Jeff Gill's Memories of Wood Lake

WLSR at 50: 1975-1985
Jeff Gill

When I first heard about this observance for 2006, I thought, "that can’t be right, because I was part of the 25th anniversary celebration, and that was . . .in 1981, which is 25 years ago. OK then. Owwww . . .
To appreciate Wood Lake Scout Reservation on its 50th anniversary, I have to start my own story as a camp staff member first as a new Scout in Camp To-pe-ne-bee.
Troop 7 from Valparaiso, Indiana had camped in Ottawa campsite before, and in 1973 I was a brand new Tenderfoot, a member of the Panther Patrol, and I was scared. Scared of the lake, filled with long weeds in deep (I thought) water, scared of the dark, filled with eerily hovering fireflies, and even scared of the fireplace in the otherwise reassuringly solid cabin at the south end of our campsite. The fact that older Scouts had told me a detailed account of how young men had been killed and cut into pieces, stirred into the mortar of the stones in that fireplace, all might have had something to do with that particular fear.
But I had been to that camp twice before for Cub Day Camp, with Pack 20, and I loved, not feared, Bruce the Moose at the south end of the Dining Hall. And there were the odd but reassuring stories of Doctor Bob Finehout, our camp director, and the manic energy of J.W. Wright, who was something called the "program director." Between Dr. Bob at the lakeside campfire bowl and J.W. in the wagon wheel chandeliered Dining Hall, leading ever more agitated choruses of "Where, O Where Is Susie," I was hooked.
And I had a small, but important ace in the hole. Some years before, as an indifferent Cub, I had read my dad’s 1948 Scout Field Book, the brown covered masterpiece of Green Bar Bill Hillcourt. A narrative of sorts, and a compendium of both woods wisdom and social pragmatism, the story of my dad’s Field Book carried me necessarily into Scouting, and the deep unknowns of a week at Summer Camp.
That first summer I earned First Aid, Woodcarving, and Fish & Wildlife Management merit badges. Around the Nature area I worked largely with a staffer named Bradley, descended from the famous general, but I remember more clearly a stray visitor from Scoutcraft named Mark Frederick. His energy was less hyper than J.W.’s, but still intense, sweeping woods knowledge and personality quirks into the same inexorable whirlpool.
Another summer, a bit more confidence, and the melancholy announcement that this was the last summer season for camp at Tope: we would, next summer, go to Wood Lake. All of us in Troop 7 agreed we would hate it.
1975 the Sunday dawned, we loaded up our infamous purple bus, and Troop 7 left for Camp Tamarack, Wood Lake, Jones, Michigan, and Hidden Meadow campsite. We arrived, and we loved it. The lake of 50 acres had sailboats (sailboats!), the hidden treasure of Little Wood Lake, the trails through swamp and forest and field across 500 acres . . . and, faithlessly, though we had no Bruce the Moose, the Morris Dining Hall’s high arching ceiling, lined with banners and filled with song.
The songs were led by Mark Frederick, now the Program Director. Merit Badge Midway ringmaster, Critter Race maestro, MC of the deep kettle moraine campfire bowl on Sunday and Friday (the OA owned Wednesday and Mark left them largely in charge): he was the tone setter for the week, and this shy, fairly quiet and bookish boy took to the odd idea that he wanted, almost as much as to be an astronaut, to someday walk in his shoes.
Why? I really can’t account for the desire. Somewhere between J.W. and Mark hero worship, that brown cover ‘48 Field Book and my dad, and the hand of God, I wanted to be something I was not, as others seek a wider fame and fortune. I just wanted to lead songs in the Dining Hall at Tamarack, and tell stories in the firebowl.
And the glory of Scouting for me is, I did just that. The astronaut stuff never quite panned out, but I think I got the better deal in the end.
When I went home from my week at Tamarack in 1975, the first program week, I carried to my parents the CIT paperwork, handed me by camp director Phil Niswonger. Pedro, as one and all called him, saw my eager interest, and gave me the forms and a word to Bill Eckert, my scoutmaster, on Saturday at the Paul Bunyan breakfast before we left.
Dad read the forms and said "$25 a week; you’ll have to earn it." He wasn’t opposed, just wanted me to know the value of what I wanted.
So I went to his place of business, where he sold lumber in the front office; in the warehouse behind, I was taken to a siding and a railcar, filled with molding, in ten foot lengths. "Count ‘em and box ‘em," I was told, and handed a staple gun and shown a stack of flat cardboard panels waiting to be formed into molding boxes.
