LAKE WALES — Ron Cain strolled lakeside at a Boy Scout camp on a crisp November day, the exact spot where he finally earned all of Scouting’s 137 merit badges.
"I had to survey this field, which was ridiculous because there were hurricane winds," he said.
The sky was black, the atmosphere "creepy" and white-capped waves roiled the lake as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida. He just needed to complete a few more steps for the Exploration badge, his last one.
And as he cinched it in the middle of the ominous storm, a nagging pain was about to reveal itself as cancer.
In September, the 18–year–old joined the distinctive company of only about 350 boys in the 107–year history of the Boy Scouts. Cain, whose troop is in Lutz, is the first Scout in the Greater Tampa Bay Area Council of the Boy Scouts to earn all 137 merit badges. (Thomas Hall of Bradenton earned all the available merit badges in 2006, which was 121 badges at the time, and Harrison Hatcher of Riverview also achieved that number in 2009.)
And just a few weeks later, the teen found out he had testicular cancer. It’s considered one of the most treatable, but his has spread to his lymph nodes and appendix, so doctors are planning a powerful chemotherapy cocktail to stop it.
"This is where I come out and spend most of my time," he said on the shore of a huge spring-fed lake that Boy Scouts use for kayaking and canoeing at the Flaming Arrow Scout Reservation. Bok Tower, the 205-foot neo-Gothic landmark, was visible in the distance, some boat hulls smashed on the opposite shore thanks to Hurricane Irma.
The past month has been one of the best and one of the worst of his life.
"It was on one end a great honor on every level," Cain said in the shade of a towering pine. "And then on the other end is an ordeal."
Last weekend’s outing was his first venture out with other Scouts since his surgery to remove cancerous cells. Before starting chemotherapy, he was occupied with the statewide gathering of the Order of the Arrow, the honor society of Scouting, which he leads as the lodge chief for a council that covers nine counties.
He was eager to be outside among Scouts in the campground, which his father manages as a ranger. Cain chatted easily and knowledgeably with the adults, brainstorming ways to get slacker Scouts to live up to their commitments.
Cain grew up in Land O’Lakes and still attends his troop in Lutz. He was homeschooled. His father’s job as a construction manager moved the family around frequently. Scouts, Cain said, helped him make and keep friends. Those friends are now rallying around him to make sure he gets the best medical care possible. Moffitt Cancer Center is overseeing his treatment.
"The head nurse is an Eagle Scout," Cain said.
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"How many merit badges do you have, dude?" Pablo Flores, 14, of Jacksonville asked while learning finger weaving at the camp.
"All of them," Cain said.
Becoming an Eagle Scout is itself an impressive accomplishment that requires 21 merit badges. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Gerald Ford are Eagle Scouts. CEO Bill Gates topped out at Life Scout, just below Eagle, saying he didn’t excel at hiking or outdoorsmanship.
Meeting someone with every badge?
"It’s like meeting a unicorn," Cain said.
Each merit badge typically requires study on the history of the topic, an outing or a project and a report. It took Cain six months to track expenses and savings for a Personal Finance badge. The Snow Sports badge required the Florida kid to camp in a cold climate.
"He’s self-driven, and Scouting is boy-led, so if he had wanted to stop we would have supported that," David Cain said of his son. "Because when you find something they like, you let them go down that road."
A seamstress friend of the family sewed together two sashes so he could wear all 137. The sash crosses from the top of his shoulder to mid-thigh, covered front and back by the colorful badges in order from his first — Woodcarving — to the Exploration badge he finished as Irma approached.
It was his 100th merit badge, Scouting Heritage, that taught him to appreciate tradition and giving back. It was taught by the late Terry Tomalin, a Tampa Bay Times outdoors writer who was passionate about Scouting. Tomalin died of a heart attack in May 2016, and Boy Scouts from around the region attended his memorial, including Cain.
"Terry really lived up to what Scouts stand for," Cain said. "He put his heart and soul into this. He really got down to the basic level of why we do what we do, why we wear what we wear and what was the meaning behind it. It was truly inspiring."
That’s why, he said, when he earned Eagle Scout three years ago, he didn’t stop chasing badges.
"I noticed other kids were looking up to me. So there was a relevance now. There was a real true reason to keep going."
And that’s why when this is over Cain expects to put all this merit badge training to work as a public speaker. Instead of asking "Why me?" his father said, Cain turned outward.
"Instead it was, ‘What can I do to maybe help some other kid? I’ve got to let kids know so they are comfortable talking to their parents about it,’?" David Cain said. "That says everything about him."
Cain has learned through this that about 90 percent of young men with testicular cancer go into remission, especially if it’s caught early. He learned it is the most common of cancers for young men.
He thinks his badges, and the people he has met on the way, have prepared him for this.
"It’s crazy how the people you run into at the perfect time, you never would know you’d need them later," Cain said. "I’ll kick it in the butt so that’s a good thing."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected]