It seemed as though the tribes of Israel had gathered for a reunion. Levites, staves in hand, marched between rows of brightly colored tents, chanting their name—“Levi! Levi! Levi!”—and were answered in turn by cheers of “Asher! Asher! Asher!” From towers built with logs and lashings, banners emblazoned with names like Reuben, Gad, and Naphtali flapped in the breeze. Simeon’s tribe, decked in red and white, stood in review before a visiting dignitary. One young man from Issachar’s camp, in an effort to escape the heart, moistened a towel and wrapped it like a turban around his head.
But there were some incongruities in the imagery. At the center of the camp, a beam the size of a ship’s mast had been implanted in the ground as a flagpole. From its halyard, a sail-sized Stars and Stripes, not a Star of David, fluttered in the wind. In an air-conditioned van and on a table at the end of the headquarters tent, a wizardry of electronic gadgets issued and monitored short-wave communications. And on the far side of the camp, where bulldozers had scooped a trough in the earth to form a man-made swimming hole, Scouts were splashing and cooling off and hollering, “Y’all come on in!”
The setting wasn’t the Sinai Peninsula, but rather an open meadow in central Florida, 50 miles from Disney World. And the event wasn’t a gathering of ancient Israel, but a modern-day rally of the young men of Zion. It was the August 1980 Mormon Encampment at the Deseret Ranches, probably the largest gathering of LDS Scouts up to that time in the history of the Church.
To help organize the encampment, each stake was assigned (by geographical home area) to a “tribe” named after one of the tribes of Israel. This meant Scouts belonged not only to a patrol and a troop, but to a larger group as well. Loyalties soon became fervent. Members of one tribe erected a large wooden plaque reading, “Joseph—The Leader.” Another tribe responded with a plaque of its own, quoting Genesis 49:13 [Gen. 49:13]: “Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships.” Whenever there was a large gathering of Scouts, someone was bound to sound a trumpet, and the chanting would begin again—“Judah! Judah! Benjamin! Dan!”
Tents had sprouted as if sown from seed, overnight turning the pasture into a city of 2,600 Scouts and leaders. Broad streets, named in honor of points of the Scout Law (“Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly,” etc.), were cordoned off with rope and led like spokes of a massive wheel from the command post to the activities area. All day long each day for a week, Scouts moved from one site to another, competing in tests of physical prowess and Scoutcraft ability, as well as pausing for some moments of serious spiritual reflection.
“You can do it! You can do it!” fellow Scouts shouted as a 14-year-old comrade strained to complete one more pull-up within the time limit. Every muscle in his face grimaced with the effort; sweat glistened on his face and neck. As he brought his chin near the bar, his forearms and biceps started shaking—but he made his tenth try successful just as the whistle blew. Amid cheers, he dropped to the ground and the next patrol member hoisted himself into place.
The timed pull-up event was just one in a series of physical challenges Scouts faced as they moved from station to station during three days of competition. Broad jumping, rope climbing, push-ups, sit-ups, an obstacle course, three-legged bucket race, slingshot marksmanship, aquatics, frisbee golf, and travois building and racing (carrying an “injured” passenger), along with other races and relays, tested the athletic ability of individuals and patrols.
“The physical activities were some of the most fun things we did,” said 12-year-old Randy Luedtke of the Many Ward, Alexandria Louisiana Stake. “It’s harder when you’re smaller than some of the others, but I just try my best and do my best. I finished everything.”
Over on the other side of the camp, teamwork was fully evident as Scouts from the New Orleans Louisiana Stake organized themselves for a firebuilding contest. One team member struck a match as others huddled around to shelter it from the wind. Another Scout raced to a pile of straw to gather fuel, rushed back, and as the initial flame leaped up, carefully nourished it. A string scorched, blackened, untwisted, broke, and a water balloon tumbled down, dousing the fire. “You have to know what each person is going to do before you start,” advised Paul Seager, 15, of the West Bank Ward. “But it feels great when you see what you can do.”
Besides firebuilding, contestants also tied taut-line hitches; wound lashings; found directions using a compass; worked in teams to transport a “radioactive” gallon can, using ropes and an elastic band; found other Scouts with paper letters and matched them up to spell “Service is the key”; raced while rolling logs; sliced off ends of logs with a bow saw; and crossed a “radioactive” field by walking on log stumps.
Scouts also participated in “see ’n do” activities, during which they walked from campsite to campsite learning from each other. For example, Keith Ball, 18, of the Pensacola Third Ward, Pensacola Florida Stake, and his troop, prepared a demonstration on resin cooking. “You heat the resin until it comes to a boil,” he explained, showing a can of it on the fire. “Then drop in a potato or an apple. When the potato comes back to the top, about 30 minutes later, it’s done. Take it out with tongs, wrap it in a paper towel immediately, and the resin will crystallize, pulling the skin off the potato.” Same thing with the apple, or with corn on the cob (don’t shuck it), or with onions. And there were tasting samples for anyone who came by.