When the boxcar was empty, it was four weeks later, and I got taken up to camp for the last two weeks as a CIT, or TIC (pronounced "tick" of course), rotating from dining hall (dish duty, the obligatory term locked in the cooler), rifle range, scoutcraft, waterfront, and finally, blessedly, Nature/Conservation – the name I still think of in reference to that program area.
Even after my hitch on the waterfront as a CIT (mainly spent untangling fishing lines and raking lake weed), I was nervous about the water. Jerry Fisher, Bruce Sutter, and Don Harris all went the extra mile to make sure I learned how to swim, sort of.
For all the mild hazing and contempt of my unwilling cabin mate, I was desperate for nothing but to return the next summer. To sum up, I did, as a much too young but terribly happy for all that camp staffer at 14.
Saving some readers a bit of tedium, let me try to sum up my years as a staff member after my CIT service (at $25 a week) in 1975.
1976 – Nature/Conservation aide under Bob Jacques as N/C director, camp director Phil Niswonger and program director Mark Frederick.
1977 – Scoutcraft aide under Rex Rymers as commissioner in "The Swamp," with Mark Frederick back but the business manager last year was now camp director, Don Jordahl, with his wife Judy as business manager, having been South Side director before.
1978 – A foolish attempt to actually make money took me away from camp, while working three jobs in Valpo. I literally dreamed of camp all summer.
1979 – Trading Post manager working for Judy Jordahl as business manager, Don as camp director, and Larry Hill program director. This was Les Hill’s last summer at the range, and the last time he sang "Babyface" leading the whole dining hall when I got up to make, um, "words of wisdom."
1980 – The Marine Corps and I had a prior engagement, with Camp Upshur standing in for Camp Tamarack. Judy turns out to be good preparation for sergeants. I believe Paul LeBrun was program director after four years as a commissioner and chaplain, with Don’s last year as camp director.
1981 – Larry Patterson, district executive for Dunes Moraine, talked to me all winter about coming back as program director. Then he learned that I wouldn’t be 20 until summer’s end, and said "Uh, that won’t work." He asked if I would be Nature area director, and "assistant program director" for a fellow he met at a college job fair in Michigan named Russ Gruenwald, who had never been in Scouting, but liked the idea of a camp job for the summer.
Working with Rusty Snook, my brother Mike Gill in Scoutcraft, and Greg Burns wandering all over camp, it was a good summer, except when it came to campwide activities like flags, dining hall, and campfires. Russ never really liked the uniform and rarely wore much of it, and never quite figured out the Scouting advancement system. He was not a hit, to say the least, with unit leaders, and wasn’t much interested in my suggestions to help him out, but would occasionally argue with scoutmasters in the middle of the firebowl and then storm out, leaving me to wrap up with the "Wood Lake Hymn."
1982 – I went straight from my grandmother’s funeral to National Camp School for program, and from there to Camp Tamarack as . . . program director. No sooner had I realized that a nine year old dream was about to be realized than Ken Durham informed me that he was cutting down a number of trees around the property, including a few around the firebowl "like that crooked old thing just on one side, so you may want to plan a few weeks starting down at the waterfront."
So I ended the opening campfire with a story, a story about that tree, the age of that white oak (quercus alba, as I learned in Nature/Conservation), and the tie to the story of a little boy named Stevie, who grew up to be Lord Robert Stephenson Smythe Baden-Powell of Gilwell.
Ranger Ken shook my hand after the campfire introductions of staff and the singing of the Wood Lake Hymn, saying "you got me, you no-good cheating sucker fish. Nice work." The tree did not come down, at least for some years, and the bend was the top of a loop of rope for a flag many years following.
From 1982 to 1985 I told a story each summer at the end of the opening campfire on Sunday night, usually one story per summer but varying a bit each week. My first and best lessons in preaching sermons as a pastor were learned in the firebowl and dining hall watching and reacting to audience response by cool evening firelight or in crushing midday heat.
From Larry Patterson as camp director in 1982, with Galen Kelly as a proud but overwhelmed business manager, I went to Dave Webb as camp director through 1985. The arrival of Franz Nabicht as business manager was a blessing in 1983 & 1984. Dave Webb and I saw eye-to-eye on almost nothing, but we shared a deep commitment to the Scouting program, which covered a fair amount of conflict, even allowing us to room together at NOAC in 1983 at Rutgers, where we did Show Security for Randy Cline.
Mike Gill took over the kitchen in 1983, Jimmy Doran became waterfront director, and the arrival of Duane Thormahlen as mountin man in that year (later range officer) was a real benefit to me both programmatically and personally; Duane went on to serve as program director himself. Dave Harnish and I worked side by side in 1979, when he was in the quartermaster’s store and I was TP manager, and he moved through Nature (or Ecology as it was then known) and on through dining hall steward to business manager in 1985 and program director himself later, and was a reliable fellow staffer and friend, as was his sister Lisa who was south side director in ’79 and ’80.
