On July 17, 1936, five months before I was born, an area of 393 acres of wilderness in Alabama’s Talladega County was established as a U.S. National Forest. One of its many glories is Cheaha Mountain, Alabama highest point, visible from our front porch. Dad and I camped out at many different spots in the park throughout most summers while I was growing up, and often we encountered no other human being.
My chuck wagon experience noted in this clipping from our local paper on July 27, 1949, was nothing like that. The night we started, they stripped us, checked us for lice and felt our testicles looking for ruptures. Afterwards, we put up our tents, ate supper, and retired early, since we would enter the wilderness at dawn.
It seemed more like a march than a hike. For miles and miles, we never paused to enjoy the forest. Our leaders made it clear that we were competing to see who could get the farthest the fastest and then look back to smirk at the losers.
Never did the group take time to observe the flora and the fauna. Those were obstacles to dispose of in short order. Never did we sit in wonder as the quiet was penetrated ever so slightly by a distant waterfall or, for a flash second, by the sound of a moccasin as it slithered into water gulping an unwary frog.
Dad and I went to these places to observe, to blend in, to enjoy, but the scouts relentlessly pressed forward with every ounce of testosterone they had.
I annoyed them when I frequently lagged behind to peek at all the wonder that they were ignoring. If others wanted to lag behind, they never showed it around me, and the high school football coach, deployed by the Scout Council to oversee our ‘adventure,’ rallied them with statistics as emphatic as those on score boards of football games: who had been the first to…. who had gone the farthest….
We were learning to be “tough, “to be young men,” as if “young men” were chiseled in bold on a rock face to save the wilderness from being a wilderness.
I was rescued by a huge blister that grew on my heel. “Thank you, Jesus,” I mumbled as the coach examined it. I knew he dang sure was not going to make the troopers go slow enough to keep me with them. I knew too that he would not want to send me home before Dad had gotten his money’s worth. Dad was on the school board. Likely there was already bad blood between them. They had been undergraduates together at what is now Samford University, and they were members of the same Baptist church, but never spent any time together.
The coach came up with a solution that pleased me and everyone else. I was a chubbette and Charlie, our cook for the week, was fat. The coach partnered us. For the remainder of the week, I rose before dawn to help Charlie serve breakfast and hand out lunch bags. Charlie and I left before the hikers and rode in the chuck wagon to the site of the next encampment. We had almost 10 hours alone together, and paused often to talk and observe..
In the 68 years since that summer, I have continued to remember Charlie with great affection. He showed me many wonderful things as we bounced along on the wagon, and as we prepared the food. I learned how to peel potatoes like a pro. I learned just how much quinine to add to the huge canvas tank that held our drinking water, I learned how to wash our utensil in mountain streams, but I enjoyed the most learning vocabulary. Charlie loved to make up words.
“Sugar” he told me, bringing the mule to a halt and wiping his brow with a towel, “we have reached Plumnelly!
“No, it’s more a direction, or really, more like a road mark.”
“Why did they name it that?” I asked.
“They, didn’t.” he insisted and smiled, puffed out his chest and patted it. “I did!. We plum outa town and we nelly out the universe!”
He’d laugh and laugh and laugh.
He told the same joke about the same time every day, and once we were lucky enough to hear it echo up the hollow.
In a separate tank of memory, I hear him say again, “It’s time to pee.” And as I followed him, he said, “We need to pee below the camping area so they won’t smell it.” He pointed to a spot by a tiny brook, indicating where I was to stand. Then he stepped over the brook and walked a ways down from me before he stopped, turned around, and facing me, started to pee.
I stared and stared.
I had never seen an adult’s pee pee. “Pee pee” did not even seem like the right word. Was it growing?
I zipped and slowly climbed up the slope to the chuck wagon to wash my hands and start peeling more potatoes.
I wished I had stayed to find out. I felt even closer to him. He was as kind a person as I had ever met.
Dad was pleased when I reported how much I had enjoyed the scout trip. He’d won their Silver Beaver Award, BSA’s highest honor to public servants.
School started back in late August, One Saturday a month or so into the term, Dad interrupted me from the stamp collection I was working on.
“The ice man wants to see you, son.”
“The ice man? I don’t know him, and why me? We have an electric refrigerator. Maybe he’s confusing me with David.” (David lived down the street, and his parents had an ice box, not a proper refrigerator.)
“No son, He wants you. He said he really liked you when you went camping.”
I dashed out and for the first time realized that the chuck wagon which I had remembered as grand and pioneering was really just the plain old ice wagon I had been seeing for as long as I could remember.
“Boy,” Charlie said as he hugged me. “You sure is growed.”
In only three weeks? I asked myself. No, that’s impossible. But I did accept his invitation to ride with him for several blocks of his delivery route, and he let me sit in his lap again and gently direct the mule.