Earlier this spring, I had an “A-Team moment.” Remember at the end of the A-Team when all the craziness and shenanigans just magically worked out and the A-Team miraculously came out on top? That’s when George Peppard’s character, Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together” — as if all the loose ends and coincidences were all under his control the whole time. That’s an A-Team moment, and I had one on March 31 as I was standing in the middle of Pokagon State Park.
Well, now you know how this story ends.
Let’s back up and start from the beginning. I’m just a middle-class girl who was born and raised in Fort Wayne, but I’ve always felt a very strong connection to Angola. My grandparents, who grew up back in the Depression era, honeymooned up here at Pokagon State Park while the CCC shelter and the spring house were still under construction. They spent their summer vacations on Pokagon’s beaches and in its campgrounds with their family of nine children, and they kept up the family tradition long after those children had grown up and moved away.
When I was young, the whole extended family used to come up to spend a day or a weekend with Grandma and Grandpa on their vacations in the park.
When I got a little older, I’d also come up to Angola for church camp in the summers when the land across I-69 from Pokagon was called “Camp Calvary.” I was baptized as a youth in the lake there on July 3, 1976 — the day before this country’s bicentennial celebration. That path eventually led me to a life of serving the international community.
Now, I come up to Angola every weekday because I have the privilege of working with and teaching English to the international students at Trine University. On Friday afternoons, we often take our ESL students on outings to help acclimate them to this area and just to have a little fun after a week of intense academic studies.
On the last day of March, Assistant ESL Director Graham Reeves and I took a small group of international students to the Nature Center at Pokagon State Park. We started our visit in a large meeting room where naturalist Marie Laudeman engaged us with her talk of the wildlife and conservation efforts, enchanted us with recordings of tree frogs and birdcalls, and drew us in when she brought out a live tree frog, box turtle and garter snake.
Then Marie and fellow naturalist Dylan Allison answered our questions as we explored the exhibits in the Nature Center. It certainly wasn’t easy to tear us away from watching the amazing variety of birds and critters drawn to the many feeders outside the huge picture window; I could have spent hours on that bench, but we had much more to see.
The year before, we had taken a larger group of students on a guided tour on hiking trail No. 1, where I’d walked countless times before, but never with a trained naturalist. Marie opened my eyes to all kinds of plant life, fungi and early-blooming flowers. She even showed us a hummingbird’s nest, which was about the size of my thumb.
But this year was different. In our vocabulary class, we had been discussing the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives. (I wasn’t kidding when I said intense academic studies!)
One of FDR’s initiatives was the formation of the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. CCC Company 556 was the group of young men responsible for constructing many of the iconic buildings for Pokagon State Park. When I arranged our trip, I mentioned this to Marie, and after our visit inside the Nature Center, instead of taking one of the well-hiked trails as usual, she guided us through one of the parts of the park I had never seen in all my years of visiting Pokagon. It was here that my “A-Team” moment started to come together.
As we trekked the damp mossy and grassy paths in the area between the Nature Center and the toboggan, we found several tall, wooden stakes plotted out with plaques connoting where the barracks, the recreation center, the flagpole, the well spring and even the latrine had stood when “The CCC boys” had been commissioned there in the 1930s for a dollar a day.
We read the informational plaques, and we shared several “teachable moments.” the academic readings from class all came to life right there in front of the students.
For me as a teacher, that was all I was really hoping for, but that wasn’t the end. There seemed to be a bigger plan coming together.
I found out that day that it was a group of Trine engineering students led by Tim Tyler, Ph.D., now dean of the Engineering School, who had mapped out the land and placed those stakes that mark where the CCC buildings used to be. Coincidentally, he had also been a volunteer in the Sunday-morning ESL class I used to teach. It was held in the same building that used to be the Fort Wayne church that owned Camp Calvary.
Marie went on to tell us that after the CCC left, the barracks they had been using were donated to Trine (then known as Tri-State College) for use as the married housing residence hall. Since those days, the relationship between Trine and Pokagon has not stopped growing. Throughout the years, Trine students have done internships at the park, several students have volunteered at Pokagon for various events, and trips to the park have been instrumental in Trine classes covering biology and environmental issues. More recently, Trine engineering students have been working to try to develop a device to more easily maintain and smooth the ice on the toboggan track, and some other Trine engineering students are working on a way to make use of the toboggan during the summer months.
Oh yes, remember that lake at Camp Calvary where I was baptized over 40 years ago? That is now part of the 200 acres of land that was donated to Pokagon State Park by Ralph and Sheri Trine. It is known as Trine State Recreation Area, and many of the old camp buildings I used to stay in are still in use today.
Unlike Hannibal from the A-Team, I don’t pretend to be in charge of all the pieces and moving parts when the plan came together. I was just happy to be a part of it when it did.
Gail Lugo is the English as a Second Language (ESL) program director at Trine University, Angola. Contact her at email@example.com.