Mountain Home Air Force Base was built in the early 1940s to train World War II bomber pilots. It was located forty miles east of Boise, Idaho—far enough inland from the Oregon coast to provide protection from light bombers launched from aircraft carriers yet within range for our heavy aircraft to reach islands in the Pacific, where they could refuel. After the war large formations of transport planes left Mountain Home to supply the food and materials to rebuild the decimated lands where the war had been fought.
One of those formations of planes is one of my earliest memories. Perhaps I was three. It was a warm afternoon and my two sisters and I were on the lawn being watched over by our mother. We were sitting in the grass when a distant rumble grew to a deep, droning roar and the clear sky became thick with planes, all flying a fixed distance from one another, their four mighty engines powering propellers that pulled them forward. Behind each hard working engine dark trails of smoke blended together to turn the sky gray. It took some ten minutes for them all to pass.
Years later Mother told me that when we had been sitting on the grass that day she had been convinced she was dying of tuberculosis.
Barely thirty years old. An infant daughter. A three-year-old son. A five-year-old daughter. Feeling the cool grass of a new home. Breathing the spring air and playing with her children. Every possible future being cut short.
The winter before my parents had managed to get hold of a used Model A Ford. In those days ammonia was used as an antifreeze. Ammonia lowers the boiling point of water which is exactly not what a summer radiator needs, so regular maintenance meant flushing the antifreeze and replacing it with water. My dad was diligent about mechanical maintenance and performed his first flushing of the Model A’s radiator once there was no danger of an overnight freeze.
When ammonia quit escaping the radiator, Mother’s lungs cleared up.
I can only imagine the relief and joy my mother felt, knowing her life with her children and husband was hers to enjoy. I know for sure that tears well up when I think she may not have been around to be my Mom.
It was another of my days on kitchen duty at Buck Brook Farm and I was man-handling a huge square pan of chicken swimming in a thin sauce into the commercial oven. Suddenly one of the students burst out of the walk-in cooler. She was all atwitter about seeing a rat.
I guess some folks live around rats but I had never shared space with our fellow life form that lives as grey rodents with bald tails hiding from the world. I prefer the variety of rodents that sport busy tails, an abundance of brown or grey hair, and are always squirreling around climbing trees for all of creation to enjoy.
Not having been around rats, I finally had a chance to check one out. I started hurrying to the walk-in, hoping it would not be gone before I got there.
As I entered the walk-in I was astonished at the size of that rat! It was longer than a commercial sized can of tomatoes and it was running like lightening. How it ever fit through whatever small holes it could find through the walk-in’s walls was astonishing to me.
Just then one of our energetic students came screaming in, yelling like a Mongolian hoard riding into battle, and swinging one of the kitchen’s sharp French knives.
As fast as that rat was sprinting it was not fast enough. The flash of the knife in one mighty swoop toward the wooden shelf that frightened beast was running on and we were left with a front half a rat and a back half a rat.
I refrained from serving up a chef’s special.
I was fourteen in 1959 when my folks rented the trailer we used for camping to someone who was heading up the Boise River. I have no idea where he was headed, perhaps Twin Springs or Atlanta. Perhaps some mining claim between the two.
All went well until he was returning the trailer to Boise, when a tire blew out. Having no spare he unhitched the trailer and left it beside the road while returning to let us know where it was.
Now let’s take a gander at the meaning of “beside the road” on the Middle Fork Boise River Road. The road is eighty miles of unpaved surface, some of it dusting over dirt and some of it jolting over solid rock. It is not too difficult to pass oncoming traffic on most of those eighty miles but all of the bridges and most of the many blind corners are one lane and one lane only. Most of the road meanders along the beautiful waters of the Middle Fork but fourteen miles of it is tucked on a narrow ledge snaking some thirty feet up a steep bank that plunges into the waters of Arrowrock Reservoir. Blind one-lane corners are plentiful on those perilous fourteen miles.
It was right at one of the narrowest of the one-lane bottlenecks that was on one of the blindest of the blind corners and at one of the highest points of the steep bank plunging into the reservoir that our delightful camping trailer had been left “beside the road.”
Dad and I showed up with a spare tire and, not finding the trailer where the customer said he had left it, Dad looked over the side of the road.
It seems having that trailer perched on the edge of that steep bank was just too tempting for some jackass who had come along. It had been pushed off the road and came to a stop half way to the reservoir.
Now, it could have been a large truck came upon that trailer and getting it out of the way was necessary. But we stuck with the jackass theory, assuming the deed was done just to watch the trailer take the spectacular journey to a watery grave. We presumed that was the motive since we always did exactly that with some large rock sitting beside a road perched high up a hillside just waiting to go for a roll.
