Camp Brooklyn Memories (Jack Gilmartin)

May 6, 2016

   Coming upon your website ignited braincells in which many fond memories of Camp Brooklyn have been stored for 60 years, to be only periodically revisited by me. 


  As a member of Troop 79, which met in a Congregational Church on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Hawthorne Street, I was a happy camper at TMR for two weeks in the summers of 1946, 47 and 48.    Tim Laurencelle, one of the Camp counselors mentioned in Bill Dixon's posting "Camp Brooklyn Remembered", was one of the leaders of our Troop and its Explorer pack, and among other things, introduced me and other young Scouts to the fun of day trips to Silver Lake in Staten Island (via the Church Avenue trolley, the old 39th Street ferry, and a bus) and Alley Pond Park in Queens back when it was unmanicured and you could have cooking fires there.  He also headed up a memorable trip to Spruce Pond, but more about that later. 

  I am certain that none of today's Scouts can fully appreciate what it was like to be a camper at  TMR in those days.  The bus would leave from mid-town, usually via the Lincoln Tunnel, and find its way to Route 17 and head north.  Rockland County was still rural then, and in short order we City kids felt as if we were driving through uncharted woods.  After a stop at the Red Apple Rest opposite Spruce Peak, it was on to Port Jervis, and then along the serpentine highway that snakes along the Delaware River, and then we were there.  Our Camp residence was a platform tent with roll down sides; the bed a wire frame cot; the mattress a "tick" or large bag, and one of our first tasks was to stuff it with straw.  A not uncommon trick of some tentmates on another was to "french" his bed, i.e., redo the blankets so that legs could only go halfway down the bed, or sometimes put rocks or other things in the bed or under the mattress -- all in good fun most of the time. 

  World War II was just over,  the metropolitan area had not yet become suburbanized, air conditioning was just coming into vogue, and summer fears of polio epidemics were still prevelant, so we Brooklyn boys at Camp were in a world very different from the steaming asphalt and concrete of the City we had left.  And at night a unique and wonderful sound no longer heard --  the steam whistle of locomotives -- would be borne by the wind across the Delaware from the freight trains moving along the tracks that were then (and may still be now) on the Pennsylvania side of the river.  I vividly recall how each summer the coolness of the wooded Camp we had left would give way to more and more heat as the bus approached the Lincoln Tunnel on the return trip, until we exited the tunnel in Manhattan to be met with the smell of hot tar and asphalt and the sight of children playing in the spray of open fire hydrants.  That reentry into the City always made me feel especially grateful that TMR existed and was available to all for a nominal cost.  Troop 79 was quite ecumenical, and most if not all of the members were children of immigrants, so the nominal cost was important. 

   We were in Oneida in 1947, but I don't recall exactly which cluster of tents our Troop was in during the other  summers, but the names Tuscarora and Potawatamie come to mind.  Each cluster had a counselor in charge, probably someone in the late teens.  There were various rules that had to be obeyed (lights out, make your bed, sweep your tent, etc.) and infractions were punishable in a way that none of us minded but that would probably have a counselor up on child abuse charges these days -- assume the position and get swatted on the backside with the flat side of a straw broom. 

   The days were full of activities.  A sheath knife and hand ax were status symbols for the woodcrafts.  Rock Lake was for swimming and canoeing, and much of my time was spent there with my grade school classmate and fellow Troop 79 member Jim Trainor.  (Jim later got degrees in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and law, and had a quite successful career at AT&T as a specialist in technology licensing, and we are still friends.)  The annual joke was "Q.  How do you spell Rock Lake? A. Prock Lake. Q.  There's no "p" in Rock Lake. A.  That's what you think." 

   Of the various counselors and Staff members of my time at TMR, I most remember Charley Harris.  He appears in one of the photos on your website.  Among other things, he was the camp bugler, and the lonely sound of Taps at evening was one of his responsibilities.  He as a very nice guy, and had what can only be called "presence".  Young though I was, he impressed me as a born leader.  I have often wondered how he made out in life.  Because he was black, I guess the road was not the easiest, but my guess  is that he survived and prospered.  Other Staff members whose names I have are Jm Miner and Joe Madelane. 

  Some other random memories: 

   All campers being called out one night by Scouts,  dressed as Indians and carrying torches made of kerosene soaked toilet paper rolls on the end of sticks,  to form a circle around a huge bonfire.  Behind the circle "Indians" ran and then would tap some Scouts standing in the circle on the shoulder to be candidates for admission to the Order of the Arrow.  To be eligible, you had to have spent at least one previous summer in Camp.  To be inducted you had to first survive a day of working on various chores around the Camp while wearing a handcarved arrow strung around your neck and maintaining complete silence.  I was tapped the second year, but said "Yes" when asked a direct question (something that was not supposed to be done) by the counselor in charge of our group, so I didn't make the cut.  I don't remember whether the Scout working along side me who had the misfortune to step into a bees'nest and was hopping around trying somewhat unsuccessfully to stifle his painful cries was also disqualified, but that was a scene not to be forgotten. 

   Cropsey's Ghost was the favored ghost story to be told around campfires.  Don't quite remember the details but it had something to do with a local who was buried alive and came back to haunt the woods. 

   There was a place called the Donut Farm that was outside the Camp limits and was a hangout for Counselors and sometimes for AWOL campers who enjoyed the thrill of sneaking out of camp against the rules to see if they could get away with it. 

   A Troop of Scouts from Bedford-Stuyvesant who at one campfire turned out to be great singers of Gospel songs.  This was the first time I heard "This little light of mine". 

 The canoeing song:  "Hark the paddles, keen and bright, flashing like silver, swift as the wild goose flight, dip dip and swing." 

   Spruce Pond was another great camping site for the Brooklyn Council.  Tim Laurencelle led a group from Troop 79 to Spruce Pond for a long weekend in the winter of 1947-48 when the snow was so deep that we had to fashion snowshoes out of the bottoms of old orange crates (remember them) to get around. The temperature hit 20 degrees below zero Farenheit but we were comfortable enought in the three sided lean-to with the opening covered by a tarp. Then on Sunday a group of us walked to Tuxedo, about two mile away, to go to Church.  On the walk back, the wind was in our face and eyes began watering.  I recall Tim letting the water freeze so that he had icicles on his eyelashes on the walk back.  Those of us who were on that Spruce Pond campout made badges out of birchbark on which we inscribed "20 Below Hike" and then wore on our uniforms with the various Camporee badges that hung from a shirt pocket button.  Tim is another good person about whom I wonder how life after Scouting went. 

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