Growing Up in Idaho - Playing Army with Real Guns

As an adventurous kid, making forts was a big deal. My brother Mikey and I had a total of two tree houses and we also built a few make-shift pillbox forts for times we didn’t feel like climbing trees to hide out. Also, our friend Richard came to visit in the summer and the tree houses were not big enough to hold three growing boys and all their sleeping gear, knives, guns, and candy.

In the early 1970’s, the new and bigger Saveway Market opened in Salmon. They sold donuts in their new bakery for $.10 apiece. Those glazed goodies were the best tasting food we had ever eaten and we could not eat enough of them. The first week after the store opened, they were giving those donuts away for free. We boys ate enough of them to put the store out of business! It wasn’t long before the nice lady behind the counter told us to get lost and stop eating all the free donuts.

Even though there was plenty to do, boredom often set in and caused us boys to look for mischief. Mildly harassing other folks was fun and thrilling and we viewed our activities as borderline hilarious. Like prank calling unsuspecting victims in town.

“Is your refrigerator running?”


“Go catch it before it runs away!”

Sometimes we couldn’t resist calling Mary at the Saveway’s store. She always worked the till right next to the courtesy phone and we could count on her to answer when we called.

“Hello Mary, do you have Prince Albert [tobacco] in the can?”

“Yes, we do.”

“Let him out, he’s suffocating!”

We laughed and laughed. Those were the days before caller ID and number blocking.

Those were also the days when full time operators worked the switch board at the phone company.

Marianne was one of those operators and she was single! She was more than ten years older than us, but I and a few of my friends had a secret crush on her. She was one of the prettiest ladies in town. A time or two, during junior high lunch break, we walked to the phone company to pay her a visit. We also often called her desk to, “get the correct time.” We didn’t actually care about the time! Days are timeless when you’re eleven or twelve years old!

Our favorite tree house was thirty feet up in the top of the tallest tree in our yard. Mikey and I hounded dad to build it for us. So he did. It took some expert climbing skills and a lot of bravery to reach that tree fort. After dad was finished, I courted death and climbed up. Dad was already sitting up there admiring his handy work. As I was inching my way to the top, he gave me step-by-step instructions on how to get there without falling and dying.

I learned just before reaching the floor of the structure, I had to reach way out like an aerial acrobat, in a near prone position and make a little hop to propel myself onto the floor. Do that when the wind is blowing and the tree is swaying in all directions and it was, indeed, like riding a kite blowing in the wind.

Death was just around the corner every time Mikey and I played in our new tree house. Thinking about it, I admit it’s possible that dad was trying to activate our life insurance policies. I’m not sure. If he was, we foiled his plans and didn’t die.

During the heat of summer when the tree was fully covered in leaves, I hid in that tree house and observed all the activities of everyone on our street. Being able to remain incognito throughout much of the day was thrilling. The downside was, mom knew where the tree house was located and if I could not be found to do chores, the tree house is where she would look first. But I soon learned, if I laid completely flat on the floor, she couldn’t see me. So, she could wail my name all day long and nobody would be the wiser.

One of Mikey’s and my favorite summer activities was to walk up to the city dump and go exploring. There were numerous things thrown into the giant heaps of other people’s trash that fit within dad’s law of salvage. For those who don’t know, the law of salvage meant that anything useful or good that nobody wanted or which had been thrown away, could be claimed, and taken home and stored for later use. The prizes I got through the law of salvage were incredible!  Bike rims, frames, chains, pipes, worn hand tools, rusty farm equipment, and ball bearings were only a few of the many things I salvaged.

Mom never really bought into the law of salvage. “Who keeps dragging this useless crap home!?” she yelled. “Get it out of my sight!” After listening to mom, I realized, some people just don’t get it.   

At the city dump, we mostly just smashed bottles and shot at stuff with our wrist rockets. Dad bought those for us. The bands were made of surgical tubing. I could easily hit targets well over fifty yards with that slingshot. No bird or small animal was safe. Most kids I was friends with had one and knew how to use it.

One day, I was low on cash so I searched through the tool shed where dad kept his yard tools, camping stuff, and other superfluous items that had value. He also had some of his prizes he had attained through the law of salvage stored in there! I dug out an old hand-operated egg beater and figured I could make a few bucks on it if my sales pitch was right. I walked up and down the dirt roads near my house, knocking on doors, looking for a buyer. Grandpa Hicks bought it, but only after we dickered on price for a while. His views on the fair price of antique egg beaters differed quite a lot from mine. I asked for five bucks; we settled on two.

