The care and feeding of boys —1960 style

Self-deception being what it is, I usually think of myself as a hip, with-it kind of guy. Too often, however, I find out I’m pretty much an oblivious rube instead.

My latest incident of involuntary enlightenment happened a few weeks ago.

I was visiting a friend in the suburbs and we had dinner with a bunch of her friends. Conversation ranged as it will and at one point the subject of children’s summer camps came up. None of it interested me till one of the men said his daughter went to a camp he really liked because it was, and I quote, “primitive.”

My ears perked up.

“Primitive?” I said.

“Oh yes,” he said. “Very.”

“So they sleep in tents?”

“No,” he said. “They’ve got nice little cabins.”

“Do they have internet?”

“Of course,” he said.

Then I laid The Big One on him.

“Do they have indoor plumbing?”

A look of confusion crossed his face. He looked at a couple of his friends, who looked back at him, blankly.

A few people sniggered. Then they all burst into laughter, and a hearty laughter it was. They thought I was kidding. Sadly, I wasn’t.

When I think of a primitive summer camp, I think of Camp Bedford. And I think of it fondly.

Paradise in the pines

Camp Bedford was the Boy Scout camp of my youth. It was just off Route 30, maybe 20 miles from town, but for all its isolation, it might as well have been in Lapland.

The location was idyllic, buried deep in the pines, smelling as deliciously woodsy as it gets. When you first drove in, you came to the parking lot/parade ground, around which were the main buildings. There was a chow hall, an office, a commissary of sorts, and the sleeping quarters of the Big Shots.

You had to walk a path to get to the campsites, of which there seemed dozens, but that was only due not to the number of campers, but to their manic energy. We lived in the lap of luxury, sleeping on cots in platform tents. There was a spigot which piped in drinking water – and I guess bathing water too, though I don’t remember anyone using it as such. Our bathrooms were of course of the classic Chick Sale variety -?in other words, outhouses. I said “of course” because we never considered there’d be anything else.

I went to Bedford with my brother rather than with our troop. Though we hadn’t planned it, this gave us what I thought was the best campsite, since it was made up of the scout equivalent of free agents. We got to live and bond with kids we never would’ve met otherwise, since they came from such exotic faraway lands as Burke, Constable, Ellenburg Depot and the like. And because none of us had any shared history, I think we cooperated far better than if we’d been in the same troop. Certainly, I remember all of us got along famously.

No longer strangers to dangers

Today, a great subject of discussion and study (far too much, in my not-so-humble opinion) is how to deal with adolescents, especially the male of the species. It’s on the news, the net, the talk shows, in books you name it. And the reason we obsess on it is it seems a problem of Herculean proportions…but there’s no Hercules around to solve it.

Well, lemme tell you something, Bunky, the staff at Camp Bedford (and maybe all Boy Scout camps) knew exactly how to deal with boys. In fact, as I look back on it, I think it was a boy’s paradise.

A lot of people think of the Boy Scouts as a training ground for fledgling falangists, or at least a quasi-militant organization. And we did have uniforms and ranks and orders and discipline of a military flavor. There were flag ceremonies, reveille and taps (both accompanied by a live bugler), and we treated like the pishers we were, almost like low-ranking enlisted men.

But that was only a small part of it. The truth is we were allowed – in fact, encouraged – to do things we were forbidden to do anywhere else.

Like what?

For starters, everyone was expected to have a knife and to carry it at all times. There was only one kind of kid who didn’t have a knife, and that was the one who had more than one knife, the second one usually being a hunting knife strapped to his belt. Of course, once we got over the thrill of being allowed the prohibited, we realized a knife wasn’t just a status symbol or a forbidden fruit, but a vital tool. I can’t say it was Camp Bedford that did it, but I still carry a knife wherever I go.

And beyond knives, we also had hatchets and axes -?the stuff of boys’ dreams and mothers’ nightmares.

Then there was playing with matches. OK, so strictly speaking we weren’t playing with matches we were taught how to make fires. And then we got to the fires ourselves, a real treat, since if we tried that stunt at home, we’d get punished, but good.

And how about weapons? A big no-no at home, but nuthin’ but a thang at Bedford. Strictly speaking, archery was a sport, but we got to shoot bows and arrows, just like Robin Hood.

All the above were done under supervision, of course (except our extra-curricular whittling), and I don’t ever remember anyone being crazy or even careless with those things. If anything, we gained a respect for how to handle blades, fire, and the rest.

The juice

But there was one thing not allowed back in “the world” that we could indulge ourselves in with impunity. It was bug juice.

Bug juice, in Camp Bedford parlance, was Kool Aid. It was served in big army surplus aluminum pitchers at both lunch and supper, and we could drink as much of it as we wanted.

I didn’t have a favorite flavor of Kool Aid, loving them all equally. Of course, that’s because Kool Aid didn’t have different flavors. Instead, it had different colors, something I didn’t learn till the peak of my Kook Aid drinking days (which, not surprisingly, coincided with my Bedford days) were long in the distant past.

I drank as much of the stuff as I could, since I knew once I got home, sips of that Hillbilly Nectar would be few and far in between. I was living large. I had a smile like the Kool Aid pitcher itself. I was committing The Crime of the Century, and getting away with it.

Supposedly, I was also doing irreparable damage to my mental and physical health. But I never felt better, nor after my week at Bedford was there any lasting damage.

Now that we’re obsessively food conscious and know so much about nutrition that it’s become a science, I doubt any camp serves Kool Aid to its charges, let alone twice a day and in unlimited servings.

And what this shows me is how much we know about humans’ bodies and how little we know about boys’ minds.