By Bruce A. Smith
Editor’s Note: One of the most pleasant parts of our current Covid Quarantine is strengthening old friendships. For me, that has been connecting with my ol’ Boy Scout buddies. Most of us met at our summer camp on Long Island, NY, a place called Wauwepex. The Mountain News has featured parts of the following tale, but I thought it was time to tell the whole story. Please know that some names have been changed to maintain privacy.
Wauwepex was the Boy Scout camp that saved my life growing up. Or at least my soul. It was a place I loved, and still do, but it was also a place where I felt absolutely alive as a kid, and true to myself.
I’ve come to realize its value to me as an adult because nowadays many of my memories of camp trigger regrets or shame, which I didn’t feel at the time of the particular incidents. In meditation today, I realized that Wauwepex was the place I could safely make mistakes, even big ones—and grow up.
I first got drunk at Wauwepex. I got fired for the first time at Wauwepex, too, and the second as well. On a hilltop overlooking the lake I discovered how messy having sex with a virgin can be. I first got angry at adults at Wauwepex—or at least expressed some of my anger—and acted against authority figures who took themselves too seriously.
But Wauwepex was sacred and it was gentle. It was fun and accepting. It was a scrub-pine wilderness at the edge of the suburban sprawl of Long Island. It was like an oasis, complete with a big lake named Deep Pond, and I felt so safe in it I swam at night in its waters. I even swam upside-down wearing my snorkeling gear.
Camp Wauwepex is in Wading River, NY, and is a 600-acre parcel adjacent to several huge military reservations that were carved out of the Pine Barrens of central Long Island in the 1920s. In fact, during the lead-up to WW II my father spent time in the Pine Barrens at a recruiting station in Yaphank. These days, what we once called the “Navy Lands,” are known as the Calverton National Cemetery, and the remnants of an old Grumman aviation facility.
I first went to Wauwepex in 1961, when I was eleven. My Boy Scout troop, #166 of Garden City, would go for overnight camping trips there once a month. In the winter, we stayed at one of several little cabins situated around the camp, and I loved the camaraderie—twenty scouts nestled in bunk beds near a big stone fireplace, and our scoutmaster, Mr. John Peters, made hot cocoa in the kitchen area. One year, I forgot my sleeping bag and Mr. Peters scrounged up enough blankets to keep me cozy.
Our two-week summer camp outing was sheer bliss. Every day I would keep count of how much time I had remaining in my stay. Three days down, eleven more to go! I would silently say to myself. Even when I got to be on short-time I was still happy. Twelve days down, but I still have TWO DAYS LEFT!
I loved the freedom to do what I wanted, even when it meant being part of some organized activity. In my first couple of years, Mr. Peters or our senior scouts would lead instructional sessions to teach us camp skills, like recognizing poison ivy or reading topographical maps. Usually they were geared towards earning our next “rank.” We started as “Tenderfoot” scouts, and then became 2nd Class as we mastered basic outdoor skills, like going on a five-mile hike with a pack or startling a fire with only two matches. Usually we gained all those abilities in our first year in scouting.
Next came the tasks for 1st Class, and these would include cooking dinner over a fire, knowing Morse Code, and some rudimentary aspects of first-aid, such as putting a splint on a broken arm, knowing how to treat a snake bite, or what to do for heat exhaustion. We also had to learn how to sharpen axes and knives, make emergency shelters, or follow the tracks of animals. I loved every minute of it.
Most of these skills were taught in the mornings immediately after breakfast. Following these sessions, we typically went to another organized activity, like target shooting at the rifle range, an Indian Lore presentation in the central area of camp, or a wood-working exercise at the craft lodge. As Mr. Peters said, “The purpose of Boy Scouting is to learn stuff while having fun.”
Not only was John Peters the best scoutmaster I ever had, he was also the best leader of young men I have ever seen. He was firm but kind. He was also soft-spoken and differential—he gave his scouts a lot of lee-way to do things. But he always kept an eye on our whereabouts so that nothing got out of hand. He particularly trusted his older scouts, who generally ran the day-to-day operations, like supervising the cleaning of the latrines, sending mess-hands down to the dining hall fifteen-minutes before a meal to set the tables and get food ready, and organizing an evening camp fire.
The hierarchy of my troop was simple: Mr. Peters was the sole adult leader, and assisted by a Senior Patrol Leader who was usually our oldest scout, often 16 years-old. Next was an assistant Senior Patrol Leader who was usually 14 or 15 years-old. The regular scouts were an assortment of 11, 12, and 13-year-olds, and during my years we had about 25 kids at summer camp.
