I promised in the early posts on this blog that I would bore you with geezerly reminiscences. This is one. [Shuddup! That’s part of a geezer’s job description]
There were four of us. Geoff, Mark, Dougie and myself. We all needed to collect that camping merit badge to become 1st-class scouts. We were supposed to be dropped off in the woods, set up camp, cook our dinners, and generally survive until the scoutmaster would return for us the next day.
Our trip had been scheduled for a weekend in early November and it turned out to be truly shag-nasty weather. Cold, wet drizzling rain. The ground and woods were already soaked before we got there. The scoutmaster rubbed his hands gleefully, and informed us that we would really “earn” this merit badge.
“Back when I was a child”… camping gear was quite often old US military surplus. All were leftovers from the second world war and the Korean conflict. The stuff was heavy, leaky, inefficient, bulky, worn-flat-out, and in today’s world nobody would ever think of using it. Our sponsoring church thought they were doing the scout troop a big favor by having supplied us with anything at all, so, this was what we got. Our group didn’t have actual tents, we had pup tent “halves”. They were waxed canvas tarps that snapped together along what would become a ridgeline to make a tent for two unfortunates. Each Scout got to carry one half. These didn’t even have floors, and the “weatherproofing” had pretty much worn off. They were supposed to be our shelter.
Our troop did have the good fortune to have been given the use of a private 150 acre tree-farm out along the Neuse River outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. Today the river has been dammed downstream a few miles, the river valley flooded 50′ deep and the area is now part of the Falls of the Neuse Recreation Area. Back then it was a wonderful place, up on a ridge with an oxbow the river running around three sides. Prior to the river being dammed up, there had been a fantastic 50 foot cliff projecting in a beak out over the river itself. There was a “Hole-in-Rock” tunnel that you could crawl through, red garnets embedded in the cliff face that you could dig out with the Scout knife… In short, it was heaven for a kid. In the drizzling, November rain, it was as bad as anyplace could be.
The plan had been for us to hike down away from the old farmhouse and outbuildings area at the end of the access road, and go find a suitable location that met all the recommended camping criteria: level, well-drained, etc., set up our pup tents, build a suitable fire ring, collect a quantity of “dry wood”, build a fire, cook our meal, sleep out overnight, and enjoy ourselves. This last goal seemed fairly unachievable given the circumstances. But we set off [grumbling and whining] to survey the area and find a suitable place to camp.
As I said, it was raining constantly and the ground was already soaked. Mucking around in the underbrush in our futile search I, we ended up pretty well soaked too. The worst part was that with the dead-falls, all the wet brush and leaves, and the very heavy undergrowth, we couldn’t really find a decent place to set up both tents and safely build a fire ring.
Up closer to the farmstead, the pinewoods were quite a bit more open and the ground was covered with a thick layer of pine straw. This seemed a better alternative and we determined to give up on the hiking-in portion of the trip. Our scoutmaster had left. There was nobody to tell us what we had to do.
Now, in typical rural North Carolina fashion, any old working country place has a lot of old junk set out around the periphery. This one was no different. There was an old 40s model Plymouth up on its side, old wheel rims and rusted metal, car axles, cinderblocks and like scattered around throughout the trees.
Geoff and Mark locked in on the old Plymouth. They thought it would make a good windbreak, and they set to work trying to prop their tarps and the detached hood up to make a little roof and give them a dry spot. However, there was obviously only going to be room for two people no matter what they were able to achieve. Dougie and I cast around looking for something that we, too, could make use of.
October thru November was always the time of year when Carolina country people slaughtered a hog or three, and put aside their meat for winter. These tall pine trees with good high limbs had once been a perfect place for the slaughtering to take place. Since it was a couple of hundred yards away from the farmhouse, it was far enough off for the dirty work, but still was close enough to the house and smokehouse for convenience. By 1964 the property had not been a working farm for over 10 years, but there was still was a little fenced enclosure where the hogs had been corralled before meeting their fate. It included a low 6′ by 8′, cobbled together shelter to allow them poor, doomed hogs to get out of the direct sun. Pigs sweat and they do like their comfort.
To much mocking and derision from Geoff and Mark about sleeping in a”pigpen”, Dougie and I set about making some home improvements. The space was only about 3 1/2 feet tall, but was actually quite dry inside. We tossed out a few old, dry hog turds, threw a couple of old license plates over holes where water dripped through the tin roof, gathered up a crap load of pine straw to spread around inside and put down our tent halves as a ground cloth. The side walls didn’t go all the way up to the roof, but compared with sitting out in the drizzly woods it was pretty snug. Our big difficulty seemed to be that with all the pine straw we had gathered up and how narrow the front of the shed was, it was going to be kind of tough to build safe fire.
Remember I mentioned those old wheel rims and the cinderblocks? It turns out there was also a 5 foot section of old stovepipe. It also turns out that if two soaking wet Boy Scouts take three cinderblocks set up on edge, on an old wheel rim, together with a second wheel rim set on top, and a five foot section of old stovepipe covering the axle hole, it all can very easily be chinked together with some of that fine Carolina red clay mud to make a really fantastic, and very efficient little stove. We packed the bottom wheel rim with more mud and fired it up. In about half an hour it was almost too hot inside our little shed. Doug and I, together with our gear, we’re drying out quite nicely. Geoff and Mark had stopped snickering.
We had even set our stove up so that one of the holes in the rim was open through the clay and the flames could lick up from inside. We put one of the old license plates over the hole to cover the open flame, but we could pull it aside and have a place for a pot or pan to heat water and to cook our dinner. All in all, it was getting fairly luxurious. We were warm, we were dry, we had hot water for cocoa, and best of all our friends were out there by the old Plymouth still whining about how wet they were.
This was many years ago. My memory is not completely clear, but it’s perfectly logical that we were also trying for the cooking merit badge at the same time. I do remember that each pair of us had a whole chicken that we were planning to cook. Geoff and Mark were going for the traditional “put a stick up it’s butt” rotisserie method. They could barely keep their fire going in the wind and never had any success. I do remember vividly that they were basically eating raw chicken that night. Doug and I had discovered that old asphalt shingles and dried pig turds would keep our fire going really well no matter how wet our collected firewood was. We had cut our chicken up and were roasting individual chunks like you would marshmallows. It worked out pretty well. At least we didn’t get sick. When you’re 14 or 15 years old you can pretty much survive anything… at least once.
To our credit, I am quite sure that we did let Geoff and Mark into our shelter to warm up and dry out at some point. I know that they did live through the experience. We all would go on quite a few more camping trips and further adventures were to be had before we aged out of scouting.
[Actually, in all honesty, none of us ever aged out. Our scout troop was disbanded by the sponsoring church. They didn’t feel that we were taking the “good citizenship” part of the scouting experience seriously enough. As a group, we weren’t earning very many merit badges toward the end. They also got a little pissy because on a couple of the later trips as we got older, our hikes had mostly involved going down through the woods to the country store and buying beer, soda, snacks and cigarettes. There was also something about a couple of girls who drove out to keep us company around the fire one night… Oh, yeah. And I guess we did dose the Tenderfoot scouts with ExLax, but it was just that one time… ]
Next time I’ll tell you about that scouting trip where Wally slashed his knee so badly with a machete that… well, keep coming back..