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How Summer Camp & Prayer Turned Me Into a Halfway Decent Piano Player – Part One
When I was 8 years old, I was one of the worst piano students known to mortal piano teachers. I stared out the window, dreamed about baseball, and drove poor Mrs. Graham, my 70-year-old piano teacher with whom I had a lesson every Saturday morning, to distraction. I even wore my fielder’s glove to a lesson one day.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like music – I did – but all those old guys like Bach and Brahms and Beethoven just didn’t match up with stars such as Joltin’ Joe, Scooter Rizzuto, Stan the Man, Ted Williams, and guys like that. I lived and breathed baseball, and my daily piano practice was a rude interruption into the world of home runs, stolen bases, and off-the-wall leaping catches.
My folks were patient with me – more patient by far than I deserved – and yet they insisted that I put in my required half-hour per day of piano practice. My older brother, Garland, even typed up an “I promise to practice” document and made me sign it. (It resides to this day on the wall of my music studio.) My seat put in its required half-hour on the piano stool, but my mind spent more like five minutes on scales, chords, and thrilling pieces such as “Left Thumb, Right Thumb”, “Swans On The Lake”, and the ever popular “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”. The musical situation, in short, looked bleak, and at 8 years of age I seemed destined to spend my life in the pursuit of baseball dreams.
But life is stranger than fiction, or so I once heard some wise-looking adults observe, and the summer between my 4th and 5th grade years brought a turn of events which was to change the direction of my life.
My best friend, Willie McTavish, who had come to our school during our 4th grade year directly from Scotland, decided to join the Boy Scouts, and I thought that sounded like a great idea too. We heard that after the meetings were over, baseball games were held with all Scouts participating. I asked my folks if I could join – well, actually, I begged my folks – and they said I could join as long as I kept up my homework and my piano practice.
I promised that I would.
I basically lied.
And so Willie & I joined Boy Scouts the summer of 1946. Our den mother, Mrs. Goldsberry, had a wonderfully big basement we met in after school once a week on Thursdays, with all kinds of nooks & surprising crannies to explore and hide in. Willie discovered a short, narrow door behind the furnace, which led from the basement to the alley behind the Goldsberry’s house. In those days some people used sawdust as fuel for their furnaces, and the door was where the sawdust would accumulate when the sawdust truck dumped a load into the slide bin right off the alley that ran behind their home on College Way. Willie thought it would be fun to try to climb up the shoot, since it was summer and no prospect of a sawdust delivery was in sight. He talked me into joining him in the climb, which proved to be a poor decision.
We negotiated the turns in the shoot, and happily didn’t encounter any sawdust. What we did encounter, however, were wasps, or yellow jackets, which were spending a blissful summer vacationing in the sawdust shoot until two Boy Scouts rudely interrupted them. Willie had generously allowed me to go first up the shoot, ostensibly so he could ride shotgun for the den mother and other threats to our little adventure. In the darkness of the shoot I could not see the wasps, but I heard them as once or more passed my face, and I yelled “Willie – watch out! There’s something in here!” The warning came too late. Willie felt the message in his left hip before he heard mine. As he screamed, he also let go of the sides of the shoot, and slipped in full-voiced terror back down the shoot, rolling into and through the little door behind the furnace, landing in a heap at the feet of Den Mother Goldsberry.
Meanwhile, I had motivation of my own, and I scampered up the rest of the shoot to the opening in the alley faster than a speeding bullet, setting a new record for short climbing, then sprinted around the corner, arms flailing, through the yard, and back around to the font door of the basement with a wasp’s patrol in hot pursuit. Once through the door and in the safety of the entryway, I stopped to regain both my breath and my composure before re-mingling with the rest of the Cub Scouts, most of whom were busily engaged in various craft projects, from Moccasin making to clay forming to knot tying. There was a commotion, however, in the corner of the basement, close to the furnace. Seems as though Mrs. Goldsberry had caught a Cub Scout trying to escape through the fuel shoot, and was instructing him earnestly in the morality of the Boy Scout code.
Being a Boy Scout myself, I could not tell a lie.
So I didn’t. I didn’t say anything at all. Cub Scout McTavish tried to tell Den Mother Goldsberry that he had an accomplice, but she was much too busy scolding him, so he finally resigned trying and just gave me a sideways glance, and not a kind one at that.
By August, however, Willie and I had made up, and plans were being made for the great scouting event of the year – Camp Ugwam. Both of us were as excited as 9 year old boys could be about the prospect of going away to camp for a solid week, something neither one of us had ever had ever done.
Camp Ugwam was the official Boy Scout camp of the region, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at nearly 6000 feet elevation, complete with its own mountain lake, appropriately named Lake Ugwam. True to the Boy Scout code, we did our best to be prepared, and packed all our essentials in our suitcases at least two weeks in advance – flashlight, collapsible drinking cup, rope for typing knots, Scout Manual, 3 or 4 dozen Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny comic books, fielders glove, decoder ring (for sending secret messages – we each got one by writing in to Captain Midnight and enclosing a cereal box top), the Official Major League Baseball Guide, 1947 edition (so we could memorize batting averages and ERA’s while we were away from the radio), and since Willie had a larger suitcase than I, he even took his bat.
