THREE TO A SEAT; ALL THE WAY BACK
Athens Y Camp is a place of revered traditions, but I don’t have to tell you that. The Ice Cream Hike, Appleknocker, and ‘Church in the Valley’ are forever things here. But with the treasured traditions, let us not forget Athens Y Camp is also a place of ‘not so revered’ traditions as well. ‘Three to a seat; all the way back,’ is one of them. These days when we get on the bus to go to the gorge, our leaders will say to the campers: ‘Three to a seat; all the way back.’ With a small unit; say twenty Younger Boys, this can be quite comical; twenty kids piled in the back six seats of the bus and six leaders occupying the other twenty seats. Never mind that 2/3 of the seats are empty. ‘Three to a seat and all the way back,’ is how we do it at Athens Y Camp.
And we always have… It’s funny that our new leaders, who never went on a bus trip, are simply honoring a time honored AYC tradition. Back in the day, on the famous AYC Bus Trip we sat three to a seat, in every seat! And some leaders brought stools from the dining hall and sat on them in the aisle. We know that sitting three to a seat, going to the gorge… a mere three mile trip; will not kill you; because we road that way all the way to the Great Smokey Mountains and back two or three times a year, depending on how lucky you were. We only took a limited number of leaders, so we could fit all the campers in the bus; leaders would draw straws to see who got to go (actually we were more interested in who got to be left behind!)
We made the trip, not on the current four lane highway that US 441 has become; we road it on what is now affectionately called ‘old 441’. Today it is a scenic drive through the mountains; all the tourists are frantically traveling the new road. Back then it was the only road from here to there… It was crammed full of Yankees, wearing sandals and blue socks with their ‘bermuda’ shorts and obligatory ‘brownie’ hanging from their neck. They were thick as fleas on a hound dog all over Cherokee, NC. And they filled the road with their campers. And the road wound along the Tallulah River… all the old wooden trestles of the Tallulah Falls Railroad were right there beside that road. After Clayton, we shot through Rabun Gap and about thirty five miles per hour and then into North Carolina, where the road thankfully widened and became smoother (tobacco tax money did that for NC; we didn’t know it, just thought NC was a ton wealthier than GA). From Clayton we would wend our way upward into the Smokies, climbing higher and higher, going slower and slower. Occasionally, we’d stop to clean and air out the bus, because somebody threw up, right about the GA/NC line ever year… another time honored tradition.
The architect of our discomfort, the guru of bus trips, the master of disaster planner was Coach Frank Inman. I have to tell you that I loved and respected Coach Inman, but I was a little afraid of him; no, I was a lot afraid of him. I could never tell when he was serious or joking… so I just did whatever he told me to, not even trying to understand when he was ‘pulling our leg’. You know, whenever I think of Cove Hikes, I think of good old Coach Clary, puffing along up Jacob’s Ladder, heading for that farm with the bull. When I think of Gorge Hikes, I think of Coach Mike, challenging us see who could be the fastest one out, after him… of course. And when I have one of those ‘nightmares’ about the Bus Trip, the little round man is always up there in front, thinning hair… blowing in the breeze from the open windows (no airconditioning for real men on a real Y Camp bus).
There was only a brief hiatus when Coach Inman didn’t drive the bus. It was the summer of ’65 when Coach had acute appendicitis. We almost lost him, because they couldn’t find his appendix… it was not where it was supposed to be. He survived, but was not able to make a single bus trip that summer. That year Lloyd Owl was our driver. Here is how that happened. Doodlebug was driving the first bus trip of the summer. I was on it and so was my good friend Howard Cleveland. Coming down from Ghost Town (and I mean down…. Steep!) and heading into Cherokee, Doodle blew up the bus. Well, it wasn’t his fault. He was used to driving the truck and the truck was tougher than that old bus. He had her geared down so we wouldn’t go careening off the mountain and it started to whine, which was okay, but then it started to scream, and then it just exploded, kerplooey! Luckily, we were still headed down and Doodle just road the break (he could burn them up now, since the bus was done for anyway) and we coasted almost to Cherokee. We stopped on the outskirts and Doodle found a phone booth… no cell phones then. We received orders to camp across the creek and wait for reinforcements. One good thing about that trip was we didn’t have time to swim in the creek, more on that later. The next day a shiny yellow school bus from the reservation showed up. Lloyd Owl, a full blooded Cherokee was our driver. He told us we had to sit two to a seat, some kind of regulation we had never heard of (must have been a North Carolina thing). We didn’t quite know what to do, but Doodle told us to follow orders and Lloyd drove us on all the bus trips that summer.
