By Peg Brown
The Call of the Wild (or…Camp Stories, Part II)
— (with all due respect and apologies to Jack London and his 1903 book about his adventures in the Klondike during the Gold Rush)
The “wild” for us city kids from the ‘Burg was not the endless farm country of our rural highways, but the several acres of thick forest and the dark expanse of the St. Lawrence that marked the boundaries of our camp. While our adventures in this wilderness were mostly reimagined or enhanced in the telling, they did include serpents, dark , foreboding and mysterious shadows beneath the waves and clandestine excursions into the flora and fauna that captured our desire to emulate some of our childhood heroes.
To understand some of our adventures, I have to share something about those heroes. Many were cowboys—the traditional kind, with large white or black hats (symbolizing the good and the bad), spurs on their boots, and six shooters with which they faced the challenges of a lawless West. Although Annie Oakley was certainly a possible choice as a hero for a young girl, my personal favorite was Hopalong Cassidy. Together with his white stallion Topper, his face greeted me every morning at the bottom of my favorite cereal bowl. Accompanied by various sidekicks including the infamous Gabby Hayes, he far out shown the possibly more popular duo of Roy and Dale, despite the humor provided by their sidekick’s Jeep—old Nellie-bell—and Roy’s fearless (and now stuffed) mount Trigger and Trigger’s canine companion Bullet.
My other important hero of these early days was Davy Crockett—“king of the wild frontier.” Made more famous by the popular song which included such lyrics as “killed him a bear by the time he was three,” Davy, in his signature coonskin hat and his buckskin duds covering his real life 6’6” frame was portrayed by Disney as a frontiersman, lawmaker and, of course, the fierce defender of the Alamo. Perhaps it was his role as the tragic hero of that battle that gave him additional cache among a host of western characters of the day. Personally, I’ll admit, it was because Fess Parker, who portrayed Davy, was drop-dead gorgeous (no pun intended!) And, of course, my hero worship of his character allowed me to acquire my first fur hat.
How did these heroes translate into our camp adventures? All of us, including the girls, grew up playing cowboys and Indians (gulp!-I mean Native Americans). I personally had a red cowboy hat, red plaid flannel shirt, jeans (but they were girls’ jeans—zipper on the side), and my own pair of six-shooters, complete with matching holsters. The land between the camp and the main road provided plenty of cover for our shootouts. However, we all preferred to play the role of the Indian, because we got to wear more elaborate accessories. Most of us had visited Adventure Town in the Adirondacks, where a seedy half-block of rickety buildings provided the stage setting for battles using guns and bows and arrows. We all came away with souvenirs, including tiny bows with rubber tipped arrows, and very cheesy headdresses, usually with just five feathers, all in primary colors that we wore with our braids. Mother encouraged this role playing. When fussy Grandma Cordwell went into town, she spearheaded the construction of teepees made from every blanket in the camp, safety pinned together and wrapped around birch saplings. And then, of course, there was the war paint—dark red lipstick highlighted by stripes of black charcoal. Pretty!
I mentioned serpents. St. Lawrence has its quota of mostly small critters, but none struck terror like the snake. I’m not talking about the harmless black grass snake, with bright yellow parallel stripes running down the back, but copperheads and water moccasins. Water moccasins haunted our dreams. Once you have seen the head moving in front of your swimming area, you imagine every nip by a harmless minnow might just be that snake making an attack. When we did spot a water moccasin, we all lined the shore, and with our best imitation of NY Yankees pitcher, Whitey Ford, threw rocks hoping we could pin the enemy to the bottom of the river. I don’t recall ever being successful. In truth, I know of no one in our family who was ever bitten, but we were all trained in the practice of putting our mouth over the fang marks on our skin, sucking hard and spitting what might have been venom into the river.
Copperheads, however, were a land threat, and although we all went barefoot for the entire summer, we worried less about an attack we could see coming. In truth, the only copperheads I ever saw inhabited a nest that was completely obliterated one day as Dad cut the grass with a rotary mower.
In hindsight, those “dark and foreboding shadows beneath the waves,” seem a very silly fear. In addition to shoals that just seemed to rise from the deep, there were three structures hidden by a few feet of water just in front of our camp. I remember floating over them in our wooden punt, staring into structures that at once appeared mysterious and formidable. They were the remnants of a previous dock that had long ago faded from the surface. The cribs of decaying wood, full of river rocks, were our version of the Temple of Doom. A sign that we had all grown up was the day we swam to the most distant sunken crib, stood on the rocks and prepared to demonstrate our best dive. Scary indeed!
I’m not sure that our parents today would encourage gun play or even allow us to don our headdresses and war paint. We certainly wouldn’t be allowed to shoot sticks, even though they had rubber tips, at each other. If there were poisonous snakes in our environment, today I’m sure they’d call a halt to swimming or running barefoot through the grass.
Today’s childhood heroes are certainly more other worldly than our cowboys of the past—and those red capes are definitely an improvement on our coonskin caps—but, in my heart, Fess Parker will always trump Superman.
Contrary to the western stereotype of the day, Hopalong was dressed all in black, including his hat. I personally think that’s why the production crew’s choice of horses was white.
Fess Parker died at the age of 85 on March 18, 2010. Unbeknownst to me, Parker was the owner and operator of large and famous California vineyard.
The water moccasin is the world’s only semiaquatic viper. They are quite poisonous and can be aggressive.
Copperheads particularly like ledges and rocks. Unlike the water moccasin, they are more an “ambush” creature, preferring to respond to a disturbance rather that initiate a confrontation.
A note on the comic book characters mentioned in an earlier article: I had no idea that Archie, of the Veronica Lodge, Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones gang was still featured in comic books and in a television series. However, a recent newspaper article revealed that Archie met his demise sometime in the last two years in the final installment of “Life with Archie” when he saves the comics’ first openly gay character by sacrificing his life.