When Cliff Golden was a Boy Scout, his first camping trip was evacuated due to a tornado, and he got into the wrong vehicle.
“My brother got home and I didn’t,” he said. “My parents thought I would be so traumatized I’d never want to go camping again. I thought it was cool.”
Golden eventually became a Scoutmaster, and has led Boy Scout Troop 33 in DeKalb for nearly 35 years. In that time, he has taken scouts to 49 states and 19 foreign countries, including on a significant number of service trips. His scouts give up their school breaks to do such things as help at disaster sites or renovate a defunct high school in Kentucky into a distribution center for disaster supplies.
“You can tell kids things, but if you want to teach them, you have to give them an example,” Golden said.
Last year, he nearly canceled a trip to help at the center in Kentucky, because he had been feeling ill with sinus trouble.
“But it was an important trip, they needed us and the kids wanted to go, so I figured, it’s not killing me,” he said.
It turned out Golden’s trouble was being caused by a brain tumor the size of his hand. Doctors operated almost immediately, and while his recovery at times seemed slow, it has been remarkably complete.
“It was important to me to keep a positive attitude,” he said. “We’d been doing high adventure – climbing mountains, getting stuck in rainstorms – I thought of this as just another high adventure, just the first one involving tubes and needles.”
Before leaving on a weekend camping trip, Golden sat down to talk with MidWeek editor Dana Herra.
MidWeek: How did you become involved in scouts?
Cliff Golden: I started as a Cub Scout in the fall of 1961. ...I was sort of the little kid tagging along with all of the big guys in my neighborhood, and I was so excited when I could finally go.
MW: How high did you go as a scout?
CG: I’ve had more than 50 scouts reach Eagle Scout, but I never got my lifesaving badge. I hated swimming. That was the one thing that kept me from reaching Eagle.
MW: How did you become Scoutmaster?
CG: My Scoutmaster, Harold Snow, passed away in 1973. I was about 19 at the time, and I stayed around to help his successor. He had to stop doing it, and then his successor’s job was transferred. At that point, nobody else really wanted to do it. I didn’t really want to do it, but I didn’t want to see the troop die out, so I said, ‘I’ll do it until you find somebody.’ That was in November of 1976. I assume they’re still looking; I’ve been very patient.
MW: Why do you do it?
CG: It’s always been fun. I’ve had scouts whose sons I’m seeing come through now. When I start seeing their grandsons, I’ll know I’m in trouble.
I like doing all the outdoor things. ...You have different generations of guys, so even if you go to a place you’ve been before, you go with a different group of people with a different dynamic.
MW: How important is service?
CG: It’s an important part of the scouting program. I remember when I was a scout we planted trees on a piece of property that’s now the Merritt Forest Preserve. I can walk though those woods 45 years later and see the trees we planted. We have regular service projects, Eagle Scouts have service projects, and sometimes we have these high adventure service opportunities.
MW: Tell me about high adventure trips. How do those come about?
CG: Every year, I have the boys plan what they want to do, so the activities we do will engage them. It’s their troop, not my troop. I’m just kind of the custodian. We’ll do a couple of things every year that are considered high adventure.
MW: How did the overseas trips begin?
CG: One year, I thought I was done, so I was going to a big grand finale. I asked the boys where they would want to go if they could go anywhere. ...We finally went to Europe for 39 days. That was the first overseas trip I did as Scoutmaster, though we had been to Canada a couple of times before then.
We’ve tried to go back a couple of times, but every time I’ve planned a trip, we’ve gone to war with Iraq. I figure I should stop planning.
We went down to Central America several years ago. We’ve been to Mexico, Canada and Bermuda several times. ...Those trips are exciting and I think they’re the things they remember best.
MW: What do you do on international trips?
CG: A lot is cultural and historical. In Europe ... if you do four or five museums and cathedrals, you need to put in a little break, so we also went hiking along the Matterhorn and biking along the French Riviera. ...Scouting is not just about places and activities; it’s about people. Whenever we can incorporate that, we do.
...In Central America, we did home stays with local people, so the boys not only saw things and did things, they left feeling like they had an adopted family. At first, they thought everything these people did was strange, but by the end, they were like, ‘They do it differently than we do, but the way they do it works and it makes sense to them.’