Since my troop was sponsored by St. Anne’s Church, we were all Catholics and went to mass every day at the outdoor chapel. Although I considered the chaplain a great guy, a Franciscan friar named Dave Reedy, daily mass got to be a hassle for me. I was chronically guilt-stricken and never received “communion,” which is the host-taking that Catholics do at mass. That made Mr. Peters worried. When he asked me why I didn’t take communion, my squirming, shrugging, and grunted professings that nothing was wrong, kept him at bay. For the rest of the summer he left me alone with my weighty conscience.
Looking back at this dimension of my spiritual life, I can’t remember what the issues were— there was nothing major—but I sure felt unholy. Maybe it was just an endemic unworthiness that unsettled me. I just didn’t feel clean enough to receive communion. Maybe it was tied subconsciously to my inability to poop or pee with anyone around, which made relieving myself at the latrines an iffy outing. I had to pick my alone-times carefully.
Regardless, the major fun events at Wauwepex focused on all the traditional camping activities. Typically, the older scouts had some kind of aquatic-based lesson in the morning, such as Lifesaving Merit Badge or rowing. In the afternoon, all the scouts had two sessions available—one could be swimming, and the other could be canoeing. Or neither. Nobody forced us to do any of it, which was the first time in my life that no adults were keeping tabs on me. But I loved all the lake activities, so I was there at every opportunity.
There was also some free time in the afternoons before dinner when I could shoot archery or do leatherwork at the craft lodge, which was a old log structure built in 1922 when the camp first opened. Its wooden-slatted floor was sloped and misshapen, and reeked of “oldness.” But the biggest time for personal activities was after dinner, and I was often back at the craft lodge.
My first phase at Wauwepex ended when I was fifteen. I had been a summer camper there for five summers—1961 through 1965—and like most scouts things changed when I got deeper into the teen years when scouting becomes “not cool.” Most scouts leave the BSA by the time they are sixteen, but my relationship intensified. In the summer of 1966, I went to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico, an epic 30-day adventure with forty other scouts from my home council of Nassau County. It was transformative.
At Philmont, we hiked nearly 100-miles through the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains and explored “God’s Country,” as the staff described this 100,000-acre encampment. In addition, I fell in love with New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment.” Something deep in me was touched. A spiritual connection to the grandeur of the Rockies for sure, but there was more. The landscape was transcendent—the red rocks and sandy escarpments thrilled me, flash floods and bear warnings gave me a glimpse of a world much bigger than suburban New York, and each day spent climbing mountains and feeling my body toughen was deeply satisfying. I could feel myself becoming much more than the kid I was back home, and all of it was unfolding in the company of really good scouts, and in the aura of something intangible and deeply sacred. As holy as Wauwepex was for me, I sensed something grander at Philmont, but it is hard to put into words, even at this date. But to celebrate it and keep it physically close to me, I took the Zia symbol—the sun sign that is ubiquitous throughout all of New Mexico—and adopted it as my personal cartouche.
The Zia symbol is a circle with four lines radiating out from its four quadrants. Some say that it represents the four seasons. Others say it symbolizes the cycle of life—birth, childhood, adulthood and death. Some describe it as the flow of the 24-hour cycle—morning, afternoon, evening and night. But for me, it speaks to all of it. It illumines all of life—the grandeur and unlimitedness of being alive, of being “woke” to use a term of our time. Regardless, I brought it back to New York and carried to Wauwepex the next summer when I was hired on the camp staff.
In 1967, I joined Wauwepex’s Camp Ranger, Johnnie Jones, and his maintenance crew. My father had suggested I learn how to do something with my hands, so I volunteered for the maintenance staff, where I became the junior member. Besides Johnnie, I was teamed with Charlie P., a swarthy Italian guy from Franklin Square who distinguished himself by owning a car. He also had a girlfriend, so he was my window into the world of being a “young adult.”
As a kid, I had helped my father around the house a little, but he never really showed me how to do anything. So, other than knowing which end of a hammer to hold, I really didn’t know how to fix anything.
Johnnie was like a second father to me, and I worked for him for three summers. His first words to me have stayed with me all my life. “I have two rules: If you don’t know how to do something, tell me and I’ll show you how. Second, if you break something—a tool or some fixture or something—tell me right away so I can fix it and not be surprised later on when I need it. Shit happens. It’s a fact of life. Don’t worry, I promise not to yell or get mad.” He never did.
Later on, he told me some other rules of life, such as: “Never ask a man to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.” Johnnie and Charlie taught me the honor of hard work, even if it’s messy and stinky. The three of us went on garbage runs every morning—it was how we started our day, picking up the slimy burlap bags from each campsite that scouts had filled with the detritus of outdoor living. But more importantly, Johnnie and Charlie were usually as deep in the muck as I was.
They also taught me how to drive stick, learning on the camp’s old pick-up truck, a ’52 Chevy. I also learned how to use power tools, pour concrete, and bang a nail without spitting the wood. I learned how to splice telephone lines and connect electrical systems. I even fought a small forest fire.
