Mr. Jenny has been wanting to write creative stories for some time. He says he is "taking over" the Sunday spot on my blog and so we shall begin a new weekly feature here - Sundays with Steve. There will be a button and a tab eventually but for now just visit each Sunday to enjoy his words.
I disliked running, jogging, or any of those miles-long lung-burning exercises that others thought I should do to keep “in shape” or something equally foolish.
But that day I thought I was the bright one. While my group left for an afternoon run to the near-by Laird State Park then back to Camp Grizzly where our camp was, I volunteered to stay behind to build the fire in the old-fashioned water boiler, so all would have a nice hot shower when the run ended. They didn’t get a hot shower that day. And the afternoon run ended with me screaming “Fire!” and “Help!” into the camp.
Boy Scouts of America – scouting – occupied a central role in my developing years in our small town. It was an outside- of- school experience that had a large and positive influence on the kids who participated, and a lot did.
I was active in Boy Scouts starting in about the 4th grade through the 9thth grade, so about 10 years old through 15 or so -- certainly critical ages for developing young men.
Boy Scouts had ranks within its organization, with each rank achieved by accumulating merit badges. The badges were earned by learning, with some depth, certain skills or knowledge such as knot tying or first aid or swimming or life saving. Our group, Troup 158, had maybe 40 kids in it at any one time. We met each Monday night in the basement of the First Methodist Church on 7th Street. Every three months we had a “court of honor” where the mothers would bring covered dishes for a potluck supper and each Scout would be awarded the merit badges or new ranks earned during the period.
They did not have a merit badge in screaming for help or in yelling “fire!”, however.
The troop had weekend “camp-outs” through the school year at Camp Christy, named after our leader Roger Christy and located 30 miles southeast of town up in the mountains above Waha Lake. During the summers, the scout organization operated Camp Grizzly for all members in the region. If you wished, you could go to scout camp for a week.
There were other activities in scouts that we participated, activities that without scouting would have never happened: (We? Yes, always with younger brother David and a close group of scout friends.) The summer 12 of us from our small town took a chartered train with 300 other Scouts for a three week trip to Valley Forge, PA and a national “jamboree”; the Service Scouts experience where I became a tour guide for several weeks at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1964; and the failed attempt to visit Greece for a world scout gathering. But those are stories for another time.
Camp Grizzly (didn’t I tell you in another story that grizzly’s were native to North Idaho?) housed about 300 scouts at any one summer session. It was located 70 miles north of our small town of Lewiston, in the mountains and pine forests near Potlatch, Idaho.
The days were spent working on merit badges. There were week-long classes in preparing and cooking over an open wood fire using heavy iron pans and Dutch ovens, with the final examination being the preparation of a full meal for the rest of your group. We all passed the tests but I suspect that maybe we should not have. Two items of finite knowledge remain with me to this day from the cooking merit badge classes: Put soap on the outside of pan before you cook over the open fire, as it will make cleaning the pan much easier when you are done. And don’t leave soap in the pan after washing, as it will give you the runs.
There was a class every afternoon in water life-saving in the small lake bordering the camp – securing and pulling to safety drowning souls. I think I lived in that lake for most of the camp, and I became quite good at simulating the panicked drowning scout who did not want to be rescued by a clumsy boy.
There were numerous classes in first aid, map reading, hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, and much more. The classes and activities filled our days, leaving each of us exhausted at night.
Each troop had its own area inside the camp, a grouping of wood-floor tents and mildewing mattresses on the floor where you laid out your sleeping bag for the week. The tents were laid out so that they surrounded a fire ring where we could have evening camp fires.
Camp Grizzly had a cook house and dining hall that served three meals a day plus sack lunches for you to take on hikes or other out-of-camp activities. There was first aid shack where you could get a band aid if you needed it, a shower building where you could clean up, outhouses scattered here and there, the above mentioned lake with a life guard tower to watch after the swimmers, several small docks, and some racks to hold canoes.
The dining hall. Notice the bell in front. I rang it to alert the camp to the fire that was about to consume the shower house, which was to the left in this photo.
