Sequoyah Memoir

by Wilby Coleman


     I arrived at Camp Sequoyah square in the middle of WWII, in the year 1943, a freshly minted fourteen year old.  I was put in a Cherokee cabin.  I and most of my cabin mates came back in 1944 and 1945.  Names are difficult to remember after this elapse of time, but there was a Cunningham boy who had a false tooth that he could extract with his tongue, a kid with a glass eye which he could remove at will, a boy named Crouch, whose daddy was the preacher at the big domed church in Asheville, and a boy named Bates.  We would go into hilarious ecstasy at mail call when he received mail from home.  It was the style of the day to address all pre-pubic boys as “Master."

     We were practically oblivious to the war.  The only hint was that one day a week, instead of meat for dinner we were served hard-boiled eggs covered in white sauce.  Nobody at the table would eat them, so I got 10.

     The memories of those three summers are wonderful.  They still stand out clear as a bell.  Hikes to Lovelace Gap and Bald Knob, to Hawk’s Bill and Craggy Gardens, and the one long hike to Mt.  Mitchell, partly along the unfinished Skyline Drive replete with a million five-foot tall daisies, complete with a bee on each one.  Cabin suppers, watermelons in the middle of the night, cleaning kerosene lanterns, catching snakes, slipping off to the store at Beech (via Reems Creek, so as not to be spotted by a camp car on the road), nighttime Indian dancing in full regalia, chanting “Ei unga'a, ga ga ghenzogi, may ei unga'a”.

     The baseball games between the cooks and the counselors were always special.  The cooks generally won.  The black cooks avoided military service in some unknown way.  The counselors were mostly teachers and divinity students who were not subject to the draft.  I particularly remember in my second or third year that a group of divinity students from Wheaton College made a special effort, at secret midnight gatherings, to convert campers in the cabins where they were counselors.  This all came to an end when Chief Johnson got a call from an irate Jewish father, that he had just heard from his son that he had some exciting news: He had just found his savior in Jesus Christ.  All of the counselors were sent back to Wheaton in mid-season, and we junior counselors and counselors’ aids took over for the rest of the summer as full-fledged counselors.

     In 1945 about ten 17 year-old counselors’ aids established a campsite for a week’s stay near Craggy Gardens.  We hiked over to Mt.  Mitchell for a two-day overnight.  On a high mountain adjacent to Mt.  Mitchell, the military had established and were running an experimental radio station.  We walked up to the facility, while it was impossible to gain admittance normally, not on this day.  They had just received a message, that the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan (we hadn’t known about the first one) and that Japan had surrendered.  Everybody was excited.  They let us into the facility, gave us ice water and offered us the use of their bathroom.  We later hiked back to our campsite near Craggy.  Then next day we broke camp, packed up, met a truck that had been sent for us and were driven back to Camp Sequoyah.  A portable radio in the bed of the truck played the new hit song of the day: “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and we sang along even though we’d never heard it before.

     Everyone who attended Camp Sequoyah during the reign of Chief Johnson knows that he was the inspiration for the kind of camp Sequoyah was.  He believed in self-reliance, and he set the camp up to teach it. 

     Chief also believed that “Mentholatum won the war” and every year gave a speech about how, during World War I, Mentholatum had saved his life, handing out at the end, to each camper, a sample tin of Mentholatum.  He did not seem to mind that the campers all sang “Mentholatum won the war,” to the tune of “Merrily We Roll Along”.  He must have known that some of the Mentholatum would end up on the very delicate parts of sleeping campers.

     He was also famous for his annual “Tiddly-winks Talks”.  He probably correctly thought that parents of little boys during the 30’s and 40’s did not do much about explaining the facts of life to their children.  This shy, gentle, reserved man probably did not know that most of the campers knew more than he did, although we certainly got a lot of it wrong.

     When I was 16, my dog was killed by a car back at home.  My parents wrote Chief Johnson, who took me up to Inspiration Point and broke the news.  I always think of this as one of the kindest and, considering his natural reticence, one of the bravest things ever done for me.