Happy campers — or not — and the lure of the Lowcountry
Pluff Mud Chronicles
I went to a traditional North Carolina camp one summer and — yes, I’m going to type these words — I hated it.
Looking back throughout the decades, my hatred might’ve been based on the fact I was a skinny kid — probably zero percent body fat — so the summer heat in Charleston didn’t bother me. Add in the fact that my level of ADHD exceeded that of a six-month-old Jack Russell and my bike was a Stingray with cool handlebars and you’ll find there was no need for me to leave our coastal paradise.
The camp I attended allowed campers to sign up for activities at the beginning of each week: Swimming, horseback riding, riflery, archery, flag football, art and nature stuff. These were all top-shelf offerings, but these pastimes were inferior to the unsupervised activities available at home.
What activities? Running around like a wild Indian; stepping on nails; building tree forts with wood, uh, borrowed from construction sites; slogging through pluff mud in search of oyster shells to filet my feet; crafting a bike ramp for launching my helmetless self into orbit; spending eight hours at the neighborhood pool dunking smaller kids; riding saplings; covering myself with poison ivy and chiggers; and doing my very best to shoot my eye out with my Daisy Red Ryder carbine action, 200-shot, range model BB gun.
One of the other drawbacks to camp was a problem as old as the Blue Ridge Mountains themselves: I hated the other kids in my cabin. Young lads are quick to form cliques and since my arrival at our cabin was in the afternoon and everyone arrived in the morning, I instantly became the stupid new guy.
I had not yet discovered the value of violence in rectifying these situations, so my un-welcoming committee was five little snots making fun of me. I tried to play the “I’m from Charleston, ergo I’m better than you” card, but it failed to achieve the desired sting. As a result, homesickness set in and I began counting the days until my departure.
The camp I did enjoy was tennis camp at Davidson College. Arriving at a sports-centered camp is a more pleasant reception, as no one has yet stepped on the court … and the court is where the pecking order is established. I was still a skinny little squirt, but played the game with some skill and generally landed in the upper ten percent in my age bracket: Not so good I needed to be hated as a “spoiled, little, private-lessons brat,” but good enough to be a little cool.
It might be worth mentioning that the tennis camp was taught by the Davidson tennis team, which included some of their varsity gals. At that age you aren’t entirely sure what you like about tennis skirts and toned, tanned legs, but you do know there’s something going on there.
Yes, for this Lowcountry lad, the perfect summer was right here at home. Sure, my brother beat me up regularly. Yes, exhaustive chores were required, like taking the garbage all ten yards to the can. The dogs needed washing if they rolled in something really, really dead. And the odds of getting in trouble were 100 percent higher than when at camp.
But, be it ever so humid, there’s no place like home.
Prioleau, my Northern European blood betrays me when April comes and any hint of normalcy does not return until late October or when I am at higher altitudes. Hence, I was most willing to try summer camp and any excuse to visit the mountains. I had visited Western North Carolina as a small boy and had experienced Linville, Cashiers and Highlands before I was ten; I was fascinated by my first view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and never looked back after the experience of cool summer breezes that did not come from a window unit.
I first tried Camp Greenville for a week. I remember that I rode up with Allston Moore in the middle seat of the station wagon as his parents took us to camp. I think my parents were to bring us home, but I became sick and contagious and Allston had to find another way. Before I caught the early stages of what became rheumatic fever, I had a grand old time. I think I knew at least a dozen of the guys from home. I was able to shoot .22 rifles, handle a bow and arrow, make something crafty to impress my mother and play checkers against Walter B. “Monk” Mulligan who was an old camp fixture who had a wizened countenance of pure joy. He had served as camp director from 1944 until 1967, and I never saw him lose a game of checkers.
Even more fascinating than “Monk,” the camp put on a fair for all the youths and it included a kissing booth. The assistant camp nurse must have drawn the short straw or was nudged as a result of her stunning beauty. Randolph Pritchard and I had the same idea and we purchased strings of tickets as long as our arms. After one kiss, you had to go to the back of the line, so we kept moving until our tickets were gone. Sometimes it takes a few decades to put things in perspective, but our “girlfriend” was a dead ringer for Catherine Bach in her Daisy Duke days.
