Select Page

otbrewer ( ** )

The origin of Operation On Target, as related by Doug Brewer

1973 – Seems like yesterday.

“Okay guys, here’s the score. The council has planned a big Merit Badge show up at the University of Utah campus three weeks from last Saturday. Expo ’73! Why, there will be displays and ideas, and you can get a good start or maybe even pass off one or two easy ones whole!”  Maybe it was my sales pitch. Maybe my own enthusiasm or lack of it showed through. Honest, I did give it my best pitch! But those young adventurists in our new troop’s first Patrol Leaders Council just weren’t very excited.  It was Spring! And the “boids wuz a choipin’ ” and the “sun was a shinin’ “. Buds were just starting to open up to turn the world green again. And however will intended, the merit badge show just seemed a little too confined for these ants-in-the-pants thrill seekers.

But that’s okay. I’d been to Wood Badge and I had a Plan B afloatin’ around up there in my head anyway. Glen Oliver, our commissioner, had sent out a feeler at Roundtable. “We want this EXPO ’73 to be one of the great memories for the council, and we’re going to kick it off big. We’ll have a grandiose opening ceremony, part of which will include the Signaling Merit Badge. We’ll put someone on top of Mount Olympus and at 11:00 am sharp, they will use mirrors to signal us down here and kick off the big event!”  “Do you think it will work?” he asked. “Will mirror signals go that far? If any of your troops might be interested, let us know.”

Bingo! I’ll confess. THAT was more my interpretation of what to do with Spring. Such vision was easily portrayed to the guys in the Patrol Leaders Council who now accepted the idea with enthusiasm, and soon Senior Patrol Leader Steve was on the horn with Glen, getting the scoop.  “I don’t know how to do it,” Glen told him. “I don’t even know if it will work. All I know is, it would really be something if it did. It must be 10 miles from Mt. Olympus to the campus, and making a contact like that – using just mirrors – would put quite the Scouting spark in the hearts of some of those 12-year olds, wouldn’t it?”

Glen knew the right thing to say to Steve Fairbanks: “Aw, it probably can’t be done.” And then he sprinkled that with the chance of inspiring somebody, anybody, to catch more of the vision of Scouting. As a scoutmaster, I was blessed by having a kid like Steve as Senior Patrol Leader. He just HAD THE VISION. He taught me a great lesson in outlook that I hope has stuck with me ever since.  Steve had that spark himself. He loved Scouting and also somehow had a thrill seeker’s bent toward service. He knew that to be happy himself, he as a leader had to make those in his stewardship happy. He wanted to guide his Scouts into memorable experiences. He figured that attendance this week was determined by whatchadid last week. Keep it fun and informative and interesting. BE a good example. Pay the price. He kept me on my toes. He wouldn’t let me skip or postpone a Patrol Leaders Council. He applied pressure on me to do my job by doing his. He MANAGED HIS MANAGER. He developed respect among his peers by letting each – one on one – know of his love for him. He’d personally help the new guys make their fancy leather-fringe neckerchief.  And there’s not a kid who’s now a man who was in Troop 502 who wouldn’t tell you, with great emotion and reflection, that they were in and a part of theee best troop ever. Had the best times. Greatest adventures. Greatest experiences, including service. Went all out!

Here’s partly why – “Don’t know’f it’ll work, eh?” I knew the way he thought; and also, that it was going to work. He started talking it up. He salted the pitch with a challenging, “They’re not sure it can even be done.” Chins started firming. Eye of the tiger. Troop 502 would take on this baby, and we were going to get the job done.  Kids started asking everyone they knew about signal mirrors. Somebody’s dad had an Army one with an “X” on it and instructions on the back that didn’t make sense for a while. We read them again and again and eventually figured them out. Oh, that was exciting when we finally got it! The light bulb turned on. The kids were amazed. Especially because nobody else knew how to do it – even Dad!  “Here, look Dad. Here’s whatcha do…” They were in all their glory! Somebody got a lot of scrap mirror pieces and we made our own. We conceived of more power by using bigger glass. This had to work. Everybody made their own hip pocket size signal mirror. Each patrol built their own biggee, one of which came right off Steve’s mom’s hall wall. (I remember his dentist father quipping, “He’s a good kid, but boy, he’s expensive.”)