After I pocketed the money from my sale and walked off, grandpa called my house and asked mom if she and dad were desperate and needed money.

“Jeff just came over and sold me an old, rusty egg beater! Do you guys need help?” he wanted to know.

My mom said, “No, dad. We’re doing just fine. I suppose Jeff just needed some candy money. We’re okay. Thanks for asking.”

When I got home, I got interrogated. Mom wanted to know why I was selling our family’s camping supplies all over town. “Candy,” was my only reply. 

Most of my money in those days I used for buying gum and candy. Being an eight or nine-year-old kid, I often had to get creative to stay flush. Most of my income I earned in the summer, mowing lawns. I had two, sometimes three lawns that were mine and Mikey’s responsibility. Dad made a two-wheeled cart that we could tie to the sissy bar on our bikes so we could tow our old, side-shoot mower down the road. Pushing a lawn mower across town by hand is not cool–even for little kids.

I bought gas for the mower at Dick’s gas station on Main Street. There was no ‘self-serve’ in those days, so Dick would usually come out and fill up my metal gas can. I never had more than about 50 cents in my pocket, so that’s what he would charge. I really didn’t internalize that I had just bought a gallon of gas. I only wanted my can full so I wouldn’t have to keep coming back for more. A fifty-cent piece was only valuable according to what it could buy…a full can of gas, a couple packs of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum (my favorite), or four glazed donuts at Saveway’s. And of course, a couple of Big Hunks or Baby Ruth bars.

I viewed economics and finance on a personal level. What would a few cents get me in the form of food and entertainment and could I buy low and sell high? One time in sixth grade, I walked to the store during lunch hour, bought a package of Pop Rocks for 45 cents, walked back to school and sold them to a kid for 75 cents. At that moment, I innocently cashed in on the laws of Supply and Demand.

One activity that didn’t require money was playing army. Mikey, I and Richard spent many summer days, fighting tyranny, with real weapons. I had my .22 Marlin long barrelled rifle, Mikey had his 30-30 saddle gun, and Richard used dad’s old antique .22 single shot. Our enemies were all the beer bottles laying around. With little effort, we could gather up enough bottles to shoot to keep us occupied for hours.

In those days, a carton of .22 shells was almost free. And for Mike’s 30-30 ammo we just used reloads from dad’s gun supplies. Of course, during those army days, we went by our made-up monikers. Mike was always General Foods, since in those days, he was overweight by at least 50 pounds. Richard was General Electric, and I…I was Private Soupy Poop. That’s a name I didn’t choose for myself, but I often literally lived up to the moniker with all the junk food I ate. It never occurred to us why two generals would be cavorting around with a private in the war against tyranny, but that’s how we flew.

As a little kid, I learned to love firearms. And I respected their use. I became a crack shot with that .22 and I shot up more ammo than could be counted. But in Mike Hicks’ family, there was no allowance to be unsafe with guns. I learned the muzzle rule, trigger rule, and target rule as an eight-year-old kid. And I’ve never forgotten them.     

Mikey was 18 months older than me. That meant I had to tag along behind him when it came to joining the various groups and organizations we got involved in. A biggy in those days was the Boy Scouts of America. Every kid I knew, at least the kids I went to church with and hung out with at school, joined Boy Scouts.

My life as a young boy scout was best described as “off and on.” I started when I was eight-years-old by joining Mike’s Cub Scout den. We had activities and spent a lot of time reading stories from the Boy’s Life magazine, tying knots, and learning how to sharpen our pocket knives.

By the time I became a Webelos Scout, I knew enough about knot tying to know a granny knot from a bowline. And I could set up my own tent and build a lean-to in the forest. I could also start a camp fire with flint and steal or a pair of D Cell batteries and some steel wool.

Every time I huddled over my flint and steal, trying to get a spark into my dry tender, or when I rubbed steel wool over those D-Cell battery terminals, I wondered who the hell had invented this method of fire starting? I figured if I was ever stupid enough to forget my matches, but remember my flint and steel, I deserved to be miserable and probably freeze to death. The scout motto was, “Be Prepared!” To me that meant, “remember your matches, you idiot!” I figured if you’re going to have a motto, why not follow it when it comes to starting a campfire! Many of our scouting activities seemed pointless to me, but I played along in order to get the awards.   