Dad quickly came up with Plan B and we returned to Boise for supplies.
First, we needed the implement trailer. This heavy trailer with a flat bed that tilted and with a winch and steel cable on one end was used when our tractor customers needed more than one tool for their job. So a plow, a disk and a leveler might be loaded on the implement trailer, tied down with the cable that had been used to winch them on the trailer, and the customer would haul all the implements to their job in one trip.
Second, we brought along my two sisters, Mother, Aunt Eva and Grandfather for extra hands and traffic control.
Dad also loaded up some chains just in case the steel cable was not long enough to reach the trailer. Good thing, too, since by the time we got back to that fateful corner someone’s sense of fun had made them shimmy down to the trailer and push it the rest of the way into the reservoir. Now, it might have been the weight of the trailer on that steep and slippery slope that had pulled the trailer to the water. But we stuck with it being some …
With Eva around one end of that blind corner and Mom around the other, both waving traffic to a stop (it turned out there wasn’t any), Dad parked the trailer across the narrow road. Carrying a long chain looped over his shoulder he hung onto the hook on the end of the cable while Granddad let out the winch, letting Dad keep his footing down the loose slope that slid away under his weight. The extra chain came in handy for reaching and then securing the trailer before it was time for Grandpa to slip the ratchet into the gear of the winch and start cranking the cable up to the road.
Dad held on to the trailer, partly to keep the trailer from flipping but mostly, he admitted, to let the winch pull him up that steep climb.
It was all a great success. We loaded the camping trailer onto the implement trailer for the drive home, where Dad could properly check out and repair any damage as well as change the tire.
The trailer survived to carry many more of our camping trips. And everyone added another “do you remember when” to an occasional Thanksgiving chat.
The educational approach at Green Valley School, and our campus at Buck Brook Farm, was students having hands-on experience with the world we live in. One annual hands-on experience we practiced at Buck Brook was getting close to how we satisfy our appetite for meat.
The campus had a small dairy operation that supplied our fresh milk. It was up the hill from were most of us lived and we didn’t spend time there. The guy who spent all his time there was about my age and he came visiting on occasion. To this day I can smell the combination of odors that seeped from every pore of his body and from every fiber of his clothes. A very earthy aroma that professional dairymen call, “The smell of money.”
Pungent as his aroma was it also manifested a cow’s warmth. I suppose I associate the smell from childhood times at my uncle’s farm when he milked his five cows and squirted streams of milk right from the teat into the mouths of the waiting cats. That manure-strewn shed was a young lad’s adventure.
One day the dairy guy at Buck Brook ran off with the headmaster’s wife—something that caused a stir! The fact they took one of the school’s credit cards to finance their escape got things even more riled up.
Before that particular ruckus the entire population of Buck Brook Farm trekked to the dairy where a cow was brought to the yard. We all gathered facing the submissive animal while one of our students volunteered to do the deed that had to be done. One blow of the sledgehammer between the eyes and the cow buckled to the dust.
None of us complained when our getting close to the price of how we come to eat meat was cut short. We did not hang around for the gutting and cutting. And now that I think of it, the dairy guy who knew about feeding and milking cows was probably not qualified to do the butchering. It’s likely a professional butchery was hired to pick up the carcass and finish the job in their certified facility.
As our need for more camping gear grew, the challenge of carrying it into the Idaho backcountry became more daunting. The heavy canvases, the Coleman camp stove and fuel, the cotton mattresses, the World War surplus cots, the big tent, the blankets, the canned and fresh food and our family of five had to be hauled up and down dirt roads
My dad often said if he didn’t have trailers he would have had to drive a pickup. That’s no problem these days, what with pickups being more spacious and comfortable than luxury sedans, but pickups in the 1950s were not so well appointed. A bench seat that did not slide forward or backward was good enough for wasting resources on human accommodations. Oh—but the cabs did include a heater. What more could you want?
Meanwhile, Dad did have trailers. There was a whole row of them that my parents rented out to strangers.
From Dad’s earliest photos in 1952, I see the first trailer we used for camping was one I don’t remember. I was seven at the time and not paying attention to why a trailer did not work out for camping. Perhaps it was made of steel and was too heavy to pull up mountain grades. Perhaps it got sold or it got wrecked. What I do know is that Dad would have chosen it because it had solid sides to keep our camping supplies from falling out on the rough roads.