Other see ’n do demonstrations taught Scouts how to silkscreen T-shirts, build reflector ovens, whip rope ends, make rope, tie knots, use paraffin and other homemade fire starters, purify water and pump it by using differences in pressure, make neckerchief slides, assemble first aid kits, and identify various specimens of local plants.
Deseret Ranches provided additional entertainment during the week by sponsoring an employee’s rodeo and a barbecued beef dinner, and the Scouts also spent an entire day at Disney World, where an official said they were “one of the best-behaved groups we’ve ever had. They’re welcome back here anytime.”
All week long the sun broiled the meadow grass until the green blades almost cried out from thirst. Meanwhile, out in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Allen threatened to turn inland. As it stewed and churned, then drifted toward Texas, it hurled a small shower in the direction of the camp, where the cooling rain was greeted with cheers. But soon the heat returned.
“We’d get ice and put it on our face and eat it to try to stay cool,” said Randall Lineberry, 13, of the Tucker Ward, Tucker Georgia Stake. “I wore a hat all day yesterday. It looks hotter, but it keeps the sun off.”
“I’m going to have my next camp at the North Pole!” another exhausted Scout exclaimed. One patrol in the tribe of Asher even made up a campfire skit in which a Scout was allowed to enter heaven because he had “suffered long enough” at the encampment.
The joking about the heat was all in good fun, and yet the consumption of 5,800 gallons of milk, two tanker trucks of demineralized water, 1,000 cases of pop, and 63,000 pounds of ice, along with a record sale of 68 cases of 1 1/2-quart bottles of citrus thirst quencher in 20 minutes, would indicate that cooling off was serious business.
There was another area, under the trees, away from the noise, where it was cooler and calmer. Here, like the ancient leaders of Israel, the young priesthood bearers went to a “mountaintop” to receive guidance and counsel and make commitments. Four members of the First Quorum of the Seventy—Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin (Southeast Area executive administrator), Young Men President Elder Robert L. Backman, and his counselors Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone and Elder Rex D. Pinegar—chatted with small clusters of young men, sharing experiences from their own lives and bearing testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel.
Elder Wirthlin told stories of his personal association with President Kimball. Elder Backman reminded one group that they were “empowered as personal, authorized representatives of Jesus Christ and our Father in Heaven.” Elder Featherstone issued a warning that “you are living in a generation that will test you to the limit. But we know you can be equal to the challenge.” Elder Pinegar urged his listeners to emulate Jesus and develop a Christlike love.
“It was relaxed, like talking to a friend,” said Jason Morgan, Jr., 12, of the Winston-Salem First Ward, Winston-Salem North Carolina Stake. “I’ll remember the stories they told me all my life.” Sixteen-year-old Bradley Patterson of the Fulton Branch, Hopkinsville Kentucky Stake, agreed. “They gave us a lot of good directions. Elder Wirthlin really got me thinking when he said we could triple the number of missionaries from the South if everybody at the camporee went on a mission.” And Greg Wyatt, 15, of the Prattville Ward, Montgomery Alabama Stake, added, “It was neat just to shake their hands.”
There’s an LDS chapel on the ranch property, not far from the site of the encampment. Saturday night its cultural hall was packed, wall to wall, with Eagle Scouts. “How many of you here have served a mission or are prepared to commit yourself to serve a mission?” asked John D. Warnick, director of Mormon relationships for the Boy Scouts of America. Every one of the 250 Eagles stood.
Then President Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve addressed the banquet gathering. “Our young people, men and women, are our greatest assets, and we have confidence in you,” he told the audience. “The future of our country will soon rest in your hands, and in the hands of young men like you.” He admonished the Eagles to “live the Scout Oath, Law, and Motto. They all express spiritual ideals.”
President Benson also spoke later to a stadium filled with every Scout from the encampment, urging the young men to follow the example of patriots like George Washington, who decided at an early age to live a moral and productive life.
President Benson’s comments probably made some of the Scouts reminisce about the opening night campfire. That evening, just as the sun melted away and the pastel horizon faded to black, a mile-long row of Scouts waited to march to the rodeo grounds. On a signal, they strode silently through an arch inscribed with the Scout Promise, “On My Honor.” On either side of the path, torch flames flickered, reflecting light from signs held by honor guards, signs bearing the points of the Scout Oath and Law as well as goals compatible with priesthood progression, such as baptism, serving a mission, and temple marriage.
At the campfire, a ceremony about the history of the U.S. flag stirred feelings of patriotism and love of country. By the light of two large bonfires, historic American flags and flags from every state in the country were paraded before the spectators. One of the adult leaders, Carl Reynolds, dressed as Lord Baden-Powell, traced the early history of Scouting, and the program also discussed the history of Scouting in the Church.
“Everybody cheered and cheered,” said James King, 15, of the Fayetteville Second Ward, Fayetteville North Carolina Stake. “It showed that we are great citizens of a great nation and that it’s up to us to hold it together,” added Randall Lowe, 18, of the Pensacola Second Ward.
In addition to inspiration received at formal meetings, there were some other lessons learned during the camp:
—“We’ve always been close as a troop, but coming to the encampment brought us closer. Our ward has always been like brothers, but now we know the rest of the stake, too,” said Bob Seay of the Spartanburg Ward, Greenville South Carolina Stake.
