Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again. The same holds true for camp.
Our last night in Boy Scout camp always featured a bonfire beside the river with singalongs, ceremonies and skits. Our troop’s perennial dramatic contribution was the saga of Malcolm Ptomaine.
In Act One, our tiniest Tenderfoot would portray Malcolm arriving at the Boy Scout camp and suffering a series of misadventures, which included a rattlesnake bite and a fall off a cliff. Act Two consisted of a much-enhanced Malcolm showing his parents around the camp at the end of his first week there. Malcolm was then portrayed by the biggest kid in the troop in a too-small uniform. I can remember him brandishing a pair of trash-can lids and saying, “They gave me these dishes and let me go out behind the mess hall and eat as much as I want.”
Although only two kids a year got to play Malcolm Ptomaine, there were a lot of us who lived Malcolm’s story to some degree. At camp I learned to row a boat, paddle a canoe, cook over a campfire, shoot an arrow, fire a rifle, and launder clothes (in the shower while wearing them).
During free periods, my big brother Steve and I would host poker games on the floor of our open-sided cabin. An old suitcase was our card table, and M&Ms and Good ‘n’ Plenties were our currency.
Sneaking away from camp, we explored abandoned copper mines and dug for quartz crystals in a creek bed.
Because we had to pay a penny a bullet at the rifle range, I would run out of pocket money early in the week. So my latent entrepreneurial instincts came forward. Charging a dime per customer, I’d make several trips each evening down to the camp “trading post” to lug soda pop, ice cream and candy back up the mountain for the lazier members of my troop. During craft period, I’d make plaster-of-paris neckerchief slides and sell them at a small profit. And I begged. At my dad’s house I recently found a postcard I’d mailed from camp. “Thanks for the money you sent. I have spent it and need more. Please. Emergency.”
At night in our bunks, we’d hear horror stories of ghosts, murder and mutilation. Much scarier to me, though, were the rumors of how the older Scouts would initiate the younger ones. I was led to believe that some midnight I’d be dragged out of bed and stripped of my pants. Then, while others held me down, someone would take a Magic Marker and write “Troop 27” on my bare butt. I don’t know if anyone actually suffered this humiliation, but my unembellished buttocks and I greeted each dawn with a special feeling of joy and relief.
Not long after Steve and I dropped out of Scouting, the camp was closed and dismantled in preparation for inundation by a dam that never did get built. We’d always meant to go back and see the old place and about 10 years ago we did, taking along sleeping bags and food, aiming to make a weekend of it.
We found the concrete slabs upon which the mess hall and the showers had stood, but little else. Except for the discovery of a tiny scrap of yellow lanyard plastic in a clearing, we could find no trace of the scores of cabins in which hundreds of boys had slept summer after summer.
Steve and I walked through the copper mines and later we cooked over a campfire, frying everything in bacon fat. At night beside the dying campfire we reminisced in our sleeping bags. “Remember when Martin Crouse peed out the side of our cabin and we dumped him into the water barrel?” I asked.
“Sure. He needed it,” Steve said. “Remember The Hairy Hand?”
The Hairy Hand had been the official camp ghost story. “Yeah,” I said. “A guy was working in the copper mines and his hand got chopped off --” “
No, he was setting an explosive charge,” Steve interrupted, “and it blew his hand off. And they never could find it, but at night it would come crawling around on its fingers, and choke people while they slept.”
“But why was it hairy?” I asked.
“That was never made clear to me,” he said.
“Remember Bob Bajor?” I asked, knowing Steve wouldn’t have forgotten The swaggering college boy who was in charge of the rifle range, a place of macho magic for soft sons of the suburbs like us.
“Sure,” Steve said, “The coolest guy in the world. I can still picture him wearing that Smokey Bear hat and calling out, ‘Ready on the left? Ready on the right? Ready on the firing line.’” “I wonder what he’s doing now.” I said, staring into the dull-red embers.
“He’s probably sitting in somebody’s living room right this second, with his attache case open, and he’s explaining the difference between term insurance and whole-life,” Steve said. “Either that, or prowling through a jungle in Latin America leading a band of commando mercenaries.”
“He was cool,” I said.
It made us sad that the camp that had generated so many wonderful memories no longer existed. The next morning, we went home to our wives sooner than we’d planned to.
Now my oldest daughter Marie is 8, and she has begun asking when I’ll let her go away to camp. Ever since she started elementary school, her leisurely summers have been a special time of togetherness for us, and I am not eager to give them up. But I WILL send her to camp. Eventually.
I remember an overnight hike my troop took from the Scout camp up to a remote place called Sunfish Pond. As some of the boys were pitching the tents, I went gathering firewood and found my friend Billy Gilman sitting on a log, his eyes shut tight, hugging himself and rocking a little. Homesick. He missed his mom and dad so much it hurt.
I reckon that when I finally do send Marie to camp, away from home in new and exciting surroundings, she will tap right into the Malcolm Ptomaine experience. My only fear is that back home I’ll be tapping into the Billy Gilman experience.
Rick Epstein reconnected with rifle instructor Bob Bajor, who turned out to be a high school science teacher, not an insurance salesman. They made a date to relive their camp glory days and go target shooting.