Father Spirit

Peter and Jonathan Dickinson on their motorcycle trek through the Himalayas.
Peter and Jonathan Dickinson on their motorcycle trek through the Himalayas.

The Boy Scout law sets out a dozen virtues for scouts to exemplify that, if adhered to, should mold them into truly good men. When he recites the law, a scout promises to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. When he says the scout promise, a scout is declaring how he will act on those virtues: On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

All ideals hold up lofty expectations. Some so high they seem impossible to reach. Thousands of boys go into scouting, but only about four percent reach Eagle rank. But some people do. At the annual Friends of Scouting Breakfast, a fundraiser for the Stonewall Jackson Area Council held at Farmington Country Club Feb. 24, a who’s who of Charlottesville was on hand—more than 200 people turned out—and when the Eagle Scouts in the room were asked to stand, at least two dozen rose to applause.

But it was the story the keynote speaker told that made the crowd think they saw the Scout Law personified. Jonathan Dickinson, an Eagle scout himself, just as his father was, told them about a documentary movie he is making about his late father’s final months suffering from Huntington’s disease, an inheritable fatal neurodegenerative disorder, and the 111-day motorcycle trip father and son took through the Himalayas in the fall of 2009.

Jonathan Dickinson
Jonathan Dickinson

Crozet’s Duane Zobrist, retiring as president of the council after four years—Hunter Craig is taking up the post—served as emcee. The council had a goal of $100,000, Zobrist told the crowd, and since the breakfast started $81,000 had been pledged. Boy Scouts in the council, which serves parts of central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, donated 84,000 hours of community service in 2010, he pointed out. There were 99 new Eagle Scouts in the council last year–a five percent rate, twice the national average—and they spent 18,000 completing their service projects. That rate is twice the rate of most councils.

Craig Redinger, an Eagle and the father of two Eagles, introduced Dickinson, who had been in the same troop with his sons, Troop 114 based at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ivy. “In scouting, teaching leadership is not so hard,” Redinger said. “But instilling values is more subtle. Reverence, duty. Those can be hard to explain to young men.” Dickinson was about to show that it can be done.

“By the grace of God, I’ve become an ‘expedition filmmaker’,” Dickinson said. He was wearing his scout uniform shirt with his dad’s Eagle ribbon over his right pocket. The uniform had patches from India, Germany and New Zealand on it. Scouting had taught him to turn obstacles into opportunities, he said. Before describing his project, he told a story about his dad, whom he referred to as “Pops.”

Before he got very sick, his dad was very strong. His dad had a career as a CPA going when the disease manifested itself. Once when the scouts were at Camp Shenandoah in Augusta County, the boys had gone on a night hike to the top of Elliot Knob. On the way back to camp, they were astonished to encounter Peter Dickinson climbing the trail on a mountain bike, out to pay them a visit. After a brief meeting, the scouts continued on their way. Jonathan made a wrong turn in the dark and got separated. He was lost in the woods.

“I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t die, my mom is going to l kill me’,” he recalled. “Tears started to fall. Then I saw a red flash. And I followed it. That’s what I wanted to be to my dad: something to reckon by.”

Dickinson next demonstrated a novel way he had discovered for tying a two-half-hitches knot. It started out resembling a square knot, but somehow transformed. His point was we need to look at problems freshly to see alternatives to them. “Dad needed a vision of how to tie the knot,” he said.
“There is a switch that happens when the giver become the receiver,” he said. “I can only hope that spirit continues in me.”

He said when he was younger he resisted the idea that obedience is in the Scout Law. “I thought ‘awareness’ fulfilled that,” said Dickinson. “I don’t think I would take away obedience now.”

“I took a sick man out of a safe place into one of the most disease-ridden places in the world. But that’s doing our duty. That’s what we do.”

Then he showed a short trailer for the documentary titled “Saga of Love.” “It leaves the victim unable to walk or talk,” Dickinson said as an introduction to the disease. In the film, when his dad would protest sadly over how much help he needed, how burdensome he must be, Jonathan responded, “I’ve been real happy to do what I was made to do, Pops.”

Dickinson helping his father eat.
Dickinson helping his father eat.

He fed his dad. He washed him. He wiped his bottom. He lifted and carried him. His dad was reduced to helplessness, and only Jonathan could really shoulder that responsibility in India. His dad continued to deteriorate as the journey continued. Luckily Jonathan had Indian friends—he had spent four months there after graduating from U.Va.—who went on the trek with him as a film crew and he depended on them. (One friend, Vikram Bhandari, is directing the film.) Still, despite all that strain, on the screen, along the rugged tracks that pass as roads in the Himalayas, there are moments of joy and freedom on their faces—this-makes-it-worth-it moments.

His dad would sometimes resist eating. “It’s important that we do what we can do when we can do it,” Jonathan said to him. “I love you, Pop,” he added cheerfully.

When the trailer ended, Dickinson said, “My Eagle Scout project was planting trees. Now I plant seeds of a different sort.” He has formed a company, Community Grown Films. He still needs some funding to finish the film about his father and their relationship. To find out more, visit its website: fatherspirit.com.

“All of us project onto our sons what you did for your father,” said Zobrist when Dickinson was finished. He praised Dickinson for living out the values scouting teaches. Zobrist said a campership at Camp Shenandoah would be funded in Dickinson’s name and also presented him with a special silver dollar commemorating the 100th anniversary of scouting in 2009.

Zobrist had one last announcement: the fund drive had crossed the $100,000 mark.


  1. Its very important for us your work. We are de Catalonian Huntington Asociation in Spain. Its possible to buy de film with spanish subtitels to play for our Huntington familys. Please tell me how.

    Thank you very much for your great work.

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