sale. Jim will certainly want it back!” My parents must have neglected to throw out the badge, which must have ended up in the estate sale. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would buy it, though it could have been hauled by the seller to many an estate sale before finally being sold.
Paul was extremely proud of his endeavor, but kept forgetting to get to the badge back to John. Every year, John would tell me, “I saw Paul, and he promised to get me the badge.” We’d laugh at the absurdity. Of course, John didn’t have the heart to tell dear Paul that a meet-up with badge in hand seemed remote. In any case, if I’d wanted the badge in the first place I would have taken it.
Recently, I actually did get the badge back, still in its small case were several neckerchief slides — one of which had my name written on the back in my mother’s script. There was also a picture of my great grandfather John Wesley Palmer. I previously had no pictures of him. We do bear a resemblance.
So what am I to make of this unlikely journey? It’s all in the eagle, or should I say Eagle. I felt touched by Eagle, able to recall that Eagle is a living symbol that is brought to life by our ability to see beneath the painted surface. The Founding Fathers were influenced by both the European Enlightenment and the Iroquois confederacy. It is plausible that some of them were also influenced by the spirit in the symbol. The journey of spirit Eagle across the land takes many forms and is well worth our attention. Remember, a living symbol is not static like a sign, or inert like a badge stapled in a case. A living symbol travels.