Before the next summer, my parents learned about this place called Camp Windy Wood on Lake Summit near the town of Tuxedo. Many Charlestonians had gone to Windy Wood, and it competed against Mondamin, where many other locals went. I recall that I liked the director, Mr. Bill, because he was a devoted outdoorsman and hunted with a bow and had no qualms about hanging dead animals in his office. For three summers in a row, a full month of camp was pure delight, and I had some high adventure that I can still remember. We rode horses on mountain trails, which was very exciting, especially when we could trot a bit. The camp had an excellent archery instructor and I did well with that, but the lake’s icy-cold water was a challenge for all of us.
However, I toughed out the frigid water and eventually learned to stay in the canoe and avoid the bite of cold that awaited the foolish or unsteady. By my second year, I was able to sign up for a camping trip by canoe, which meant we had to paddle all the way to a spot on the Green River beyond Camp Mondamin. We knew that flipping our canoe would result in a loss of gear and wet sleeping bags; I had little confidence in protection from wrapping the gear in garbage bags. It was focus time because we had to paddle across what we thought was a huge body of water and set up camp. In spite of high breezes mid lake, we made it and gained confidence galore in the process.
My final year was magnificent. We had a British counselor named Paul, who looked like Davy Jones from The Monkees, and was always upbeat, cracking jokes or teasing us. The rest of the cabin included only John Huggins of Winnetka, Illinois and yours truly. Our cabinmate from Greenville had ruptured his appendix on day three, so we had a unique situation with lots of attention from our amusing counselor. Every morning began with “WAAA-KEE-WAAA-KEE!” and Paul’s voice was so loud that all the other boy’s cabins could hear him. No one needed an alarm.
We were the “old boys” and in our final year of camp, so we had done most of the basics the camp could offer and we focused on specialty things, like Red Cross certifications for swimming and rescue. John and became an “Open Water Rescue” chaps, which I oddly never used as a launching pad for being a life guard. We continued to reach for challenges. As I look back, I remember that Miss Jo, Mr. Bill’s wife, would read from “My Side of the Mountain” after supper. I am convinced that this tale of a boy’s rugged survival motivated us to think big.
As a result of a soaking rain on one of our overnights, John and I asked Paul if we could get permission to build some sort of shelter. With a green light from Mr. Bill, we followed Paul’s advice about building a tree fort among three poplar trees. We cut the logs to an exact size that Paul confirmed and then lashed the logs to the trees with super-strong nylon twine. We cut logs to go on top of those we lashed to the trees and found a way to cut a hole in the floor so that we could crawl up a ladder nailed to one of the trees. Before long, we had a second and third floor and a roof; you could climb out of the rain to the top. We had our shelter, and it was a smaller version of the structure in the movie “Swiss Family Robinson.”
We used hay from the barn to set on the top of the logs for comfort, and we had an extra log on the perimeter of each floor to prevent a fellow from rolling off in the night. John took the top floor, I had the second and Paul had the first. Naturally, Paul named our camp “Wakey Wakey Land” and painted with great talent signs shaped as human hands along the trail. All the other camps would ride by our camp on trail-rides, knowing — of course — that we were the coolest twits in residence.
Feeling like lords of the manner, we granted permission for the serfs, the other campers, to use the campsite as long as they left it as they found it. A little stream ran 30 yards below our tree fort; the babbling brook and the breezes in the poplars would put us to sleep. We could obtain all our cooking and cleaning water from this source. We boiled the water for drinking purposes and had large vessels to fill. If we had been on a bigger river full of fish, we might not have left camp all summer.
“Wakey Wakey Land” endured the mountain environment for a few years after we left camp and remained a cool hangout but eventually it returned to nature; Little Jackie Paper no longer went there to chase his rascal Puff in the nearly mythical land we adored. Other summer camps included a week at The Citadel Basketball Camp, which gave me a chance to become friends with Wade Boals and learn that I was not going to make it as a high school hoops player. My final summer adventure was Episcopal High School Sports Camp, and I know I learned a lot about D.C. that set the hook for future years of working on the Hill. Going into it, I recognized that I was not keen for boarding school and did not get the big nostalgia/old boy feeling as did those who were hoping to attend after eighth grade and probably follow in the footsteps of parents and grandparents. Like Prioleau, I knew well — or at least had heard rumors concerning — the many enticing attractions available to locally schooled lads and eventually learned that humidity and heat are far more bearable when you embrace — with your buddies — all the hunting, adventures and social life thriving in our Lowcountry.
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