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Growing up on North Fort Lewis

Wayne Hilton's childhood playground

Wayne Hilton and his wife in the 1970s. Courtesy photo

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It was the stuff of a childhood adventure and coming of age in a bygone era - well before the Internet, cell phones and video games. Nature was a young boy's wonderland: sticks became swashbuckling swords, climbing trees were sport and campouts under the stars were routine. It was a slice of true yesteryear Americana - a sleepy small town, good neighbors, bicycles, picnics and baseball.

For longtime Tacoma resident Wayne Hilton, who grew up in Steilacoom, this was the life, but with an interesting twist. The forest was not only literally in his backyard, but it also was his boyhood playground. And it was there that he, along with a band of fellow rapscallions, learned a thing or two about life.  

"It was a real quiet town," said Hilton. "There was one gas station and two grocery stores and that was it.

"We played in the woods. We were always ‘scratched and dented.' That was always part of the deal back then," he recalled with a chuckle.

And these weren't just any old woods. This was North Fort Lewis, training grounds for the U.S. Army. It was also "training grounds" for Hilton and his friends for adventure.

It started with some high flying "fun" that would make every parent's heart skip a beat.

"Back then, all of the trees were about the same height," explained Hilton. "About 80, 90 or 100 feet tall; we used to swing from tree to tree like Tarzan."

The trees also served as a makeshift battleground. Wooden ammunition boxes were filled with rocks among the branches. Hilton recalled when his brothers would try to get the youngster to come home - a volley of rocks would come crashing through the trees. And Hilton's take?

"Oh, it was just normal."

Another "normal" day in the life of the young boys of Steilacoom was amateur firefighting.

Field and forest fires would break out in the area on occasion. Upon hearing the news, the local boys would race on their bikes to the firehouse and hop aboard the fire trucks, water packs donned, to fight the edges of the fire.

"We just tried to do good," winked Hilton.

One such fire run landed Hilton and his friends in front of the town judge. Five of the boys piled on the only working bike and soared at top speed to get the firehouse. The town officer (known affectionately as "Gunsmoke") wouldn't have any of it, and hauled the lads off to the courthouse. The punishment: no fighting the fire that day and a call home. Hilton's father took the call and had this to say to his son:

"If that's the only thing you'll ever really do, well, I think we are in good shape."

So if they weren't fighting fires or swinging from trees, the boys were prepping for summertime maneuvers at North Fort. Hilton and his friends, at the ready with backpacks and sleeping bags, would meet the convoys on the county road. Hilton said they knew all of the war game sites like the backs of their hands and crafted their own foxholes and bunkers to hide out from the MPs long before the convoys; this led to the boys being used as "consultants" as they knew the lay of the land perfectly. Campouts with the GI's was one of the paybacks for the help.

He and his friends camped in those woods from March through September. They cooked their own food, played cards by candlelight, took care of themselves, and, as Hilton notes, "did other stupid stuff." An elaborate, handcrafted "bell system" allowed parents to summon the boys home to shower and go to school.

Hilton's experiences with servicemembers and his boyhood adventures and curiosity stayed with him. After high school and electronics school, he joined the Navy and served in the Vietnam War. Post war, he joined the Navy Reserves and served for a total of an impressive 39 years. He had a long career in the telecommunications industry and had a number of successful business ventures.

The loving husband and father today continues his career with Solar Gem Greenhouses. He's also currently - and proudly - the South Sound chair of the Pierce, Kitsap, Lewis, and Thurston County Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) at Camp Murray.

Looks like "being scratched and dented" paid off.

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