The other day I was on my way home from a Scout meeting, in uniform, and stopped to grab something at Barnes & Noble.

In the parking lot, a guy looked over, saw the uniform and said, “Thanks for raising them right.”

Somewhat taken aback, I stammered, “Well, we’re trying.”

But I guess in many ways, that’s all that’s asked of us: Get in there and try. Play by the rules. Teach and test. Laugh a little, scold a little, try to set a good example.

Heaven only knows if it’s doing any good.

I was thinking about this last Saturday during an Eagle Scout project. The job was to put in a flower garden at the pet cemetery at Wayside Waifs.

It was my kind of project: about three hours, lots of mulch and dirt and plants, plenty of volunteers and, mostly, I wasn’t in charge (the Eagle-to-be was).

The day was sunny and warm. It felt good to plant things. It felt better to be done. Somewhere in all of that, it occured to me that this is best of America, volunteers who get together – however briefly – to make things a little better, adding some beauty to be enjoyed by the next person to come along and the person after that.

I remember a Katrina relief trip in early 2006. I forgot to take, of all things, a hat. So it was off to Wal-Mart, one of the few businesses to have reopened in Waveland or Bay St. Louis, Miss., six months after the hurricane.

This was like no Wal-Mart I had ever been in. It was a warehouse of diapers, bottled water and clothes. Just the basics. I bought the one and only ball cap for $5.

And flowers. As we walked out, they were bringing in pallets of flowers, ready for loving, patient hands to plant, fertilize and water them. In the midst of people working doggedly to rebuild their homes, reclaim their lives and rekindle hope, it was a moment of sunshine.

Those trips to Mississippi and Louisiana changed me, not all in ways that are good. I have a lot less patience about how great things will be in the sweet by and by while listening to excuses about why right now we can’t meet basic needs – food, shelter, schooling, medical attention – particularly when it comes to kids.

I also have a lot less patience for whining and for frivolous things. But then, frivolity is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? We need beauty as much as we need food and shelter. We need flowers here and there, the more the better.

I once heard someone suggest that a good measure of an Eagle Scout project goes like this: Imagine yourself five years from now, not a callow 15-year-old, but instead a suave, wordly 20-year-old. It’s a sunny day, and you and your girl are out for a drive.

“Hey,” you say, “we’re in the neighborhood. Let’s swing by. I want to show you something.”

You pull up and say, “Look – I did that. Planted those roses. Hauled rock and sand. About broke my back. It was a big job.”

She is, we all hope, impressed.

Yeah, you say, I made things a little nicer. The world is a little more beautiful.