The mission statement of the New Jersey chapter of the, "BOYS STATE PROGRAM," is: To develop good citizens in the USA by inspiring the youth of NJ to take a more active and intelligent interest in the operation of our state and nation and in the privileges and responsibility of citizenship and to understand the sacrifices made by our veterans to preserve our nation and way of life.
Sponsored by the AMERICAN LEGION, this "week that shapes the future," is present in every state. This year, here in New Jersey, approximately 900 male high school juniors, (there is also a mirror program for girls), were sent by bus from every corner of the state, to Rider University in Lawrenceville, (June 19th through June 24, 2011).
THE AMERICAN LEGION IS AN ORGANIZATION OF U. S. MILITARY VETERANS CREATED TO BENEFIT THOSE VETERANS WHO SERVED DURING WARTIME. FOUNDED IN 1919 AND HEADQUARTERED IN INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA, THE LEGION HAS NEARLY 3 MILLION MEMBERS, IN OVER 14,000 WORLDWIDE POSTS. WHILE MOST INDIVIDUALS ASSOCIATE THE LEGION FOR ORGANIZING LOCAL, COMMEMORATIVE EVENTS, THEIR PRIMARY OBJECTIVE IS LOBBYING ON BEHALF OF THE INTERESTS OF VETERANS, SPECIFICALLY IN THE AREAS OF PENSIONS AND MEDICAL ASSISTANCE.
Boys State is largely a group of seminars. On the most basic level, the delegates learn the meaning and reasoning behind the idea of political parties. Then the delegates are divided into two mock parties (Federalists and Nationalists) and into sixteen, fifty-six member cities. Within their cities, (named for US presidents), the parties nominate individuals to vie for office. On an advanced level, the delegates see how the bi-partisan political process works and how different platforms are promoted and maintained by rival parties.
The ultimate goal of this exercise, is to take today's vital issues and intertwine them into the fabric of these simulated communities. Then various officers, such as; county freeholders, city councilman, mayor, all the way up to governor, are elected. Even bigger than the political systems, the boys learn the depth and complexities of every day life, the realities of problem solving and the leadership skills necessary when they can't please everyone.
GET OUT YOUR MAGNIFYING GLASSES, ANDREW (HAND ON CHIN), IS DIRECTLY IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS PICTURE.The essence of Boys State is not shared by everyone who is selected. Although a huge list of prominent people have graduated from this program such as; former President Bill Clinton, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, current New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and even musician Jon Bon Jovi, Boys State is not for everyone. For various reasons, the attrition rate this year was about 5%.
Part of the attrition rate is evident in Andrew's overwhelmingly negative texts during the first two days. He has already been away from home and had a positive experience, so this was not a case of home sickness. My guess is, he's more of the creative type so the heart of his anxiety was the dry subject matter. More over, the American Legion's influence dictated a pseudo-military environment. Many of the boys likened this aspect to boot camp or to the extreme, prison life.
Andrew's tidbits of despair made me think of Allan Sherman's most famous (1962), song parody, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH."
ALLAN SHERMAN (1924-1973) WAS A COMEDY WRITER, TV PRODUCER AND SONG PARODIST. HE WROTE AND PERFORMED 11 SONG PARODY RECORD ALBUMS AND TWO MORE WERE PRODUCED POSTHUMOUSLY. HIS BEST WORK WAS, "MY SON, THE FOLK SINGER." OTHERS ALBUMS INCLUDE: "MY SON, THE CELEBRITY," "MY SON, THE NUT," "MY SON, THE GREATEST," AND "MY SON, THE BOX."The theme of, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH," is a kid writing a letter from camp (Granada) and spelling out how much he hates being there.
CLICK ON THIS LINK TO HEAR, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2Hx_X84LC0
The song, a parody of Amilcare Ponchielli's 1876 classic, "DANCE OF THE HOURS," was so popular that the single made the TOP-40 and made Allan Sherman a household name. Also, the record album it appeared on, "My Son, The Folk Singer," became the fastest seller up to that time.
IF YOU'RE TOO YOUNG TO REMEMBER ALLAN SHERMAN, "WEIRD AL," YANKOVIC IS TODAY'S SONG PARODY KING.
The similarities to Andrew's plight and Allan Sherman's depiction of life at Camp Granada are great. Many of the delegates that Andrew was exposed to didn't like the military regimentation. Andrew drew a comparison to the novel, "HOLES," and felt like he was doing "hard time." Plus, the host school, Rider University was a dump. The dormitory room he shared with one other delegate was a tiny, generic, prison cell-like compartment.
Another terrible part of the week was that Rider saved on energy costs by NOT providing air-conditioning. Therefore it was recommended that the delegates bring a fan. So unless you had inside information and brought an industrial strength sized one, your kid boiled every night. This discomfort led to Andrew's gross sleep deprivation.
Andrew also complained about the food other than breakfast. To augment the poor eats, the wide variety of vending machines became a moot point because nearly everyone brought "useless" ten and twenty dollar bills. Even worse for my boy, the bulk of the sparse, free time was dominated by competitive sports...which my scion doesn't cotton to.
