40 years ago, I relocated to Florida. Camp Deerwoode was an integral player in that process. Here is the full story of the summer that changed my life. Click on the photos for the full-sized image.
Once in a vision I came on some woods And stood at a fork in the road. My choices were clear Yet I froze with the fear Of not knowing which way to go. One road was simple Acceptance of life The other road offered sweet peace. When I made my decision My vision became my release. From “Nether Lands” (1977) By Dan Fogelberg
Every now and then I get asked the question – usually from someone who reminds me how beautiful Tennessee is – “How (and sometimes why) did you ever end up here?” Indeed, how did this “mountain man”, with roots firmly established in East Tennessee, end up planted in West Central Florida? It is a story of delayed gratification, surprise twists, forks in the road, and the perception of signs. It wasn’t the actual birth of “that little voice” that has frequently pointed me to success, but it was ultimately one of those crossroads in which that voice would set in motion who I was to become.
The trailhead of this path appeared, unsurprisingly, in the Maryville College theatre. I was a disgruntled English major in the Spring of my Sophomore year and had been cast in the title role of a musical version of The Velveteen Rabbit. The production also included several youngsters from local elementary schools which were cast to portray rabbits that I would encounter in the “real” world. I discovered that I had an instant rapport with these kids, and they must have perceived the child within me. As the show went into production, I reevaluated my future. I could see myself in an elementary school classroom, so I soon changed my major to Elementary Education. Because Maryville was a smaller school, there were only about 20 students in the program. That was a plus, particularly regarding individualized instruction. In addition, all but three of my fellow classmates were female, and that wasn’t so bad either.
Unfortunately, because I had changed my major mid-stream, I would not be able to graduate on time. Consequently, although I could participate in commencement exercises with the class of 1980, I would still have to complete one more class – Student Teaching – before I received my diploma. Since that would be in the middle of the school year, I feared that my teaching career would be delayed until the next Fall. Bummer.
My advisor, Dr. Sherer, arranged for my Student Teaching experience in a fourth-grade class at Alcoa Elementary School, near the college campus. I was under the expert tutelage of Mrs. Donna Redwine, but also worked with Mr. Dave Berry’s fifth-grade class next door. (The school was set up in an “open classroom” configuration so “next door” was on the other side of a large bulletin board/chalk board on casters).
Student teaching was an incredible experience. It was nice to finally get away from all the educational theories and immerse myself in the reality of the profession. In addition to fulfilling my college academic requirements, I produced my first children’s play, The Pale Pink Dragon, cast from the fourth and fifth grades, and presented in November. It was the theatre that got me there, and I felt compelled to give back.
In December, as I was nearing completion of my student teaching requirement, Mr. Berry was tapped to become the new principal at Fort Craig Elementary School in Maryville. I was asked to take over his class for the few weeks before Christmas break—and my official graduation, which included a Tennessee teaching certificate.
As the holidays approached, I began to ponder life after graduation. Finding a teaching job would be tough at this time of the year. (Back then, there was no teacher shortage.) Soon, however, I was once again called to the principal’s office. This time, Mr. Abbott was joined by the Chairman of the School Board. Since I would be a certified teacher and already knew the students in Mr. Berry’s class, they wanted to hire me for the remainder of the school year. I was thrilled… My first teaching job! The bad news was that it was only a term position through the first week of June. The good news was that, at the time, the pay scale at Alcoa City Schools was the highest in the state.
Since I didn’t have to worry about employment, I was able to send out applications to school systems around the Southeast without much angst. Among those applications was one to Citrus County Schools in Florida. I had no idea where it was, but it didn’t matter. All I knew of Florida was palm trees and ocean waves — It was just another application.
With the school year completed, it was time to get ready for camp. From the time I was 11 years old, in 1970, I had spent almost all my summers at Camp Deerwoode in Brevard, North Carolina. I had worked my way from being a camper, through the Junior Counselor program, and finally became a counselor in 1977. The camp was steeped in history and had been in existence since 1926. At various times it had been a girl’s camp, a coed camp, and a boy’s camp. By 1981, it had been a rough-and-tumble camp for boys for quite some time. The rustic cabins were all the original buildings from the 1920’s, and the walls and beams sported the names of past campers, usually written in toothpaste.
