I first heard this at scout camp, which would have been 1965. It had the Kingston Trio sound I grew up with, and I thought it must be old - at least a generation. It had great emotional power for me for an odd reason.
I had been at YMCA camp since age 6, but this was my first (and only) year at Camp Carpenter. I didn't have especial nervousness, and rather liked being able to pick up a couple of merit badges on the cheap, as my scoutmaster, old Wally Webb, he of the 42-year pin and Silver Beaver award, was very strict and didn't want any hotshots moving through the ranks too quickly. The whole village, named after some group of Indians, of course, went on an overnight hike and campout at the end of the lake. I was one of the youngest and a little odd, and my two friends were in other villages.
There was a thunderstorm, which woke me in the middle of the night, at which point I noticed that I was the only one around. They had gone somewhere and left me behind. It later turned out they were only "about a hundred yards" away at a makeshift shelter. But as far as I knew they had gone back to camp, so I headed back in that direction. There was a path that ran along the edge of the lake, and I later calculated on the map it was less than a mile, but I was a rather forlorn 12-year-old trudging back, with an unraveled sleeping bag and soaked clothes. I don't think I cried, but I was feeling rather abandoned and cast aside, a child with no father and no one who seemed to care.
When I got to the regular village, it was empty. You'd think I would be relieved to be back in dry, familiar territory, but I was worried I was in big trouble. When reveille was played in the morning, I wondered if I should hide or go to morning assembly and face the music. I elected to go, standing all alone in my troop's spot as the flag was raised before breakfast, trying to stand at very good attention and be precise in my scout oath and movement. (At that moment, I actually was grateful to Mr. Webb for teaching me properly. I hoped it would keep me out of trouble.) I marched into the mess hall at the proper time and sat at our village's tables. There was nothing set out for me, of course, so I went over to the window and grabbed plates and bowls - they looked like this, remember?
- and got in the line for getting seconds, figuring I would have to wait a bit, but at least would get something. I didn't dare ask anyone for anything.
You may wonder how a boy of twelve could be so foolish as to think he would be the one in trouble over such an event, rather than the adults and older scouts charged with keeping track of me. You forget what a different world it was, and how it was automatically assumed that children were at fault if anything went wrong. I was in trouble, at least at first. Irritated men came over to ask me where my troop was, and why I had left it. Not until I was safely home, and my mother had heard the whole story and angrily followed up on this was there any acknowledgement that I was the victim. Even then, they apologised to her and she relayed that to me as if I should feel vindicated. No one ever said a word to me.
At camp, I finished out the week amidst whispers about the boy who had run away from his village. Children are easily distractable, plus I was back in contact with my two buddies - they believed me and commiserated, anyway - so it wasn't too bad, actually. The walk in the dark and sitting alone at breakfast were the worst of it. There were awards on the last night and only a few of us had completed the Mile Swim, so I felt I had proved myself in some way. Then it was final campfire, with songs we had learned and a few new ones cooked up for the occasion. "I'm Henry VIII I Am" was #1, and the counselors did a takeoff called "I'm Docked For The Summer I Am," which of course I still remember all the words to.
The second to last song was "The Blizzard," which I had never heard. It's maudlin, and I had considerable susceptibility to such then, but there was also an immediate identification with the man traveling alone at night, looking forward to home and someone who love him. Then the "hundred yards" part really had me tearing up. It was just like what I had been through. Except that he was in bitter cold, and died, of course, but other than that it was about me.
I picked the Jim Croce version mostly for novelty, and because it's not quite so overdone.
Not until years later did the ridiculousness of this song come to me. It's friggin' horse, Mack, not a human being. What kind of twisted loyalty to a non-sentient creature causes you to refuse to walk into the house so that you can pretend his last moments were less tortuous because his pal had stayed behind with him?