His complaints were similar to lyrics of, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH." And the punchline of the song was that it rained the whole first day. But once the sun came out and everyone started doing fun things, the song ends with, "Kindly disregard this letter."
Slowly, the Boys State strict regulations slackened and Andrew's negativity subsided after a couple of days. Then by persevering through that suffering, he found his niche in the work and discovered a higher purpose, (he was elected Councilman).
On the last day, "BOYS STATE," holds a family barbecue and graduation ceremony. My wife Sue and I drove up. We were all re-united at 11:00AM. My first question to Andrew was, "On a one to ten scale, how would you rate your total experience?" He said, "I'd give it a seven but I would absolutely recommend it to other people."
He also added that one of the highlights was a visit from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who gave a rousing, "Rah-Rah," speech. I told Andrew even though I voted for Christie, I felt mislead by his campaign promises and think he isn't serving the common worker. But I added that it's a testimony how special the Boys State program is that the governor would find time in his schedule to address you.
A little later, I saw the militaristic presence in action. Also I saw the run down condition of Rider University, specifically his room, (that's one less college we have to consider sending him to). As we were moving his belongings to the car, I congratulated Andrew on his character. I told him that when I was seventeen that I couldn't have handled the concept of honor, responsibility and discipline rammed down my throat. I told him that I wasn't proud of it but I would have been part the attrition statistic and hitchhiked home after two hours.
The barbecue took place in the quadrangle. We got lucky because it was a humid but cloudy, 84 degree day. When the sun poked out from the overcast, it was uncomfortably warm. We were done eating before one. The three-hour graduation ceremony was going to take place in the gymnasium. Thirty minutes early, more out of boredom, we gravitated over there.
We found an abundance of seats. At first, it was quite warm in there but as the bleachers filled to capacity, it became stifling. In the interim, a band comprised of delegates performed everything from Sousa marches to Lady Ga Ga material. After some announcements regarding the American Legion were made as well as emotional citations to each branch of the military, an honor guard led by two bag-pipers opened the event. Through much pomp and circumstance each of the pretend cities and its volunteer counseling staff were introduced. The next three hours was a montage of music, speeches and awards.
The guest speaker was Boys State alum, Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The best part of his speech was that he never dreamed that he could go from such a humble upbringing to become one of a hundred U.S. Senators. And while his long shot of success is rare, the point he made so well was that every Boys State delegate can't imagine the countless possibilities of what he can and will accomplish if they know the issues and get involved.
The best service award acceptance speech was the retired military officer who barked like a drill sergeant only two words to the adulation of the delegates and appreciation of the audience, "BOYS STATE!"
For the most part, the rest of the long festivities were dull and we thought we were going to sweat to death. Even when there were moments of humor, the inside jokes went over the parent's heads. We took solace in that we could see Andrew in the crowd. That's when Sue got the idea to send Andrew sarcastic texts. It was fun to watch his response.
At about 3:30, we were teased into thinking that it was over when a mass of sixty flag bearers entered the rear of the gym. Then a gentleman in uniform proceeded to describe in detail, thirty flags used by the original colonists, during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
This sequence which included a procession of these flags together with the contemporary stars and stripes came to a beautiful, patriotic and inspiring conclusion. I may not be a joiner by nature and I would never dictate to others what to do but the sentiment was clear, that all those volunteers want to perpetuate the appreciation for our fallen soldiers and the sacrifices of their families. Not just on holidays like, Veterans Day, Independence Day and Memorial Day...but every day. Because the harsh reality of today is, what might be abstract risk to most, are the real lives of American sons and daughters in far off places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Afterwards, the warm, fresh air outside the gym revitalized me. While Andrew ran off to receive his diploma, I took the time to thank the American Legion hierarchy. In the distance, a tremendous black rain cloud dominated the western sky as Sue excused herself to wait on the line for the lady's room. During this time, I realized that it was remote that Andrew would ever become a statesman. But I marveled at the idea that he had an enriching experience and strengthened his confidence. More than ever, I felt he could become anything he put his mind to. I also pondered that we live in the greatest country on earth and thank goodness our freedom and way of life has been preserved, maintained and improved for 235 years.
When Sue came back out, she called Andrew to see what was taking so long. I took the opportunity to go to the restroom. Andrew hadn't returned but the giant black cloud was almost over head when I came out.
For a solid five minutes, you could count the individual raindrops. Then a drizzle began to intensify. The skies opened up when lallygagging Andrew appeared on the horizon. We ran about two city blocks to the car. Some moron with Rhode Island license plates almost hit Sue as the torrents caused drivers to use the hyper-speed windshield wipers.
We looked like drowned rats when we got in the car. But the situation did NOT improve. Hundreds of cars were leaving at the same time. I drove onto one of the six lines of cars headed to the one exit. The bottleneck effect of the traffic, in this storm of biblical proportion was so bad that we didn't move an inch for thirty minutes. When we started crawling foot by foot, I was shocked that there were only two security guards actually "directing" traffic.
We still had fifteen minutes of waiting after the rain stopped. And just like Allan Sherman's Camp Granada incident, we were happy to out of hated Rider College and on our sunshine-filled two-hour ride home.