Tim Van Schmidt
Part 3 of a 3 Part Series
I wasn’t in Harlem in the summer of 1969, enjoying the celebration of Black culture documented in the recent Hulu release, “Summer of Soul.”
I wasn’t at Woodstock either — seeing some of the most electrifying acts of the rock era. Really, all I know about that is what I have seen in the movie, “Woodstock,” still one of the greatest music documentaries there is.
My experience was far different than any of that. In the summer of 1969, I was at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in Farragut State Park in Idaho.
I wasn’t seeing Jimi Hendrix, I was seeing Up With People. I wasn’t grooving to Nina Simone, I was watching lumberjacks perform on giant poles in a big arena show. I wasn’t cheering along with Country Joe McDonald, I was listening to five-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens.
This event didn’t draw 500,000 hippies, it drew 42,500 scouts from all over the nation.
I came with a troop from Phoenix and we pitched our tents, met other kids, traded patches, challenged ourselves and our skills while generally creating our own community for a week.
And we were hailed from outer space by astronaut Neil Armstrong before he became the first man to set foot on the moon.
It turns out Armstrong had been a Boy Scout too. He was an Eagle Scout. Buzz Aldrin, the number two moon man, had also been a Boy Scout.
And it just turned out that the moon landing happened during our Jamboree. A mother of two Texas Scouts going to the Jamboree spotted the opportunity and prevailed on Armstrong to send special greetings. It helped that their dad was also training coordinator for the Apollo mission.
CBS News broadcast the greeting, as reported in the official Jamboree newspaper, “Jamboree Journal”:
“Neil Armstrong (from space): I’d like to say hello to all my fellow Scouts and Scouters at Farragut State Park in Idaho at the National Jamboree there this week, and Apollo 11 would like to send them best wishes.
Walter Cronkite: Greetings to the Boy Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park.”
Cronkite’s co-host, legendary astronaut Wally Schirra, also a former Scout, then added: “I’m sure you must realize that almost all of the astronauts have had some degree of Boy Scouting. It’s a very high percentage of the astronauts.”
Cronkite said he had been a Boy Scout too.
The day of the moon landing, I was writing a letter to my parents, describing Jamboree activities such as a massive candle-lit ceremony, a Samoan fire dance, fireworks, canoeing, and campfires. I had met Scouts not only from all over the country, but also from places like Scotland, Japan, Canada, Guam, and Okinawa.
But then it happened — Armstrong touched down on the moon.
Two days later, astronaut Frank Borman, pilot of the Apollo 8 mission that orbited the moon in 1968, also a former Scout, delivered the ABC News tapes covering the moon landing in person — and the images were broadcast on three huge screens to an arena full of thousands of Boy Scouts.
He also brought a message for the Scouts from President Nixon, who he had watched the actual landing with at the White House.
In our world, the moon landing was considered a great achievement.
We approached it as a point of pride — festooning the Jamboree encampment with 20,000 American flags in response to President Nixon’s Day of Participation, declared to mark the moon landing.
That’s why I found a specific segment in the “Summer of Soul” documentary particularly interesting. I was somewhat shocked about the negative comments on the moon landing by a number of interviewees who called it a colossal waste of money, time, and effort, while many people in their community were just trying to survive.
Their views were significantly different than what we felt at the 1969 National Jamboree. We were impressed Boy Scouts.
Just recently, in July 2021, I was heading to Sandpoint, Idaho to go kayaking when I saw the sign for Farragut State Park, just a few miles off of the highway.
On the grounds, there’s a museum dedicated to the Boy Scout Jamborees that had happened there so long ago. And I was kind of overwhelmed by this incredible flash of the past as I looked at the exhibits.
I can say, exactly 52 years later, that even though far “hipper” things were happening elsewhere in the world, for me, this was my Woodstock, my “Summer of Soul.” And it is as much a piece of the puzzle of what was going on in 1969 as anything else.
In 1969, I was cooperating with tens of thousands of others to create a busy, active, creative, character-building community, an experience we would take back to our homes all over the nation, thanks to being Boy Scouts.
We learned a lot — and a man called from outer space to give us his best wishes.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Explore his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”