73. Chesty, a Real Mountain Man, and Good Friend, who did His Own Thing

I was a senior at the University of Vermont and spending my last summer as a horseman at a coed camp in upper New York state. This is where I first met a man that everyone referred to as Chesty. The thing that I admired most about this very colorful man was that he did his own thing. He lived in a cabin in the mountains and lived there alone feeding himself and living off of what the mountain gave him. During the summer where his cabin was located was where the camp that I worked at was. The name of the camp was Camp Roosevelt it was located in the Catskill Mountains in what most people from the area referred to with a smile on their face as the Jewish Alps or the Borsch Belt. The area was full of summer camps as well as hotels that cater to New York Jewish families. Camp Roosevelt was on a very beautiful lake, Lake Sarankett and that is where Chesty had his cabin and where he caught fish and kept his transportation which was his canoe.

My situation working at this camp was different than that of working at To-Loa the camp I was the horseman at the previous summers. The horse program at Roosevelt was contracted out. At To- Loa the camp owned the horses and I worked for them. At Roosevelt I was part of a contract. What this meant to me was that at To-Loa I was much more a part of the camp while at Roosevelt I had a job to do, but was not considered a regular counselor like the swimming counselor or any other counselor. I at Roosevelt never took part in the normal camp activities like I had while working at To-Loa. This did have its advantages since when my day’s work running the riding program and taking care of my horses I was finished and my time was mine. On the other hand the summer was not as much fun being an outsider as I was.

I was treated well at Roosevelt, but the entire environment at this camp was not to my liking. The children that were spending their summer at Camp Roosevelt were no trouble and when they came to my stable to ride they followed instructions. At To-Loa I ran the program. I made out the list of children that would ride each day. All the campers at To-Loa rode. At Roosevelt the campers were sent to me. They paid the camp extra to ride so many of the campers did not take part in the riding program. I put them on horses and showed them how to ride. Most of the time I taught riding in a riding ring at Roosevelt. From time to time I would take trail rides out, but not that often. At To-Loa the youngest and smallest of the campers were taken for trail rides very soon after they started to come to the stable for instruction. At Roosevelt it felt like the kids mostly had carnival tickets for rides. They didn’t hang around the stable and want to learn about and be with the horses like the children at To-Loa. They in general were little rich kids that didn’t like to get their hands dirty.

All these children’s summer camps in the area would have every few weeks a parent weekend. When I worked at To-Loa all the parents wanted to see their children on horses and came to the stable when they made their visit to the camp. The campers couldn’t wait to show mom and dad how they could ride. It was always a fun weekend. At Roosevelt the mothers and fathers would come to visit their children in expensive clothing. On the hottest days, many of the mothers would be wearing furs during the day. At To-Loa I was a teacher and friend of these children. At Roosevelt I was the hired help. None of this got me angry, it amused me.

When I got to know Chesty I believe he was about sixty years old. A picture of him marked 1922 makes that sound possible. He always had a plaid flannel shirt on and never was without a hat of some kind. The flannel shirt was always sewn in the shape of a large U so that his chest looked even bigger. He told me that he was sixty inches around his chest. Chesty had a huge ego, which was alright with me since it came with the show. I think the reason that we got along so well was that I really enjoyed his company taking him for who he was ego included. By the way his real name was Capt. Ray Kretz. I believe he liked me since I was the young man from New York who liked getting his hands dirty and knew a bit about nature and loved the animal including my horses that nature gave to us to live with.

My first day at Camp Roosevelt was when I first saw Chesty. During the summer months he roamed around the camp grounds I guess to give the camp a bit of extra flavor for the kids to enjoy. During the rest of the year when the camp was closed Chesty lived in his cabin doing his own thing and watching over the camp area.

I had decided to look over the camp grounds and walked to the lake where the new campers were taking their first swim. I remember standing and talking to a counselor that I had just made my acquaintance. He pointed to an area near the swimming area and told me to glance in that direction. A large and impressive man approached the dock. The children had been making a lot of noise as they were playing in the water. As this individual walked onto the dock a hush came over the whole vicinity and all turned their heads to look towards this advancing individual. He walked slowly and proudly towards the high diving tower. The first thing that I noticed about the dress of this individual is that he was wearing a swim suit that covered his chest. It was old fashioned. He also had a hat on that you would not imagine that an individual would wear to go swimming. It was a WWI leather aviator cap. As this man climbed the diving tower I could see better his cut features and notice a very determine and a stern look on his face. The counselor that I had been talking with said watch him, he is an impressive diver. He informed me that this man, called Chesty, had taken part as a diver in the Olympic Games.

