JIM DODSON: Reviving Scout Camp Memories
Forty years ago this week, America was one uptight place. But I was one happy camper at Camp Wenasa in Browns Summit, the Boy Scout camp of the old Nathaniel Greene Council headquartered in Greensboro.
My troop, 120, a small unit from Guilford College, Scoutmastered by a philosophical Quaker, always went to summer camp the first week after the Independence Day celebration.
Looking back at the turbulent summer of 1968, which fell between the drug-induced "Summer of Love" and the rock-themed "Summer of Woodstock," that was the last summer I was really a kid, a year in which America lost a lot of its innocence, too.
In April, over in Memphis, James Earl Ray gunned down Martin Luther King Jr. Just weeks before I went off to summer camp, Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. There were race riots and anti-war protests breaking out in scores of American towns and cities. Television was showing "The Beverly Hillbillies" one minute, National Guard troops and looters the next.
As the son of a newspaperman, I was fully aware that America seemed on the brink of coming apart at the seams. But much of my early life had been spent hiking and camping in the Blue Ridge mountains and I was never happier -- or at least less worried about tomorrow -- than when I was sleeping out of doors, crouching by a camp fire, or wading in a creek with a fishing rod.
That's why nothing shy of a Russian sneak attack on my neighborhood could have kept me from going to camp that summer.
I was a skinny Life Scout with 15 merit badges, a senior patrol leader who'd just turned 15 and had his first serious girlfriend. I was scheduled to begin my driver's training in the fall. I had a chin showing a bit of peach fuzz and had seen my first James Bond flick. I'd sampled my first beer on the sly, too. I thought it tasted awful. I also had a secret crush on my best friend's mom. I thought she looked great -- for an old lady of 35.
It's funny what passes through a 15-year-old boy's head. Most of which can't be printed here.
Stuff You Never Forget
Because of four summers at Camp Wenasa, though, I knew how to survive in the wilderness with little more than a pocketknife and a piece of twine, if I ever got lost in the woods. I knew which plants you could actually eat if you had to, and which to avoid at all costs.
I knew how to start a fire with flint, how to cook a meal in mud, how to dress a wound with no bandages, how to rescue a troubled swimmer -- even how to orient myself by the sun and stars, or how to build a wooden signal tower in case the Russians ever launched a sneak attack on my neighborhood.
For the summer camp sessions of 1968, I'd been invited to serve as a counselor-in-training, even though I knew in my heart that this might actually be my final summer at Scout camp. In less than two years, I would have my Eagle Scout badge, my driver's license, and be zooming down the road to adulthood.
Funny thing, though. I never lost the valuable stuff I learned at Camp Wenasa -- most of which was really about myself.
I never lost my love for Camp Wenasa, either. I loved just about everything about that place, even the ancient Adirondack lean-to huts that collected the day's heat like solar panels and always had to be checked for blacksnakes and the stray copperhead when you straggled into your bunk after the evening campfire.
I liked the friendly counselors, the pomp of morning and evening flag ceremonies, the goofy wooden necktie slides I carved, the evening campfires and snipe hunts we orchestrated, the jokes we played on each other and younger Scouts, the new friendships you made with kids from other places. I even liked the cold-water showers that felt good after a day in the heat and dust of a Piedmont summer -- all of it far removed from a country that seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
Most of all, though, I loved the Mile Swim and eating supper in the camp dining hall.
I did the Mile Swim at least twice each summer at camp. The routine involved a clutch of supposedly advanced swimmers slapping around the weedy edges of old Brooks Lake, passing through a shady cove where if the snapping turtles didn't inflict major injury to a body part, the creepy dead white hand of Mad Dr. Brooks -- whose house and boathouse remained mysteriously empty across the lake from the camp -- was likely to reach up from the depths and haul you screaming to the murky bottom.
Somehow my groups always just managed to escape these terrors, though half the swimmers usually gave up before reaching the dreaded cove.
The dining hall at Camp Wenasa wasn't anything special, a large, rustic, un-air-conditioned shingled building with industrial-size ceiling fans and screens for ventilation, 50 or so folding tables, and a kitchen where three surly cooks prepared two hot meals a day for a couple of hundred Scouts. Almost every Scout was required to work as a table server for one evening meal during the week.
This meant you had to miss the evening assembly and flag-lowering ceremony in order to set your assigned table, pour lemonade or milk, and put out large, family-style bowls of whatever tasteless overcooked vegetables and mystery meat the three stooges -- oops, I meant to say "camp cooks" -- fashioned from road kill and leftover World War II Army surplus rations that day.
For the record, my favorite dining hall dishes were the legendary spaghetti and peanut butter sandwich that enjoyed a brief popularity circa 1966-1968 -- invented, I modestly confess, by yours truly -- and the banana pudding that could plug up your plumbing for a week.
Oh, how I loved those summer days at good old Camp Wenasa.
I couldn't help but think about all of this last week when Ted Tawes and Jim Whitlock were kind enough to invite me out to see how things were progressing this summer at Camp Durant, the Scout reservation of the Occoneechee Council.