As soon as my stint at Alcoa was finished, I packed my trunk for Deerwoode and drove to North Carolina for the pre-camp preparation week. On the way, I stopped for an overnight stay at my aunt Ina’s house in Lake Junaluska. That evening, mom called to tell me that a Mr. Ben Branch from Crystal River Primary School in Florida had called and wanted to talk to me. Aunt Ina let me make the long-distance call to Mr. Branch. He was from Elizabethton, Tennessee and would be driving there in a few weeks. We arranged for an interview in nearby Franklin, where he planned to stop for the night.
About five or six days before my appointment with Mr. Branch, my mom called the Deerwoode office with a message and a phone number. It was Dave Berry calling to offer me a fourth-grade position at his school. It was tempting. I really respected Mr. Berry and his school was across the street from Maryville College. I told him that I really appreciated his thinking of me, but I wanted to see what Mr. Branch had to say. I asked if it would be okay to call him back.
On the day of the interview, I drove the 55 miles to Franklin via curvy mountain roads and met Ben Branch by the hotel pool. I also met his 9-year-old daughter, April, who was swimming in the pool despite a broken arm. Mr. Branch was warm and friendly, with a familiar East Tennessee twang. He had a fourth-grade position that he was seeking to fill. He explained that Crystal River was a small town, but the school system was top-notch. It all sounded pretty good. Then he said a few things from the “small world” department that I really found intriguing. He mentioned that one of his teachers was a Maryville College graduate. Hmm. Maryville was a small school but did have a large Florida alumni presence. Then he added that one of his receptionists, Gertie Hipke, and her husband, Bob, had attended Camp Deerwoode when it was a coed camp. Now THAT was definitely weird. I was interested, but not quite ready to commit. I said I’d call him back in a few days.
I had two great possibilities to consider. I could stay home, near my family and near the campus where I had so much history. I loved the mountains and relished peaceful hikes in the fresh air. Maryville was in striking distance of Knoxville if I wanted a “big city” fix. On the other hand, maybe I was ready for a grand adventure. My Florida friends in the dorm were about half-crazy and knew how to have a good time. Another favorite pastime, outside of hiking the mountains, was bodysurfing in the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it was time to embrace the unknown. I settled back into my counselor routine and wrestled with my decision.
And then fate stepped in. One evening, a day or so after my interview, I was in the cabin regaling my campers with a local ghost story. It was past “lights out” and I flipped on my flashlight as part of the story. It illuminated one of the boards in the ceiling. I completely lost my train of thought, but recovered quickly, not wishing to spoil a good story. I made a mental note to investigate my find in the daylight.
The next morning, as my cabin began their morning routines before breakfast, I again found the spot on the ceiling that I had illuminated the night before. Among the names graffitied there was this: “Bob Hipke, 1960, Miami Fla.”. I couldn’t believe it. What were the odds that out of 16 cabins at Camp Deerwoode, I was in Mr. Hipke’s cabin? I was absolutely dumbfounded and dazed for a few hours, but eventually, it became clear what I needed to do. It was, quite literally, a sign from above. I had no idea where Crystal River was, but I was headed to Florida.
Incidentally, in 1987 I transferred to Crystal River Middle School to start a Theatre Program. The Dean of Students was none other than Bob Hipke!
Favorite Memory of Deerwoode? So many stories… One of the wildest was my second year as a JC in 1975 — we had already moved into the PC building. The details are fuzzy, but here goes…Bill had Hank and Tom announce that there had been an escape from the local jail and for the campers and counselors to keep vigilant for any strangers lurking around camp. They did this for several days, casually, as part of the regular announcements. One afternoon, then, during rest period, the “escapee” made his appearance. Bill dressed up JC Allen Samford in jeans, a flannel shirt with a bandanna, boots, and work gloves, and an old man over-the-head rubber mask (and a hat, maybe) The “convict” ran down the cabin row towards the dining hall, occasionally crossing the cabin porches, to appropriate yelling and words of caution from the “adults”.
