Two Week Furlough
As a child I attended a Hull House camp called The Bowen Country Club, located in Waukegan, Illinois. During the summer groups of mothers and children spent two week at this beautiful camp which was filled with flowers, grass and trees.It was a welcome change from the Taylor Street slum area where we all lived.
Part of the staff of this camp was made up of former campers and in 1942 or 1943 staff was hard to get. World War II had begun and all of the young men were in the service or doing other essential war work. It had gotten so bad that women were recruited as counselors for the cottages that housed younger boys.
At this time a former camper, Mike Garippo, whose nickname was “Superman” received a two week furlough before going overseas to the war. Instead of spending his leave with his family or looking for girls in bars, Mike volunteered to come out to the Bowen Country Club and work as a counselor at the cottage that housed boys ages six to ten. He felt that a male influence was important for boys at this young age. So he came to Waukegan to spend his precious furlough.
One of the main requirements for children to move from the “Baby” cottage to the “Children’s” cottage was the ability to handle a knife and fork at the table. There were other requirements as well. I filled out those requirements at the age of five, so I was put into the cottage where Mike Garippo was acting counselor. I was small for my age and all of the other kids in that cottage were older and bigger than I was. (Editor’s comment: Rosenwald cottage housed the mothers and their infants. This was a unique concept in summer camps, but was consistent with Jane Addams’ theory of symbolic interactionism, which she employed for the benefit of the immigrant population that resided in the near-west side of Chicago, the “Hull House neighborhood.”) .
One of the games that was played was called “Scalp Rush”. It consisted of a dirt filled bag that someone would hold and try to prevent the others from taking. It was a rough and tumble game that involved a good deal of physical contact. It was played in an open field.
Somehow the other boys in the cottage thought that it would be a good idea to shove the “scalp” into the hands of me, the smallest one, and then all pile on top of me. They did that. And one or two thought that it would be an even better idea to shove my face into the dirt. They did that too.
To this day I can still feel the fear of not being able to breathe and of having all these people on top of me so that I couldn’t move. I struggled and managed to lift my face a few times to gulp some air before my face was pushed back into the dirt. I was terrified and weakening fast.
Then all of a sudden, I heard a voice yelling. The bodies on top of me started to get tossed aside. At last I could turn over on my back and breathe. I opened my eyes and there was a giant standing over me. His back was to the sun so that I couldn’t make out his features, but it looked like he had a halo around his head from the sun.
It was Mike Garippo asking if I was okay. And when I said that I was he tore into the other boys saying that they should have been ashamed of themselves for ganging up on the smallest one. He also had a few choice words for the other two inexperienced counselors who had allowed it to happen. From then on until the end of camp period he sort of looked after me.
While he was at camp he wrote a camp song to the tune of “Bless Them All”, a popular World War Two song. It goes:
Bless them all,
bless them all
The long and the short and the tall.
Bless all the campers
who play all the day.
Bless all the counselors
who show them the way.
For we’re saying “Have Fun” to them all
Swimming and playing baseball.
No griping or fighting,
nor any backbiting
So cheer up my lads,
bless them all.
Later that year we all got word that Mike Garippo was killed in action in the war. It hurts to this day. They say that war takes the best of what we have and in this case it was really true.
At every reunion the campers and staff of the Bowen Country Club sing that song and Mike is remembered. To me at least, Mike Garippo was a perfect example of what American men are supposed to be.
He was strong, kind and brave and he looked out for those weaker than himself. What more perfect example of a hero could you want? And when I close my eyes I can still see him ….. a giant with his back to the sun wearing a halo.
Many years later between college graduation and service in the army I worked as a counselor for older boys at the Bowen Country Club. And I can tell you that the smallest campers and the timid ones found an instant and fierce protector in me. For I was just passing along the gift that I was given by my friend Mike Garippo.
Written by Michael Campo