A lonely young boy discovers himself and a connection to nature at summer camp.
Like the animals he trapped, Dale Atkins bore a feral, hunted expression in his red-rimmed eyes. This was accented by his nicotine-stained teeth, which flashed often as he wrestled a newly-caught opossum into a wood-and-wire cage or coaxed a wounded hawk out of its specially-built birdhouse to show to the awed campers at Lake Manahassett in the forgotten foothills of West Virginia.
A tall, gangly fellow with aw-shucks mannerisms and a habit of lifting his baseball cap off his sunburned head while he scratched it with the same hand, Dale Atkins was a real mountain man who grew up hiking, hunting and trapping in the hills of Appalachia. His voice twanged just like the hillbilly singers at the Grand Ole Opry, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him with a fiddle and bow stomping his feet at the county reel. Especially when he spat hickory-colored tobacco juice while working in his shop at the Nature building.
That was where he kept his ever-changing menagerie of wild animals. Campers who were fortunate enough to spend time in this hand-selected game preserve discovered a gentle soul who loved his countryside, hated to be indoors, and who could convey volumes of arcane information even with his self-conscious, awkward way of speaking,
"That’n there got hisself a broken wing," he’d say, pointing to the aforementioned-hawk. "You comin’ with us tomorrow when he git ourselves some black snakes?"
His absolute ease and comfort with all the creatures of the wild was mesmerizing to the campers, especially those from cities and towns like Charleston or Richmond where most people were more attuned to the latest franchise restaurant or new car than to the habitats of catfish, mountain lions and skunks. But that was Dale’s world, and by entering it with him one was transported to a place without authoritarian adults—a haven of utter innocence and wildness and purity.
Competition was fiendish for a spot on one of Dale’s overnight camping trips. In an attempt to be fair, he drew names of campers from a hat a few days before each hike. To be included in the drawing, a potential hiker had to demonstrate his seriousness by having spent some time in Dale’s nature classes and working at "the zoo." Veteran campers who’d been on one of Dale’s outings told fantastic tales of tracking bears, finding Indian arrowheads and eating wild rabbit roasted over a campfire.
So when Sean Gregory saw his name on the bulletin board outside the Nature building he was ecstatic. A city slicker from Alexandria, Sean had been captivated right away upon his arrival at camp by Dale and his backwoods swagger. The skinny 10-year-old felt a tinge of fear run up his spine, too, when he realized that in two days he’d be out in the wilds of West Virginia with just a pup tent, a handful of other boys, and Dale Atkins.
But he’d been somewhat prepared for the outing when his cabin mate, Billy Hatfield, had shown him how to make a grasshopper "spit tobacco." A freckled-faced kid with a shock of unruly black hair on his forehead, Billy Hatfield was a member of the legendary Hatfield clan notorious for its feud with the McCoys, and he could have passed for a younger version of Dale Atkins. He spoke with the same mountaineer’s twang, moved with the same nervous energy, and knew things about nature undreamed of by urbanites.
After deftly catching a gigantic yellow and black grasshopper in his cupped hand, he gradually tightened his grip until the insect excreted a brown dollop from its mouth. "See! Chewin’ tobacco!" he yelped. Then he put the grasshopper down in the field to leap away. Billie Hatfield also told stories about sex. One of his most shocking involved the rape of a beautiful young woman by a gorilla that overcame her during a visit to the zoo. Their offspring, according to Billy, was a powerfully built humanoid who became famous in the Marine Corps during the most savage trench fighting of World War II, known to his comrades as "Animal."
But in the dim early morning of the hike, there was no time to think of anything except folding the heavy canvas tents, packing the knapsacks and checking flashlight batteries. The Nature building was abuzz with excited campers who paused only long enough to listen to a cautionary word of advice from Dale about staying close together and not doing anything stupid, like pushing your luck by going off the trail while climbing one of the steep West Virginia foothills.
"Thar’s poison ivy ever’whar so hit ain’t a good idee to git off in the bushes," he said with a twinkle in his eyes. "Jes’ follow me and stay on the trail ‘til I call a break. We’ll stop a coupla times along the way, and we should be at our campsite in plenty of time for a snipe hunt."
The campers looked at each other, mouths agape. Snipe?
No one tumbled off Goat Mountain and no one had any unfortunate encounters with snakes or bees, and by the time the meadow near the top of that green promontory was reached, even Dale’s face was red and dripping with perspiration. Assisted by three counselors of roughly college age, Dale started driving stakes into the ground for the tents. After putting up one tent, and while driving another set of stakes, Dale let out a yelp.