There was a light weight trailer that transported our Arians tiller when folks rented it. Dad also used this trailer in parades around town. He’d hitch up one of our two Ford tractors, decorate the trailer and the tiller (making sure the point got across that we rented all this) and join the festivities. One of my earliest memories is being on that trailer with my two sisters, throwing saltwater taffy to scurrying kids along parade routes through downtown Boise.
About the time Dad ordered the big tent from Pioneer Tent and Awning he converted that light weight trailer into a most useful camp carrier. He enclosed the sides with plywood to keep our stuff in and he left the back completely open for loading said stuff. He fashioned a plywood panel that slid into steel u-channels at the rear of the trailer, thus enclosing the entire kit and caboodle.
A bonus with this light weight, spacious trailer was it had a long tongue running from the trailer to the hitch on our car. That long tongue made it easy to back the trailer into any position we wanted.
This trailer ended up being the last trailer in the family. When my dad passed and Mother auctioned off the rental supplies, I kept that trailer just because it was so handy. But I never used it. After several years of sitting in my garage I sold it to a friend who used it to move to Portland. I hope it is still in service and is still being enjoyed as much as ever.
Our next Car Camping story will reveal an incident when that delightful trailer was not treated with the respect it deserved. It was not well treated at all.
The summer of 1969, while I was exploring the Catskill Mountains of New York State, Merle Haggard and his band The Strangers were touring the Midwest. Years later I heard a radio interview with a band member. He told of passing a doobie around the bus when he saw an exit sign for a town in Oklahoma. He casually remarked, “l bet they don”t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.”
The guys on the bus had a good time coming up with things folks don’t do in Muskogee—and things they do do!
In late September, 1969, Merle Haggard and the band released a new album called Okie from Muskogee. The title song, written by Haggard and drummer Roy Burris, was at the top of Billboard’s Hot County Hits by November 15th. It stayed there for four weeks. Indeed, Okie from Muskogee is still recognized as a “redneck anthem.” (See Wikipedia)
The next summer, with the Vietnam War (and the protests against it) still in full swing, we staff and students from Buck Brook Farm headed out to enjoy a local Catskills fair. When we got out of the van our “beads and Roman sandals,” much less our “hair all long and shaggy like the hippies out in San Francisco,” left no doubt we were from “that alternate school” everyone had heard about.
Fortunately we were known for not causing neighbors trouble and we paid our bills on time, so we had a good reputation. The afternoon was spent checking out exhibits, rides and fair food, with no disrespect shown between anyone.
Then came the evening dance—
—the event where everyone gathered at the same place.
We Buck Brook bunch joined in dancing to the local band as it thumped away at well known standards from the forties and the fifties as well as many of the new songs folks were listening to on the radio that summer. After a half hour the band struck up, “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.” Everyone knew it was coming.
I glanced around the crowd and saw many adult spines straighten up, like seeing “Old Glory down at the Court House.” And many of those folks were staring at we bunch of hippies!
My reaction? I hate to admit it but I was raised knowing I was homosexual in the 1950s and my default response was to be challenged and afraid.
The students? Every one of them immediately gave out a joyous cheer, jumped to their feet and danced with abundant joy, their hair shagging wild in the air. All the other kids joined in. It is a great dance tune, after all.
We “adults” got over our bunched up undies, got a grin on our face, and enjoyed the rest of the evening.
I was so proud of those kids.
As we can see in this 1953 photograph from Baumgartner’s Campground on the South Fork of the Boise River, my folks were most resourceful at draping our canvas tarps over lodgepole pine frames to provide shade and keep out rain and frost. In the early 1950s we also had the small stand-alone tent you can see in the far left of this photo.
Tent was seldom used, only providing shelter on rainy nights. Otherwise sleeping under the stars and the whispering trees was what mountain campgrounds were for. Or so I assumed at six years of age. It well could have been our family of five had already outgrown being in the tent except to crowd together to escape inclement weather.
In my last Car Camping episode I told of my dad taking me along when he visited Pioneer Tent and Awning in downtown Boise. I spent my time amazed at the cash carriers zipping around the ceiling. My dad was spending his time giving measurements and specifics for a very large tent to be made from heavy canvas. That is what Pioneer Tent and Awning did at the time — they made things from canvas and leather.
Dad’s tent was designed to accommodate our five army-surplus cots and have room to walk around as well as space to store supplies we did not want to get wet. He also specified that the tent was to have vertical walls rising some four feet above the ground rather than be sloped all the way to the earth. There was no floor.
Dad made the rafter and three poles to support the tent as well as the ropes and spikes to keep the tent anchored and in shape.
The genius of those walls along the sides of the tent became apparent the first time it warmed up on a campground afternoon. Dad pushed up the walls and held them in place with sticks he had fashioned just long enough to do the job. While Mother read to us we enjoyed a delightful breeze while lolling in the shade under the hot canvas.
