ScoutingJanuary-February 2000

Memories of Camp Palila

By Jack Slay Jr.
Illustration by Richard Sparks

An Eagle Scout looks back at a place of joy and wonder and summers spent learning from a group of dedicated men about knots, nature, courage, integrity—and life.

I walked out of Palila for the last time nearly two decades ago; that memory now seems a flashing of time, eons wide. Since then I've drifted far from the woods—from the thick, attic-like smell of canvas tents; from the night chorus of a thousand cicadas and a million crickets, lovelorn and seemingly lost; from youth and innocence and much of what was once longingly simple.

Palila, however, has refused to abandon me. That time, that sliver of boyhood, is now a touchstone; like a favorite tune, it plays again and again within my thoughts, an ever-present piece of me.

Woods, time, and autonomy

Palila was a small Boy Scout camp just outside Louisville, Miss. Surely no more than a hundred acres, it contained a lake, boy-sized; a handful of spider-webbed and log-hewn cabins; and trails that bred dust by the mouthful during dog days and that became, instantly, mudslides with the slightest of showers. Mostly, though, the camp was woods and time and autonomy.

Every summer for four weeks, Palila became summer camp to hundreds upon dozens of Boy Scouts, all in some way tenderfooted and anxious and filled to brimming with sap and savvy and boyness. More than any other collection of hours and seconds, of days and ways, that time, that fleeting month of camp, was my youth: a month of joy and wonder, of sweat and work and pure delight. The boys I camped and counseled with are heartstrong memories: Pat Huey, Michael Cravens, Kent Coffey. They were friends and companions and leaders, often puckish, ever boys.

Lessons for a lifetime

It was at Palila, too, that I worked with men who, more than anyone outside my father, taught me life. There was Paul Thompson, a hulking, scowling highway patrolman who went by the intimidating nickname of Big Iron (called so for his sidearm, huge and blue and always within his reach). There was Mike Barnes, my own troop leader, a forestry professor at Mississippi State. Together they taught me knots and fires and nature, integrity and morality. With patience and caring, they guided hundreds if not thousands of boys through Palila and into the swampy shoals of adulthood, making each boy believe that he alone was the reason for their perseverance.

This handful of friends had much to do with making the person I am today: They showed me the importance, even necessity, of pliability and adaptability, of courage and goodness, of firmness and faith. They paved rutted roads smooth.

Palila had been loaned to the Boy Scouts by the state; there were rumors of a 25-year borrowing at the rate of $1 per year. We took these tales about as seriously as those ghost stories, swapped usually at midnight, about Henry, the fabled camp counselor—maybe desolate, perhaps desperate—who hanged himself among the rafters of an ancient and deserted cabin. Campfire speculation had it that he'd hung there so long that his body had stretched to more than 10 feet. Henry's ghost, lank and horribly long, drifted through the Palila nights and trees, occasionally visiting a campfire or wafting through a cabin. I never saw him, but, at Palila, the woods dark and deep around me, I believed—just as I believed in the camp itself.

Holding off the inevitable

At the end of 1979, through machinations beyond our adolescent comprehension or interest, Palila was taken from the Scouts. What happened was, to us, a warped-cog grinding of politics in a chamber far, far from our woods. We resisted—man, we resisted. Our acts of defiance, though, were childish and terribly inept, impotent. We, the last band to serve as camp counselors at Palila, called ourselves the Omega Staff. Each night during that last summer, we'd steal through the night woods, back to the entrance, and turn the state park (which our Palila was to become) announcement backward, to face the woods, our woods. It was all we, a ragtag and prideful group of boys, could do. The last day, as it always will, arrived, and we packed, loaded, left. The state park sign remained, facing the road.

I returned to Palila (long since and necessarily metamorphosed into Legion State Park) this past summer. I expected, even hoped, to find a sterile, plastic-wrapped park, dilapidated and ill-used. Legion was not that, I must, if begrudgingly, admit. More than Legion, though, I was looking for Palila. It, too, was as absent as my imagined Legion. The park was neater: gravel roads, always a near-hazard years ago, were grated and edged; shoulders and entire camp sites were trimmed, weeded, pristine; the dining hall—what had been to me, a boy of 10 and 15 and 17, a behemoth, a sprawling structure of sharp angles and ancient wood—was immaculate, even fresh.

Shared secrets of youth

Palila, my Palila, had been swept, starched, and sanitized. Walking along old and now overgrown trails, I saw a family grilling on what had been the activity field. Two men fished from a boat dead center of the mile swim course. I waved and they waved back. What struck me, resoundingly, was the silence: Nowhere were there the shouts, the yawps—joyous, ecstatic, eternally youthful—of a hundred and more boys, their camp an unremitting sprawl around them, an Eden all their own.

Already I've begun to whisper to my own two boys secrets of camping and hiking, of star-scattered nights and dew-bejeweled mornings, of crystal-clear lakes and breathtaking woodlands, of days endless. These are the secrets of my youth, and I turn them over, gladly, to them.

I hope, daily, nightly, for a Palila for them.

"Scouting laid its mark on me, making me much of what I am today," says Jack Slay Jr. An Eagle Scout, he is assistant professor of English at Georgia's LaGrange College and author of Ian McEwan, volume 518, in the Twayne Publishers English Authors Series. His essay on Camp Palila first appeared in Mississippi magazine.

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