Thursday, June 29, 2006


After my little trek up to Mt. Charleston last week, I've been doing a lot of thinking about planning my next camping trip. Once I get past this next financial molehill (first truck payment, insurance, and registration all due at the same time), I can concentrate on heading back to the mountains. I need to break out the camping gear from storage and take inventory and make any necessary repairs.

It's been pretty damn hot here in Vegas this week, summer is officially here, so unless I'm in the pool, I'm generally indoors during daylight hours. But once the sun goes down and it's cool enough to get some fresh air, I like to pour myself an ice-cold vanilla rum & coke, light up a Partagas Black Label, and sit outside watching the night sky.

On the edge of our property, we have a line of mature pine trees providing shade and privacy, and as a bonus, they smell really good, too. That combination of residual heat from the daytime and the scent of pine trees always takes me back to those days at summer camp over 25 years ago.

Living in St. Louis at the time, I was part of the local Boy Scout troop based at our church. Coming from a large family with six kids, family vacations never involved going to expensive places like Disney World--we always went camping for as long as I could remember. So I was cool with being in the scouts. Plus, having four sisters at home, the opportunity to hang out with dudes was a welcome change.

Anyhow, the highlight of my summers from 1979-1981 was going off to scout camp for a week at S-F Scout Ranch located outside of the wonderfully-named village of Knob Lick, Missouri. I looked forward to that every summer more than I looked forward to Christmas in the winter. And since Mormons have their own version of Sharia law that forbids doing practically anything enjoyable on Sundays, I'd always get to go down a day early with a couple of my buddies and set up camp for the rest of the troop that would arrive the next day.

It was hard, sweaty work, setting up all of those huge canvas wall tents and dining flies in the blazing summer sun, dragging around wooden floorboards, and setting up all the cots for everyone else, but I figured out right away that it was a small sacrifice to make sure we got the first choice of campsites and the best equipment. Besides, by 6 pm the first day, the work was done and we were grilling hamburgers and roasting marshmallows out in the woods, while the rest of the troop was still at home preparing to road trip down the next day.

The first night was always the best--there was nobody else around besides the Scoutmaster and a couple of other adult leaders, but of course we set up our campsite as far away from them as possible. The next morning, scores of other kids would arrive as camp officially began on Sunday, but by that time we'd already done our exploring and knew the lay of the land.

Sunday night dinner was provided at the commissary--it was spaghetti & meatballs with salad on paper plates every year, followed by the opening ceremonial campfire. Afterwards it was back to our campsites, and the first night was always the most fun--that's when most of the practical jokes got underway. A favorite at the time was to put an egg under somebody's sleeping bag, so when they sat down on their cot, they crushed it, making a gooey mess. And you and your tent-mate never wanted to be the first ones to go to sleep, because somebody would inevitably toss a smoke bomb in your tent. Fireworks were strictly verboten, but nobody was going to get into much trouble for having smoke bombs.

This particular camp didn't have a dining hall like most summer camps. Two people from each 'patrol' would go down to the commissary and give their troop number and patrol name (Troop 962, Screaming Eagle patrol--I still remember!) and they'd fill up a basket with all of the foodstuffs and ingredients needed for the upcoming meal. Those two guys would be in charge of fetching the food, water, and firewood for the day, two others were in charge of cooking it, and two others were in charge of cleanup. Usually a patrol was 8 guys, so two people got the day off from those responsibilities. But that was the routine for every meal, three times a day--two guys hiking down to get all the stuff, two guys cooking it, and two guys doing the dishes.

Of course hanging around the campfire and eating were always highlights of the week, but that was just a small part of it. During the daytime hours we worked on earning merit badges in subjects like camping, cooking, wilderness survival (who needs matches?), orienteering, pioneering (I can still remember how to pull a wagon load of rocks up a 20% grade with nothing but two wooden poles and a hundred feet of triple-braid rope), rifle shooting, archery, canoeing, rowing, swimming, lifesaving, Indian lore, leatherwork, mammal study, environmental science, astronomy, and conservation. Interesting stuff--great fun to the average 12 year old boy.

Every afternoon we got to do a free-swim for a couple of hours at the lake, and there were plenty of docks and trampolines to jump off of. But you had to follow the rules or suffer the wrath of the 'Swim Boss'. I'll never forget the guy--his name was Gene Schnell. He was about six-and-a-half feet tall and I never saw him wearing anything but Speedos and a whistle. But if you broke the rules, you got to spend your swim time with a coffee can piling sand up to his eyeballs...

