Editor’s note: This column was first published several years ago and is part of a collection of columns published by The Transcript. It is republished this month on the anniversary of that first summer camp experience in 1969.
The spring issue of Boy’s Life magazine gets folks excited about summer camp and the options Boy Scouts have now.
It hasn’t always been that way. I had the pleasure of camping with a local troop at Slippery Falls Scout Ranch near Tishomingo for a few days one recent summer. I wandered about and noticed a dining hall, showers and toilets.
When the camp opened in 1967, Scouts cooked their own meals, ate out of mess kits and dug latrines.
Down past the dining hall, trading post and air conditioned camp offices, the names of my old troop’s campsites began to appear burned onto cedar posts. Suddenly it was 1969 again.
There was Walking 7, a rocky outpost up the path from the old lake. It was here that I chased down the camp tractor, begging the young staff member to leave my patrol’s basket of food for the day. It was my first summer there, and all I could think of was Phil Boese’s threat to me at dinner the night before. He outweighed me by at least 50 pounds, played football and had been shaving for years.
“Don’t oversleep, kid,” he told me, a mere Tenderfoot. “Be out there with that bushel basket before six tomorrow or we’ll eat you instead.”
On the granite boulder, my Scoutmaster Steve Walsh stretched a garden hose on the searing rock and enjoyed a hot, albeit brief shower in the evenings. It was low tech, but it worked wonders for his disposition.
My troop shot bows, rifles and shotguns in the punishing heat and the breeze well into the night. We talked about baseball, fast cars and girls, topics we knew little about then and know less about now. We rowed, canoed, swam the mile and cooked.
For entertainment, we caught flies off the picnic table with our hands to see who was quickest. Mom packed a $5 bill for the trading post and a clean set of clothes for each day. Neither got changed all week.
We sold popcorn, pie and coffee at Norman’s St. Joseph Church’s weekly Friday night bingo games to pay for the camp fees. Tents and sleeping bags came to us from a parent who worked in military surplus at Tinker. He was good to us, and we never asked questions.
At the bottom of the trail was Dog Iron Camp. We called it Pig Iron since the troops that got stuck there seemed to be a special breed of Bohemians. Their official, green Scout shirts were constantly marked with ashes from last night’s dinner.
They smoked cigarettes, never combed their hair or washed their faces. They smelled and were habitually late to campfires and merit badges classes. They were lazy and slept in often, and we all envied them.
Beyond that camp was a long-abandoned footpath leading to a waterfall on Pennington Creek complete with a swimming spot dubbed the leech hole. We wore Levi cutoffs and black tennis shoes, and carried a towel and soap box just in case our Scoutmaster checked on us.
Scouts had to jump about four feet onto a big rock to enter the water. That separated real Scouts from those who just liked to wear uniforms and sing silly songs. An older Scout was usually standing there, his arms outstretched to help you make the leap. We usually left our clothes on the rocks and swam naked.
Big Phil, my first-day nightmare who warned me about missing the food tractor, carried me over the first time. If you got that far, the fear of diving from the falls into the cool spring water evaporated.
You were ready to take an Army air mattress downstream a mile or so, or wade up the Pennington in search of waterfalls, snakes, camp staff members and even lower forms of life.
Most of my fellow summer campers had brothers who were also Scouts. We came from the same Catholic church and stuck together. There were Matt, Brian and Pat. Ronnie and Mark. Chris and Fred. Rusty, Tracy and Casey, Larry and me. Chris and Steve. Greg and Mark. David and Mike.
Bernard Arens and Steve Walsh were our leaders. They were ex-Navy men with big calloused hands who drank gallons of coffee from stained cups lashed to their belts, always wore their uniforms and chose their words carefully. Lots of words. Many I’d never heard before or since and certainly didn’t dare say when I got home. No one whined or talked back to them. They commanded respect.
They always had cold watermelon for us at the end of the week. One would make up an excuse about getting his station wagon repaired and then sneak out of camp, find a farmer and buy eight or ten red-meat melons and a 50-pound block of ice.
When the sun went down and the dinner dishes were done on the last day, we’d yank off our Scout shirts, break the cold melons open on the hot rocks and devour them as the juices ran across our tanned faces and chests, knowing all the time that a moonlight jog to the leech hole wasn’t far off. The boys in Dog Iron would have been proud of us.