The reasons my mother sent me to church camp were (and I’m just guessing here) –
1. To make me more religious.
2. To make it easier for me to interact with, and tolerate, complete strangers. Perhaps even to speak to them. Out loud.
3. To help me get over being homesick until I had been away from home for at least an hour, and thus ease me towards the inevitable state of being on my own in the big scary outside world.
4. To make me understand what it’s like to be miserable. Because it would be good for me. Like asparagus.
The “camp”, better known as our church’s reunion grounds, was on a huge plot of land on the edge of our small town with a lot of buildings in random places and in varying sizes for a myriad of different purposes. There was a large meeting hall, where church services were held. This building had pews and an organ and a lot of open windows for children to gaze out of wistfully. There was a huge dining hall, where my mother helped cook in the summers, for the kid’s camps and for different religious retreats. She went home in the evenings and LEFT ME THERE! In case you haven’t guessed, it was all rather traumatic for me. Because of the age groupings and the fact that my brother was three years older than me, and my sister three years younger, we didn’t once attend summer camps together. There were girls and boys dorm cabins, big enough to hold about a dozen bunk beds each, but I still always felt strangely alone. There were buildings housing bathrooms and showers, and there were more buildings for classrooms. It was a veritable maze of structures with numbers I could never remember, but if you followed the right group you were likely to end up somewhere or other doing something excrutiatingly boring.
What could be more wholesome than a large group of children of the same faith getting together for a week of fellowship and fun? I hated it. It’s probably the number one reason why I never joined the army. At the beginning of our camp week we signed up for activities. Some things were compulsory, like morning devotions, singing around the flag pole (I’m completely serious), attending evening campfires, and anything that could be considered even remotely church like, which made up a lot of our time slots. I preferred to get baffling things like archery out of the way in the morning, so that I could spend my afternoons doing the creative stuff, like making plaster-of- paris praying hands. Every day the entire camp population including counsellors lined up in bathing attire to make the long trek to the lake to go swimming. This involved walking past summer rental cottages where I suspect tourists set their watches by us, and through a tourist trailer park. We had to employ the buddy system on this outing, each of us responsible for someone else. At any given moment a shrill whistle might sound, at which point we were required to stop dead in our tracks, grab our buddy’s hand and raise it in the air and be counted. Woe to the buddies who lost eachother. Although I don’t think it ever happened, even in the water. The last part of our journey to the lake was through a fence and down a steep ravine on a foot path where it was always shadey and cool and smelled like cedar trees. I liked that part the best. The swimming part was just something to get through without drowning. There was no such thing as easing yourself into the water – kids prefer to run in screaming. I would be soaking wet before the water reached my knees. I never once joined in the whining when it was time to leave the beach.
Every day there was a “clean bunk-house” contest. I never wanted to be the one to blame for point deductions, so I kept my little area and my bed ridiculously neat and tidy. I never told my mother this, feeling it was to my advantage to keep this particular talent to myself. One of the most daft pastimes we had revolved around mealtimes, where a table of kids would giggle crazily and confer, and then all start singing, to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down –
‘Round the dining hall you must go, you must go, you must go, ‘Round the dining hall you must go, Jane and Robert! (A second verse might add explicit instructions, like ‘hand in hand you must go’, or arm in arm, or walking backwards. The possibilities were endlessly stupid.)
Then Jane and Robert (or whoever you felt like picking on) would feel obligated to act completely embarrassed as they got up and left to walk around the dining hall together. Told you it was dumb. But there were a lot of kids who thought this was great fun. Even when I was on the receiving end and had to take a walk with a boy, I didn’t get it. It’s not like walking around a building together had any magical powers that I could see, the boy was about as tiresome when you got back as when you left.
One year I helped work on the camp log that everyone got a copy of to take home with them when the week was over. Besides a lot of unfunny stories about what went on in a week at summer camp, it contained a record of everyone’s name and address, so that you could write to the great friends you made. Or so that you could jog your memory about the weirdos that were likely to show up again and make a more informed decision on coming back for more. I always protested, and my mother always made the decision for me. Go and have fun she said. I still don’t do well when anyone gives me orders.
But it’s now a thing of the past and I’ve chalked it all up to a series of life experiences. You’re supposed to have a lot of those to develop character. And I hate to think that even a week at a time for a few consecutive summers was a waste of time. These are some of the life enlightening things I learned from summer camp:
1. The words to a gazillion campfire songs suitable for accompaniment by ukulele. The lyrics to “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” in particular are indelibly engraved on my brain.
2. Religious people do not always give sound advice. Like “if you can’t sing, at least sing loud.” Hell, that’s not even grammatically correct.
3. My mother was one hell of a cook. Lots of my fellow campers raved about her.
4. Jesus would not be pleased to hear you mention the word hell every single time you open your mouth. Although I would question how we know that for sure. So I guess that’s a healthy sense of cynicism. Or sarcasm. Or both.
The campgrounds has been non existant for years and years. The town bought the land and built a sub-division there before I had a chance to apply to be a camp counsellor. Damn. They still have the kids camps, but near a different town, and far enough away from civilization so as to be considered in the semi-wilderness. The last weekend I spent at my summer camp grounds was with my best friend who was even less holy than me. We snuck out of our dorm on Saturday night and ran across the road to a summer cottage to have a couple of drinks with some boys who thought it was hilariously funny that two girls on a religious retreat could be so bad. We snuck back in before dawn and never got caught. And then they tore the place down. I almost feel a little bit responsible. And a little bit sad.