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Life Lessons at Ten Mile River Scout Camps: Navigating the Unexpected (Stephen Bergman)

Suanhacky Lodge WWW Chief, 1959-1960

The immediate and the extended benefits of Ten Mile River attendance in the 1950s were many and various. Unbeknown to us, the Scouts, we were being exposed to the advantages of a highly organized social model...a model providing a valuable foundation for any and all life long pursuits. But at TMR, we were so occupied "living the life" that there was no opportunity or inclination to stop and evaluate its merits. Camp life is of necessity deliberately structured if Scouts are to successfully advance in rank, while, at the same time, having great fun. The daily routine was explicitly defined, from reveille to taps. Built in was the abundant opportunity for pursuit of personal interests. There were numerous opportunities to earn merit badges as well as to participate in activities of all stripes: handicrafts, nature projects, sports, aquatics. TMR camps of the 1950s offered a program rich in possibilities. But, life on the TMR Scout Reservation, as well as life subsequently, is filled with twists and turns. In some circumstances, it is the unanticipated experiences, which, over time, prove particularly noteworthy. Sixty years after the fact, this Scout/Staff Man vividly recalls several unconventional events at TMR that define the years of camp participation in perhaps a manner more striking than do those routine events that are promoted in the camp literature. There are several such experiences that, understandably, are remembered life long and that continue to exert an influence.


When the list of merit badge classes was posted, a fellow Lakeside Scout and I decided to opt for Hiking Merit Badge. We were the only campers who signed up. It turned out that the requirement was, for the first week, to serve as an indentured servant to the camp quartermaster--the staff man who was in charge of Hiking Merit Badge--cleaning, sorting gear, sweeping the QM shack. In short, doing all the onerous chores actually assigned to that staff man. During the second week of the camping period, the qualifying hike took place. The Scouts were issued a "sketch map" of TMR, showing, among many other features, the Red Dot Trail. That was the trail blazed over many years mainly by Order of the Arrow candidates from each of the then existing five OA lodges, who were undertaking "the ordeal." Their task involved clearing trees and brush in establishing the trail, and marking that trail, initially by painting a red dot on trees along the way and, in later years, nailing the circular, red painted #10 can tops or bottoms to trees along the trail. Early on the assigned day, with the weather cooperating, we picked up our food provisions at the rear of the Lakeside mess hall and were off. For the first three hours, all went well and then...the red dots disappeared as did any semblance of a trail. We used a compass in conjunction with our map but ultimately we were hiking in the forest primeval...completely lost. If rescue by the New York State Police in the middle of the night were in the offing, Hiking Merit Badge would be no more than a pipe dream and all of our slave labor for naught. After aimlessly traversing the woods for considerable time, we heard what sounded like a truck traveling a dirt road. The roads were primitive so the noise was considerable and it carried well in the wooded atmosphere. Traveling in the direction of the noise, we ultimately came upon that dirt road and followed it. Use of a "developed" route was not authorized in the Hiking Merit Badge requirements. In fact, officially, the use of such road would constitute disqualification. To our total amazement, half an hour later we strode into, of all places, Camp Aquehonga. We explained our sorry plight to a highly amused group of staff men who mumbled things like, "Well, what do you expect from Queens self respecting Staten Island Scout would find himself in such a quandary." But, with the assistance of their pity and several peanut butter sandwiches and bug juice, we were guided to the Red Dot Trail and back onto the authorized route. We miraculously returned to Lakeside just in time for the evening meal. When queried the next day by our "instructor," we boasted of our complete success as hikers and map-readers...well aware that, by Hiking Merit Badge standards, we should be disqualified. His only concern was that we resume the onerous chores in the QM shack. At the end of the week, he signed the cards awarding each of us Hiking Merit Badge. If there had been a merit badge called Getting Lost in the Forest and one called Maintaining the QM Shack, we were particularly deserving of these, too.


