A piercing whistle sliced through the crisp, October air at Allegany State Park. Kids came running from all directions, headed for the ski lodge. The older boys picked up the football, while the older girls cut short their guitar playing and singing. Arts and crafts materials were abandoned, and our youngest members, known as “the babies,” left their Matchbox cars in the dirt driveway. Meanwhile, down at the creek, Dave and I put one last rock in our half-finished dam and splashed our way back to home base.
The whistler was either Alan (Mac) MacGamwell, Bill (Smitty) Schmidt or Robert (Jack) Baxter. We knew it couldn’t have come from my dad, just plain Joe Clements. He lacked a loud whistle, but we obeyed his quiet authority nonetheless. In fact, we answered to any of the dads as if they were our own.
Our four fathers married our four mothers in the years just after the end of World War II. The couples settled within blocks of each other and produced their own baby boom of 14 kids. Every fall, the families loaded up the station wagons for a weekend of camping. The “Allegany Gang” was as much a family as people connected by blood.
Mr. “Mac” taught us about sportsmanship, leading us in games, contests and athletic pursuits. Unlike the MacGamwell girls, I was never much good at sports, but I loved to compete. As the principal of our high school, Mr. MacGamwell was a kind, but imposing authority figure during the rebellious Vietnam years.
I called Mr. Schmidt “Uncle Bill,” but that stopped abruptly when I had him as an art teacher in seventh grade. An ex-Marine, Eagle Scout and avid outdoorsman, Smitty taught me that an artist needed craftsmanship and discipline to harness creativity. In his early career, he was a graphic artist who drew the “Tiny Little Baker” for Kauffman’s Rye Bread. He continued to draw and paint into his 80s.
Jack Baxter was father to four boys and two girls. To say he had an air of command is an understatement. Jack loved to sing, and was a member of the church choir for more than 50 years. At Allegany, we kids would press our ears to the floor to eavesdrop on the parents as they talked by the campfire. Most nights, they would break into song, with Jack’s rich baritone anchoring “Down by the Old Mill Stream.”
And my dad, the science teacher, took us on nighttime walks to look at the stars. He pointed out the constellations and phases of the moon. We all knew that Thunder Rocks had been dropped by receding glaciers because of my dad.
As the years went on, the four fathers continued to teach us. They grew as we did, accepting variations on the nuclear family unheard of in the ’50s. They stood for loyalty, decency, discipline, creativity, kindness, hard work, honesty, learning and respect.
Jack Baxter passed away last year, the last of our four fathers. Though the dads are gone now, the things they taught are as vividly recalled as a bright October day at Allegany State Park.