Friday, February 08, 2008

The Tap Out: a memoir

Photo of the Order of the Arrow pocket flap patch for the Klahican Lodge, the lodge into which I was "tapped out."

"Wednesday night campfire at Camp Tom Upchurch in Hope Mills was a big thing. Families were invited and on this particular night, my grandparents had driven over from Pinehurst. Grandma brought a picnic dinner—fried chicken, rolls, potato salad, fresh tomatoes, deviled eggs, a jug of ice tea. It was a welcome relief from the food they served in the dining hall.

A bugle called us to the campfire circle about an hour before dark. We sat on wooden benches, the scouts in front, each troop sitting together, with family members sitting behind. It wasn’t actually a circle, but a semi-circle that faced the lake, with two fire pits between the benches and the water. It was still warm and humid when we arrived. The buzz of mosquitoes filled the air and in the distance, we could hear the roll of thunder. Or maybe it was artillery from Fort Bragg. To be prepared, we all had our ponchos and had doused ourselves with OFF. As soon as everyone was seated, a staff member dressed as an Indian warrior from the Plains called down the fire. Arrows shot into each pit, igniting the wood. It seemed to be a miracle, but it really “only takes a spark to get a fire going” (to quote from a church camp song) when one utilizes petroleum products. With the fires burning, we sang songs, watched corny skits and listened to stories as the light drained from the sky and the chorus of frogs threatened to drown us out. When it was finally dark, the mood became more somber and we sang the song of the voyageurs.

Our paddles keen and bright, flashing like silver; swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip, and swing.
Dip, dip, and swing them back, flashing like silver; swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip and swing.

Over and over we sang the song, each time getting softer. Soon, we could hear fish jump in lily pads near the water’s edge. We started another round and then it appeared. In the middle of the lake was the Chief standing in a canoe, his arms folded across his chest, a full bonnet of feathers surrounding his head and hanging down his back. A lantern sitting in the bottom of the canoe illuminated him as two braves paddled quietly. We watched in awe. The canoe beached and several other staff members, dressed as Indians were on hand to help the chief out of the boat. In the distance, a drum began to beat and the warriors started to dance around the dying flames. Then the Chief joined in, dancing across the front and then up into the benches where he crossed back and forth in front of the sitting scouts, just inches away. Had one of the scouts been so inclined, he could have plucked a feather from his bonnet, but we were too entranced for that. When he came to me, he stopped, turned, slapped my shoulders, and then lifted me up. Before I knew what was happening, one of the braves quickly whisked me to the front and had me stand by the fire with my arms crossed over my chest. Several other scouts soon joined me. After a while, the Chief led us away as the campfire closed with the singing of the scout vespers.

Softly falls the light of day, as our campfire fades away. Silently each Scout should ask,"Have I done my daily task? Have I kept my honor bright? Can I guiltless sleep tonight? Have I done and have I dared, everything to Be Prepared?"

I had just been tapped out for the Order of the Arrow, the brotherhood of honored campers. That night, the Chief told us we’d been elected by our peers to be a part of this elite fellowship, but before we would be welcomed into the group, we’d have to pass an ordeal. The ordeal was scheduled for later that summer. I was excited, yet nervous about what I’d have to endure. I’d heard about the ordeals: a night alone in the woods, a day of little food, hard work and silence.

When he told us we could go back to our troops, I set out to find my grandparents. I could tell that they were proud of me. Granddaddy asked me to walk with them to their car and once we got there, I spied on the floor board of the back seat, one each side of the drive train hump, a watermelon. Granddaddy gave me one and he took the other and we walked over to our troop site. My grandma carried a butcher knife and salt shaker. She cut up the melons on a picnic table, sprinkled salt on them, and gave everyone a thick wedge. I think the watermelons came from Coy’s farm. Coy was grandma’s uncle and he was still farming a little in 1970. In addition to growing and curing some of the best bright-leaf tobacco in the county, he was well-known for his watermelon patch.