Another thing I always looked forward to was the troop float trip. One night during the week, after an early dinner, everyone would load up a sleeping bag, pillow, change of clothes, snacks, and a flashlight in a hefty bag and head down to the lake. We'd leave the relative civilization of the camp behind, and paddle across the lake to some remote area and sleep out under the stars, coming back at first light. Good times!

The highlight of the week was always the Order of the Arrow tap-out ceremony. The Order of the Arrow was like a mini-Elks club within the Boy Scouts, but you had to achieve a certain rank and had to be voted in, so it was kind of a status thing. After dinner on Thursday night, everyone would assemble in a straight line, shoulder-to-shoulder on the path at the edge of the lake. The O.A. members would be in back, and the unwashed heathen non-members would be in front under strict instructions to face forward and stand at attention in a military manner, and not say a word.

There were 'smudge pots' providing light along the pathway, and a huge floating bonfire out in the cove. Then a couple of Indian-style war canoes would paddle around the point with the sound of war drums pounding in the distance. It was all very ceremonial, theatrical, and fun to watch. Anyhow, the guys in the canoes were dressed up in full Indian-style garb--feathers, war paint, the whole bit. One guy was obviously the Chief, and there was much chanting and shooting of flaming arrows and such. Then, two canoes full of 'braves' would land on the shore, the drums would stop beating, they'd light up their torches, let out a war-whoop and then run up and down the line of scouts, 'tapping out' the newly chosen members--that's how you found out you were elected, by getting tapped out.

Getting 'tapped out' was a misnomer in those days, basically the Indian guy (always a huge muscle-bound intimidating soul) would run up, stop right in front of you and punch you in the chest, knocking you on your ass. Of course the members behind you were there to catch you, and cover your mouth before you could say ouch or holy shiat or anything like that. They'd drag you back in the woods and instruct you not to say a word to anyone, but to go back to camp, grab a sleeping bag and go to a certain redezvous point and await further instruction.

But as the pussification of the American yoot has taken hold, there are no more tap-out ceremonies. Nowadays they just call your name out. Wusses.

Anyhow, I got tapped out my second year of camp, and it was quite an adventure, and I was returned to my campsite early the next morning in time for breakfast, none the worse for wear. Bruises heal and chicks dig scars...

Even though there were merit badge classes to attend every day, it wasn't a drudgery--it was always fun. Nobody really wanted to do the environmental sciences stuff, but the Nature area was interesting--scouts were always catching live animals (usually snakes) in camp, and they had cages and such to care for them. One time the guys in the camp next to us managed to catch a Copperhead in their latrine (the stuff nightmares are made of) and some enterprising soul managed to catch a mouse to feed to it. That was a great show. Somebody else managed to catch a blue racer, getting bit about a dozen times in the process--for a nonpoisonous snake, it was a helluva lot meaner than the Copperhead. We caught a pretty cool prairie king snake one year, and the thing really took a liking to me--it the most mellow snake in the world. I'm not one to hang out with reptiles as a matter of habit, but I carried this thing around on my neck for about three days straight.

By the time Friday rolled around, most of the work on the merit badges was finished, so the afternoon was spent down at the lake participating in water activities and contests. There was the six-man canoe race that was always fun, and the greased watermelon chase was good for a lot of laughs. Once the fun stuff was over, it was time to take a shot at the mile swim. I did it all three years, no problem at all, but I was amazed at how many people cramped up and had to be hauled out of the water by the lifeguards in the rowboats.

That pretty much wore you out for the night, but one Friday night tradition was always the troop-wide water fight, under the guise of 'cleaning the showers'. This was in the days before super-soakers and the like, so we just used empty coffee cans and water balloons. It was always great fun and a wonderful way to spend the last night at camp, plus it gave the opportunity to settle scores that always seemed to be a part of camp life, in a sanctioned manner.

Breaking down camp and going home was always the least enjoyable part of the week, especially when you learned from fellow campers that some troops were staying for two weeks straight. But the opportunity to wear clothes that didn't smell like smoke and use a real flushing toilet again had an appeal all it's own, and it was always nice to get home. But after a week or so, I was always ready to go back.


Honorary Northstar C.I.T.

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