Plus, I maintained the truck engines and learned a few tricks on how to change a flat when the lug nuts won’t come loose. I witnessed a sign painter at work, and saw how to use a stick as a steadying guide by placing it under the hand holding the brush.
Eventually, Johnnie took me to town to get supplies and hardware. If the day was hot and sunny, we always stopped at the Wading River Beach on Long Island Sound for a “bikini check.” It was the first time I had ever gone girl-watching. Johnnie and Charlie even taught me how to cuss, not really profanely, but it was a start.
Once or twice after work, Charlie took me to the Greenbrier, the local tavern in Wading River. There I had a real beer for the first time, not a sneaked sip from some scuzzy slosh that had cigarette ash in it. This was also where I spent time with my friend Mike in subsequent summers, when we became best friends.
But before Mike, there was a bachelors party for another camp stalwart, Bob LeSal, and at the open bar I had thirteen delicious drinks that I think were Seagram’s and Sevens. But the bar closed when I couldn’t close my hand around the glass and it slipped out, crashing to the floor. Charlie took me back to our tent, and I experienced my first Spinning World Sensation. I vomited, and then dealt with the resulting hangover. Johnnie laughed the next day when he saw me, and didn’t show me any pity.
By my third season on camp staff, Charlie was gone to a “real job” fixing cars in Stewart Manor and I was Johnnie’s main guy. Mike had also arrived, and one night near the end of the summer Mike asked me to go to the Greenbrier. I jumped in his car and off we went. But I hadn’t asked permission to leave camp, as was required, and when I was discovered I was fired. But it wasn’t unexpected. Johnnie had told me earlier that I was on “thin ice” for my increasingly out-spoken attitude and non-compliant behavior towards bossy scoutmasters, especially volunteers in an honor society called the Order of the Arrow, generally referred to as “the OA.”
One night in particular, I was about to close down the maintenance shop when a call came in asking if I could transport a recent delivery from the commissary to one of the dining halls that was catering an OA ceremony. I agreed and jumped in a pick-up truck. I delivered the foodstuffs, but somewhere along the line someone handed me a can of beer—a very strange occurrence and one that had never happened to me before—and I drank most of it while hanging out with the kitchen staff. Buzzed, I decided to drive around the lake, a beautiful cruise at 10 pm. On the lake road I came upon OA guys leaving a ceremonial encampment on the shore. I stopped, rolled down my window and shouted, “The OA sucks,” then tore off.
The next day, not only did Johnnie tell me how precarious my employment status was, he informed me that he wasn’t too happy with me, personally. I was making Wauwepex look bad, and putting a sour taste in the mouths of senior staff and Johnnie. One more misstep and I would be gone. That occurred two days later with Mike at the Greenbrier.
But I was also tired of being a maintenance guy. I was much better suited for working directly with scouts and teaching camping skills. Mike knew that and got me re-hired the next summer as a provisional scoutmaster. These staffers were assigned to troops of scouts who didn’t have an adult leader from their home district. Wauwepex specialized in those kinds of campers, and we had at least six troops of them at any given period of time. Beginning in mid-summer 1970, I was leading one of those units.
But 1970 was also a time of turmoil in the country. Kent State had just happened, and Wauwepex was not immune. Beside the swirl of politics in the air, former camp staff who had just returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam were looking to be rehired at their old camp job. As a result, we possessed a weird mix of former-Marines and hippie war protesters. For me, marijuana got added to the mix along with a pint of Bourbon, as I watched a sunset over Deep Pond. Topping it off was a growing sense that I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do.
Worse though, the fun and freedom that I felt as a camper was missing as a staffer. I began to chaff at my camp responsibilities in quiet, mysterious ways that I was not fully conscious of. By mid-summer I had decided to drop out of college, so I was bursting at the seams.
Nor was I alone. I was part of a rebellious, liberal crew of fellow provisional scoutmasters, and I loved those guys immensely. One night, two of them, Jeff and Jimmy, came by my troop’s camp site on an overnight hike away from Wauwepex, and invited me to the Greenbrier. Again, I got fired.
As I recall the totality of my camp experience, I am often wracked with guilt and shame for all the stupid, irresponsible things I had done. Nightmares have followed me into wakefulness. These panics can be severe, and a few weeks ago reached an unbearable crescendo. Sleepless and in agony, I meditated, deciding to confront these terrors and see why they were coming into my consciousness. I asked my subconsciousness to reveal to me what Wauwepex meant to me in deeper ways. Something must have been buried in the furthest recesses of my being because I was profoundly troubled. I had to find out what it was, and why it was haunting me.