It was in that tent my sisters and I learned not to touch canvas when it is being rained on. Just the least brush on the wet canvas would cause drips, drips, drips that did not cease until the canvas had throughly dried. We had to adjust the location of our cots a few times but we caught on!
Having spent my summers in the peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, I was not sure what to expect of the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
I was aware of the Adirondack’s reputation. Native Americans knew the damp, cold hills as the Dismal Wilderness and early European explorers figured they were right. The Romantic Movement of the 1800s, however, found the remoteness to be nature’s haven from the evils of industrialization. Romantic art bathed the morning mists in glowing reds and yellows. Popular poets and essayists inspired adventurers back to our primitive selves. Summer camps sprang up.
Me? In the summer of 1970? Well, I didn’t expect it to be the young Western mountains I knew from the Sawtooths, with a maximum altitude of 10,751 feet. And I knew the Adirondacks (maximum altitude 5,344 feet) were a more rugged area than the beautiful Catskill Mountains (4,180 feet) where I had spent the last year.
Me? Between curiosity and new adventure, I was all in.
The Romantics were right when they painted the Adirondacks. The scenery is stunning and the air is as bracing as any I have enjoyed on a mountain morning.
Even with all the glory of nature, however, what has stuck with me over the years was discovering how two centuries of providing the wilderness experience has left the “campgrounds.”
Heading into the upper Adirondacks where we knew there was a place to make a base camp, my thoughts were a site with a designate fire pit and a trampled down area to toss a sleeping bag. Just like every other wilderness campground I had ever encountered. To my surprise a house was waiting for us!
OK. In the Adirondacks it was called a “lean-to.” But to me it was a three-sided house. It had a wood floor. It faced a well constructed rock fire pit that included seating on rocks and logs. And the structure was thoughtfully placed with its back to the wind.
A flat spot to sleep with no rocks or roots poking through sleeping bags? Protection from wind and rain and morning dew provided with a solid roof?
Now that’s Adirondack posh!
Somewhere in my kid-hood, I’m thinking between eight and ten years old, I remember Dad taking me along when he went to Pioneer Tent and Awning. It must have been 1954 or so. The large store was on Main Street at 6th in downtown Boise.
I had no idea what Dad was doing there but I discovered three things: One, the building had a very cool white horse on the roof. Two, on entering the shop the smell of leather and oiled canvas opened my nostrils as my lungs drew in as much of that heavy aroma as I could manage. And third, there were wires hanging all over the ceiling.
It was the strangest ceiling I had ever seen.
Just then a little jar zipped along one of the wires, whipped around a corner, and landed in what looked like an office on the balcony overlooking the first floor. I followed those wires back to the other end where each wire stopped at a different sales desk. Thanks to as much attention as a boy can muster in a new store it wasn’t long before I saw a clerk put papers in a jar, screw the jar to a lid attached to one of the wires, and pull down on a wooden handle attached to the wire with a short rope.
The jar flew with amazing force and was slamming to a stop in the office in no time! From then on all I did was wait for another paper with payment to be sent whizzing to the office to be processed. Yes, even at that age I deduced the wire system replaced having cash registers being responsible for collecting payments. Who would have thought of such a thing?
Writing this account, I learned the jars zipping around the ceiling were an early version of the pneumatic tubes banks now use to get cash and payments from our cars to the teller. Called Cash Carriers, the version in Pioneer Tent and Awning was a Wire Carrier. The mechanism the clerks used to send the containers zipping to and fro is called a catapult.
If you ask me stores should still have wires catapulting jars around the ceiling if only to keep kids busy while mom and dad shop. Like I said, this is for the kids. I promise I won’t be standing in your way gawking at the ceiling.
PS – I couldn’t help but give more information on Wire Carriers. Here is the Wikipedia link. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cash_carrier.
PPS – I tried to find a good video of a Wire Carrier in motion. Alas, dear reader, you’ll have to search for one yourself.
But I did find this most satisfying homily to The Rise and Fall of the Cash Railway. I am not the only child hanging on to the magic of those flying jars. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Dylan Thomas and many others have paid homage.
The article also describes a fairly common disaster I had not thought of. It reprints a 1903 article from New Zealand involving a proper patron bringing her “big handsome dog” into a large dry good store during the Christmas rush. The dog had been trained as a pointer and was perfectly behaved. Then the patron’s cash went zipping to the cashier.
I can only imagine if our completely undisciplined dog Flip had joined my Dad and I at Pioneer Tent and Awning …