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Yawgoog – A Timeless Experience

(Left to Right) Tom, Joe and Rob DelPrete

(Left to Right) Tom, Joe and Rob DelPrete

It’s always great to be at Yawgoog, isn’t it? To smell the white pines, to feel the breeze coming in off the pond, to hear a familiar cheer in the dining halls—it awakens something in you, reaches into your memory and lays hold of your boyhood self. It’s like coming home. Then you see a familiar face, an old Yawgoog buddy, and you say Hoppy or Schwabbie or Eddie Mo or some other name with some unique intonation that belongs to camp and camp alone. You’re transported back into the small world of adventure that was so large in your life. You feel the place, the tradition and the warm fellowship, fully alive as if there were no years at all between then and now. You take a breath of Yawgoog and it fills you the same now as before.

But if the Yawgoog experience feels timeless, we perhaps understand it better thanks to the perspective that time gives us. Now, I haven’t had as much time as some of you guys, but I will do my best to remind us of the experience and reflect on what it means.

For most of us, Yawgoog had us at first blush. If the animal totems on the T. Dawson Brown Gateway didn’t grab your curiosity and imagination, then the sight of the Bucklin building told you that this was a place that took its rustic adventure seriously. Your angle of vision widened as you approached Yawgoog Pond and so did the prospects for adventure. You couldn’t wait to explore it all. Older boys and staff guided you in your first steps and you held them in the greatest respect and secretly wanted to be like them. One experience after another captured your heart and spirit until you were swallowed whole.

activityMy first steps ran right into living, breathing tradition. My troop was newly formed and the Scoutmaster sent a few of us older boys to a special week 8 “junior leader training” camp. The program was housed in campsite 49’er in Three Point. Trust me when I say that you could never lose a game of rock tag in Campsite 49’er. But what an induction into Yawgoog! I learned edible plants from Steve Hopkins, who tells me he learned from his Yawgoog mentors. I learned the ingredients of a good campfire program while accelerating through “Flea, Fly, Flow” and going on a bear hunt with Joe DeCecco. Mike Finch hustled us every morning to the dining hall with a smart marching cadence. And I saw Gus Anthony drive through camp in his Model T, beaming below his bald pate and signaling hello with his trademark little finger waive. It was week 8, 1968. I didn’t fully appreciate until the Saturday Night Show who Gus was and that I was witness to his last week as Yawgoog’s director. Gus’s car was hauled onto the stage, given a voice, and allowed to poke fun at one of Yawgoog’s giants. Gus was a link to Yawgoog’s very beginning, having been a camper when a young Chief Williams became director. So from the very first I was smitten by Yawgoog and its rustic beauty, by the outdoor learning, by the history, the tradition, and the personalities.

My aspiration to somehow be part of Yawgoog was born in those first moments. Thank goodness Al Mink paved the way for Scouts like me by launching the CIT Corps in the ‘60s. Little did I know how Yawgoog would create a new rhythm in my life as a member of the staff. But it did for me as for so many of us. Through the 70s into the 80s I would mark the calendar in terms of Yawgoog. Fall meant adjusting to life after camp, winter the Christmas staff reunion, spring a time for planning, work days, and anticipation, and summer a happy return.

activity2To some extent, my family followed this pattern of life, too. As many of you know, my younger brothers Rob and Joe joined me on the staff for many years. As a consequence of our absence, my father, who was a troop committeeman and citizenship merit badge counselor, took over leadership of Troop 6 North Providence for its week at camp. My artistically inclined sister sewed camp staff neckerchiefs. My mother prayed fervently that this would all continue, filled as she was with gratitude that there was a place on the planet that would accommodate all three of her sons for an entire summer year after year. I know our family was not unique. I was a frequent visitor to the Hopkins home in those years, which sent all five sons to camp. For a few years, Mark and I made his house into a Yawgoog outpost—silk-screening neckerchiefs, perfecting making fire with a bow and drill in his basement, and once bringing home cow tendons from a slaughterhouse so that we could create sinew for bowstrings and arrowheads for the camp Indian lore program. It all seemed perfectly natural to us, and Hoppy’s mom, no less grateful than my mom, more or less turned a blind eye.

