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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

February 6, 2018: Famous Boy Scouts: Neil Armstrong and George Takei

[On February 8th, 1910, Chicago publisher William D. Boyce incorporated the Boys Scouts of America, a US version of the international Scouting organization. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boyce and a handful of other figures connected to the Boy Scouts, leading up to a weekend post on the Scouts in the 21st century.]
On two different, equally groundbreaking forms of extraterrestrial exploration.
It’s of course not the biographical detail for which he’s best known, but Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) was likely the most famous Boy and Eagle Scout of all time. Armstrong joined the Scouts as a boy in Ohio in the late 1930s, and attained the rank of Eagle Scout as a teenager in the early 1940s; during his famous July 1969 space voyage to the moon on the Columbia, he radioed back, “I'd like to say hello to all my fellow Scouts and Scouters at Farragut State Park in Idaho having a National Jamboree there this week; and Apollo 11 would like to send them best wishes.” The Scouting experiences of actor and activist George Takei (1937- ) are far less well known, but pretty unique and interesting in their own right; after spending much of his early life in a Japanese internment camp, Takei moved with his family back to Los Angeles after World War II, and there he joined Boy Scout Troop 379, organized as part of the city’s famous Koyasan Buddhist Temple. While these two 1940s Scouting (and life) experiences might seem dramatically distinct, I’d also argue that they reflect the way that a national community such as the Boy Scouts can in fact cut across such regional, cultural, and historical differences and help link young Americans in symbolic but meaningful ways.
The Scouts aren’t the only link between Armstrong and Takei, of course; and while the two men journeyed to space—the final frontier—in vastly different ways, both of their extraterrestrial experiences could be said to have importantly pushed the boundaries of our society. In this post from almost exactly three years ago I wrote about the persistent conspiracy theories about Armstrong and company’s 1969 moon landing, and I would argue that, ironically but definitely, those extremist theories themselves reflect just how significantly the moon landing affected and shifted our collective narratives and perspectives. That is, Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” was giant not only for the more obvious (and certainly accurate) reasons of exploration and science and human achievement and the like, but also for the way it fundamentally and permanently altered our shared horizon. Authors and artists had of course been imagining voyages to the moon for centuries, but the trip, and thus in some meaningful ways the place itself, had remained at that imaginative, that speculative, level (not in actuality, where the moon has always been perfectly real, but in our human perspectives). When Armstrong’s feet first touched the surface of the moon, that all changed; now this distant celestial body was part of our collective landscape of experience.
Unlike the Columbia, the Starship Enterprise never got further off the ground than whatever contraption might have been employed at NBC Studios to make it appear that the Star Trek cast were indeed boldly going where no man had ever gone before. But that doesn’t mean that Captain Kirk and company didn’t truly expand our frontiers in all sorts of ways, and I would argue that the show’s casting was in 1966 (the year it premiered) one prominent form of expansion. African American actress Nichelle Nichols (as communications officer Lieutenant Uhuru) was one important such casting choice, a striking nod to an interracial and integrated crew on this future exploratory mission. But casting George Takei as helmsman Lieutenant Sulu was just as groundbreaking, and indeed perhaps even more so given the frustrating paucity of Asian American characters and actors in 1950s and 60s television shows. As with Nichols, I don’t believe that the show engaged much at all with these characters’ racial or ethnic identities, which only amplified the sense that they were simply members of the Enterprise’s crew, participating in these extraterrestrial missions on equal terms with William Shatner’s Kirk, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, and all the rest. That Takei has since become one of our culture’s most iconic and outspoken gay men (and gay rights advocates) only adds one more layer to his contribution to those social and cultural explorations and expansions.
Next Scouts tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Scouting histories or stories you’d share?

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