My first real job involved my being away from home for seven weeks, spending most of the summer with an unruly collection of teenage boys, most of them about my age.
It was the early 1960s and I had spent a year in high school when I somehow got hired to work at the Boy Scouts’ Camp Pellissippi on Norris Lake. I referred to myself as a camp counselor, but in reality I was one of the camp’s two dishwashers.
Though the job did not carry the noble-sounding “counselor” title, it did pay $20 a week—the counselors only got a couple of dollars credit at the camp trading post. Of course, room and board were included.
For the dishwashers, “room” meant a primitive space underneath the mess hall with three cots and no door. It had been dubbed the Country Club by previous residents.
The other dishwasher, Jim, was
a camp veteran about my age; his older brother was the mess-hall director. Jim occupied one of the bunks in the Country Club. The third resident was Rick, a counselor friend of his (they were schoolmates at Karns High School).
Later we made room for a fourth, an East High friend of mine who usually went by his surname, Jenks. He was hired when it was decided that we needed a pot-washer since the pots were too large to fit into the industrial dishwasher that Jim and I used.
Occasionally, always in the middle of the night, the Country Club would host a visitor. The first time he showed up, he scared the bejeebers out of me. I was suddenly awakened by something licking my hand. My scream woke up the rest of the occupants. We caught a glimpse of a dog high-tailing it out. The pooch, a beagle, got used to us (and the handouts we started providing) and became a nighttime regular.
The mess hall, perched on top of a ridge overlooking the lake, was the center of camp—it was the only covered space large enough to house all the campers at once. Plus, it was one of the few camp facilities that was wired for electricity.
So it was there where the bugler blew Reveille (7 a.m.) and Taps (11 p.m.)
The bugler, domiciled nearby in a large tent (most everything in camp was U.S. Army surplus) covering a wooden platform, kept his bugle on a shelf in the mess hall kitchen. And one night, during a break in one of our marathon games of Hearts, someone noticed the bugle’s proximity to the freezer.
The next morning as the bugler searched for his instrument, Jenks found it for him—in the freezer. Already behind schedule, he had to blow Reveille immediately. It was a decidedly sloppy version. With warm water, we helped him remove the mouthpiece from his lips. From then on, he slept with his horn.
The Hearts games would usually start after Taps and often continue until 3 or 4 a.m., usually with five or six participants, including the Country Club residents, Steve, who ran the Trading Post, and sometimes others.
Thanks to his important position as the source of chocolate bars and soft drinks, Steve was known to all the campers. And, until one of the directors put a stop to it, he demanded respect at meal time, requiring the campers assigned to his dining table to stand until he sat down and to make sure that he was served first.
Another late-night dining-hall visitor was Hugh, one of the waterfront staffers and Jenks’ rival for Camp Jester.
Hugh was in his third or fourth year working at Pellissippi, and was renowned for his meal-preparation pantomime. He would place himself at the kitchen’s prep counter and act like he was making meatloaf, kneading and shaping an imaginary concoction. He would moo as he assembled the ingredients, then whack the offending part. Or he would sneeze into the “mixture,” then, after furtively looking around, begin remixing. Or he would accidentally “cut off” one of his fingers and then include it in the mixture.
Another late-night diversion was the food fight, which generally came on the nights when dessert was pudding, the leftovers providing ammo. Jim and I usually dominated because we had access to the industrial spray gun attached to the dishwasher, which had a reach of about 30 feet. It would then be used to clean the pudding off the walls.
The battles would include lots of shouting and name-calling. Since there was no adult supervision after Taps, and since there were no females present, the name-calling involved a lot of cursing, sometimes with creative combinations. “FartBreath” was popular until one of the directors overheard its use during a meal.
It was an entertaining seven weeks. And I did learn a few things. I now know how to operate a commercial dishwasher. I enjoyed a period of being adept at Hearts. And I certainly expanded my vocabulary.
The latter skill caused trouble after camp had ended and I had not yet adjusted to life in mixed company. At Sunday dinner, when my brother was taking his time in passing the food around the table, I used a decidedly unappetizing term for the mashed potatoes in an attempt to speed him up.
So I did without, banished to my room for the rest of the day.
Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.
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