© 2023 Robert Sickles
When I was 9, Dad said we should try the YMCA Indian Guides, a club with similar objectives to Cub Scouts, but each boy "Brave" was to attend meetings with his father. In the history of the human race, boys and men separate and go to some place for rites of manhood, so this father-son club in Indian trappings was an attempt to bring that back to modern life.
Dad and I went to a few meetings to see how it worked. We sat Indian-style in the circle and passed a fake peace pipe, earned feathers for our headbands by making wooden tomahawks and little paper canoes. We went on a rock-hounding field trip and watched a guy make an arrowhead, and chanted a solemn oath or pledge at the end of our meetings. I guess we were emulating the idealized parts of Indian culture— brotherhood, reverence for tribe, family and nature, and respect for authority and ritual. But no one was really teaching or behaving anything like that—we gave the term Wild Indians a bad name. The other kids were more interested in war whoops and pretending to "take scalps." I thought it was hokey. After a couple of months, I told Dad I didn’t want to go anymore.
But, as Indian Guides, we were YMCA members, and had access to the gym and other programs. I learned about their summer camp in the northwestern hills of New Jersey and decided that it was going to be much more valuable than pretending to be an Indian. I went for the two-week session, my first real outing away from my family. The following account is actually a composite of two summers away at camp.
The big lodge at Camp Washington on Schooley’s Mountain was, and still is, a beautiful setting (it’s now an event venue within a Morris County Park.) It overlooks a little pond called Lake George—that’s where camp kids were given swimming and boating lessons. A nature trail through the woods and over a little bridge led to the archery and rifle ranges (yes, real arrows and bullets), and at the stables down the road we’d saddle up and ride real horses.
There was a big flagpole, and four boys at Reveille unfolded and raised the flag as everyone stood at attention. At sundown, the steps were reversed to Taps. A circle of benches around a big stone fireplace/altar was for a fairly generic Sunday service, and also where we had story time, hot dogs and toasted marshmallows. In the craft house, we made braided lanyards, little fake birch bark canoes and whatnots out of glue and popsicle sticks. A guided hike into the woods led us on a nature lesson about rocks and trees. And we had running races and baseball on the big meadow.
Boys were housed in cabins according to age, and I took my bunk with the youngest group in Cabin 1, down at the end of the trail. Every morning we’d scramble around to sweep up and make our beds for inspection. The neatest cabin each day was awarded the coveted Broom, painted like a tiger tail. Each cabin had a young man for Counselor. Ours was the coolest of all. Mike was probably a college kid—kind and soft-spoken. I wanted him to be my big brother. (No offense intended to Roger, my real big brother!) In the photo below, sad-faced Bobby is standing with Mike on the last day of camp, probably the hardest goodbye I’d known so far.
I found this picture below of me (on the left) with my best buddy at camp, Cecil Seaman (or Theethil Theeman, as he would pronounce it, kind of whistled through his missing teeth.)
I think Cecil was the youngest and smallest boy at the camp, a cunning jokester with buzzed hair, big crooked glasses, missing front teeth and a froggy-croaky voice—he was so neat!
Cecil and I thought everything was fun and funny. We played in the trees by the pond and sat together at meals. We mocked the Head Counselor who tried to control 80 boys at mealtime with rules about elbows on the table and not talking with a mouthful (ha!) And we giggled over the lifeguard with the white stuff on his nose who looked like Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver. He called us little monsters when the Swim Instructor wasn't around.
Every day after lunch, we were supposed take a postcard or note paper and write a letter to our parents. For the evening’s entertainment in the big Lodge Hall, you had to drop your letter in the mail box as a ticket to enter. They put on something different each night— a Three Stooges movie, Looney Tunes, camp counselors comedy skit, a museum guy with a local history lesson, or a sing-along around the piano. I would not have remembered any of this if I hadn’t found a little trove of my letters from camp in Mom and Dad's closet. I have to tell you, reading these letters is rich entertainment for me! Below this photo of one of them, I've transcribed a few more:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m having a wonderful time. When you asked if there is anything I need you to bring on Sunday, well there is. I’ve been in need of a pair of pants for a while now. I’ve been wearing the same pants all week and the others are on the line outside and they are really wet, it’s been raining hard for two days. Really hope to see you Sunday. Please don’t forget the pants. I’d say you better bring underpants too.
Your son, Bobby
Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m having a wonderful time. I really hope you are coming on Sunday. I lost my flashlight. Can you bring the old one from the car? And I guess I’m feeling a little like Dad, I’m feeling a little pain in my thy. I’m feeling fine every other place. It really smells in our cabin. Cecil thinks someone is wetting his bed.
I haven’t had such a nice time for the past two days. I’ll tell you about it when I see you next Sunday. Also, did I mention I really need underpants? My last pair is up on the flagpole.
Your Truly, Bobby
New Jersey woods are full of an amazing variety of hazards; all young kids are cautioned to look out for poison ivy, oak and sumac. You could enjoy lightning bugs and toads, but the mosquitos, wasps and horseflies would literally lift you up and carry you away. Bears and bobcats and some nasty spiders and snakes seem to live in all the places boys like to poke. It seemed we all took turns running into one hazard or another that summer.
The final day of camp was devoted to a thrilling and terrifying free-for-all, a field game called “Message to Garcia Day.” I think it had to do with everyone running around trying to find the one boy who was desperate to conceal a slip of paper with something written on it. It ended in tears, of course. When the others discovered who the messenger was, they'd get to rip his shirt off, smear toothpaste on his belly and slap him until he was pink and raw with mint burns. Then some mean kids kicked and punched him a little. I don't know how "Message to Garcia" was supposed to be played—that's the way the game looked to me that day.
- I was told that a woman drowned in Lake George, trying to save her child. Known as the "Lady of the Lake," she would drag you under from your canoe if you so much as reached your hand into the water over by the lily pads.
- Big kids tackled me after a chase around the meadow and ran my underpants up the flagpole (see letter to Mom above.)
- Some unfortunate bedwetter in our cabin prevented us from winning Cabin Inspection until his parents took him home, and our counselor bought an Air Wick.
- Someone in a rowboat had to reach out with an oar to save me before I went under for the third time in my first swimming lesson.
- I looked into the camp kitchen and saw bunches of fly strips hanging from the ceiling. They were covered with dead flies. Cecil told me that's why they called the Kool Aid "Bug Juice."
- The horse I got to ride was the naughty one who liked to gallop across the field and into the woods and brambles.
- And I shot an arrow into the hay bale just as the adult was walking up to change the target. He must have assumed we all knew what he meant by “hold up, boys.”
All in all, I think I had a fairly standard 1950’s summer camp experience. I hear summer camp is so much safer and more sanitary these days—bah! I’m so glad I did it 65 years ago!