Now, there was a guy named Washburn who was our food service supplier. Mr. Washburn drove a light green sedan equipped with an external PA system. He was also the owner of an official deputy sheriff’s “smoky bear” style hat (I think he “found” it on a hat rack in a restaurant). So immediately after the convict had run by, here comes Washburn flying down the road, kicking up gravel and dust while making siren sounds on his PA.
By this time, Allen started running back down the road and, just past the big gym, turned and headed across the field to the river. “Sheriff” Washburn cut doughnuts in front of the dining hall to get turned around and headed out into the field as well, still blaring the siren sounds. We watched from a distance as the convict was “subdued” (can’t remember how—maybe a shovel across the head) It was hysterical as we watched the long arms of the law pop the “unconscious” convict into his trunk and drive out with ol’ Allen’s legs hanging out the back.
To nobody’s surprise, there were several mattresses outside cabins getting aired out over the next few days and a few irate parents who called the camp to find out what the hell was going on after receiving letters from their sons.
NATURE MAN – Best memory of Nature Class? I remember keeping one eye on Mr. Green Jeans, an evil rooster that Bill marked with green spray paint. Dang thing would drive his spurs into your back and flog you if you forgot where he was. I also remember he was pretty tasty at the end of camp one year.
Dubious Run-in With The Man? It was near the end of my last year as a camper (1973) and I was in cabin 13, over the craft shop. Gib Wilson and I had just submitted our names to be considered for the JC program, at the insistence of our counselor. We decided to sneak out after lights out one night to raise a little ruckus (out of character for either of us, but whatever…) At the time, I could do a piercing werewolf howl that sounded just like the movies, so we started down at cabin 1 — Gib raked a stick across the back wall while I howled, and we scrambled to the upper path to hide. Kruegar Ragland, the counselor, emerged from the cabin spitting nails and searching with his flashlight beam. When he went back in, we hit a couple more cabins down the line and sat down on the upper path just below the JC cabin 16, to catch our breath and enjoy the quiet for a moment. Suddenly, there was a beam in our face—we hadn’t heard Bill walk right up to us on the path. “Good evening, boys”, he said, as the path went dark again. He then proceeded to have a very calm conversation with us, which was actually more unnerving than getting read the riot act. Gib and I thought we had blown it, but we were selected as JCs for the following year, moving into cabin 16. (I still have the rafter crossbeam with my name written on it with toothpaste—removed somehow before demolition).
Hank Lewis Story? It was 1975. We JC’s were asleep in the upstairs of the PC gym. Early one morning, we were awakened by this god-awful bellowing coming from the tennis court beside us. It seemed that Bullet, an enormous longhorn bull, had escaped his pen and his horns had become entangled in the tennis net. We all scrambled to get dressed and someone ran up to the Big House to get Bill. We weren’t sure what to do—that bull weighed at least a ton. Somehow, we freed it from the net and tried to herd it back toward the nature area. About that time, Hank was up and heading for the Big TeePee (the large bathhouse) for his morning constitutional, when he heard all the commotion. We had directed the bull down the road when Hank decided to strut a bit and come down the hill to get involved. Without warning, the dang bull detoured up to the lower path in front of cabin row, and straight at Hank Lewis, who then started to run, only to get butted down the hill, almost into the road. Of course, being Hank, he was seemingly unfazed by the whole ordeal, dusted himself off and went on his way. We chuckled quietly all the way to the Nature area, along with Bill, who had arrived by this time to take charge.
Camper? It was my turn to have TeePee duty one year as a JC. I walk into the Little TeePee to clean it, and there is little Baron Pickett calmly peeing up the wall. I glanced out the door when I heard someone approaching and, as it happened, Bill was coming down the path. I told him what was going on, and he called him out. “Baron!” he said sternly. “What in the world are you doing?” The fearless Baron replied with his gravelly voice, “I saw a spider on the wall.” After a pause, Bill asked him, “Well, didja get him?” Baron answered with a grin, “Yeah, I got him good!”