MW: How do you afford all of these activities?
CG: It doesn’t cost anything to visit a beach or take a hike. We do a lot of cool things relatively inexpensively, and we partner with scout troops there.
We do a lot of fundraising, usually through activities in the community. The money we make is because someone chose to come over and buy something, not because kids were knocking on their door. We do popcorn sales and pancake breakfasts where some kids may go door-to-door, but mostly it’s being at things like the Ellwood House art fair, the Hopkins Park fireworks and Corn Fest.
MW: Let’s talk about the service trips.
CG: That’s another kind of high adventure. After Hurricane Katrina, we went down there and we were cooking in a big kitchen. They served more people than FEMA did. Because the boys had done pancake breakfasts, they all have experience in food service. The head chef at first was like, ‘Oh no, I’ll have all these little Boy Scouts running around, I’ll have to show them what to do.’ They were surprised a group of Boy Scouts knew how to knock out a meal for 800 people.
It’s hard to find projects, because a lot of people don’t want Boy Scouts. They want adult volunteers or church groups. As Christmas was coming, a lot of the volunteers down there were leaving. There was a religious group and they had been praying for help. When I called and told them the dates we would be down there, they said, ‘Those are the days we don’t have any volunteers.’ They thought we were an answer to their prayer. They needed a group of 10, and I was praying I could find 10 people. I ended up with 29 kids who gave up their winter vacation to go down there. Ten of them worked with this group that was helping homeless military families. They had gone out to evacuate cities, and when they came home 40 percent of the military housing had been destroyed. This group from California did gifts and we did a regular holiday dinner.
We also brought down 6,000 pounds of donated items we had collected and money to help the local groups.
In New Orleans, their animal rescue center had been hit by the hurricane, which compounded the problem. Pets were coming in by the thousands and they were trying to operate out of a small space. And once the media left, a lot of the volunteers dropped off. Someone told me to call this lady because she was so desperate, she would even take Boy Scouts. When I called her, she cried on the other end of the phone.
Mostly we just put together kennels for her. ...We went back with 15 kids during spring break. We cooked at the same place we had helped before and brought another 6,000 pounds of supplies.
By that June, a lot of the unskilled work was not critical, so we did a bike trip instead. Over the course of several years, we had been working on biking across the country, from Portland Maine to Portland, Ore. and from Thunder Bay, Ontario to New Orleans. We had a stretch to do from Memphis to New Orleans, so I thought we’d do that as a bike-a-thon and raise money. We raised $3,000 ... for the American Library Association, which had begun a fund to restore libraries that had been destroyed. They were having their convention in New Orleans that week, so I asked if we could present a check to some official, just quickly while they were between things.
I didn’t make any big deal about it, but the library association thought it was a great promotional tool, so they were promoting what we were doing and without us knowing. I was driving down there in the van while the boys were biking and I heard on the radio about these Boy Scouts from Illinois riding bikes to raise money, and I said, ‘Someone else is doing the same thing we are?’ The other adult with me said, ‘No, Cliff, I think they’re talking about us.’ Someone saw the van and realized who we were and bought us all dinner. We stayed at a hotel in Slidell, and they asked us if we were the bike riders from Illinois. We said yes and they said, ‘Your rooms are complimentary.’
After Hurricane Ike, people remembered us from Hurricane Katrina, so it was easier to find projects. We ripped out the last pieces of drywall in the house of a woman on Social Security disability in Galveston, and she couldn’t believe Boy Scouts from up near Chicago would come and help her. When we went back months later, the boys wanted to go by her house. ...They told us we could go in and hang the new drywall. She saw our faces and realized it was us and broke into tears. It was great for the kids to see that.
MW: What have you learned about disaster recovery from your trips?
CG: I always contact someone down there and ask what they need. People want to donate the stuff they couldn’t sell at their garage sale, and send garbage bags full of clothes. Once you have a couple of changes of clothes, you can launder them. You don’t need more. But you need food, diapers, medicine every day. It’s kind of a disaster within a disaster because people are being inundated with things they don’t need while there are other things they need desperately.