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Getting Back to Basics

Recently, I spent a week at summer camp with a group of Boy Scouts at Henderson Scout Reservation in rural Maryland, NY. My son, Domenic and I joined 30 boys and 12 dads in the Catskill Mountains about 20 miles from Cooperstown, New York.

Our accommodations were canvas tents on wooden platforms, each with a metal bed frame and mattress.  The canvas was aged and holey with duct tape and tarps applied to keep the rain out. The latrine was a two-holer with an odor as big and bold as the mountains around us. Throughout the camp were the Henderson mascots, chunky chipmunks who feasted on food and candy scraps left by Scouts.

For our first dinner, we cooked ground beef in a Dutch oven. We scooped the cooked beef into a Ziploc bag and added Fritos, lettuce, tomato, and cheese to make a “Walking Taco.”  After dinner, we sat around the campfire and the clear sky gave way to about six hours of powerful rain, thunder, lightning and hail. At 1:00 a.m. in the midst of the torrents, I heard a siren in the distance. It blew for a couple of minutes. Thinking it might be an old-fashioned tornado warning, as a local  government official, I felt compelled to find out what it meant. I called 911 and the very kind operator explained to me that is how they get the firefighters to respond.   How they get the firefighters to respond- are you kidding me? It’s 2010, haven’t you heard of cell phones or radios?

We woke up at 7:00 a.m. that morning and breakfast was Mountain Man- a combination of sausage, eggs, hash browns, and cheese served in a soft tortilla.   After breakfast, I headed down the path to find the showers.

There were six adult showers with wooden walls separating each shower. When I entered the showers, I was the only one there. Soon I heard someone come in to the next stall and then I heard a voice – a female voice. She said, “Hi, how are you?”  I was frozen.  I didn’t  notice that the showers were co-ed and did not expect to have a woman in the next shower. Finally, I composed myself and said, “Fine. How are you?”   She kept talking  and talking until I realized that she was talking on her cell  phone.  I’m talking with a woman in a shower who isn’t even talking to me.  I lathered and rinsed without repeating and bounded out of the showers.

After the Mountain Man and Walking Tacos, we shared all other meals with the other troops in the Henderson dining hall.  The food was surprisingly good and plentiful.  For lunch and dinner there was peanut butter and jelly for those who couldn’t  handle the main course.   In our health conscious new world, there was no “bug  juice” served as it was when I was a boy, only milk and water.  After every meal, we sang a song.  On the first day, I didn’t sing.  This is really stupid, I am not singing with 200 kids.  By the second day, however, I couldn’t  wait for the song at the end of each meal.   We sang songs in rounds and competed table to table to see who was the loudest.

After a couple of days, the regimentation of Scout Camp became comfortable and fun. Every meal was served at a set time. Each table had a boy assigned to kitchen patrol who followed a time-honored  process for serving and cleaning up after each meal. The boys had three merit badge sessions daily and a little free time before and after dinner. We raised the flag quickly at sunrise and lowered it slowly at dusk.  Taps was attempted nightly at 9:30 by a bugler with more tenacity than talent.

By Thursday I was really missing my family and flush toilets.  I drove in to Cooperstown. The primary purpose of my trip was to use a real bathroom, but I masked my clandestine mission with a slice of Sicilian pizza and a cream soda from Joe’s  pizzeria.  Later in the day, a basket of onion rings provided the same opportunity at the Double Play Cafe.

When you live in the woods, it doesn’t take long to determine the true essentials of life. Summer camp is a simple recipe of canvas tents, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and good people.  Indeed, with its foul latrines, holey tents, and portly chipmunks, the only elegant thing about Camp Henderson is its simplicity.

As we weather this Great Recession, we have certainly had to focus back to basics for our community. I wonder how we would approach our work if meetings were held not in conference rooms but  in canvas tents with chipmunks at our feet. How would our decisions be enhanced if we sang songs at every staff gathering?  Camp was a good reminder that while life is rarely easy, it can often be simple.

So, I left camp with two goals: simplify my life and find new showers.

Thanks for all you do.

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Submitted by Anthony Romanello

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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