Sound: There are 2 that come to mind 1) I was a camper in cabin 13 for a couple of years, and one of those years Hank Lewis was one of our counselors. Hank used to place square blocks of 2X4 under the legs at the head of his bed. (Of course, that was probably the least of his eccentricities). One night, a bunch of us decided to ooch the blocks out to where they were barely under the legs, and then scrambled into our bunks. It was already lights out and quiet as we pretended to sleep. We could hear him getting into the sack, but the blocks held, at least until he turned over, then WHAM—one block gave way. There was a loud, “Got oh mighty dawg!” and his damn searchlight popped on—you know, one of those beams that was so bright it would sear your flesh. He lit us all up, but we were mostly under our blankets and playing as possum as we could. After a minute or so, he moved just enough that the other block went, which prompted another chorus of “Got oh mighty dawg!” and I thought we were going to pee ourselves. I don’t really remember any retaliation at all, and we counted ourselves lucky to have pulled it off.
2) Near the end of my Deerwoode career, I became Assistant Program Director (Kinda like “Assistant to the Regional Manager”). On the counselor’s nights off, I had OD with Bill and Tom. We would sit near the top of the steps below the big teepee and just jaw—or they would jaw and I would be enjoying the rarified air of just being included from time to time. The best sound in the world at that time was the muted sound of the top popping on that first can of Busch (It was always Busch). Amazing times. As a matter of fact, one of those times led to one of my favorite sights:
Sight: Bill, Tom, and I had already had a few cold ones on one of those Saturday nights. That evening, there was a group of Illahee campers and counselors who had asked permission to camp out on Deerwoode property while on an extended canoe trip. We could see their campfire way across the field. Bill said something and slipped away down the road ( I got the feeling that he and Tom had already been scheming). About 5 minutes later we heard the bloodcurdling scream of the panther from the direction of the river and a very faint scream. Two or three minutes later the panther was much closer to that campfire (Never knew how Bill could move so fast in the dark) and the faint screams were a little less faint. Tom and I were laughing our butts off, but jumped into the Datsun and headed across the field as fast as we dared. The sight of wide-eyed, shivering campers and counselors—some of whom were bundled in blankets and all a-twitter, was absolutely priceless. Tom and I were straight-faced and seriously concerned for their well-being. As we got out of the truck, some of the girls latched onto our arms and it was really hard to keep it together. Eventually, we were able to clue in the counselor in charge as to what was going on, and she played along beautifully. I think we had them bang sticks on the bottoms of their canoes to scare away the panther…
Touch: Getting our final certification for life-saving as a JC and being forced to use a cross-chest carry to bring in barrel-chested and muscular Krueger Ragland. He didn’t make it easy— He would flip and thrash and nearly drown us. When it was my turn to haul him in, he flipped around one time and I was thinking, “He’s going to drown me!” I then had an epiphany — with my left arm firmly across his chest, my left hand was nestled in his armpit. So, I grabbed a fist-full of his underarm hair and tugged. The more he thrashed, the harder I tugged. He screamed a lot, but he was much more cooperative by then and I passed the test.
Smell: The sawdust up at the shop—still a favorite
Taste: Watermelon—still a flashback in every bite. I can still see ol’ Hank slicing up those melons just as fast as he could with a huge curved knife that always looked to me like a scimitar. “Back off, boys, or you’ll lose your tally!”
Fear: The dances, at least at the beginning of the night (when the sun was still out). I always felt so awkward around girls, although as it got darker, I became braver and would sometimes do okay. Didn’t do much better as a counselor. As I recall, the preferred venue was Kahdalea—they were just a tad friendlier than the others.
Embarrassment: I was never an outstanding athlete—certainly not compared to a lot of my Deerwoode brethren. I did learn the fundamentals of many sports while at Deerwoode and tried my best, but just didn’t have the physical gifts to really excel at any one sport.
Triumph: I did discover that I had a knack for rope jumping, and achieved the 85th percentile with 225 in one minute. Did that as a young counselor, so didn’t count for any awards — just my personal satisfaction. Never knew where that came from…