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From Where I Sit: Campfire evenings of wonder

I wonder if campfires still provide evenings of wonder and treasured memories for kids of today. Remember campfires out at Halvorson’s Point with guitars strumming and classmates tasting their first sips of beer or choking on an unfiltered cigarette? We were a pretty innocent group enjoying a spectacular fall evening under the moon, listening to the lapping of the waves, singing along to the favorite music of our era.

At that time, we could distinctly hear the song’s words; the music had a melody that stuck in our heads. It was the era of the Kingston Trio, Dion, Johnny Mathis and the Everly Brothers. The songs of the period had a magical power over us, filled with hopes and dreams of a generation. Life was good; the music reflected feeling of optimism. “Life goes by so slowly and time can do SO much” (Unchained Melody)…anything was possible!

The ‘60s was the era of drive-in movies, slumber parties, high school dances, brush rollers and orange juice cans to create curls, the bigger the better. Heinies were cool, flat tops from army draftees’ styles looked great on our boyfriends. No guy would be seen with long hair, that was hippy style. The free-thinking hippie movement was looked at with question marks. Some of us were fascinated by the hippy commune idea, their floor-length dresses, and long, flowing hair. But, in the final decision, who wanted to go barefoot every season and not have a shower or tub available? Remember the group of hippies who lived in the brick building with the huge sun painted on it in Georgeville, just off Highway 55?

Fun didn’t involve drugs for most of us, perhaps a bit of alcohol, but only a few got “buzzed.” That was sloppy, not cool. Some kids smoked in high school or at college, though it was common to see most adults lighting up a Camel, Lucky Strike or Marlboro. We had no clue as to the hidden dangers of cancer and emphysema.

Campfires were sites of initiations for me: Girl Scout cookouts, forbidden beer parties, and my first attempts at smoking. Bonnie, my high school pal a few years older, worked at Glenwood’s Setters drug store, across the street from Jim Stradtman’s Corner Drug Store, where I worked. Bonnie worked with my classmates Diane and Janet; I worked with Julian and two older guys Marv and Larry. What a blast we had stocking shelves, gossiping with our pals, laughing and even doing a bit of dusting and waiting on customers, always with a smile.

After work on Friday nights those of us who worked downtown planned to do something fun after work. Nine o’clock, quitting time, was still too early to go home, so we’d head for the A & W on the top of the NP Hill or meet at Cliff’s drive-in for broasted chicken or burgers and a coke. If we ended up at the beach, and felt especially daring, sometimes we’d go “skinny dipping”—girls only! Oh, the thrills that tingled in our young bodies as we swam to the diving tower, tied our suits (always one piece) to the diving tower, climbed the ladder and dove in. You’d hear the embarrassed squeals of watching each naked body parade onto that gang plank diving board. What an innocent thrill!

At the campfire, Bonnie demonstrated smoking. She’d already been to the university for two years; the rest of us were high school seniors. Casually, she struck a match, a souvenir from the VFW, gently tapped the pack of Lucky Strikes, pulled a cigarette from the cellophane pack and inserted it between her lips. Janet, Patty, Diane and I gawked. Evidently Bonnie was “experienced.” Impressed and fascinated, we watched her nose contract as she inhaled the burning butt of fire. Her closed eyes told us she was enjoying this smoking sensation. As she exhaled, smoke drifted seductively out her flared nostrils, curling into gray clouds in the black sky.

The timing was perfect. I was really ready to try smoking. Stars were twinkling; I could see the Big and Little Dipper overhead, lighting this new passage to adulthood. Gingerly, I picked a fresh white cigarette from the pack and inserted it between my dry lips. No brown filter tips on butts in those days. Bonnie struck a match. The butt glowed red with burning sparks in the black night. I breathed in, just like I did when I was swimming and needed a big breath before I dunked under the water, nose plugs in place. The smoke caught in my lungs! I couldn’t get my breath. Eyes filling with water, tears began streaming down my cheeks. Coughs racked my body, and my face turned red. I was choking! Flinging the butt into the burning campfire, I swallowed hard, chest filling with air, and coughed a racking, cleansing bark. I couldn’t help myself. How embarrassing!

I was not destined to be “cool.”

That’s the way it was back when we were young. We were naive and innocent, but weren’t we lucky to grow up in those remarkable sixties? Wouldn’t it be fun to get together, once again, and look back through the years. We’ve changed; we’ve turned gray and achey during the years, but, hopefully, our minds have expanded as well as our Rubenesque figures.

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