At the Ten Mile River waterfront, SAFETY is the priority. Initially, each Scout is classified as to his swimming prowess: non¬swimmer, beginner, swimmer. Upon classification, he is issued a "buddy tag" which is color coded to indicate his status. At all aquatic activities, each Scout is to be "buddied-up" with a Scout of the same classification. While in the water, they are to maintain eye contact and to remain physically close to each other. Periodically, the chief lifeguard would blow his whistle, at which time each buddied pair would raise hands. Mounted on hooks on the "buddy board" were the tags of each buddy team. The tags would be counted while the in water Scout teams would be counted. A match in the counts resulted in the whistle being sounded signaling resumption of swimming. At Camp Lakeside during one of the afternoon camp-wide swim sessions, the whistle was blown and all was not well. One of the Scouts was without his buddy and he could not account for his buddy's whereabouts. All Scouts were ordered out of the lake and instructed to retrieve their tags from the buddy boards. The missing Scout was identified from the unclaimed tag. Simultaneously, rowboats were launched and the lake was "dragged" with grappling hooks that, until that moment, had been kept out of sight. Many of the lifeguards that day were, as usual, the Explorer Scouts who were assigned to the Landship Amochol. With leadership from the waterfront staff, these older Scouts manned the boats and the grappling hooks, traversing a grid pattern in the water. Subsequently, the "missing" swimmer was located back at his troop campsite, safe and sound. As the all clear signal was sounded on the waterfront, and the emergency equipment was being assembled for storage, one of the grappling hooks was inadvertently placed on the wooden dock and, in the welter of this hectic atmosphere, an Explorer Scout from the Landship Amochol stepped on the device, puncturing his foot. Fortunately, the camp infirmary was located adjacent to the waterfront and remarkably, the doctor, who "floated" among the many camps, was present. Although the doctor took charge, the injured Explorer Scout needed to be brought to an off reservation medical facility for proper care. We, his shipmates, learned some days later that our friend had been taken back to his family in New York City. We were his TMR family and, as such, had to learn to deal with considerable emotional pain. This was the most disturbing incident that this Scout had experienced at Ten Mile River. The Scout who had left the waterfront inappropriately was sent home the next day.


Every TMR rookie experiences culture shock. The food is not what mom serves, the sleeping accommodations are not consistent with Waldorf Astoria standards, and the toilet facilities are...unique. For the young man who grew up expecting the bathroom to have both a door for privacy and a flush mechanism for, well, flushing, the facilities needed some getting used to. The process begins when the rookie learns that, instead of a bathroom, he will use a larry...also known as a willy, or, for those versed in vocabulary derived from the French, a latrine. Invariably, the older Scouts are kind enough to explain that the good news is that the latrine has a self flushing mechanism, but the bad news is that, if you are using the latrine when it self flushes, you must beware the dangerous splash. Furthermore, the newcomer will be alerted that as recently as last summer, several Scouts drowned during the unanticipated flushing process. Even the greenest tenderfoot makes the necessary adjustment to these facilities, and everything invariably goes well...until it doesn't. One day, the Amochol latrine, located at the Lakeside Quadrangle--in the middle of the action, so to speak--began to smell in a way atypical even for a heavily used TMR latrine. The quartermaster threw some mysterious chemical into the device, but in short order, the odors became even ranker. An observant staff man--clearly an engineer with an advanced degree in latrines--observed that the self-flushing feature seemed non-operational. The maintenance crew serving the entire reservation was alerted and, shortly thereafter, a supervisor arrived to evaluate the situation. He promptly posted an "out-of-order" sign, and, understandably, retreated as fast as he could. The next day brought a full crew from the maintenance department, arriving with heavy equipment in tow. A strange excitement gripped the camp and, as the word spread, the troops assembled. One lucky member of the maintenance crew donned a protective rubber suit, to the applause of the Scouts. With the heavy equipment in place, the latrine was physically uncovered and the worker sheathed in rubber was lowered into the depths of the latrine, to the ever-increasing cheers of the assembled multitude. Some time later he emerged holding a partially constructed basket, the object that had been flung into the latrine and which had effectively jammed the moving parts. Many Scouts enrolled in Basketry Merit Badge. It required little more than weaving a satisfactory basket and cleaning up the crafts lodge for a few days. The basket making materials were wooden spokes and flexible reeds. Once built, the basket was a surprisingly sturdy item, one which could be employed in many practical pursuits. Disabling the working mechanism of the latrine was added to the list of practical applications. When the heroic maintenance man emerged from the latrine, he was cheered by what was then almost the entire camp. One would think that a popular celebrity such as Mickey Mantle or Marilyn Monroe, or even the President of the United States, had arrived. The cheers were that strong and that prolonged. The culprit who had disposed of his abortive basket-weaving project was never identified, but rumor has it that to this day there is a reward being offered for his capture.