As prepared as we were, when the day arrived at last for us to pile into the Scoutmaster’s mini-bus for the trip, (which was a pre-World War II school bus that had been used during the war to transport troops in and out of Camp Flint in Auburn where several hundred soldiers were stationed), our Mothers pointed out to us that we might need a change of clothes. Luckily, they had each packed another suitcase for us with all the stuff Mothers pack – pants, shirts, sox, umpteen pairs of underwear, extra sweaters – that sort of thing. It was reassuring to have along, but since I already had my Scout uniform on, I don’t believe I opened that particular suitcase until the last day of camp, when I suddenly remembered what Mom had said about changing clothes daily. I think Willie opened his earlier, since his Mom had mentioned something about putting in some extra spending money if he needed it, and I believe he did need it the evening of the first day.
The bus was packed, and us younger Scouts who had boarded the bus first soon relinquished our choice seats at the back of the bus to the older Scouts, presumably out of respect for rank, but actually out of fear of being beat up. So Willie and I and a couple of other Cub Scouts spent the trip sitting in the isle on the floor of the bus, so the only scenery we saw as we traveled beautiful Highway 80 up toward Donner Summit was the lower limbs of older Scouts.
I guess the curves in the winding forest road were too much for me, because I threw up somewhere between Red Dog and You Bet (now abandoned ghost towns left over from the gold rush of 1849), much to the disgust of the older Scouts.
“Geez, Shinn, thanks a lot! We get to smell puke from here to camp!”
“Oh yuk, Shinn barfed. Stop the bus!”
“Good grief, Shinn, we’re not even to camp yet, and you throw up like a baby!”
After the bus was more or less cleaned up and I felt somewhat better, we re-loaded for the final leg of the journey to Camp Ugwam. At that altitude even in August, the air was a little cool, so our Scoutmaster-driver had everyone shut the windows and he turned on the heat. I think I would have been OK if it wasn’t for that heat. It did something to the remaining scent of throw-up that was downright sickening, and as hard as I tried to hold it back, I threw up again.
There were groans around the bus when they heard me heave, but the reaction was much quieter than the first time, since the warm odor of left-over puke had gotten to most everyone else, too, and as I brought my head up off the floor I caught a quick glimpse of one of the older Scouts trying to roll his window down in time, but he didn’t make it. Scouts were slouched all over the van, pea-green faces, eyes closed, some making faces, some holding heir noses, some joining me on the floor.
We drug ourselves out of the bus again at Soda Springs, and lay on the ground under some big pines while the Scoutmaster hosed out the van at a Flying A service station across the road. He was in a fairly poor mood when he returned, and warned us not to get back in the van until we felt perfect. We were already an hour or so behind schedule, and one Scout said he had heard that if you were late on your first day, you had to wash dishes all week while the other Scouts were playing.
I wanted to go home.
But within the hour we were on our way again, this time with all the windows down, sitting on wet seats in a freshly hosed-out bus. Shivering almost felt good, now that the warm smell was gone, and we knew we had only a few minutes until we arrived at Camp Ugwam.
It was an exciting moment as we pulled into the legendary camp. There was a large sign welcoming us to “Mysterious Camp Ugwam.” I wondered about the “mysterious” part, and worried a little. As the bus snaked its way through a complex of teepees and rustic buildings and evergreens we saw another sign over the entrance to a rustic building which read “Ugwam Lodge”, and another that pointed toward “Ugwam Memorial Field” and still another with an arrow on it pointing to “Lake Ugwam.” Still another sign read “Ugwam Trail” and another read “Ugwam Midnight Survival Test”, which scared the merit badges out of me.
The bus came to a stop in front of the Ugwam Registration Teepee, so we all piled out and signed in, check our spending money with the pleasant-faced fat lady in charge of the canteen.
There were at least a hundred tents scattered through the pines within a radius of a quarter mile from Ugwam Lodge, and each tent held four campers. Willie and I were assigned to Teepee 34 along with two other Scouts from a different town, so as we moved in and got settled, we began to get acquainted. We learned that one of the boys was 12 years old and fresh out of reform school – he was sent there for beating up other Boy Scouts, he said – and the other boy was a chubby little 9-year old (Willie and I were both 9 too) who had a bed-wetting problem, and was as scared of his “friend” as we were, so it didn’t take long to determine who the boss of the teepee would be.
It wasn’t me, it wasn’t Willie, & it certainly wasn’t the bed wetter. I knew I was in for a long week.
Rock – the teepee boss from reform school – announced that he would rather sleep on the bed assigned to me, since it was nearest to the door of the tent and he would be getting in later than the rest of us. That certainly sounded reasonable to me, and since Rock had already moved his stuff onto my bed, I readily agreed. Rock seemed to be pleasant enough as long as things went his way, so we all dedicated ourselves to making sure things went his way. It wasn’t as though we were exactly afraid of him, but he was older, at least a head taller, and his upper arms reminded me of Tarzan. But I was sure he was a nice guy at heart, and if it took a king-clave arrangement to make the friendship work, so be it. Camp doesn’t last forever.
Or so I thought.
Part two will be continued next week.
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