A Talking Tree

As I mentioned in a previous post, we went to the 50th anniversary of Alpine Camp for Boys this past weekend. Bill Jameson is a long-time staff member there who started as a counselor, was program director numerous Summers, including when I was a camper and when I was on staff. His nickname is simply “Tree.” He is 6’5″ (I think) and one of the greatest men I ‘ve ever met. As a genuine legend at Alpine, he was invited to give somewhat of a speech. This may be a bit long, but so what, it’s my blog! To explain a few terms: Warrior, Brave, and Chief are age-group terms for boys 12, 13, and 14-15 respectively. Hope you can picture the images he was crafting.

TREE’S SPEECH:  
          I came so close to selling dictionaries in West Virginia that first summer.  In fact I had signed on the dotted line.  But as the month of May rolled around on the LSU campus, I was getting cold feet. So I visited the Baptist Student Union, and a man named Frank Horton sat me down with two summer camp brochures: one very glossy, full-color book from Rockmont in North Carolina, and the other, a more humble little catalogue from a camp in Mentone, Alabama, a place I had never even heard of before. 

I looked both books over carefully and finally chose to call Alpine, mostly on the strength of a picture towards the end of the catalogue which showed the director, smiling broadly, with his arm propped up on the rustic fireplace mantel in what turned out to be his rock house. I turned to Frank Horton and said, “I’d like to work for him.”

Because it was so late in the Spring, I had to interview with Dick over the phone. He ended up taking a huge chance on me, a guy he’d never met; and I took a chance on him and Alpine, a place I’d never ever dreamed of before that day. And the rest, as they say, is history.  Improbable. Incredibly Providential. And for me, life-changing in ways I could never have predicted on that day. 

Big Bill Hodgkins, Keller Broadway, and I, all three wet-behind-the-ears Louisiana boys, drove up to camp together. We must have gotten a late start I guess because we entered the corridor of mountainous northern Alabama just as it was getting dark. Being from Louisiana, where the highest spot in most parishes is a pitcher’s mound, we panicked, afraid we’d get lost roaming those roads on the mountain. So we got off to a shaky start that first summer and spent the night in a little motel in Gadsden. We felt like fools the next morning when we so easily negotiated the roads to camp, past the giant billboard of a KKK horseman which in those days welcomed visitors…but not ALL visitors…to Ft.Payne. Needless to say, we were wide-eyed. 

After a couple of days of staff bonding, pulling grass from the surfaces of the infamous Alpine clay tennis courts and de-mucking the waterfront, we were ready for the campers. They rolled in on busses in those days-five or six of them. We were unknowingly “greener” in those days I guess because in the last few years those busses have been replaced by hundreds of SUV’s, making that old scene of a crowd of counselors gathered around bus doors, listening for Dick to call your name and claim a camper, seem quaint.

I had Warriors that first term, Braves the second, and if those campers were nervous on that first day, it was nothing compared to what I was feeling. I think it was either the first or second day of camp during rest hour that Ray Higgins, my head counselor, came jogging down to Cabin 7 in these incredibly worn out, low-top Converse shoes and popped in the door, saying as only Higgins could say it:  “Guys…guys…we need to be a LOT quieter during rest hour…OK?  OK?  I could hear you guys all the way up to my cabin. Thanks guys.  Thanks.” I was red-faced with embarrassment and felt just awful at having already let Higgins down. 

I’ve never quite known which counselor to thank for my nickname, which I got during that first summer. It was either Camper Don Gardner or Ken Dwyer or maybe even Jim Haltom, or some combination of that group, that came up with it I think.  Opening night of camp in those days was occasion for the infamous counselor skits, the purpose of which was to supposedly keep the assembled campers in the gym from feeling homesick. Not an actor at heart, I was assigned a relatively minor role in the over-the-top satire “The Improbable History of Alpine Camp.” Standing at the back of the stage and with arms outstretched, shirt sleeves stuffed with hickory branches, and waving in the imaginary breeze, I played a tree. 

We ended that big show with a Dana Hensely/Don Gardner special rendition of the sappy and frankly morbid song, “Tell Laura I love her”, which seemed to make more homesick boys cry than it did cheer them up. And with that, my summer–and although I could never have imagined it then, my next many, many summers–at Alpine Camp had begun.  

Hired as a lifeguard to work on the waterfront, I was of course assigned that first summer to work at horseback. It was there that I became acquainted with Dick’s two horses, Champ and Merry Boy. And I began the long and ultimately futile attempt at learning to play the banjo from Don Cole, who headed up horseback at the time. The most ironic part of the summer, looking back on it, was the fear I had of the Chiefs. I had such respect for the counselors who had those guys. I couldn’t imagine trying to relate to them. At that time, there were only two cabins of Chiefs, and they lived in the little cabin called The Dorm behind what is now the Tree House.

