A couple of years ago, graphic artist Rita Thurman’s company offered its employees five paid days to creatively pursue a passion. She and her friend decided to try blacksmithing, something she had always wanted to do. So, they visited a local living history museum to learn.
“We spent the day making hooks,” Thurman says. “It took me several hours to make my first hook; it was a huge waste of coal.”
Fast forward to last spring and viewers of Forged in Fire, a metalwork competition show on the History Channel, saw Thurman, dressed in a BSA field uniform and now adept in the craft, win the televised contest by skillfully creating historical weapons, including a sodegarami, a pole weapon used by Japanese samurai.
Forged in Scouting
Around the same time Thurman began learning blacksmithing, she also became a Scouter.
“All my life I had heard friends talk about the cool experiences they had with the Boy Scouts. I always really wanted to be in the Boy Scouts, but that just wasn’t a thing girls did,” she says. “So when my daughter came home from school and said that girls could be Boy Scouts and asked if she could join, I figured we would go and check it out.”
They visited a Cub Scout pack meeting, and the family was hooked.
“It sounded like all the fun things we wanted to do all in one place,” Thurman says. “I let the leadership know that I didn’t like to just sit around and play with my phone, and if I was going to be there, I wanted something to do. They suggested all sorts of things I could do to help, but having no experience in Scouting, I had no idea what any of those things meant.”
After taking online training, she became the den leader of her daughter’s Bears den. The Cub Scouts learned skills and served their community, and when they advanced into Webelos, they went camping at Theodore Naish Scout Reservation.
Meanwhile, Thurman decided to audition to be on a couple of survival TV shows — it might be fun, but those applications didn’t pan out. However, a TV production group recommended she apply for Forged in Fire.
“I let them know I was a beginner and still had a lot to learn,” she says. “But always up for an adventure, I filled it out.”
She worked on her metalwork portfolio by buying an anvil and equipment so she could practice at home instead of once a month at the living history museum. The girls crossed over into Scouts BSA, joining Troop 374 of Liberty, Mo., continuing their camping adventures. Then, the History Channel called.
Going to Connecticut to begin filming a samurai-themed episode of Forged in Fire meant Thurman would have to miss a campout. That’s OK — older youth take more ownership of their Scouting adventures.
“I have found that the best way to stay out of my Scouts’ way is to volunteer to help in other ways,” she says. “And to show the Scouts that if it can be done, they can do it.”
She definitely showed them as well as the show’s judges. The metalcraft machines she could use for the TV show were top-notch.
“Everything you would ever want to make the perfect knife was there,” she says. “Now remember, I learned to make knives on a coal forge with a big bellows and ground them on a stone wheel; we didn’t even have electricity in there. So I had been practicing with historical equipment.”
The four competitors were challenged with creating Japanese weapons; the winner of the contest would take home a $10,000 cash prize.
“I decided I would like to wear my field uniform on the show as a fun shoutout to my Scouts,” she says. “It is the perfect thing for any adventure. The other leaders accuse me of sleeping in it.”
Metalwork is a merit badge that Scouts can earn by learning about metal, related careers and making objects from metal; they aren’t to make weapons though.
Thurman advanced to the final round where she had four days to forge a sodegarami — a long spiked pole weapon. All four days each required 10 hours of work with a half-hour break for lunch, Thurman says. She finished it, and her weapon held up as the judges bludgeoned dummies and ice blocks with her creation. She won after her opponent’s entry broke during the final test.
The episode aired last April; you can watch Thurman on the show here.
“I have heard from many leaders who have Scouts who would like to learn about smithing and knife-making,” Thurman says. “I was so happy that they edited so much of my message to my Scouts into the footage.”