In the summer of 1962 I got my second full-time job. The previous summer I had worked on the nearby Red Ladder Ranch*. But this next year, when I was fifteen, my friend Tom called me up and said that the University of Wyoming was hiring Kitchen Boys to work at their Recreation Camp.
The Camp was located about ten miles northwest of Centennial, Wyoming. It consisted of a dozen guest cabins, staff cabins, meeting rooms, and a dining hall with a commercial kitchen. It was nestled in the edge of the forest in the foothills of the Snowy Range Mountains.
The Camp did not offer programs of its own but it was rented out to various clubs, teams, and groups looking for a place to hold a retreat. No matter who was renting the place, they all needed to eat and a Cook and an Assistant Cook were hired to provide the necessary victuals. Forty to sixty campers can produce an awful lot of dirty dishes – not to mention food-encrusted pots and pans – so a couple of young boys were required to clean up after the cooks. And Tom and I got the job.
When we first applied for the job, Mr. Watkins, who interviewed us, told us that once the breakfast dishes were done, we could relax for an hour before beginning to work lunch. After the few lunch dishes were washed, we would have several hours to do whatever we wanted until it was time to go in and help with Dinner. For this we would get Room and Board, plus a check totaling Seventy-Five dollars every month. The previous summer I had been paid a total of $25. Of course, I had run an expensive piece of farm equipment into a fence post and bent it – but to my ears, which were clearly still-wet-behind, $75 seemed like a princely sum.
One of Tom’s first duties was to drive the old, green Chevy truck into Laramie and pick up Mrs. D, who was to be the Cook. Mrs. D was in her 60’s and morbidly obese. When she climbed into the cab of the pickup, the springs squeaked in quiet process and the truck leaned noticeably to the right. Mrs. D in her youth must have been a strong, strapping woman because after being coated in a thick layer of adipose tissue, her arms were enormous. Tom discovered one downside to this when, on the road out to Centennial, a wasp flew in an open window and Mrs. D, in Tom’s words, “started flailing those giant arms around and about wrecked us.”
My old friend Dave once told me his theory of institutional food. He said there were several huge underground vats near Topeka, Kansas that contained a light gray, gelatinous substance. Numerous pipelines ran from these vats to every large institutional kitchen in the lower forty-eight states. All those cooking stoves and refrigerators in university kitchens, hospitals, and assisted living centers were rarely used and mostly there for show. What was constantly in use was the pipeline terminal and the various molding, shaping, and coloring machines. These turned the gelatinous substance into green bean casserole, lemon meringue pie, and tuna surprise. There were no flavoring machines, hence the taste of the food. After the meal, all leftovers and scraps were scraped into another machine that turned it all back into gray gelatinous substance and pumped it back to the vats under Topeka.
Mrs. D. must have spent most of her working life running those shaping and coloring machines, because cooking was not an actual talent that she possessed. She covered this lack by using as many pots and pans as she could, frequently burning the contents, and leaving it all in stacks on the stainless steel tabletop next to the sink. Even without that, the job would have consumed a lot more time than Mr. Watkins’ sunny picture. But add Mrs. D’s proclivity to use five pans where two would do the job, and we were going into the Kitchen at 5:30 in the morning and not stumbling out until somewhere north of eight o’clock that night.
As well as the long hours, I had one other problem to deal with – the raging hormones of puberty. In a few short years, girls had gone from something to be teased or ignored, to these strange creatures who were simultaneously terrifying and enchanting. The Recreation Director, Gordon, who shared a cabin with Tom and I, had a record player that he’d let us use. Among the offerings in his small collection was Johnny Mathis’ Greatest Hits. I played this record over and over, memorized most of the lyrics, and began to sing along to the drippiest ones. Tom quickly came to hate the song “Misty.” He still does.
The first few groups that rented the camp had lots of attractive women to admire/ogle. The secret to ogling – especially when you are fifteen – is to not ever be caught in mid-ogle. A kitchen is naturally darker than the dining hall that it fronts on, so back in the shadows behind a post next to the potato peeler was a perfect spot to watch the girls eating the last of their lunches. Those first few groups, however, afforded no opportunities beyond ogling. The Church Campers were far too religious, the Square Dancers were far too old, and the Cheerleaders were far too unapproachable.
Then in late July came Band Camp. High School musicians came from all over Western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming. In the mornings they would gather in the dining hall, the meeting room, even some of the cabins to practice. In the afternoons they would go out in the Camp’s grassy field to march.
On the Band Camp’s first morning, as I was carrying a full garbage can out to the collection area, a pretty little blonde girl carrying a leather case asked me how to find Cabin Eleven.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said as I put down the can and hung my apron up on a tree branch. “Why don’t I show you the way?”
As we walked I learned that she was from Alliance, Nebraska, that she played the clarinet, and that, yes, she would like me to give her a little tour of the Camp after dinner. On the way back to the kitchen I could hear Johnny Mathis in my head singing “Wonderful Wonderful” as I told myself I must be the smoothest guy in Southeast Wyoming.
The next couple of weeks were actually perfect for a budding, teenage romance. We could only find spare moments to be together and consequently didn’t have to actually talk to each other very much. There are desert plants in Wyoming that only thrive on a little sprinkle of rain now and then. This young infatuation was like that. We held hands and even shared a couple of brief-but-sweet kisses, then Band Camp was over and we parted with promises to write that we didn’t keep.
As summer lurched into August, we had a few days off. On one of these days, Gordon showed up with several old inner tubes that we inflated with a bicycle pump. We jumped in the camp truck and drove up Highway 130 to the top of the Snowy Range. Up there, rising up from Libby Flats, is Medicine Bow Peak, the highest point in southern Wyoming. The Peak has a steep, rocky cliff-like face, but at the Western end has a more rounded appearance – like a shoulder. It had been an unseasonably cool summer up at the top of the mountains and there was still a long patch of snow and ice remaining in a protected corner of this shoulder.
There are people in this world who love to climb up the sides of mountains, who need no other reason to do so than, as Sir Edmund Hillary famously said, “Because it’s there.” I am not one of those. I much prefer to sit in a comfortable folding chair at the base of the mountain with a cold drink in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. And yet, there I was, trudging up the side of that slope with an inner tube under my arm, quite willing to exchange a half hour of effort for fifteen seconds of sheer terror. Repeatedly.
As we saw our summer beginning to slip away, and we looked at the schedule, we realized that there were only going to be a few days at best between the end of this job and the beginning of school. And it didn’t take a math-whiz to figure out that we were being paid about fifteen cents an hour. The temptation to tell Mr. Watkins and the University of Wyoming where they could put their coolie-labor job was very strong.
But after mulling it over, I decided to stay and finish out the job. I’m not sure exactly why, probably equal parts of “I made a commitment and I’m going to see it through,” and “If I bag out now the Old Man will never let me hear the end of it.” After the last camper had left, I stayed an extra day or two to help winterize the place and get it ready for opening the following June.
Looking back through the softening lens of many years, I have come to the conclusion that after all the sweat and aggravation, that summer had been well worth it. I got to spend nearly three months in a beautiful pine forest, I experienced my first teenage crush, and I learned that when you’re mashing fifty peeled and boiled potatoes with a long-handled masher, it’s nearly impossible to get all the lumps out. Which is a good thing because all the vitamins are in the lumps.
Thanks to Tom Denniston
*Look in the Right-hand column for Tim vs. the Tractor