Chesty climbed the diving tower and posed at the beginning of the diving board. When he was sure that he had the attention of all in the area he did his dive. For a man of his age and size the dive was very impressive to see. He hit the water and as he came up all loudly cheered. Chesty again climbed the tower and performed another dive. This time the campers were not as interested and did not cheer his performance as they did after his first dive. Chesty came up out of the water looking around and not hearing a lot of cheering. He at once swam under the dock. I at the time found this odd and said so to my new friend. He told me to watch and notice that Chesty will stay under the dock for some time. He said that Chesty was insulted and would show his contempt for how he felt he was just treated. Chesty did just that.

I was told that Chesty could knock a fly off of the wall by throwing a tomahawk and he could for I saw him do it. He was also a sharpshooter and could hit a small target when standing before a mirror and placing his rifle over his shoulder. This he did also for the enjoyment of the campers. I was told that he was an expert horseman to which I never found out if he was or not. During the summer they had a afternoon where the kids were shown some of his skills. Chesty came to me wanting to use one of my horses to gallop on while shooting at a target. I told him that I would give him a horse to ride, however, since the horse as far as I knew had not had a rider shoot while sitting on the horses back I didn’t want one of my horses perhaps hurt so I told him I would give him a horse to ride but I didn’t want him to shoot from his back. That afternoon I was busy and did not see Chesty show off his skill or ride my horse so I don’t know if he could ride well or not.

It was said that Chesty as a young man attended Yale University. I was told that he left Yale before getting a degree and went on to chase the Mexican outlaw, or hero take your pick, Poncho Villa. Poncho Villa was born in 1867 and was killed during 1923. In 1955, or was it 1956, when I met Chesty I believe he was about sixty years old. So it could have been possible that he started Yale left as a young man and did fight against this famous outlaw. I, like most others would like to believe so since it makes for a very romantic and exciting story. It would be easy to imagine Chesty on a charging steed in some little Texas town on the Mexican board chasing after Villa.

There was no doubt that Chesty could handle a canoe. I during the remaining summer watched him paddle a canoe many times. I had always been instructed that I should be seated in the stern of the canoe to paddle. This is not the position that Chesty took. He would kneel three fourths to the stern of the canoe. Every stroke he took the canoe shot forward and it glided smoothly on top of the water.

When I did spend time with Chesty we did very little speaking. We just enjoyed one another and the nature that was all around us. One evening I had ridden to his cabin to sit with him. Since I was the horseman I could take a horse out at night and ride which I did from time to time. I would sit with the Capt. with my horse tied near. The night was always beautiful and we would sit just off his dock looking at the lights and hearing the music floating across the lake from the hotel directly across Sarankett Lake. I had a blue flannel shirt on that night. Chesty who never said much at all, said he liked my shirt. I at once took it off and gave it to him. At first he shook his head to which I pushed the shirt towards him. He took it and thanked me. He motioned to me to follow him inside his cabin. His cabin was very neat. There was a big wooden ship’s trunk near his bed. He opened it and inside it was full of shirts and other clothing that had never been taken out of their original wrappings. This seemed strange to me. He told me to pick what I wanted. It would have been an insult to him since he was such a proud man for me not to take a gift after giving him one.

We sat out near the lake for some time. After a while he told me that he would have to leave. Chesty walked down his dock and placed a hand on the rail of the dock. In the water next to the dock was a canoe. He vaulted over the rail and landed in the canoe. I believe that Chesty was about 240 pounds, but the boat didn’t seem to settle in the water. Chesty knelt about three fourths to the rear of the canoe and started to paddle. Each stroke that he took the canoe shot forward like it was being pushed by a jet. It was quite a sight watching his image get smaller and smaller as he paddled towards the lights on the other side of the lake.

After he was out of sight I sat for some time by myself enjoying the night. In about two hours looking towards the lake under a full moon I spotted Chesty in his canoe coming back towards the cabin. This time he was not alone, there was a blond lady in a formal dress with furs wrapped around her neck seated in the canoe. Now I knew where all those unwrapped shirts came from. I smiled to myself mounted my horse and rode off.

Knowing Capt. Ray Kretz was worth my time. I believe what Chesty taught me about life was to be yourself no matter what others might think of you being who you really are. I have attempted to follow his lesson and although at times it might have caused me a bit of difficulty in the long run knowing this very interesting man if only for one summer has made my life a bit more interesting and I hope meaningful.

Chesty when I knew him the summer of 1951. Note the way his shirt is sewn in a U to make his chest look even larger.


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