I’ll have to write more about the ordeal later… I should also note that Camp Tom Upchurch closed in 1974. I wish I could find some photos of it.


  1. Yeah, I was gonna ask what the ordeal turned out to be. I look forward to reading about it.

    You're starving me with your talk of the watermelon. My mouth is seriously watering right now.

    I wonder if maybe I was the subject of some Pavlovian experiment and didn't know it?

  2. Do tell the rest, Sage! That's quite an honor.

  3. My camp lives on in a website. Don't remember if our parents were allowed to bring food on visiting day--we might have hid in the car

    It was a bare bones, camp out, lean to be self suficent, learn about social justice camp

    Our most famous alumni is Howard Stern who obviously absorbed the First Amendment lessons--maybe too well, I personally can't stand him, but...

    The high point of camp was a camping trip to the Grand Canyon the summer I turned 15

  4. This sounds like it's leading up to something. Photos would be nice, but I have a nice picture going on in my head.

    BTW, the only camping I did as a kid was for a weekend ropes course in upstate NY. You made me remember that today. :)

  5. Bone, so the experienment is working :)

    Kenju, I will, I promise

    Pia, having to share a tent with Howard Stern would fit wihin my definition of hell... but it would be an interesting angle to use to write a story

    Scarlet, I don't have any photos of the camp at all, and wasn't able to find any on the internet.

  6. You may not have pictures of this rite of passage, but your words paint a more vivid picture than any lens ever could.

    Here from Michele's to thank you for taking us on this journey. I can't wait to read more.

  7. Hello, Michele sent me to say I enjoyed reading this...I can remember eating watermelon with salt - oh, gosh, I had forgotten that we did that as kids. I haven't put salt on Watermelon in years and years! Thanks for the memory!!!

  8. yes
    my father and I did the ordeal together, many years ago.
    I miss him
    and those sort of adventures

  9. Sage: This is a wonderful read. I felt transported back in time with you and can just see the Cheif crossing in the boat illuminated by lanterns. I wonder if the nearby town or a former member who was the official secretary might have some photos? I'd do some investigating. What a great story here!

  10. Michele and I are intrigued to read about your challenge.

    Thank you for the story so far, you tell a vivid tale which takes us right to the edge of the lake by the campfires....

    Your blogpals are proud of you.



  11. Stopping in to say HI. A day of hard work and silence, now that sunds hard for ayoung boy to do.

    Catch you later, Sage.

  12. For a second there, I was back at Camp Wapello where the setting and experience are almost verbatim the same as yours. The only difference was that our Order of the Arrow began that evening and once tapped out, you weren't allowed to speak until the final ceremony, even to your parents. I never got tapped out because our scouting troop collapsed before I was eligible.

  13. I was never sent to camp. My mom was as a youngster and hated it so she never made us go. Is your watermelon salting grandmother the one that is still alive ? :-)

  14. Thanks Carmi

    Sara, I don't know why we put salt on watermelons, but it seemed like we put it on everything back then (now I seldom use salt)

    David, I'll write about the ordeal later, my dad never joined the OA, but a friend's father went through it with me

    Michael, next time I'm back in NC, I will have to go to the council museum--I know they have pics, but I haven't found any online

    Thanks CQ

    Appalachianists, I worried myself sick over that ordeal--I'll post about it tonight or tomorrow

    Ed, I hope your staff did the ceremony as well as they did at Upchurch, it's still vivid in my mind...

    Murf, yes she's the one--but she's also the only one of my grandparents that didn't smoke

  15. A non-smoking lover of salt? Sounds like I'll live a good long life. :-)

  16. Man you take me back to alot of similiar places. This is a great write, need to finish it with chapter 2 "The Ordeal".

  17. I hope that ordeal had nothing to do with the watermelon! Thoughts of being forced to swallow whole watermelons, or watermelons gone bad, or watermelon-dodging are racing through my mind!