In 1984, we had a week where some virus ran through the staff (a biannual occurrence), and it inevitably hit me. Turning in early one Thursday, I was shaken awake, and expected to hear about some camp crisis. It was our TP director that summer, Joe Grabill, telling me "I hate to wake you Jeff, but there’s some old staff guy here and he asked if you were still here; his name’s Frederick?"
So I got dressed and ended up groggily in Constantine (Mark said, "So you guys got kicked out of Marcellus or what?" I blamed it on Alan Eggleston singing opera after a few beers…) with a few other staffers.
Mark had joined the Air Force, and navigated B-52’s across the Arctic Circle: "I really can’t tell you more than that, sorry." And he didn’t.
There was, in fact, little to say; I was feverish, he felt the distance and the awkwardness, but just wanted to know if camp was still camp. I told him we didn’t race turtles any more, and the staff didn’t jump in the lake in Class A’s, but otherwise it was pretty much what he’d recall, and he smiled.
1985 was a year that I really wasn’t sure I would have at Tamarack, but I was (in many ways) the recipient of a great gift. My bride agreed to serve as Nature director a few weeks after we married in West Lafayette, Indiana, with a healthy crew of camp staffers in uniform attending. Our wedding announcement in the Valpo paper closed with the words, "after their honeymoon, the couple will reside in Jones, Michigan." Which was true.
Thirteen days after our wedding, I put Joyce Meredith into a pickup truck with Orbie Lightfoot and P.J. Vandenbossche and Dave Harnish and Bill Skillern (I trusted Orbie implicitly) to head a few hundred miles east for their week at National Camp School at Beaumont Scout Reservation near Cleveland. Before I could reflect on the irony of it all, Duane, Rusty, and a few other OA reprobates grabbed me and put me through my Vigil that night, deferred from the previous September and completely forgotten by me. The next morning, I was eating breakfast in Jones as Meemuns Uiisking, Lenape for, of course, "Babyface." Thanks, Les!
Joyce and I lived in a cabin on the south side, paddling back and forth each day, which is nowhere near as romantic as it sounds. The moonlight canoe trips were awesome and mysterious and downright wearying, and that’s all I have to say about that – but we missed no more than two morning flag ceremonies all summer.
The staff banquet after closing inventory was in Middlebury at the Essenhaus, and among many kind statements and gifts, I’ve always kept a Scout Fieldbook autographed by the whole staff.
Four years later, on August 12, 1989, ten years to the day after I received my Eagle Scout rank at First Christian Church in Valparaiso, Indiana, I stood under a tent next to the now condemmed sanctuary building, pitched there on loan from the National Guard by Troop 7 under Bill Eckert. P.J. Vandenbossche and Franz Nabicht and Dave Harnish and Duane Thormahlen led a large group of Camp Tamarack staffers all in Scout uniform, with John Bliley reading scripture, as they joined in my ordination as a Christian pastor. A tent, ringed by Scouts, where songs and music were a key part of the experience, and stories of Aslan of Narnia and Jesus of Nazareth and our own journey, sometimes in darkness, sometimes in light: this was where my ordination took place.
It felt right then, and it still does.
Now I direct church camps and run an area in our local Cub Day Camp, where my son is now a Bear and I’m an assistant Cubmaster. We’re in the Simon Kenton Council now in central Ohio, and we go to Camp Falling Rock, but the Wood Lake Hymn still runs through my life and the campfire stories still weave through my son’s.
We visited a year ago, and ran into Dick Dunnuck on our short stay. We’re all still in Scouting, and that really says it all, doesn’t it? We’re all older, except for Joyce, but still happy to serve youth with the Scouting program. It’s just that Dick gets to be there, and I’m, well, over here.
I wish we three could join you all for this 50th anniversary, but if you stand between the two paired trees looking down from the Dining Hall slope toward Wood Lake, where I stood waiting for our parade to begin in 1981, you’re in the picture on the cover of our wedding program. There I waited, wearing a campaign hat Earl Kubale, our Scout Executive, bought me to wear with a borrowed 1957 uniform, standing at the head of the procession, and wondering where I’d be 25 years further on.
There you’ll probably feel our presence. We’re there, watching, singing, delighting in the evergreen spirit of Scouting that keeps nervous Tenderfeet walking hesitantly toward the pier for their swim check, hungry Scouts heading for the Dining Hall and Scouters looking desperately for coffee, and all striding excitedly to the campfire for what may be a new story, or an old story told a new way, and always a rousing song.