This past weekend began a significant moment in the life of this Blogger. In reality it’s something I have been prepared to see happen for many years, but somehow with some luck, it took 16 long years to really take place. Fort Scott Camps, where I attended as a kid – and loved so dearly – has been sold to be turned into a 950-home subdivision. The camp closed in 1989.
This past weekend the Crosby Township Fire Department used the first building to be removed – the Girls’ Lodge – as a practice burn to ready their firefighters for real fires. It was dramatic to watch – for anyone to watch – with the fire roaring to the sky, and smoke billowing and enveloping the fire trucks, firefighters and bystanders nearby. It was also heartbreaking to see the beginning to an end of such a big part of my life.
With a pile of wood placed just inside the doorway of the old building with white siding and a green shingled roof with green-painted trim, right in the middle of a building where I went to at least one senior dance (and so clearly remember hearing Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” for the first time, prompting me to go out and buy the 45), the firefighters poured gasoline on the stack and dropped a match.
There the orange flames began and quickly grew higher and larger and hotter and spread inside this place full of memories. This place was also the place where perched on the hillside was a stone patio overlooking the Great Miami River. There I remembered I would look to see my best friend Alan’s house on the hill opposite and feel some comfort when the inevitable homesickness of being at an overnight camp without Mom and Dad set in.
I can’t believe it’s now that I am experiencing this loss. Until now nearly every building and the two swimming pools at the former camp remained untouched. The person who bought the camp from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati used it has his home, a sprawling 400-plus-acre ranch with buildings used for entertaining guests and storing old tractors, farm equipment and motorcycles and other various items he had collected. It’s amazing to be there now, aside from the deterioration of the swimming pools and the grass growing out of the tennis courts, the place has actually been maintained. Buildings, for the most part, have received paint, the grass has been mowed and the doors and windows are still there. Some cabin names, until recently, still stood over cabin doorways. It’s still virtually the same Fort Scott Camps that I remembered as a child.
I could go on and on about the many, many positive memories and first experiences I had at that place – shooting a BB gun for the first time, hitting a bulls-eye in archery for the first time, riding horses through the vast wilderness, sleeping alone in the woods as the final trial for my naturalist badge, or learning to be an actor – or to act goofy – in a drama class that I so dearly loved (and won awards for my silliness and, I guess, skills). I learned to swim better there, too. Competing against the Girls’ Camp in the Sunday Swim Meet, and doing not-so-badly that I could hold my head high as I came out of the pool – even if I hadn’t won the race.
Or those “Junior-Midget Dances”. “Midgets” and “Juniors” were the names given to the youngest and second-youngest campers at Fort Scott, respectively. It was a pre-pubescent romp through the teen years at age eight – and I loved it – replete with Top 40 music and a deejay and dimmed lights and slow dancing and pretty girls. It was great, even if I was scared to death to ask any woman (ahem, girl) to dance with me. It was romantic, it was summer and it was my childhood.
I still have a little Kinney Shoes shoebox (remember Kinney?) filled with mementos of my summers there. A green ribbon with the gold-stamped lettering “Fort Scott Camps, The Place to Be in ’83”. That’s 1983, kiddies. My “Character Rating Card” that was my counselor’s report card to my parents about my behavior while I was in his cabin. I always took pride in getting high marks there. I have copies of the hand-drawn map carefully outlining the trails and campsites in the Fort Scott forest. The famous “Grubers” spot – I can remember that campsite without even looking. I kept one bumper sticker, the ones for sale in the Fort Scott boys’ canteen store that had in green letters with a big red heart, “I (heart) Fort Scott”. You used to see them all around town on station wagons and minivans and family cars. You could leave town and go to Columbus or Indianapolis and see them there, too.
Or the legend of Pottinger, the mythic man who lived just beyond the camp’s borders and hated so much when he found Fort Scott campers trespassing on his property that he’d load salt pellets in his shotgun and shoot campers in the butt if he could. It was enough to keep us scared from wandering off camp property, the logical intent of the legend for our counselors charged with our care, unrealized by our little imaginative minds.
