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Charlie Mahaffie, the boy that became the man

Post 1 of 3 on Charles D. Mahaffie, Jr. at Camp Wachusett

Nine-year-old Charlie, Summer 1940. From a group picture

Charles D. Mahaffie, Jr. was born in May 1931, and grew up an only child, the son of well-off, distinctly intellectual, accomplished parents; his mother an artist and his father a Federal official. They lived in a large rowhouse in Georgetown, Washington, DC.

As an adult, Charlie was a successful antitrust lawyer, a gifted writer, a natural storyteller and toastmaster, and a life-long athlete. He raised, governed, and sometimes entertained seven children and seventeen grandchildren. His wife, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and friends obviously knew him well as a man, but none truly knew him as a child—the boy that became the man.

In the 1940s, Charlie was fortunate to attend Camp Wachusett, a boys sleep-away camp in Holderness, New Hampshire, in 1940, 1941, and 1942 as a camper, and, after World War II in 1946, 1947, and 1948 as a counselor. Each summer, he spent two months there; July and August.

By a stroke of great luck, the voluminous camp newsletter, The Wachusett Log, and a hundred or so photographs, survive in our family archives. They give a vivid picture of young Charlie, and then the teenager who became the man we knew.

The Wachusett Log

The Wachusett Log was a particular camp tradition. It reported the daily goings on with humor, satire, and Bunyanesque exaggeration, along with comical doodles amidst the typed text. Everyone was fair game for teasing, nicknaming, and tall tales. The boys and counselors took turns writing entries, and reading them aloud at the Council Fire was part of evening entertainment.

All the boys got mentions in the Log, and probably all got a chance, if they wanted, to write a log entry. Charlie appeared in, wrote, or co-wrote many. By his counselor years, he was coeditor and, in 1948, sole editor of the Wachusett Log.

From Charlie’s six years at the camp, we have six 100-page compilations of log entries; single-spaced, dense pages full of the spirit and personality and language of the camp community. Charlie was one of the camp personalities and has a strong presence in the Log.

The Wachusett Log had a style all its own. It is filled with tall tales, exaggeration, steady teasing of staff and campers for their ways, proclivities, odd habits, and points of notoriety, good and bad. Different writers of log entries, and different editors over the years, including Charlie, picked up the voice and rhythms of the Log and crafted their own editions.

As a camper, Charlie got recognized as “Camp Photographer” one year. We have a number of his pictures, though since he owned the camera, few with him appearing. But we have other pictures too, including official group shots of the staff, the campers with their cabins, as well as outings and other camp goings on.

The boy that became the man

The culture of the camp and its Log instilled in Charlie things that were a part of the adult he became, especially his love of the written and spoken word, and, when it fit, their use in zany doggerel, allegory, and humor. Charlie came of age absorbing, and then creating in the camp style, the kind of prose he would sometimes write as an adult for non-serious purposes. The Wachusett Log’s impact endured.

Then there was his habit of having nicknames for people. The camp society was replete with them, nickname and after nickname; some of which stuck and endured, others that were in-the-moment and fleeting. Charlie was, for example, Mahaff, Mr. Personality, Floy Joy the Wonder Boy, Muscles, and Brother Orchid I or II, depending on whether it was Dave “Slinger” Slingluff, or Charlie, who was in a position to say.

And there was his campfire/bedtime storytelling, which his children and grandchildren came to know. He joined in storytelling early, by age ten, and got plaudits for his work around the Council Fire. That and performing the Log entries out loud, humorous asides and all, for crowd reactions. He learned how to tell stories and work an audience. His seven children each remember moments like that at their weddings and other family occasions.

Arguably Charlie’s love of a daily swim, which he kept up into his 80s, came from his time at Camp Wachusett, though his reputation at the camp was that he didn’t like “dips,” at least not the daily, first-thing-in-the-morning plunges into Little Squam Lake in lieu of a shower.

Charlie may not, as a small boy, have started out quite so outdoorsy and athletic. He was a city boy. With cerebral parents and a Georgetown rowhouse childhood, the chances weren’t as frequent.

But by first or second grade, Charlie was attending first one and then another school set in Maryland farm country outside Washington, DC. First he attended the Slade School, which was in Sandy Spring, Maryland, 21 miles from Washington. By 1938, he was at The Landon School, still then in the country, but quite a bit closer to Washington in Bethesda.

The country schools began to get him more into the outdoors and Landon, especially, emphasized sports.

Then, upon starting to go summers at Camp Wachusett, he got a full plunge into outdoor living: daily swimming, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, camping, rowing, and aquaplaning. The Charlie his family knew lived for things like that.

I think his parents Isabel and Charles Sr. saw the benefits of plunging Charlie into a boys’ outdoor life for those summer months. Charles Sr., though he rose to be a highly-educated senior Federal official, had grown up on a ranch in Oklahoma, riding horses and, in addition, playing sports at his high school and college. Isabel, though raised on Central Park West in New York City, had an earlier career as a scientific illustrator, and spent multiple seasons living in tents in the tropics, and interacting with wildlife.

An advertisement from 1922

Camp Wachusett

Camp Wachusett was led by Bill Triplett, who was a sixth grade teacher and later an administrator at The Landon School. Among his accomplishments, Triplett introduced lacrosse to Landon, and it is a dominant sport and part of the school culture there today. The school stadium field and an annual award are named for Triplett. The adult Charlie Mahaffie remembered Bill Triplett fondly.

A number of the boys at Camp Wachusett were from the Washington DC, area, many being Landon students. Ads for the camp appeared in the local papers.

The campers were all white; generally Catholic or Protestant, based on the two kinds of churches they attended from the camp on Sundays. (There is no mention of a synagogue or mosque, though there was an Iraqi diplomat’s son at the camp). Most boys were from wealthy families. Among them in 1940 was a DuPont. The campers included the sons of foreign diplomats, high-level military officials, and businessmen.

Camp Wachusett was founded in 1903 on Little Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire. (The camp continues to operate, but is now in Vermont. The original grounds are at least partly intact. One of the lakeside camp cabins is available on AirBnB for $543 per night).

Camp Wachusett has operated every year but 1943-5, when it was closed during World War II. The camp head, Bill Triplett, enlisted and served on a PT boat during the war.

In the next post, we will plunge into the life of Charlie the camper, 1940-42, and learn all about the Brothers Orchid.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • JFM Grandma April 29, 2021, 5:29 pm

    Some news for me and I am looking forward for more. Thanks, John

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