But except for that one year, Coach Inman was our man. Anyway, that law was either repealed (the one about two to a seat), or it only applied to NC buses, because we were three to a seat in ’66 and ever after. I said Coach Inman had a different sense of humor, didn’t I. Once on the trip, we were eating apples, don’t know how we got apples or why (we mostly ate PBJ and potato sticks). Anyway, Coach shouted, ‘Finish your apples now… When I say three, you must all throw your cores out the right side of the bus… one, two, THREE;’ and we dutifully did exactly as we were told. I recall looking out the back window at these two road workers covered in apple cores shouting ‘Your number One,’ at least that must have been what they were shouting, because they both were holding up one finger for us… it wasn’t their index finger, but I guess they do it differently in NC!
Coach Inman had this thing about swimming, too. In the later years of the Bus Trips we stayed at a place called Deep Creek Camp Ground near Bryson City. They should have called it ‘Mosquitoes Are Us,’ if you ever spent the night there, you know why. They had a swimming area in a beautiful mountain stream. Coach Inman would gather us together and go into a long oration about the ‘Heated Pool’. It seems that when the sun shines down through clear mountain water, it heats the rocks below… and the rocks, of course, heat the water. Rumor has it that some camper’s testicles never came down again after retreating somewhere deep in their bodies upon impact with that water. I am truly surprised that there were not ice bergs floating in that stream. Once a bunch of us LIT’s were recruited late to go on a bus trip. We weren’t supposed to go, but there were going to be vacant seats and it would not do to have anyone paired and not tripled. Anyway, we were told to grab a sleeping bag and hurry, don’t worry about bathing suits; we didn’t need to swim (praise the Lord!) So we didn’t swim, but the next morning Coach assembled the entire group and made campers give us their bathing suits (ever put on a wet suit before breakfast?). Then we had to parade like models before the entire group, who were clapping and whistling. Then we had to swim… then we got breakfast, but somehow I had lost my appetite.
I was surprised to learn from my sisters’ that on Chattooga’s Bus Trip they went to see ‘Unto These Hills’. I am told Y Campers once did this also; but I never saw it, never experienced the ‘Trail of Tears’, etc. To my way of thinking, we got to do something better: We went to see a movie. I loved movies and would watch any movie that anyone would take me to see. In those days there was only one movie in Bryson City and there were no movie ratings; so whatever was on, was what we saw. If ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ had been showing, we’d have seen it. Of course, in those days movies were all PG or less, so for the most part we were safe. I did see ‘An Imitation of Life’, can’t believe they would show that in the Jim Crow south. Get it from Net-Flix sometime; it is a classic and a mind changer. And I did learn a lot about the ‘birds and the bees’ from ‘Splendor in the Grass’ starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood; she was about sixteen and the prettiest girl I had ever seen in my life. And I saw Shirley McLain (before she went nuts) in ‘John Goldfarb Please Come Home’; I thought she was pretty, too… she only became a ‘witch’ later in her career. Don’t ask me how I remember… I just do!
There was a time that the trip went all the way to Gatlingburg; but you don’t even want to imagine the pain of that ride. All I can remember of that trip was that they would not let you go to sleep on the way to the camp ground (must have been forty miles back from the movie). I can understand now; I have had to put dead soldiers in their sleeping bags. But when you are six you just want to sleep…. I also remember from those trips that a leader was trapped in the campground bathroom all night by a bear… true! And bears were everywhere in the Smokies; we’d see them all along the road, begging for food.
As the years rolled by, the trips became shorter… matching Coach Inman’s patience duration, which also seemed shorter (so was Coach Mike’s as I remember). The last years we went to Ghost Town and Frontier Land and then we swam… ‘Hey, is that the Titanic over there?’ and we always got to see a movie. I cannot remember exactly when those trips finally ended, but I think we stopped the Bus Trip sometime early in Mr Simpson’s tenure. While I was not sad to see them go, and I don’t miss them a bit; I still think Natalie Wood was worth the trip; at least once!