Thankfully, there are reminders everywhere to assure us that the Yawgoog we experienced remains strong. The camp grounds are as beautiful as ever, thanks to an almost biblical history of care and devotion, as Camp Ranger Inky Armstrong begat Al Gunther, who begat Paul Forbes. The yellow trail still takes you from the farthest reaches of the most tradition-filled camp, just beyond the dam, up to Lucy’s Carpet, then through Cooning Orchard and on to the anchoring slab for Slade’s former bridge behind Phillips Island, before curving towards Hemlock Ledge on the far side of Yawgoog Pond, where you can still take an overnighter and see the sun rise over the heart of Yawgoog (Medicine Bow), with a possible side trip to Smugglers’ Cliffs if you take the white trail on the way to the youngest and largest camp. Beyond the glittering pond and the familiar landmarks, you can count on the daily tolling of the bell tower at noon, the pounding of mallets at the Stockade, counselors standing watch over Scouts cooking in dutch ovens down at Campcraft, the Monday night retreat ceremony on Tim O’Neil Field and Camp campfires and the Saturday Night Show. You can count on the weekly antics in the dining halls, shaped by the weekly themes which grew out of the creative programming of people like Joe Herbold, Murray Massover, and Bruce Ingham running the provisional camps at Minnikesu and Baden Powell. The characters varied—from King Neptune to Captain Prog to Sherlock Holmes—but the plot line was always the same, celebrating the triumph of character and Yawgoog spirit over their villainous counterparts. You are likely to see as well one of those enduring skits that you’ve seen maybe fifty times before, but which you delight in as if they were fresh, thinking that the guys nailed the punchlines again—“Captain, Captain, Captain, the ship is stinking!” “Hello down there in the latrine—Help! Help! I’m falling in!” Radio Skit—“Save me, save me, oh, who will save me?! (George—George Egan!).

activity3Sure, there are some differences, but they are not of the fundamental kind. We can definitely say that the fine line between fun and mischief has become more conservative, and that’s for the better. I don’t want to embarrass anyone here to prove this point. I’ll use as my main evidence a story by Gus Anthony. Gus loved to entertain with his eyebrow-raising accounts. He tells of a time in the 1920s when the so-called “junior officers,” of which he was one, had what they thought was a clever brainstorm during a rare idle moment. They took the camp cannon, the same one I believe that for years snapped us to salute on Tim O’Neil field, and set it up, just after taps, with a trip wire along the path to the latrine. Sure enough, a loud boom interrupts the wee hours and H. Cushman and his buddies can’t wait ‘til morning to see if the cause was animal or human. They discover a pair of pajama bottoms on the trail, and they were, in Gus’s words, “fully loaded.” When everyone is called out at reveille in front of their tents, there is poor Dick Nagle, legs as bare as the day he was born. Now, I’m relating this story only to make a historical point—I wouldn’t want it to encourage anyone’s imagination in the wrong way. I should point out that Gus was so taken with his story that he never got around to saying what the consequences were for him and his pals.

A less dramatic difference, you will no longer see a Harry Dickens emerge god-like from the ceiling at Medicine Bow to save the day, since the old skylights are gone. On another note, I can’t say that I miss the honey wagon, but maybe I do. It has its own pungent memories. Wouldn’t you love to see Al Gunther bouncing again on the front seat with a demonic grin, looking for all the world like he might scoop you up with that long hose? Some of you may remember the story of the Scout who climbed up a tree and stubbornly stayed there, apparently to draw attention to his homesickness, and how he scurried down faster than a squirrel when Al showed up with an impatient growl and a buzz saw! I don’t think anyone loved camp more than Al.