When summer number two rolled around, I found that Dick had decided to move the Chiefs up near the horseback barn area to the old York house. The new Chief home was to be called Up Top. And amazingly, there were now four cabins of boys who were to inhabit the new cabin area. And even more amazingly, I had been chosen to be among the inaugural staff up there, serving under the capable leadership of David “Wide Mouth Frog” Hooper. If I had been nervous that first summer with Warriors and Braves, I now found myself literally weak-kneed over the prospect of having Chiefs.

Up-Top turned out to be Chief volleyball in the front yard under the lights of counselor cars which we pulled up on either side of the net. Up-Top was riding first in the back of a big truck, and later in school buses, dubbed pretty accurately “the scream machine,” up and down the hill to meals and activities. Up Top was massive games of capture the flag in the horse pasture; it was fly-catching contests during rest hour; it was morning watch under two giant Oak trees and Sunday night vespers on the front porch, with every Chief singing at the top of his lungs. And it was Sunday trips to Little River Canyon, where we swam sans life jackets in rapids that shot us through gaps in the giant boulders like human rockets. Up-Top turned out to be a great big fraternity house without the alcohol, a place where counselors and Chiefs alike found special friendships and a refuge for a month in the summer from the cares of the outside world. Parents may never have quite gotten used to the fact that this rather shabby farm house and potato shed, couched in between a horse barn and several chicken houses, were the pinnacles of living arrangements at camp, but we who lived up there knew it to be a little slice of heaven on earth. 

After Up-Top closed and The Ridge became justifiably the “best place in camp to live,” Dick stepped out once again on faith and gave me the chance to continue at Alpine in a whole different capacity, that of Program Director. 

The hardest assignment I’ve ever been given as Program Director was this speech, as I’ve realized in the last 24 hours the futility of trying to compress my years here into anything less than a semester course. Imagine Dick trying to compress his. It would be a multi-volume set at the very least. 

What’s been so great this weekend is understanding so intimately how each of us made his own unique journey to be a member of the Alpine Family, whether as a camper, a KB, or a counselor. We each brought our own stories here this weekend, letting those narratives intertwine and enrich each others’ lives.

“Were you there when Patrick Toomey put his entire fist into his mouth at Freak Show?  someone asks.

“Do you remember that time at the Warrior Overnight when the girl scout troop hiked by? laughs another.

We recall that Don Gardner’s Madame Edie, the somewhat rumpled and chronically inaccurate fortune teller at those early County Fairs later morphed into Buddy Kuykendall’s Madame Buddy, this time with more makeup but still dependably clueless.  And before my time, who had taught Camper Don the ropes of being a fortune teller anyway? Time present and time past and even time future merge into one as the continuity of this place begins to focus more clearly before our very eyes. 

I sat behind Andrew Grinstead this morning at morning watch and stared at the back of his homemade t-shirt, a shirt in the classic fashion of last-night-at-camp shirts, with all the names of his 2nd term cabin, handwritten in Sharpie for all to remember. Jon Lucas was the all-star counselor of what was surely an all-star cabin. 

I look at those signatures from those 15-yr-old hands in 1990 and am thankful I can see and talk this weekend with the men those boys became. And I am thankful that at their core today, a part of that boy remains, eyes wide open at the sights and smells of the woods, happy to have escaped the orbits of everyday life for some time again on the mountain. 

The names on this list this weekend form a veritable roll call—perhaps a long retreat line would be a better analogy–of people who came here and worked and played and let Alpine seep into their very core and become a part of them. In the exchange, we left a part of ourselves here too, although it was never to be an even exchange.  We all have benefited more from camp than we can ever give back.

We are all permanently woven into the fabric of this place: campers, counselors, alums. Each generation brings its own freshness and vitality, the new blood that dependably each June injects relevance and vitality and creativity into the chinking of a cabin whose foundation never changes, even as we renew it summer after summer. 

Our jobs now may simply be to show up here and see again for ourselves if the old truth still holds.  

“It was a good and special place in my life,” we say to each other.

And it remains so.

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One Response to “A Talking Tree”

  1. Tom Garmon Says:

    I hate that I missed the reunion. I was there from 79-87 I think. From Hunter to 2nd year chief. There are two places in my life that I think about that remind me of how blessed I was growing up. One is Alpine Camp and the other is The Baylor School. I was great to read this. I had forgotten about the scream machine. Loved sittign in the back and flying off the seats almost to the sealing. Tree and Mr. O are the best.

    Tom Garmon

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