Jim is currently executive vice president for district operations for the Council, and Ted is a former Council president who helped raise the profile of Camp Durant and Scouting in general 30 years ago.
A few years back, the Occoneechee Council embarked on an ambitious $8.5 million capital campaign to renovate and expand the facilities at Camp Durant, which is part of a pristine 2,300-acre reservation set in the splendor of northwestern Moore County.
The council stretches from the Virginia border to Fayetteville, serving an estimated 15,000 Scouts throughout central North Carolina. The afternoon we arrived to tour the premises, however, only about 220 Scouts were in camp. Camp director Lee Robertson was kind enough to show us around in a golf cart.
To date, the capital campaign has provided an impressive new camp sewage and water system, refurbished campsites and roads, and helped create an endowment fund for the perpetuation of the surrounding wilderness. The centerpiece of capital improvements is a $3 million Grand Lodge nearing completion, a rustic building that will feature a sparkling new dining facility and assembly hall large enough to serve 700 Scouts, a new trading post and snack grill, plus a quartermaster's center and administrative offices.
"What these improvements will do," Robertson said, "is let us serve even more young people in central North Carolina and provide an even richer outdoors experience -- more laboratories for learning, as we like to say -- than ever."
"Scouting has come a long way since I first got involved with it," chipped in Ted, whose father Edward, turns out, was a member of Philadelphia's Troop 1 -- the first Boy Scout troop in America.
Rustic Latrines Gone
When I explained to Ted that my patrol in Greensboro was the first one in the state to petition the BSA for the right to call ourselves the "Tar Heel" patrol, he seemed genuinely impressed. Our mothers had to make our shoulder patches, however, I pointed out, and since my mom was no seamstress, alas, my patch came out looking like a muddy foot.
"I also invented the famous spaghetti and peanut butter sandwich," I explained to my golf cart companions, after we inspected the fantastic new arts and crafts center, checked out the impressive archery and shooting ranges, and veered off to look at the site of the new Cub Scout Fishing Hut.
"I don't think that's on our menu," Lee politely said. "But let me show you this. Talk about cool."
As Ted and Jim inspected the immaculate tented campsite of a troop from Raleigh, Lee hiked me up a slope to show off one of the camp's brand-new shower and bathroom units. They feature hot showers with security doors and indoor flushing toilets -- meaning no Scout will ever go home with a splinter in his rump from a rustic latrine again.
Down at the waterfront, aquatic director Richard Connelly reminded me that my beloved Camp Wenasa has also gone the way of rustic latrines, that the Scout camp of my youth is now an upscale housing development in Browns Summit. In other words, we agreed, they tore down paradise and put up a cul-du-sac.
"Greensboro is now part of the Old North State Council and has its own reservation over near Yanceyville," Richard said.
Luckily, owing to enlightened council leadership by guys like Whitlock and Tawes, underscored by the financial generosity of individuals and companies who've nearly completely funded the capital improvement campaign, such a fate will never befall Camp Durant.
"My goodness, are those Scouts doing the Mile Swim?" I asked Connelly, pleased to note a group of swimmers enthusiastically splashing behind a crude raft of some kind toward a floating dock in Lake Nello Teer.
"Actually, no," Richard said. "This is the Huck Finn race." Every Thursday, he explained, any certified swimmer is entitled to fashion a raft from "anything he finds in camp" and compete in the weekly Huck Finn raft race.
"You wouldn't believe some of the things they come up with -- coolers lashed to logs, inflatable rafts with folding chairs," he said. "Some of 'em actually work, but a lot of 'em come part or sink. It's all about using your wildest imagination and having fun."
"My kind of place," I said.
"But we still do the Mile Swim, probably averaging half a dozen kids a week who complete it," Connelly said, explaining that they were required to do 10 complete laps out to the floating dock and back. Or maybe it was 20 laps. In either case, there were no more weedy coves and dead white hands dragging screaming Scouts to their murky doom. Those happy days are long gone.
It was nice to know Scout camp still had the Mile Swim. And I was pleased to finish up my visit by having supper in the dining hall with a pair of Scouts from Cary named Evan and Elliot.
I asked them what they liked about Camp Durant.
"This camp rocks," declared Evan, a First-Class Scout who was working on three merit badges and going on an all-night wilderness camp that week. "They've got so much to do here you, like, never even think about stuff at home. I could stay all summer."
"So how's the food?" I casually inquired, preparing to sample my chicken patty, green peas, corn and baked beans. There was even vanilla ice cream and chocolate pudding for dessert. Modern Scouts eat well. Their cooks even looked like they were having fun.
"It's awesome, dude," said Elliot. "It's even better than my mom's. You ought to try the chocolate pudding."
"Cool. By the way, have you guys ever tried a spaghetti and peanut butter sandwich?" I wondered, just in case my famous invention of 40 years ago managed to make it down the years.
Evan and Elliot both gave me a disgusted look. It's funny what passes through a 50-something's head at Scout camp, I guess. With that, I went and got a big scoop of chocolate pudding. As advertised, it rocked.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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