Blood, snakes and square knots

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  • Boy Scout camp in the 1960s was not for the faint of heart. Some of the author’s gear, including his Eagle Scout medal. Photo: David Noonan

Going to Boy Scout camp in the first half of the 1960s was a raw and exhilarating experience. It was also kind of nuts. We didn’t play tennis or softball. We didn’t have coed cookouts with girls from all-girl camps. We didn’t sleep in cabins with electricity and screen doors. And we didn’t have toilets. We slept in A-wall tents set up on wood platforms, two scouts to a tent. And we did our business in latrines, which, on a hot summer day in New Jersey, you could find with your eyes closed.

It was supposed to be rugged, and it was. We were there to learn the kinds of arcane skills you really couldn’t learn anywhere else — how to start a fire in the rain, how to identify edible plants, how to build a rope bridge strong enough to hold a 250-pound man, how to make your way cross-country through the woods with a compass and a topographical map, how to tell time with a stick in the ground, how to cook a decent meal over an open fire.

The point was to climb through the ranks of the quasi-military organization, from lowly Tenderfoot to Eagle Scout, to earn merit badges and patches that you could wear on your uniform to signal your achievements.

Armed to the teeth

Another difference between Boy Scout camp and the sleep-away camps where some of my friends went was the weaponry — we were armed to the teeth, and we liked it. We wore sheath knives on our belts, carried multi-bladed pocket knives in our pockets and sharpened them obsessively. We used official Boy Scout hatchets and axes to chop wood for the fires we were always building. (There was even a way to wear a hatchet on your belt.) We shot bows and arrows at the archery range and we lay on funky old mattresses at the rifle range and shot .22 caliber rifles at paper targets. I used to pretend I was shooting at the Nazis who had invested so much time and energy trying to kill my father and his friends during the Battle of the Bulge.

World War II had ended less than 20 years before, and I can see now how it shadowed our experience as Boy Scouts. Many of our dads and scout leaders were veterans, some with heavy combat experience. They didn’t talk about it, but we did. One of our leaders, Mr. G., had fought in the jungles of the Pacific theater. I can still see the massive scar on the front of his thigh, which we decided he got in hand-to-hand combat with a machete-wielding enemy soldier. I also remember the night he punished a group of us for some infraction by having us stand in a circle and pick up and put down melon-sized rocks, over and over again, for a half-hour or so. Try it sometime — you’ll be amazed how exhausting it is. As I recall, Mr. G. said it was a method that was sometimes used in POW camps.

We didn’t give it a lot of thought, but we were clearly on a kind of war footing, in our uniforms, with our ranks and chains of command, our Morse code and semaphore flags, our marching songs and salutes. Before the end of the decade, our Senior Patrol Leader, Jimmy, one of the older scouts, would become an Army Ranger and lose a leg in Vietnam.

Spilled blood

We spent a lot of time learning first aid, and we needed it. Spilled blood was as common as wood smoke. We sliced our fingers and hands open regularly with those carefully-sharpened knives (I can show you the scars), burned ourselves over campfires, sprained our ankles hiking the rocky terrain the camp was built on and bashed our heads on trees playing flashlight tag in the woods at night.

I earned a trip to the local hospital when I crushed my left thumb between two large rocks I was removing from one of the paths that linked the campsites. (The rural ER had a board on the wall where they displayed the fish hooks, rusty nails, giant splinters and random hunks of metal they had removed from people.) I lost the nail — the top of the thumb is flat now, with a notch in the middle — but I was back in camp that night, showing off my enormous bandage, an arrangement of white gauze the size of a chicken drumstick.


Without question, though, the most memorable thing about Camp Allamuchy in those days was the snake pit. Yes, we had a snake pit. It was a rectangular hole in the ground big enough to bury a small sedan. There was a wooden structure about three-feet high built around it, with a wire mesh top, so you could look down and see the snakes. And here’s the best part — it was up to the scouts to supply the snakes. By August it was quite the exhibit. (We knew what New Jersey’s venomous snake, the copperhead, looked like. We were ordered to leave them alone, an order we were happy to obey.)

Forty years later, my two sons attended the same camp with their Boy Scout troop. There were a lot of upgrades, of course, including the addition of a number of cabins and a very nice shower house. Not surprisingly, the snake pit was no more. But the latrines were still in use, the tents still drooped in the rain, the scouts still practiced tying knots. And there were plenty of knives and hatchets to go around.

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