Each Ten Mile River Camp had the same mission: to provide a meaningful Scouting experience for the campers. The camps had a great deal in common in terms of physical facilities, food services, Scout advancement opportunities, etc. But each camp also boasted of and glorified in a culture of its own. Some divisions had natural features that were unique. Old Camp Kotohke, although not being actively used, boasted a breathtaking and culturally significant natural formation, the Indian Cliffs. Camp Lakeside had the Tower of Friendship, a man made monument to the unity of Scouts everywhere. Each camp had its distinctive songs, invariably lauding the merits of that camp. Camp Rondack was not simply Rondack, but "Rondack, Happy Land." Their song boasted, "Come to Rondack, Happy Land, I'm gonna get a ticket if I can." Camp Man Scouts sang "Camp Man of Queens, It is the place where real Scouts go, real Scouts." Over the years, each camp developed its own form of camp spirit as part of its unique culture. Camp Chappegat, known to its inhabitants as "Happy Chappy," celebrated Christmas during the third camping period. For repeat campers and staff, the Chappegat Christmas Party was a much a part of the culture as bug juice. On the designated evening, the mess hall was aglow in tinsel, snowmen, artificial snow, red and green crepe paper tablecloths and any other accoutrement that smacked of Christmas and that someone had remembered to pack in his camp trunk. Of course, an evergreen tree freshly cut from the TMR forest was the centerpiece, with pinecones and Scouting symbols as the decoration. The staff song leader, clad in as much red clothing as he could scrounge, would warm up the crowd with Christmas songs, which everyone knew. "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" was a particular favorite. The highlight of the event was, predictably, the arrival of Santa. Staff Men dressed as elves--red and green crepe paper could easily serve when it came to the well dressed elf's wardrobe--would drag the homemade sleigh with Santa aboard to the center of the mess hall, to the wild cheers of the assembled Scouts. Santa looked remarkably like our Camp Director, Samuel King. Santa sported the recognizable red and white Santa outfit--no crepe paper for him--a white beard and carried a sack of "gag" presents. These were presented to various staff men and home troop leaders, much to the hilarity of the cheering Scouts. For some reason still a mystery, the camp's Program Director was invariably the recipient of a rubber chicken. The crucial clue to Santa's identity was the bottle of hot sauce he wore in a familiar looking leather pouch attached to his Santa belt. The after party cleanup was always cumbersome but all staff members as well as the contingent of Explorer Scouts gladly participated. The next morning at breakfast, with the August temperature often reaching the low nineties, there was no hint that the Chappegat mess hall, albeit briefly, had served as the North Pole.


It was common that Explorer Scouts, age 14-15, came to TMR as provisional campers. That is, they came on their own, with no home troop. Several camps had special provisions to keep this in-between age group involved in the program. They were still interested in earning merit badges, but were too young to serve as Staff Men. Camp Kernochan had a unit called Adaron-Trek...Trek for short. Their campsite was more comfortable than most because these were older campers who usually stayed for multiple periods. Their special focus was hiking, hence their unit name. Camp Lakeside has the Landship Amochol, which provided welcome activities aboard the "ship." Nautical parlance was used and the crew members wore sailor hats. Chappegat had its group of Explorer Scouts. Their quarters consisted, not of the small lean-tos or tents of conventional campsites, but of a large cabin featuring relatively spacious accommodations. One day during siesta--that is, the period following the noonday meal--one of these Explorers appeared in the camp office, breathless, shouting that the Explorer cabin was on fire. The camp fire-gong was sounded and numerous Staff Men ran to the Explorers' campsite, along with fire bucket toting Scouts from various surrounding units. The building was already in ruins. It had been one of the oldest structures in camp and, being wooden and with the leaves of many years packed into the inaccessible areas underneath, had been destroyed rapidly. Attendance was taken and every Explorer accounted for. Remarkably, there were no injuries. But, initially, nobody was interested in talking about how the fire started. After extended cross-examination of the Explorers, several sheepishly acknowledged that while resting on their bunks during siesta, several were entertaining themselves by hurling lighted matches at one another. The ancient floor, wooden and with gaps between some of the planks, had proven excellent tinder for what nobody had anticipated. The result was that all of the Explorers' personal possessions had been consumed by the fire. Then, as if on cue, these young men began complaining, aggressively, that their "patch jackets" had been destroyed in the conflagration. These were the red woolen field jackets onto which were sewn the patches from Order of the Arrow Lodges, Jamborees, Camporees, etc. No other loss seemed to concern these campers who shortly announced their intention to sue the Boy Scouts of America for the replacement cost of these jackets. One Explorer announced that his father, a lawyer, would ask $1,000 for the loss of his irreplaceable jacket. Fat chance! Actually, the Explorers were all fortunate that they were not placed on the next bus back to New York City. Ten Mile River Scout Camp taught us a great deal about ourselves and about human nature. The Scouting experiences taught us how to react to life, in all of its unpredictable manifestations. TMR guided us, from naive young men, to resourceful adults. While the individual achievements we accrued may yet be with us--this Scout can still maneuver a canoe with incredible skill thanks to Canoeing Merit Badge training in 1955--it is the ability to come to grips with life in all of its unexpected twists and turns that is the most relevant lesson learned through TMR participation.

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