The world lost another icon today. Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger died quietly in his sleep at the age of 94. I suppose it’s inevitable that it is the season for some of the earliest baby boomer icons to be saying their final good-byes but that doesn’t make it any less sad.
I’m not sure if most millennials even know who Pete Seeger was. But, I am sure that anyone of any age who went to camp remembers the words to “If I Had A Hammer” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” The lyrics to his song “Little Boxes on a Hillside” were printed in the back of my 8th grade social studies book. The song touched me deeply. I decided I would never be “made of ticky-tacky or put in a little box” to come out the same as everybody else. In other words, his songs inspired me to think for myself and embrace my individuality; and to value skepticism, social justice and creativity. To this day, I remember happily singing “Little Boxes” while rowing an aluminum boat on Surprise Lake with my camp counselor picking out the guitar chords on the hot bench beside me.
Here is a link to the youtube video of "Little Boxes on a Hillside."
I went to Surprise Lake Camp (SLC), a sleep away camp in Putnam County New York. Some of my happiest childhood moments were spent there. It turns out that Pete Seeger’s home was near our camp. Because of this proximity, I developed a strong emotional attachment to Pete Seeger and his music. He felt like my own personal folk star. Whenever we sang one of his songs around a campfire or on a hike, there was something magical about the fact that his home was only a few miles away. It felt like I was in the company of greatness.
The presence of the nearby Seeger home was always discussed with a kind of reverence. Metaphorically, it was considered a beacon of light in the distance. Our neighbor on the opposite side of the campground was called “Cornish.” “Cornish” was always spoken of in those hushed tones of delighted horror unique to adolescents. The mythology was that Cornish had been the home of the founder of Pittsburgh Paints. A terrible tragedy was supposed to have happened there. It was presumed to be haunted. Campers and counselors alike would swear they had seen ghosts wandering among the ruins there. One of the ways to prove you were an absolute bad-ass SLC-style was to hike to Cornish and say you weren’t afraid.
Archival Photograph of the old Cornish estate with Breakneck Ridge
The Cornish Estate ruins as I remember them
During the summer I was 14, the head counselor on teen side, Larry, decided to arrange a scavenger hunt. A few days ahead, the counselors hiked the local trails, distributing colored rocks as they walked. Each team would be assigned a color to scavenge for. Whichever team found the most painted rocks would win a watermelon. My team was assigned the gold rocks. We were also assigned the “Breakneck Ridge” hike because Larry decided we needed to toughen up a bit. Breakneck Ridge was a difficult hike and Larry knew I didn’t like it. Perhaps he thought the promise of a watermelon would institute an attitude adjustment on my part. It didn’t.
It was a blistering hot day and I was miserable. As the heavy rocks accumulated in my backpack, I grew more and more resentful. Sweating and exhausted, I finally reached the top of breakneck ridge. Looking out over the Hudson River and Route 9W, I had a moment of adolescent rebellion. No watermelon was worth this amount of effort and misery. My friends and I stopped and sipped water. We removed the rocks from our packs and piled them in a pyramid. And then we moved on.
By this time, we were lagging way behind the rest of our group. We decided to take our sweet time and enjoy the rest of the hike, which was mostly downhill back to our camp. Unfortunately, we seriously misjudged the time this would take. Dusk was settling and we started to get nervous because we couldn’t see the trail markers anymore. A disagreement ensued as to whether we should continue on what looked to be the trail or “bush-whack” through the brush in the direction where I was sure our camp was waiting. 2 friends and I headed into the brush while the rest of the group continued on the trail. After a while, my little trio was happy to recognize a baseball field and the camp road. We arrived at the dining hall in the dark and were rewarded with a watermelon for our efforts.
This is where Pete Seeger comes in. The group that had continued on the trail ended up at Pete Seeger’s house. While he was not at home, the campers were welcomed by his wife who offered them drinks and snacks while she listened to their tales of the day’s adventures. Then she called the camp, which sent a bus to pick the wayward kids up and drive them back to camp. It turns out they got watermelon too. In fact, it was always the intention that we would all get watermelon.
I’ve always regretted my decision to “bush-whack” that day. Had I stayed on the trail, I would have met Pete Seeger’s wife. I would have had my first real brush with greatness. I would have had the chance to sit at his kitchen table, chat with his wife and see his house. On the other hand, I made it back to camp by blazing my own trail. Ultimately, trusting my own instincts got me and my friends home. I’m sure Pete Seeger would have approved.
RIP Pete Seeger. You will be missed but I hope your music and the values you lived by live on.