Place, tradition, personality, Scout ideals and good Scouting adventure help define Yawgoog. They help cultivate a sense of connection and fellowship across Yawgoog generations. Yet, as much as this is true, they don’t fully explain the Yawgoog experience and its significance or what has sustained it though its first century. Place and tradition are empty without guiding purpose, without character and good-hearted spirit.

activity4And Yawgoog’s deeper purpose is to take you as you are when you walk through the gate and to help you walk a little taller and a little truer to who you are and to who you can be when you walk out. This is the heart of all good education: you are taken as you are and you are supported in discovering something new about yourself and about what you can do, about the world and what you can contribute to it, and, most importantly, about who you can be and how you can be, not only for yourself but also for others. And one of the keys to this kind of personal education is a community that has a way of taking you in by your heart as well as your head. If you were inclined to Scouting and the outdoors at all, all you had to do was spread your wings a little and Yawgoog was sure to bear you up. That’s the kind of place most of us want and need growing up.

So the experience of Yawgoog that we are reminded of as we walk through the gateway has several layers of meaning. You see and hear the familiar landscape, the traditions and programs. You enter the warmth of friendship and feel the embrace of a broader fellowship born of shared adventure and commitment and fun. You remember the experience that captured the spirit of your youth, that challenged and inspired you; that, importantly, gave your searching adolescent self something to live up to; and, more importantly, gave you somebody to live up to—leaders and staff members who loomed large, who embodied the character and spirit of Yawgoog—examples that you were looking for, although you may not have known it. Here at Yawgoog someone saw something in you, encouraged you, trusted you with responsibility and by doing so made you more responsible. Here at Yawgoog someone helped you to discover some of the best in yourself and your fellows, including some things that you didn’t know you could do and some ways that you didn’t know you could be, and this experience gave you a sense of capability and accomplishment and integrity. Here at Yawgoog your own special personality blossomed and you became a more mature and more rounded version of what you are. Here at Yawgoog you experienced a little of what life in a life-affirming community can mean.

So the essential part of the Yawgoog story is not written down but rather is written into each of us and the lives we lead. For the Yawgoog experience ultimately is not about what we did but who we became while doing it. And this experience, I believe, links the Yawgoog boys and men of 1916 with the boys and men of my era and the boys and men of today.

activityAnd if the Yawgoog experience is timeless, it also is needed as much now as ever it was in the last century. The world may have traveled closer to the stars since 1916, but it still needs the travel that a boy’s imagination might take while gazing heavenward over Tim O’Neil Field or that a boy’s spirit might take after a week of Yawgoog fun. The world may have advanced in technological ways not fully imagined when the first circle of tents formed here, but it can advance no further in the development of character and human integrity, and care for our environment and for each other, without places like Yawgoog. Yawgoog’s world of adventure may be small in the context of the larger world with all its complexity, but it has an outsized role in cultivating the world that is in each boy, that is in each of us, so that boys grow into responsible men, men who bring to their everyday lives and communities character and integrity and a life-affirming spirit.

Thankfully Yawgoog continues to live within all of us and in the lives of the Scouts who are here. And it continues because each Yawgoog generation has met its responsibility to hand down the essential Yawgoog experience and spirit to the next. May all of us who have and all who will experience Yawgoog help to safeguard and pass on this legacy. May the Yawgoog experience and spirit remain fully alive in the hearts of boys and men through its next century, and may it be celebrated thankfully once again at its 200th anniversary.

Tom DelPrete

2 Responses to Yawgoog – A Timeless Experience

  1. John A. Kingston Sr October 16, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    I didn’t think anyone could put words to the way I felt about Yawgoog, but Tom nails it. For a few minutes, especially at the start of the essay, I was transported back to 1966 and my first full week of camping in Waskeke in MB. Many thanks for reminding me of that.

  2. Chaplain Ed Boucher February 1, 2017 at 9:06 pm #

    Dear Tom: Your essay on the timeless meaning of the Yawgoog camp experience is one of the most moving I have ever read (right up there with the great essayists of the English language!) What you have created is an avenue for all of us – including yourself – to re-enter Camp Yawgoog when we were boys. I am now 71 years of age (it hardly seems possible – I know, how did I get here so fast!), but reading your essay and letting my imagination run freely, I felt all the years melt away and I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, fouteen and fifteen years old again. You have given us the words and the images which bring to life our memories of those magical boyhood years. Your essay is a great gift to us and I, along with I imagine so many campers, am grateful. Thank You.
    The Rev. Edward C. Boucher, Retired Episcopal Priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.

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