"Hot damn! We got ourselves a sassafras root here! C’mon and help dig it out," he shouted to the counselors, who unpacked their Army trench shovels and began digging as directed. Standing over the frenzy, Sean could see a large, reddish root ball about a foot below the surface. As the diggers occasionally nicked at its tendrils, they revealed the pure white tissue under the rugged outer layer. And there was a pleasant smell that wafted up from the ground.
"We gon’ make some sassafras tea tonight!" Dale exulted. The campers looked at each other again with amazement. Sassafras tea?
So while the hotdogs were roasting on long willow branches over the fire, the sassafras roots—chopped up into splintered bits—were boiling merrily in an aluminum pot. The day was drawing to a close and darkness crept upon the little campsite as the boys lanced marshmallows and dangled them over the coals of the fire. Occasionally, one burst into flames, which required deft handling by the roaster to extinguish the gooey blaze without dropping it into the hair of another camper. Then Dale proudly poured everyone a half-cup of the cooling tea.
Sean found its taste somewhat like licorice, but with an earthy, loamy bouquet. It was a pale golden color, just like regular tea, and it seemed a fitting conclusion to the mouthsful of molten sugar peppered with black bits that the campers had enthusiastically ingested.
"Drink all of hit and ye’ll grow up to be as handsome as me!" Dale chuckled, rising to his feet. "Now, who’s ready for a snipe hunt? Git yer flashlights, and grab a pillow case over there ‘cause we’re leaving here in a minute."
White pillow cases and flashlights in hand, the campers trudged off behind Dale and the counselors into the thicket, after being reminded of the appearance of poison ivy and the necessity of avoiding it at all costs.
"Gotta be real quiet, ‘cause snipe don’t like noise," Dale said mysteriously. "Case you’re wonderin’ what they look like, a snipe is a little brown bird ‘bout the size of a robin that runs along the ground at night. Hardly ever flies, but them suckers can run like a greased pig. So you gotta get your traps set up and jes stand back and be real still ‘till one come runnin’ along. If yer lucky, they’ll scoot right into yer trap and then you got ‘em!"
Once they’d penetrated a ways into the underbrush, Dale and the counselors demonstrated the correct method of setting a snipe trap: drape the open end of the pillowcase over some low-growing bushes loosely, then pull the rest of the sack out behind the opening. Once the snipe ran into the sack, it would collapse on the bird and the deft trapper could scoop his catch up with a swift grab of the pillow case.
Sean huddled in the bush, crouched over his pillow case, as quiet as a rock. He was aware of the other campers at a short distance from him, by their occasional whispers, but he could see nothing on this moonless night. The air was still warm and he was certain to catch one of those weird birds quickly. No one had bothered to explain exactly why anyone would even want a snipe, should they be lucky enough to bag one. The whole experience was in the anticipation, the adventure of the hunt.
A mosquito bit him on the forearm, and he slapped it off. Then another bit his left leg, and he slapped again. He could hear the other boys slapping and cursing. The darkness and stillness was powerful, be he tried to remain quiet. No snipe. The air grew gradually cooler as Sean’s muscles grew more fatigued. He thought he could hear sobbing nearby, as flashlights one by one clicked on around him.
"Anybody had enough?" he yelled out to his fellows. "I don’t see Dale anywhere. Did he go back to the camp?"
"He left a long time ago," Billy Hatfield called from the distant darkness.
"Then I say we just head on back."
"But where’s that?" someone else called out.
"Oh, I know where they are. Can’t y’all smell their fire? C’mon, jes follow me and I’ll get us back."
Billy Hatfield, the smallest one of the group, came out into the clearing and moved his flashlight in a circular motion. "Everybody come on out, an’ follow me back to camp."
One by one, the frightened campers emerged from the brush, including Sean.
"Now every one of you git those flashlights lit, so we can see each other. Jes follow along behind me ‘til I find them. When we git there, we gotta be real quiet ‘cause we’re gonna make an Injun raid on those hillbillies."
With Billy Hatfield in front, they slowly trekked off into deeper darkness, mumbling and occasionally joking with each other.
"So have you done this kind of thing before?" Sean asked Billy.
"Naw, but hit’s common sense, ain’t hit? We’ll follow the smell of the campfire ‘til we kin see hit. An’ when we see hit, we’ll almost be there!"
Sean felt completely confident in Billy Hatfield, and for the first time looked up into the sky to see it peppered with small glittering diamonds against a black velvet background. At once, the campfire came into view. Billy Hatfield repeated his swirling flashlight maneuver, accompanied by a loud "Shhhhhh!!!!" They all stopped still in their tracks.
