The Merit Badge


“Landscape Architecture,” read the cover on the merit badge pamphlet. It looked interesting. I said to myself, “Self: Let’s get the landscape architecture merit badge.” I didn’t realize that I had nearly sentenced myself to an early death.

About the first thing the pamphlet said to do was to visit with the merit badge counselor. But I lived seven miles southeast of Puckerbrush Junction in Boondocks County, Oregon * —and the telephone had not yet been invented.

So I said to myself, “You don’t need a merit badge counselor. After all, you’re big and strong and handsome and you don’t need help from anybody. Naw. You go ahead and knock out the requirements first, and then talk to the merit badge counselor.”

Well, that turned out to be a not-so-good decision.

Actually, I got along pretty well through requirements l-a and l-b and l-c. Soon I had whipped out 2-a and 2-b. Even 3-a wasn’t too bad. I got through 3-b all right.

And then came 3-c: “Build a retaining wall to terrace a slope. Fill in behind the wall with dirt. Plant flowers along the top of the wall.”

Hmmm. Terrace the yard, huh? With rocks or with wood? Build it how tall? Build it how long? (The sort of questions merit badge counselors are so good at answering.)

I checked with Mom, and now I know how the Great Wall of China came to be: Some poor Chinese Scout, working on a merit badge, must have asked his mother how big she wanted a rock retaining wall to be. Mom said she thought I should start at the porch with a five-foot-high wall and continue on toward the forest for four or five miles.

Piece of cake, right? Wrong.

After gathering up a bunch of stray rocks and stacking them up to form maybe six feet of wall, I decided the whole thing was a genuine botch. See, before you start stacking rocks, you need to take a shovel and dig back into the slope a few feet. (That’s so the ground at the base of the wall is level, right?)

Out came all the rocks. Then came the shovel work. Grunt. Scoop. Throw the dirt out of the way. Restack the rocks.

Naw. That’s no good either. The rocks were all shaped like watermelons. How do you get watermelons to stay stacked up?

I said to myself, “What if you took a sledgehammer and cracked the rocks open so there would be a flat side to each stone?”

Go get the hammer. (We’re talking 14-pound hammer—the kind that put John Henry in a pine box.) Whack the rocks. Whack them again. Watch them shatter into useless rubble.

But not all of them. Soon I learned that you have to find a natural crack in the rock, and then hammer on the crack. (That way you get nice, flat sides instead of broken rubble—sometimes.)

Stack them up. Hey, this is looking pretty good! But I’ve run out of rocks, and the wall is only maybe ten feet long.

No problem. This whole 11-acre farm is made up of male and female rocks and litters of rock puppies. But they’re all hiding back in the forest, and they’re mostly buried beneath the ground.

Take the wheelbarrow and the shovel and a six-foot-long steel bar, and go get ’em! After you’ve found a likely candidate, you dig all around it, then pry it out of the ground with the bar. Then you grunt and sweat and strain and try to get it into the wheelbarrow.

Now you lay the wheelbarrow down on its side next to the rock. Roll the rock partially into the wheelbarrow. Now sweat and strain as you lift the wheelbarrow and the rock into an upright position. Now center the rock in the wheelbarrow. Now push the wheelbarrow over rough ground back to the work site. Now collapse.

After a few million hours of this entertaining little game, I had a pretty good pile of rocks near my retaining wall. Then came the charming little dance with the 14-pound hammer and the six-foot steel bar. Find the natural crack in the rock. Whang on the crack with the hammer. Ding on it with the pointed end of the steel bar. Sweat like a hog.

Given enough of this, the rock usually would break more or less where it was supposed to, yielding two or three usable stones with flat surfaces (“dressed stones”) to face the front of the Great Wall.

And then I made an awful discovery: My wall wasn’t straight! I mean, it was close to straight, and it wasn’t really all that bad. But as you stood by the porch looking down the wall, there was a definite zigging and zagging. And the top was uneven enough to make a fellow seasick just looking at it.

Time to start over. Out came all the rocks. Then I took a piece of string and stretched it out about 50 feet toward the forest and tied it to a stake in the ground.

Now we’re cooking on the front burner, kids! Up went the rocks again into a medium-pretty-good-looking wall. Now I had an absolutely straight wall, and the top was exactly level.

But about this time Little Brother came toddling along the top of my wall in his diaper ensemble and did a two-and-one-half gainer with a full twist (difficulty 6.3) to the terrace five feet below. Little Brother wasn’t hurt—though he made plenty of noise—but Mom decided the Great Wall needed a set of stone steps (so Little Brother could go from one level to another without having to use a parachute).