And the Wednesday before the Friday we were to leave, Steve led a pilot patrol all the way up and back (elevation 4500 feet to 9996 feet) to take the big mirror, carefully wrapped with slit garden hose and plywood. And to leave it there so we knew we’d have it – in one piece. And to test-signal down to the folks at home. Picture in the binoculars three ecstatic Scouts waving jackets as flags and jumping up and down in uncontained excitement as they traded signals with their families in the foothills below. It worked. And it worked great!  Then the big day. Steve had earlier just boondocked up the side of the mountain. But the troop with younger kids, overnight gear and all, needed to take the trail which went up the back. We camped at the summit beneath the peak, but when we came over the top in the morning … a bombshell! It was the wrong peak! It was 10:00 am. It started at 11:00 am and we couldn’t even see the campus! The north peak was in the way. And there we stood, in all our victory – which kind of rhymes with stupidity – on the south peak! You could see forever in all directions but the campus! We never really thought!

And there, 500 feet down, straight down, which may as well have been a hundred miles and over 10 or 12 hairy jagged mini-peaks and then up another hundred miles, was where we needed to be. At 11:00 sharp.  Thousands, millions, of people waiting. And counting on us, theee world’s best troop – to kick off their big event. And our biggee mirror was over there. Way over there! Heartsick. Hollow. Dejected. Busted and disgusted! Woe and gloom. If hell’s a state of mind, we had a hint. And then, right there in the middle of my disappointed but realistic thinking, I heard the kids saying. “Let’s try it. We can do it. IT’s just scary, that’s all. We haven’t got anything to else to do.” But I had something else to do. I had a lot of living I wanted to get done before I died, and I didn’t want to get it all done in the next few minutes.  I don’t remember saying yes. I just remember 12 twelve-year-olds strung out all over that sheer cliff, tied together with clothesline rope. On the plus side, I guess we’d built such strong troop spirit that if one were going to die, we’d all go with him. That is a plus, isn’t it? Maybe somewhere sometime in long eternity, they’ll give an award for the Scoutmaster who said, “What am I doing!” the most times in any given hour. If so, I’ll get it. I know I will.

But if judgment day comes first, I’m in trouble – because when they play back that scene and all those kids’ mothers see what I let them do … jiggers! They’ll figure out a way to kill me again even tho’ I’ll have already died once.  Well, as it turned out, I was their hero. (For my marvelous ability not even to say, “yes”, I guess.) Because we made it! We crested that north peak just in time to set up and zero in and give the world won there all the rays they could handle. Why it was as tho’ we’d been up there ready, just a sittin’ and waitin’ for 11:00 to roll around.  Glen said later, “Wow! You guys came through like Gangbusters. Brighter than a spotlight. Like the sun itself!” And it was as exciting for the ones below as it was for us. Well… Serendipity: A happy accident. Discovering good fortune while looking for something else. That little exciting event not only kicked off Expo ’73, it also launched an era for one Troop 502 that began a lot of other things about like that. What a great Scoutmaster conference – to sit with a boy and talk … at 10,000 feet. Around the ridge from a pine-covered campsite on the summit. At dusk, overlooking city lights that begin to blink on. Scanning across towns and valleys disappearing in both directions off through the horizon.

And to talk together about life and how small you feel. And how tall you feel. How close you feel to God. How reliant you are on Him. How thankful you are for so many things. And share with a boy a “meaningful experience” or two. And listen for, or try to extract one or two from him.  Michael Taylor writes: This is Doug Brewer’s story about the beginning of Operation On Target. It was used by permission from Doug, and is found in Leader Lore, The Book, authored by Doug Brewer and Richard Russell. The book is published by Miravoy Publications, and copyrighted 1998. From this exciting beginning, the idea of sending many units up on mountain peaks with mirrors evolved. On Target has grown each year and has been a blessing in the lives of countless scouts and their leaders.

Click here to return to the On Target index page