He stood in front of me. A small, freckled faced red-haired boy, clutching a mixed-breed dog, both looking a little apprehensive of this stranger in front of them.
This was Tommy, the first of 12 boys assigned to me as a counselor for two weeks at Camp Okee, the Boy Scout Camp overlooking the York River on Gloucester Point.
He wore tan shorts and a rumpled T-shirt with the words “All Boy” printed across the front. His socks were mismatched—one faded blue in color, the other a dingy white. Just above the socks, tanned legs bore small bruises from what I guessed were hours of tree climbing, football and roughhousing.
I smiled at him, putting my hand out and said, “Welcome to Camp Okee.”
We shook hands, using the Boy Scout handshake, the three middle fingers extended, the thumb and little finger folded. This brought the first of many smiles I would see from Tommy over the next two weeks.
I was working as a counselor between my junior and senior years of college.
Every two weeks I greeted a new troop of boys, all similar in some way to Tommy but each unique. These young fellows taught me much about life; all of them were inquisitive, bundles of energy and growing every day.
The boys spent their mornings attending classes where they were being taught skills needed to earn merit badges. I taught classes in first aid and cooking over a campfire (yes, cooking).
To earn a merit badge in cooking, the scout had to cook over a campfire a meal consisting of meat, two vegetables, bread and a hot beverage. As their instructor I had to eat and approve of the meal for the scout to qualify for the merit badge.
Over the course of that summer I choked down many well intended, often burned or under-cooked chunks of meat and hard vegetables but I survived.
In the afternoon two hours were allotted for swimming, canoeing and sailing.
For breakfast, lunch and dinner, we would gather in the dining hall. After eating, counselors would lead the boys in a rousing singing rendition of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain When She Comes,” “I’ve been Working on the Railroad” and other fun songs. To encourage enthusiasm we would have one side of the room try in turn to sing louder than the other side of the room. It was ear-bursting fun.
Each of the troops in attendance was encouraged to search the woods for a turtle. On the last day of camp the troops would compete in a turtle race. As this was an annual event at Camp Okee, some troops arrived with turtle in hand. The troop from Fort Monroe showed up with a huge sea turtle that they kept in the moat around the fort.
The grand turtle race involved placing the competing turtles in the center of a circle, 20 feet in diameter. The circle was outlined by chalk. Covers were placed over the turtles until the official whistle was blown. Then the turtles were released. The first turtle to escape the circle won a watermelon for the sponsoring troop.
The final night of camp the scouts sat around a huge campfire performing skits, singing songs and telling ghost stories. Rosy-cheeked faces of happy boys glowed in the firelight.
That summer was an episode in my life I will always remember. Week after week, new little Tommies arrived and when they left I always felt a tug at my heart.
It was the best job I ever had.