Out came all the rocks back to about ten feet from the house. Get the shovel. Dig back into the dirt to make room for stone steps. Select the flattest stones for stair treads. Stack ’em up. Pull ’em out. Try again. Eventually, I got the stairs to where they looked about medium-pretty-good. Now back to the wall itself.

Out of rocks again. Back to the forest. Find a rock. Dig around it. Pry it up out of the ground. Roll it into the reclining wheelbarrow. Tilt the wheelbarrow up. Center the rock. Push the wheelbarrow to the work site. Break up the rock. Fall over dead.

Then go get another rock. And another. And another.

(Say, friends, guess what this sort of thing does for your biceps and your triceps and your quads and your pecs. Soon, when I got on the school bus, I had the girls gasping in astonishment at my mean, lean, steel-belted, rock-stacking machine of a body. It’s embarrassing, having to step over the bodies of fainting females.)

Anyway. When my wall was out to about 60 feet (I lie not!)from the porch, I made a startling discovery. That much rock wall, absolutely straight, looked … well, it didn’t look right.

Straight stone walls are what you put around prisons. I decided what I really needed were some graceful curves in my wall. (Is the Great Wall of China straight? Of course not—and now you know why.)

Time to tear it all out again for the 87th time. Clear back to the stairs. (No, I didn’t rebuild the stairs!)

Then take the shovel and reshape the dirt to accommodate a curving wall. Then stack up those idiot rocks again. Then fill in behind them again with dirt.

Did it look pretty good? I should hope to shout! It looked purely wonderful! (Eat your heart out, Chinese Scout!)

I said to myself, “I wonder how long this wall is.” My tape measure showed 72 feet of wall five-feet high, including a set of stone steps. But it didn’t look … finished.

I mean, over here you have a beautiful stone wall, and right next to it you have the wilderness. I looked at the thing, and I scratched my head, and then I looked at it some more.

After about a week of this, I figured out how to solve my problem. (With the help of a merit badge counselor, I could have had my answer in maybe ten seconds.) What I needed to do was to gradually taper the wall off so it would look like the wall just sort of grew out of the hillside.

Then I conned Mom into buying some gladiolus bulbs to plant in the fill dirt behind the Great Wall. Finally, I was finished with 3-c.

My stone wall had gone from medium-rotten to not-so-pretty-good to medium-pretty-good to about as handsome a wall as any 13-year-old Scout ever had built (including Chinese Scouts).

Make that 13-and 14-year-old Scouts. During the 11 months it took me to do 3-c, I had had a birthday.

The other requirements didn’t amount to much, and soon I was ready for the long-postponed visit with the merit badge counselor.

On Sunday after church, Brother Perry drove out Puckerbrush Road into Boondocks County to pass me off on the Landscape Architecture merit badge.

Brother Perry and I were sitting on a couple of lawn chairs near the stone stairs at the base of the stone wall as he asked me various questions. We got through l-a and l-b and l-c and so on down to 3-c.

“Now let’s see your retaining wall or terrace,” he said.

“Right behind you,” I said, pointing to the Wall.

“You helped your father build this?” he asked.

“I built it myself, sir,” I replied (with incredible modesty).

Brother Perry looked at me with one eye sort of squinted half shut and said something about “We believe in being honest. …”

“Really, sir,” I said. “I built it myself.”

“With some help from … ?”

“From no one, sir. Really. I did it myself.”

“After your father brought in the dressed stones for you?”

“No, sir. I even dressed the stones myself.”

“After your father brought the rough stones to the work site?”

“No, sir. I dug the stones in the forest and brought them here in the wheelbarrow.”

There was this long pause. Then Brother Perry said, “Young man, take off your shirt.”

I did. Brother Perry looked at my biceps and my triceps and my quads and my pecs.

Then he said, “Let me look at your hands.” I showed him two large, strong hands well-decorated with thick callouses. Finally, Brother Perry was convinced.

“Here,” he said. “Let me sign that thing. You’ve earned your merit badge, son. Except it ought to come with gold plating and oak-leaf clusters and be presented to you by the President himself.

“But there is one word of advice I’d like to give you: I’m glad you’ve worked so hard on this merit badge. But maybe it’s possible to do too much. Maybe you could have earned several merit badges for all your work, instead of just one.”

At the time I thought maybe Brother Perry was right. But now as I look back on it, I’m not so sure. Building the Great Wall of Oregon taught me some really important things about hard work and pride in doing a job right. And those lessons have helped me again and again—on my mission, in my college work, in my career, in my Church work. Even when the Great Wall is gone, the ability to work hard and to keep after something until it is right will remain.

And now I say to myself, “Aren’t you glad you really earned your merit badge?” And myself agrees.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull

Show References

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    (Also known to some as Oregon City in Clackamas County, Oregon.)