So, I returned to Wauwepex in consciousness. I embraced the realization that Wauwepex was, and is, holy ground to me. I continued to push onward in meditation. I focused on the dreams and the anguish. Then, gently and simply the realization arose that Wauwepex was truly a unique place for me—it was absolutely safe, especially emotionally. I realized that I was psychologically secure enough at Wauwepex to make Really Big Mistakes, maybe the only place for me to do that since I grew up in a very strict, Catholic, upper-middle class environment. I saw that Wauwepex had been a place for me in my youth to experiment with life—to express my desires, and to feel my power—no matter how clumsily, or at what expense.
On that last hike as a provisional scoutmaster, I had left thirty scouts in the care of my 17- year-old assistant to get a beer with friends. Stupid? Yeah. But I had accepted that long ago, so why was I struggling so mightily nearly fifty years later?
I re-examined that night. When Jeff and Jimmy came by and invited me on their escapade, I joined without a thought. I was so hungry to be with them, to be carefree and connected. Having my assistant handy fulfilled any conscious acknowledgment that I had to care for my campers. Now, I realize that I longed for something Jeff and Jimmy represented—true friendship, true intimacy, the deep excitement of being alive with kindred spirits. It was sweet, even if short-lived.
We three were fired the next day. However, I was able to talk our way back into our jobs. But that was my last summer at Wauwepex.
In the years that followed I maintained my friendship with Jeff and Jimmy, and a few of the others, like Mike. But over time they all faded as the delights and responsibilities of marriage, jobs, and adult life consumed our lives.
Nevertheless, ten years later I wrote my old camp ranger, Johnnie Jones, on Father’s Day. I sent him a card and told him how much he meant to me. I also found the courage to tell him that I considered him a second father.
Ten years after that, I visited Wauwepex for the first time since getting fired the last time. Johnnie was gone, but his son Wally was now the new Ranger. Wally and I talked about the old days, especially how much Wauwepex meant to me. I told Wally that his father was very important to me as well, and Wally said, “Yeah, he got that Father’s Day card, and it meant a lot to him, so thanks. By the way, you’re not the only one tell my Dad he was kinda a father figure, or send him a card!”
A couple of years afterwards I received a phone call from a Boy Scout official at the Nassau County Council headquarters. The fellow said he wanted to talk about Wauwepex and the strange “magic” it had.
“I’ve heard from so many scouts,” he said, “especially camp staffers that Wauwepex was a special place—personally and in other ways. What made it so special? I don’t hear scouts or staff at our other camps in upstate New York, Onteora or Alpine, talk about their camps in the same way. Not even close.”
“Wauwepex is special,” I replied. “I worked at Onteora as a provisional scoutmaster the summer after I last worked at Wauwepex. It was only two weeks, but I could see it was not the same, not at all. I’m not sure what it is about Wauwepex, at least being able to put it into words. Part of it might be the land—Wauwepex is still virgin ground since it was never farmed, and that’s special to us suburban kids. Wauwepex has always been a pine barren, and the soil is so thin you can even see the white sands in a lot of places. But the pine smells are rich and sharp, especially in August when all the needles on the ground turn bone-dry and get crackly when you walk on them. The lake is so gorgeous, too. It’s deep and blue, and looks just like it did when the Indians lived on Long Island. There are no structures on the shoreline, it’s pristine. The forests are open and it feels free. The trees are so scrubby and spaced so far apart that you never feel closed-in, or suffocated, like the upstate forests can do because of the dense growth of broad-leaf oaks and maples. Plus, Onteora’s lake is just a dammed-up creek. Yeah, it’s functional, but it’s not too scenic.”
The official asked me to reach out to other Wauwepex staffers and encourage them to call in with their thoughts. The guy said he wanted to see if he could find a way to instill the Wauwepex magic into Onteora, especially since Wauwepex was being “retired” as an active camp.
“It’s been receiving campers every summer since 1922,” the official said. “Around every campsite the forests are depleted of firewood, and the ground is compacted, especially on the trails. Wauwepex needs a rest. Besides, we’re still using it during the fall and spring for troops to come out on the weekends, so it’s not like we’re abandoning the place.”
I endeavored to contact Jeff, Jimmy, and the rest of the crew, but to no avail. I never heard back from the BSA official, either.
But I went back to Wauwepex a few summers ago. It’s still resting, but I walked around the lake and smelled the pine needles. All the pit latrines are gone, now replaced with large heated bath houses due to county health regulations and concerns about ground water contamination. That’s a good thing in my opinion. But in every other regard, Wauwepex is just the same.
Last night, I slept pretty good, too.
Picture of Deep Pond. Photo courtesy of Cliff Jones.
Picture of the “Indian Waterfront” at Camp Wauwepex. Photo by Cliff Jones.
A typical scene from summer camp, circa 1961. Photo courtesy of Bill Cotter.
Camp Staff 1970. Johnnie Jones is third row, sixth from right. Mike is fourth from right. Frank was apparently on a day-off and not pictured. “Jim” is fourth row, eighth from right and I’m 6th. “Jeff” and “Mick” are top row, 6th and 5th respectively.