Camp Thunder

I’m in Upson County, Georgia with a load of trees to deliver. I have only ever known two things about Upson County. Thomaston was home to my Aunt Lillian and Uncle Doyle, whom we visited frequently. And I spent some of my best weeks of summer between the ages of 11 and 15 at Camp Thunder near the Flint River.

When I turned off highway 74 near Molena, Georgia, I turned back toward the river at nearly the exact spot where we used to turn the old Scout bus to head into camp. I suspect the road is not quite the same as it was in the late 60s. It’s paved, for one thing. I also suspect I wouldn’t even recognize the camp anymore, wondering if the flagpole and the old mess hall is still standing.

The memories flood in. It’s a Sunday afternoon. I’m in my room with my old canvas BSA backpack on the bed. Dirty tan color with an aluminum frame. Two side pockets with flaps that snapped closed. A zippered pouch down low on the back.

The main pack sack was no bigger than a five-gallon bucket. A drawstring at the top and a big flap that pulled down over the opening. The flap had two leather straps with buckles that hooked either side of the zippered pouch.

Mama was standing at the door. “You are putting some underwear in there, aren’t you?”

I guess mothers have always been fixated on making sure little boys have clean underwear wherever they go. It probably comes from all the little-boy-underwear they’ve washed and the brown stains that go with the job.

Canteen. Check. Mine came from the Army Surplus store. Olive drab canvas cover over an aluminum canteen with a black screw cap attached to the can with a three-inch piece of small chain. I even had the canvas belt with grommeted holes in it so I could hang the canteen on my side when we went for a hike.

Sleeping bag. Check. Also from the back shelf of the Army Surplus store. Mine was a down-filled mummy bag, but not thick and bulky. It breathed in the summer and kept me warm in the winter. It also left feathers in my hair like I slept with a goose.

Scout handbook. Check. The old paperback one with a picture of boys on the front by a campfire in full-dress authentic scout uniforms. I’d be working on my Forestry Merit Badge, maybe Knot Tying, or Canoeing. I needed to “Be Prepared.” That book has served me well these last 50 years. I still have it.

Swim Trunks. Check. Flashlight. Check. The official Scout flashlight with the lens turned 90° to the shank. It hooked to my belt opposite the canteen. Soap. Check. The outdoor showers were colder than a penguin’s butt. Underwear. Check.

About 25 boys stood in the gravel parking lot around the old gym in Hampton. Parents milling about, shaking hands. There was always some kid with a suitcase instead of a backpack. Some mother last-minute-digging through her son’s things, checking for clean underwear, I guess.

The Scout bus comes in roaring to the cheers of boys. A late 40s model with the big snout out front. BSA Troop 60 painted in black letters on the side. Mr. McBrayer opens the door and steps down with a look of apology on his face. The bus was behind schedule.

Our Scout Master, Billy Dan, walks over. “Everything okay with the bus?”

Mr. McBrayer shrugs. “Had a flat tire. I had to get Roy Greer to patch it up for me. Sunday afternoon, ya know. It took a while.”

We stayed in the same camp area every year. I think it was designated Cabin Area #2. Wood huts with four bunks. A big fire-ring outside. A two-seater latrine. Two outdoor shower heads behind a wooden partition.

We rolled out sleeping bags. Played the old shaving-cream-in-one-hand-feather-tickle-under-the-nose trick on the newbies. We shot bows and arrows. Tied bowline hitches around our waists. Ate platefuls of mess in the mess hall. Swam in some of most fridged water in the south. And sat around the big fire to hear the Indian legend of Camp Thunder.

One year we practiced our rope skills lashing together two tripods out of small tree trunks we cut down. They stood maybe 8 feet tall. We set them about 10 feet apart and lashed a pole across the top between the two.

Billy Dan jeered at us to walk across the pole from one end to the other. Jeffery Floyd pulled off his boots so he could dig in with his toenails and shimmied up one of the tripods to the top. He got up and stood there for a minute. All of us are whooping and hollering enough to wake the dead.

Jeffery takes a couple steps out. He’s swaying back and forth. Arms flailing trying to keep his balance. Billy Dan was laughing hard as anybody.

“Who you waving at Jeffery? Heeey down at the lake. Look at him wave.”

“You look like a bird trying to fly.”

We’re all chanting. “Go. Go. Go.”

Jefferey caught his balance about halfway across. He gave Billy Dan that wide Floyd grin that shows all the teeth God gave him. He raised one arm like he was waving and said, “Hey down at the lake.” Then he scooted the rest of way across.

A gaggle of boys erupted in applause. For the rest of the week and long after, whenever we waved at anyone, we repeated those immortal words, “Hey down at the lake.”

One of our favorite times at Camp Thunder was the annual trip to the winter cabin. Summer camp was for boys from all over the Flint River Council. But when we went to the winter cabin for the weekend there was nobody in camp but us.

If I had time, I’d tell you about the bunkbeds and the cots set up in the rafters. I’d tell you about the big stone fireplace, and the glowing faces in the firelight as we lay in our sleeping bags listening to the men tell stories. A lost boy in the woods. Turkey feathers and blood stains. Flying squirrels in the gym. Mulligan Stew. Having church in the woods because we skipped church back home.

A stop sign sneaks up on me. Right turn. Not far now.

If I could say anything to a young boy in Scouts today, I’d tell him to soak it all up. Earn every badge you can. Honor the pledge. Don’t give up too soon. Work hard. Get your Eagle rank if it kills you. It will stay with you the rest of your life.

Cause one day you’ll be old. Maybe 50 years older than you are now. You’ll wear a ring. Someone will ask you, “What’s that ring you’re wearing?” And you’ll say, “That’s my Eagle Scout ring.”

“Wow,” they’ll say. “I never got past Tenderfoot.”

And you’ll find yourself swapping stories about some of the best experiences of your life.

Other folk will say, “That there means something.”

And you’ll say, “Yes sir. It sure does.”

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