—“I couldn’t believe how many of us there were!” exclaimed Shaun Jurado, 14, from the Fayetteville First Ward. “When we got in that big arena, full of Scouts, it gave me a special feeling,” said James Thompson of the Ocala Ward, Gainsville Florida Stake. “You knew that just about everyone, 90 percent of the guys, were Mormons, all Mormons. It wasn’t like at school, where there are only one or two of you. It was just the opposite.”
—“This is what you call roughing it,” said Donald Graham, 17, of the Biloxi (Mississippi) Ward, Mobile Alabama Stake. “And missionaries definitely rough it. I hope everybody has learned and gained like I have. We’ve learned to cook, to take care of ourselves. At home, we let our moms do everything for us.”
—“I learned what it means to be friends,” said Tim Morgan, 12, of the Chattanooga Second Ward, Chattanooga Tennessee Stake. “You have to work at it—do the dishes even when you don’t want to.”
—“The adult leaders told us what needed to be done and let us figure out how to do it,” said Mike Roberts, 15, from Caswell Ward, Greensboro North Carolina Stake. His troop used a rotating responsibility chart to determine who was in charge of clean-up, food pick-up, dishwashing, and other duties. “Yesterday we came in from an activity, and we didn’t have to tell them anything,” Mike’s Scoutmaster, John Hawkins, said. “They grabbed the bucket, grabbed the detergent, and started washing their clothes.”
—In one troop, a Scout was unable to come to the encampment because he fell ill at the last moment. When the other troop members found out he was better, they chipped in $4 each to fly him down for the closing ceremonies.
—“I’ve always been scared around stake presidents and bishops,” said Mark Bailey, 14, of the Raleigh Second Ward, Raleigh North Carolina Stake. “For some reason I always feel like I’m getting interviewed. But living in camp with them has helped me make friends with them. Next time I have an interview, we’ll have some memories to talk about.” Elder Robert N. Brady, a Regional Representative who served as general chairman of the encampment, explained that stake presidents served as tribal leaders and stake presidents and bishops as Scoutmasters during the encampment. “It provided an opportunity for the youth and their leaders to draw close to each other, which was very beneficial,” Elder Brady said. “But it also allowed leaders to gain a new vision of Scouting and see how outings with the young men can be an asset in developing priesthood leaders.”
—During nine months of pre-encampment training, the troop from the Greensboro North Carolina Stake always encouraged sportsmanship during patrol competition. One patrol consistently came in last but was awarded a fourth-place trophy just the same. “We told the other patrols they had just beat the best patrol in the camp,” explained Scott Oakley, 16, of Caswell Ward. “And when we got to the encampment, that patrol placed first in two events over the entire encampment!”
—Ron Brown, stake president of the Charlotte North Carolina Stake, who used to live in Florida, told of working on the Deseret Ranches as a boy. “They told us someday they’d have orchards, and I used to think it was a pipe dream. Now I come back, and there are 300,000 orange trees. All of the things we talked about 18 years ago have come to pass. The same thing will happen for these young men. About 80 percent of the members in the South have been members less than 10 years. About 50 percent have been members less than five years. The Church is just beginning to blossom here, but when it does, watch out!”
As Scouts filed into the rodeo arena for the final ceremonies, they again formed a line a mile long. Tents still stood as a city in the background, banners still fluttered in the breeze. Old friends, now closer, and newfound friends, too, chatted as they waited for a slide presentation to the music of “America the Beautiful” and another slide show, comprised of photos taken during the encampment, to the tune of “Star Wars.”
There was a lot of fellowshipping going on. A Scoutmaster handed out pins reading “Follow Me to Tennessee.” Scouts engaged in last-minute patch swapping (no sales allowed), neckerchief exchanges, or simple handshakes and well-wishes. “We’ve been friends all the way through camp, and I’m sure we’ll continue being friends even when we go home to different places,” said Joe Hendricks; 12, of the Athens Branch, Chattanooga Tennessee Stake, who came to the encampment as the sole representative of his non-LDS troop.
Harvey Dahl, the ranch director and an assistant chairman of the camporee, smiled and looked out at the sandy soil of the pasture. “You know,” he said, “two weeks and one good rain, and you’ll never be able to see they were here.” What started out as an empty field would end up as an empty field, and the traces of Scout camp life would soon vanish.
But something indelible would remain stamped in the memory of every young man and leader who was here, something neither rain nor time will fade. Each person felt for a time what it was like to be part of the latter-day army of Israel, and each remains certain that the building of Zion must continue wherever he goes.
“In your associations with one another, I’ve seen some of you demonstrate Christlike characteristics of concern and love, even appreciation. I’ve seen you share and say thank-you or give up your place so someone else could sit or get in line. Those are the kinds of things that will make men of you, not just average men, but good men,” Elder Pinegar told the Scouts at a campfire one night. Perhaps that message was the theme of the camp, the message these young men took back to their homes and families and wards and branches. “Not only is Christ the kind of leader we’d like to follow, he’s also the one we’d like to be like. That’s our potential.”