Camp Dudley smells…like my sleep away camp in Northern Michigan: of pine trees, Council fire smoke, sweaty socks, and moldy towels. There was cold lake water and unexpected wildlife, although no boys. Cabins had no electricity and in some cases, no walls, only canvas. A session was eight weeks long. During the first of many summers, I was miserable for seven of those eight weeks. That’s when I wrote some of those classic letters (“Gramma, Come get me! Mom isn’t listening.”), appeals wise parents ignore but save, so you can read them when you become a Dudley leader or dad.
Researchers report that homesickness is almost universal. It’s a common, daunting and necessary rite of passage. So “good job!” for meeting the challenges of going away from home and learning to take initiative, exercise independence, develop leadership and practice problem solving, also known as finding your own sneakers and underwear, and becoming a Dudley boy.
How lucky you are to be here, at Dudley, on Lake Champlain, in the north woods, among the high peaks. Disconnected from distractions, you can find the quiet to let you imagination loose, perhaps to imagine the Wyandotte and Iroquois in silent canoes, French scouts and Redcoats at Fort Ticonderoga. America has been blessed with spacious skies and a vast landscape. So much space formed our national character and inspired literary heroes like Natty Bumpo and Nat Turner, Huck Finn and Nick Adams, boys and men heading out for the woods and the wilderness, leaving home to find themselves or free themselves.
If this Adirondack setting does not prompt you to imagine yourself in the past, maybe it opens a vision of the future, of the person you hope to become. Clearly part of Dudley’s mission is to inspire in you qualities of leadership, integrity, kindness and courage. So will you be the super heroes of your own stories, or the scoundrels and false idols.
While some of you may associate false idols with the lyrics of a heavy metal band, the allusion is to the Book of Exodus and the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible. “I am the Lord thy God; Thou shalt have no other gods or graven images…” (20:4). The early Christian church would debate this rule in terms of church decoration. In the eighth century the hot topic was, is it sinful to have statues? The word “iconoclasm” came from the smashing of Christian icons during this period. Eventually, Catholics decided to keep but not worship any statues or pictures. In opposition the Protestant Reformation destroyed statues and stained glass, many of them masterpieces. The Eastern Orthodox Church allowed three-dimensional images of Jesus but not of God in heaven, while Jews and Muslims read the Commandment as a prohibition on all idols and images.
I live in Washington, DC, a city full of statues and some fallen idols. Every traffic circle and public park centers on a statue, most of them military men on horseback – McPherson, Thomas, Scott, Grant, Sheridan, Lafayette – heroes we barely recall but to whom a grateful nation erected a statue to note their valor and leadership. (Just a note to mention that there are just two outdoor statues of women in Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, an African American educator in the era of Eleanor Roosevelt, and a group of army nurses from the Korean War.)
Along the Mall, “America’s front yard,” are the major monuments: the soaring obelisk for George Washington, the dome over Thomas Jefferson, the solid mass of the Lincoln Memorial. Along the reflecting pool are memorials to the dead of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. New additions include a plaza commemorating Franklin Roosevelt and an enormous pink granite statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., the first monument on the mall to a black man. It created controversy because the designers edited King’s soaring language, shortening quotes to fit the space.
The next proposed memorial will honor Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was President in the 1950s, after serving as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II. He planned and launched D-Day and defeated Hitler. But his memorial has become controversial too because of its design, by architect Frank Gehry, whose work you would recognize from its curving roofs. He has proposed a small park surrounding a statue of Ike at age ten, as a barefoot boy growing up on a farm in Abilene, Kansas. It’s a reference to a speech the General gave in 1945: “No man is really a man who has lost out of himself all of the boy. I want to speak to the dreams of a barefoot boy.” He wanted to recall the innocence, resilience, joy and imagination of being young like you and dreaming of your future.
The debate about Eisenhower’s memorial will be resolved this fall and the quotes surrounding the King statue will be restored. And in another town, in Pennsylvania, a community will adjust to the removal of an iconic statue of a football coach. Amid the scandal and sorrow at Penn State, one reporter concluded that perhaps we shouldn’t erect statues to living people because it’s too soon to know if they have flaws, acknowledging that people, like statues, have feet of clay. The metaphor is apt because sculptors make statues first from clay or wax and then marble, granite or bronze.
So who deserves a statue? What hero does not have feet of clay? Historians believe that George Washington, a rock star in his era, was as honorable as claimed. When he was 15, he wrote a list of habits to practice to become a good man – no spitting, no lying and learning to dance. He risked his life and immense fortune is waging the War of Independence, an act of treason had he failed. He was the only slave-holding President to free his slaves on his death, although most of them belonged to Martha and remained in bondage.
In contrast, Thomas Jefferson, who gave us the transformative language of Declaration of Independence, owned hundreds of slaves and only freed the four red-headed light-skinned children he sired with his slave concubine Sally Hemmings, his dead wife’s half sister. Lincoln held the union together and freed the slaves. He shared all the racial bias of his era and rose above it. Franklin Roosevelt delayed giving lend lease aide to the Brits until after the Blitz and refused to act on reports of a Nazi Holocaust. All heroes, all human, all flawed.
Maybe the early Christians were right to worry about statues and false idols. Who among us has no flaws? Will any of us merit a statue, a building or even a plaque? Probably not. But that’s not a reason not to aspire to be a hero, especially of your own story.
Who are the heroes? Soldiers defending their country and comrades; firefighters who run into buildings others are fleeing; parents who fall on top of their children when real gunfire explodes in a movie theater. Heroes slay dragons, defeat evil, defend Gotham, rescue Metropolis, save the world, leave no man behind and get the girl
Is heroism only physical courage, fueled by adrenalin and fear, or is it also the grit to cope with homesickness, the integrity to stand up to a bully, the guts to confront one’s addictions, to speak out against prejudice, to challenge injustice, to tell the truth. Or maybe they report cheaters or turn in abusers or don’t let friends drive drunk or call someone out who uses racial or sexual or homophobic slurs. Heroes avoid the false ideologies of dishonesty, bias, self indulgence and indifference. Consider Atticus Finch, the dad and defense attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird, as a role model.
Heroism can start small. It can start in your imagination. Imagine yourself brave, honorable, open-hearted. Be brave and kind and good. Put “the other fellow first.” Be a Dudley boy.
Closing prayer: Be a witness for the Lord. Be a brave heart.