by Hap Rocketto
When I made my first trip to Camp Perry I was overwhelmed by the long awaited and anticipated experience. Day after day of shooting, free meals three times a day in the Mess Hall, a Spartan but adequate bunk in a hut, the company of like minded souls, and Commercial Row. I was living large. Yet, as great as it was I was constantly reminded that I was a late comer and had missed the ‘Good Old Days’. Now that I am in what I call my ‘anecdotage’ I fondly recall my ‘Good Old Days’ to the distress of today’s youngsters.
In expectation I dove into musty issues of The American Rifleman from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, submerging myself in the aura, history, and lore of Camp Perry. When I finally got there shooting veterans wistfully told me of the days before a politically correct Congress stripped away Federal funding, a time that that would never be seen again. I had missed the military bands tooting and banging away, the columns of soldiers, sailors, and Marines marching to the pits to pull targets or act as scorers, and merchandise freebies doled out by the big gun and ammunition manufacturers.
Still, it was quite a place. Almost everyone lived “on post.” There were hundreds of huts, long gone, where modules and barracks now stand. Commercial Row was alive with a frenzy of activity and noise reminiscent of a carnival midway. People paraded up and down Donahey Road renewing friendships, making new ones, all the while exchanging greetings and stories of the day’s shooting. Some gathered under the golden glow of street lights, along with the moths and May flies, to exchange gossip and tall tales on the benches set up outside the buildings. Others roamed in and out of the many commercial establishments manned by the likes of Old Man Hogue, Al Freeland, and the nattily uniformed staff of Colt, Winchester and Remington.
The delicate musical tinkle of the bells of an ice cream truck slowly cruising down Commercial Row provided a counter point to the muscular ping of lead pellets hitting the backstop at the air gun range. From time to time a figure or two would break away from this island of sound and light and stroll the short distance though the silent darkness to building 1002. In each dim corner, like sentinels standing guard at the catafalque at a state funeral, stood industrial strength pedestal fans that moved the warm humid air about in a futile attempt to keep the building cool. The deep roar of the fans’ motors discouraged extraneous conversation. The long tunnel like building was neatly bisected along its long axis by the “Wailing Wall”, which was illuminated by banks of fluorescent light fixtures. On both sides Plexiglas panels covered hundreds of square feet of the grid like NRA Form SR31A score reporting bulletin sheets.
Each competitor’s name, class, and category were neatly lettered on the plastic and next to it a pair of volunteers, wielding black grease pencils, posted the scores from each match. If one was particularly skilled, or lucky, a ring of color would surround a score or two indicating a small victory. A small knot of competitors would trail the statistical crew as it went about its business of transposing scores from hand typed sheets onto the board with accountant like precision. Competitors would read the posted numbers, check them against a scrap of paper covered with penciled scribbles and, from time to time, pull out a purse or wallet, extract a dollar bill, and bolt towards the Challenge Window next door in building 1000.
At ten o’clock the concessions and stat shack would close and the crowd slowly broke up and drifted away to the huts to rest and prepare for the next day’s competition. Quiet would settle over the camp, occasionally broken by a mischievous burst of laughter from a hut full of excited juniors or the squeaking and slamming of a hut’s screen door as one of the elders made a necessary trip to the washroom in the shank of the night.
The common washrooms were from an earlier era. Juniors, unfamiliar with communal living, often found that their digestive systems shut down after their eyes first fell upon the lavatory. Opposing rows of china fixtures, each topped with a black wooden horse shoe, faced each other, sans the doors and dividers that kids were used to seeing in their only other exposure to group living, school. Mess Hall food was free and plentiful so that by the third day even the most fastidious and bashful of juniors could contain themselves no longer. Perched apprehensively upon the porcelain the kids were often unwillingly drawn into a friendly discussion about the previous day’s scores-baseball or rifle-or perhaps the weather, by an avuncular old timer sitting next to him perusing the morning paper.
The hunched over youngster, briefs drawn as high as possible and shirt stretched low to preserve some shred of childhood dignity, probably had no idea that the friendly old timer with the white wizened legs, boxer shorts casually draped wreath like about his ankles, had probably made his acquaintance with this type of facility with similar concern when he was a fuzzy cheeked draftee back in ‘Dubya Dubya Two’ or “Kowe-rea.”
The great open concrete cavern of the shower room offered even less privacy than the rest of the building, it that were possible. Shower heads lined the walls and a wooden grate covering the floor. The more reserved youngsters would sneak in late at night hoping to bathe in private. It was no use. There was always someone taking either a late night or early morning shower. Youthful modesty was only marginally preserved by facing the wall, working up generous amounts of soap lather, or the gossamer gray clouds of steam which belched forth from the shower heads. In a short time the youngsters grew comfortable with the situation and soon were engaged in towel snapping and other adolescent locker room horseplay. They had been initiated into the “Culture of the Huts” and completed one of the many male rites of passage. They looked forward to watching the next crop of juniors negotiate the path they had just traversed.
Fikret Yegül, student of classical antiquity, summed up the significance of this type of public facility when he wrote that, “…it is hardly an exaggeration to say that at the height of the empire, the baths embodied the ideal Roman way of urban life. … Their public nature created the proper environment.” As it was with the Romans at their apogee of their empire so it was with the shooters at Perry.
Some thirty years later the ‘Good Old Days’ of my elders, like most of them, have passed on, preserved only within the pages of The Rifleman or in the memory of a few old duffers like me. So it will be with my tales of the ‘Good Old Days’. But I have to wonder how the memories of the ‘Good Old Days’ of today’s crop of Perry youngsters-days of a diminished Commercial Row, modules, air conditioned huts, privacy stalls in the bath houses, and computer generated score sheets-measure up to mine?