We cleaned the camp every morning after breakfast. The grounds were raked of all debris including pine needles and cones, a chore I never really understood as I was sure the needles and cones were a part of nature. I guess I was too “green” for the times, or maybe just a bit lazy. Sleeping bags were stowed, mattresses rolled-up, and lime was dumped into the outhouses holes (a disgusting job).
After a long day of activity, many of the older boys would take a run before dinner. I don’t remember why, but 20 or 25 would run the five miles to Laird Park and back, jump into the shower, and dress in clean cloths as if dinner in the creaky, old wooden dining hall was like eating out at the Ritz.
I ran a few days with the group. My lungs burned. My legs ached. But I had to be cool to stay with the group. What was I thinking? Geez. I had never liked running. In high school the mandatory laps were always the low point of PE. I preferred golf in the spring to track. Those daily two and five mile jogs while in Army later on in my life were never a great way to start the day. I must be have been fooling myself when I would meet up with a cousin when I was home from college for summers, for a daily morning run up each fairway at the neighboring golf course.
Three days of running with the Scouts at Camp Grizzly was enough silliness for me. On the fourth day I volunteered to generate the hot water for the showers everyone would be looking for 45 minutes later. The shower house was a small, self-contained wooden building in the center of the camp. It had maybe eight shower heads in a communal tiled room, and a changing room with hooks on the walls for clothes and benches to sit on. In one corner was an old metal contraption that looked like two rusted 50 gallon barrels laying horizontally, one on top of the other, with a stove pipe coming out the end of the bottom barrel and running straight to the roof. The bottom barrel contained the fire box, and the top contained the water to be heated. Pipes led from the water barrel through the fire box and then back, so that the fire heated and circulated the water.
That day I got the fire burning hot and fed it plenty of wood. The metal chimney was hot to the touch. Water was coming into the water barrel from an outside spring. All was well. At least for a while.
As the fire grew hotter, the metal creaked and groaned a bit. The water was warming nicely, and I could hear it circulating through the fire box.
I put another piece of chopped wood into the firebox and closed the door. Uh oh. As I closed the door on the bottom box the metal chimney fell out of the roof! It crashed to the floor. Smoke poured out of the fire box into the room, filling it very quickly. Flames were flying out of the fire box as well.
I used a towel to grab the metal chimney pipe and try to set it back on the firebox mounting. It wouldn’t fit. It fell over again. I started coughing violently from the smoke. I remember thinking, “Get out of there, Steve, quick”. Sparks began showering onto the wooden floor. I couldn’t see the ceiling through the thick smoke. I could not get that SOB pipe back into its fitting. My lungs started to burn just as badly as if I was on the run along with the other troop members. Right about then I started wishing I was.
“Give it up,” I told myself, and ran for the door. “Help!” I yelled as I ran outside, “Fire!” I saw the large bell in front of the dining hall that was used to summon the camp to meals. I ran for it, and rang it hard and loud to bring help. I was still coughing like crazy from the smoke. Even though I didn’t have time to panic, I did have time to wish I had gone running instead of staying behind and becoming a fool for burning down the shower house.
Help finally came. Even with smoke pouring out of the door and the windows, three adult leaders ran into the shower house. More adults arrived. The cook came out with a glass of water for me.
They got the stove pipe remounted and plugged back into the roof. Someone dumped water on the floor that had started to burn. The shower house was saved.
The cook told me to sit down and breathe deep to get the smoke out of my lungs. I did and felt better. I also felt embarrassed as hell, too. Geez, burn down the shower house why don’t you, Steve?!?
“No”, said the leaders, “It wasn’t you who tried to burn the shower house down.” The stove pipe had rusted through at the roof flange and had chosen that moment to collapse. It wasn’t my fault after all. Thank God, that was a close one.
We won the tug of war that year, dragging the opposing team of Scouts into the Palouse River that flowed alongside the camp.
The tug-of-war always ended the summer camp, and that year, it couldn’t have come sooner for me.
(c) 2010 Jennifer R. Matlock
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Figure Study of a Boy with a Sock Puppet.
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