I advanced through Cub Scouts and into the Boy Scout program. Doyle was our Cub Scout leader. He was a skinny guy with big teeth who seemed to prefer the popular butch hair-do. I liked the fact that Doyle was very devoted to his role and seemed genuinely interested in us boys and our scout advancement and experiences. I will always be grateful to him for his presence and devotion to us.

That was the first time it occurred to me that some adults volunteered their time so kids could have fun and learn things. Jack Nelson was another guy that gave up a huge amount of his time. He was my first football coach in Little League. I will be eternally grateful to him for teaching me life skills I still use today.   

Nita was another big influence on me. She was a scout leader that came along when I was about eleven years-old. She took the time to haul my me and my friends to day camp and sit and be bored while we participated in the activities. I trusted Nita and always viewed her like a second mother.

In fact, when I was sixteen years-old, I was one project away from getting my Eagle Scout Award. She came up to me one Sunday during church meetings and asked me why I wasn’t still working on my Eagle Award. I didn’t have an answer. She said, “Get it done and quit wasting time!” So I did. If it wasn’t for her mild scolding and encouragement, I probably wouldn’t have cared enough to finish. Kids often need encouragement from someone besides their parents.

Actually, I had all the Eagle requirements fulfilled and had even had a project reviewed by the Eagle Board of Review two years earlier. But life happened and all the scout stuff got put on the back burner.   

So, at her prompting, I put together an Eagle project proposal and got it approved by the Eagle project committee–a group of gatekeepers whose importance hinged on deciding which Eagle projects to reject and which to allow. There was a lot of deep-furrowed brows and throat clearing from the lot as I proposed my project. Their motive was to put each candidate through the rigors of project management from start to finish. There were a number of hoops to jump through, but in the end, most of the projects proposed by Eagle candidates were approved. The end game was to get as many boys through the program as possible. That is, if they had made it that far.

Like so many institutional organizations, the Boy Scouts of America had built its brand around mystique and sophistication. To sell the product, they had to convince every boy and his parents that there was value in achieving the highest ranks offered. They had to convince folks that along the way, average boys would transform into great men as a result of their participation in the program.

The plan for my project was to build a large bulletin board for the high school. I got the idea from dad. By that time, he had been promoted to high school principal. It was a doable project and dad said the new school needed a bulletin board. It was a task I could get done quickly.

I talked Mikey and my friend, Drew into helping and we went to work. Their rewards for helping with my project were an endless supply of soda pop and a handful of candy bars. Everyone can be bought, if the price is right! Within a few hours of semi-intense work, we were ready to mount the shiny new bulletin board on the wall in the high school. I got in touch with the school maintenance guy who helped install it just outside of the office in the commons area.

Interestingly, I was in the high school a few years ago which would be roughly thirty-five years after making it, and my eagle project is still there, right where I hung it so many years ago. But it has been painted over a dozen times.

My Eagle final board of review was exactly how I envisioned it would be. There was a panel of local businessmen, all stern faces, sitting in a room in the church building. I felt like they had all gotten together before that solemn meeting and discussed the list of deep and dark questions about my scouting experiences and all I had learned over the years of camping and earning awards.

So, as I sat and fielded questions for half an hour, it was really all about regurgitating knowledge and wisdom gained from my numerous life experiences and the school of hard knocks. I actually pulled little information from my collective revue of campouts, scout meetings, earning awards, or from singing Kumbaya around a campfire. But the Eagle panel didn’t need to know that and I didn’t flaunt the fact. I played along so I could get the award.

The panel was impressed with my answers and collectively, they decided that I was deserving of the highest rank offered by the Boy Scouts of America. I was going to get my Eagle award! My Court of Honor was held a week after the panel Board of Review. It all seemed to me like a bunch of formality to give the process a flair of sophistication. They could’ve handed me the award over a stack of hamburgers at the A&W Drive-Inn and I probably would have been just as happy.

But we human beings sometimes prefer formality over frivolity when it comes to marking life’s achievements. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

And that’s how it was for me, Growing Up in Idaho.  


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