Counselors. I can remember my first. Brian O’Neil. Then came Michael Busic. Dennis Knippenberg. The names seem as fresh as those people were so bigger-than-life and so “old” when I was a kid. I’m now probably ten years older than they were then. Hard to imagine. Then there were those other legends of camp, those counselors who weren’t your own, but they taught all the cool classes and became legends themselves. Tom Beiting. That name pops into my mind so readily, it’s scary. His Indian powwows where he wore Native American dress and jumped over the heads of campers sitting around a campfire from a darkened woods and then ran around the fire, jumping over it and chanting the way we all thought Indians might have chanted, all of us entertained and mystified by his presence. I think I’d ask him for his autograph if I saw him today. I kind of wish I had back then.
“Stretch” – this tall guy. A great counselor. What was his real name? Did he even have a real name? He was just Stretch to us and that was just fine with him.
Laura Beiting, Mary Ann Beiting. That whole Beiting family – they were legends. Of course, Laura, Miss Beiting. Had I only been a little older and she a little younger, a marriage proposal would’ve been in order. Those crushes when you’re 10, 11, 12 years old are so funny.
So many memories of a place that I was so terrified to go to my first year that my Mom canceled at the last minute until I was more ready the next year. But even that next summer, when they had actually got me in the car and drove that five minutes to camp (I lived across the river and up the hill from camp), came the moment my parents walked away from the cabin and I still cried. My counselor saved me and told me to try playing with the other boys, which I did and forgot momentarily that I couldn’t go and run into Mommy’s arms. Then, when I got home two weeks later I laid in my bed and cried, begging my parents to take me back. I was in love, the first of many times my heart would be broken in my life. Not even the first time my heart would be broken as it was related to that camp. But it was life and it taught me about it.
Within a half-hour the building was a smoldering pile of smoking gray and white ash, with two gray, now black smoke-stained chimneys standing on opposite ends, that patio still intact. The home of my friend – where someone else’s family now lives – even more visible with the winter’s barren trees opening a clearer sight line from where I stood, a safe distance away.
While it burned in it’s blazing hot, orange brilliance, evoking this mixed-emotion of neat-o and profound sadness, in the bitter cold just feet away in safety from the comforting warmth of the smoldering building, I said a prayer. It was a prayer for the Church that once owned this great place and let it die despite the desperate cries of those who had built it, loved it and made it what it was. It was a prayer for all the bad decisions the Roman Catholic Church has made in the last 80 or so years, the ones that have not benefited anyone but themselves and have hurt thousands of people, some much more serious than the decision to close a summer camp.
I have started to realize that in my life I will see lots of change. I guess when you hit your 30s you start to realize that not everything will last forever and that things do change. Mortality means change and that things come and go in life and many do not ever stay forever. The unexpected does happen. People let you down. Organizations and routines you count on change and sometimes get worse. Some get sweeter and better. People get greedy or maybe just don’t see things the way you do, and you move on or they do, too. People and places come into your life at the right time and then leave before you realize they’re gone, the impact already made, the mark left, the memory made. The good comes to fill in when the bad seems so heavy. And just the opposite sometimes, too.
I wonder why it took me so long to realize this sometimes. But I think someone, somewhere, some Higher Power, let me realize it when they knew I’d be ready. This burning, tearing down of camp is happening when they knew I would be ready to let go. Doesn’t make it any easier, though. But I can see that chapter, that passage now for what it’s worth, for the good, the bad. I can see it for the doors the past 16 years that it opened and the experiences I might never have had if Fort Scott stayed open.
I asked the firefighter heading up the practice burn how long it would be before they came and hauled away the remaining parts of the building and cleared the spot for the builders.
“They’ll just come with a bulldozer and spread it around and work it into the dirt,” he said. Really, I thought. Like a spreading of the ashes of a dead person, forever making this building and the memories and positive experiences that happened in it part of the ground around it. Fitting, I thought. Very fitting. Perfect, even.
The photos turned out great, something I’ll be able to use for my portfolio as I build my career in journalism. One more time this place gave back to me I think, looking through the awesome shots on the little LCD screen on the back of my camera. I’m happy to know they’ll be burning down more buildings there, and the firefighters have invited me back. It’s neat to watch. Can’t wait. More buildings that will be a part of the ground again. The next to burn? The place where I saw “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for the first time. It’ll be cold outside and hot near the building. I’ll bring the hot chocolate and raise a toast to what once was before I watch it return to the ground.