"OK," he whispered loudly. "They probly figger we’re all up thar in the hills, a-crying and a-cursin’. So we got the advantage of surprise here. Maybe they even gone already to bed. But we gonna wake ‘em up good! Les jes creep on up as close as we kin to the fire, and when I jump and start a-yelpin’ y’all join in screamin’ like a bunch of Injuns with buckshot in they asses."
Up they crept, quiet as earthworms. "Wait, y’all!" Billy whispered again. "I see somethin’. We jes gonna have to spring from right here. I wanna scare the piss outen them, OK? When I start a-hollerin’ y’all jes turn into wild Injuns, too, and let’s make a raid."
For a hovering moment, the earth was still. Then with a ferocity worthy of any Shawnee warrior, Billy Hatfield jumped up and screamed "AYEEEE!!!!"at the top of his lungs, brandishing his shining flashlight and running directly toward the campfire where a couple of figures were seated. The others quickly joined in, creating an eerie cascade of forest shrieks in the utter darkness.
As the marauders rushed toward the campfire, Dale Atkins jumped to his feet and tottered unsteadily. His arm knocked against the makeshift sassafras teapot, spilled the entire contents into the fire and dowsed it with a huge sizzling, smoking climax as the campers came into view.
"Hot damn, yew got us didn’t ya?" he yelled back. "Whar’s all the snipe?" The same wizened, creased smile marked his darkened features.
"They never was no damn snipe," Billy Hatfield said angrily. "Y’all jes tryin’ to spook us. Was you plannin’ on leavin’ us out there all night?"
"Naw, hell no! We’ was jes gittin’ ready to come and git ya’ll anyway. You saved us the trip."
"Guess I’ll take some of the sassafras tea now," Sean said.
Dale laughed loudly. "Yeah, me too. Only problem is, ya’ll done made me spilt it all in the fire!"
"Well, ain’t that jes terrible?" Billy said. "Here, whyn’t you use this here snipe sack to go and find yo’sef some more sassafras?" He tossed his pillowcase on the ground and went into the tent, to bed down for the night. Sean and the other campers followed, leaving the adults standing around the fire and staring at each other with bemused smiles.
Sean wrote one or two letters home every day in hopes he’d get as much return mail. His mother wrote occasionally, and each mailing was an occasion for great homesickness and frequent re-reading of the letter written in her distinct, rounded hand. Once, he asked for comic books: Nancy, Bugs Bunny, L’il Henry, and the classics version of Treasure Island. He was surprised and delighted when all those, plus more, arrived in a manila envelope stuffed with the cheerful colors of comics that he loved as well as some he’d never even seen. Although he dreaded returning home at the end of summer because of his mother’s remarriage to a man he hardly knew, Sean dearly missed his brother and sister and couldn’t wait to see them and tell them mountain stories.
Sean and Billy Hatfield, on one of their own private nature walks along the Allegheny River, had decided they were blood brothers, cut their fingers with a shiny steel pocket knife from Billy’s jeans pocket, and mingled their blood.
"We prob’ly won’t ever see each other after camp, but I know we’ll never forget," Billy said with his mountain boy-man wisdom.
As the summer burned itself out on the green hills, Sean received a train ticket back to Richmond from his mother. He felt a stab of melancholy at the realization that time was running out, so he stopped by the Nature building to see Dale.
"What’s THAT?!?!" Sean said, pointing to a strange creature in one of Dale’s hand-made cages.
"That thar’s the snipe you didn’t catch!" he grinned.
Sean’s eyes popped wide open. "No kidding?"
"Naw, not really," Dale confessed. "Hit’s just a grouse from up the hillside. Looks like she’s fixin’ to lay a couple of eggs, too. Gonna have a little grouse family here soon."
"Well, I’ll be going home soon and I just wanted to say goodbye and thanks for everything. Maybe I’ll see you next summer."
"By the way, why did you leave us stranded in the woods like that? "
"My daddy took me on a snipe hunt when I was ‘bout yer age, and I reckon every boy in these parts does the same thing. Why? ‘Cause I wanted you all to learn not to fear the woods, and to be men. Didn’t do you no harm, did it?" Dale grinned devilishly.
"Guess not. Well, gotta be going Dale."
Dale extended his long, wiry hand toward Sean who overcame his hesitation and gripped the mountain man’s shake. Without an exchange of blood, Sean knew that he had a second blood brother he would never forget.