Memories of Summer Camp

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I recently ran into a friend from way back. We attended church camp together during our elementary and teen years. We spent the better part of lunch today catching up and doing a little reminiscing. Now, as the snow flurries swirl, and don't do much else, I think it's time for my top 10 memories from Burr Wesleyan Camp in Hillsboro, Wisconsin.

10. The ride to camp. Ours was one of a cluster of Wesleyan churches in the Milwaukee area, a three hour drive from camp. Often we shared a bus which gave us all a head start on reuniting with our summer friends, catching up things and getting into mischief.

9. Calling counselors and staff "uncle" and "aunt." For a young kid, the camp counselor is almost God-like. All-knowing, all-powerful, and so old! Uncle Ard, Aunt Martha, Uncle Ben, etc. ... we loved them.

8. Pastors who were too cheerful in the morning. For the week of camp, every camper was a night person, and the Pastors were the ultimate morning people. This all came to a head in the community bathroom / shower house. As campers struggled to keep the June Bugs at bay while brushing teeth, or to juggle towel, shower kit, old clothes and new clothes without dropping any of them in the puddles on the floor, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Pastor would come charging in whistling, singing and boisterously joking around with his fellow morning Pastors. I tell you, there is nothing like the intrusion of a good attitude to get your day off to a rocky start.

7. "Get your elbows off the table..." Besides God and the Bible, we were also learning table etiquette at camp. Conveniently, new campers were not informed of the local customs until they heard their name being sung as part of (tune of "If you're happy and you know it,")...
"Get your elbows off the table, Brian Besaw!
Get your elbows off the table, Brian Besaw.
Get your elbows off the table,
for we know that you are able,
get your elbows off the table, Brian Besaw."

And even that wasn't so bad except it invariably led to (tune of London Bridge) ...
"Round the table you must go,
you must go, you must go,
Round the table you must go, that was corny!"

To this day I feel a little pang of guilt and apprehension whenever I put my elbows on any table for any reason.

6. Campfires. The last night campfire was always a bittersweet camp tradition. After a week of raging hormones and emotions, you gather quietly by a fire, realizing that soon you'll be saying, "goodbye," to all of your friends for another year. On the other hand, it was always a great excuse to sit close to your favorite girl in the dark.

Our tradition: we all had to get a stick beforehand, and then take turns going up, throwing our stick in and share something with our fellow campers. We weren't absolutely obligated to do so, but as always, there was a certain unspoken pressure to participate.

So, much of the campfire time is spent going through the mental gymnastics. First figuring out what you are going to say - something that will be the right combination of not embarassing and yet not what everyone else is saying. Then you have to pick your spot ... "OK, I'm going to go after this next person." "Crap! I just couldn't do it ... OK, after the person after this next person, I'm really going to go." Finally, when you've mustered enough courage, and you're really going to do it ... someone else gets up a split second beforehand, and you stand down, semi-relieved and start over. "OK, after this next person ..." Even after seizing the initiative, you have to navigate the minefield of unseen roots and stumps in the dark. This whole ordeal is nerve-wracking enough without falling on your face in front of your friends.

At last, there you stand, in front of everyone, having thrown your stick in the fire, ready to say the thing that you carefully worked out. But, what seemed so eloquent moments earlier quickly turns unintelligible as you begin bawling the second you open your mouth.

Personally I think this is a conditioned response to singing "Pass it On" ("It only takes a spark ...".

5. My first kiss, "in the woods." Now here's where our campground might have been unique. It wasn't very big. A few acres, surrounded by farmers' fields at the intersection of two country roads. There was a tree line on the east edge of the property that couldn't have been more than a few trees deep. But we called it "the woods" because, being young, we somehow imagined it to be a deep barrier, impervious to the watchful eyes of the Counselors and Pastors.

"The woods" was the place to go if you were sweet on someone and they were sweet on you. Back in the day, visits to "the woods" didn't last very long. The big deal was having someone to go to "the woods" with and going there. What did a guy do with a girl once in "the woods?" A little kissing and a lot of being scared to death! Still, word spread quickly when a couple visited "the woods," and if you were fortunate enough to be caught by a counselor, your fame increased exponentially.

4. The buildings. There are a lot of memories buried in those old, wooden buildings. Brannon Inn, up on the hill, was open bay - a lot of bunk beds and one or two counselors. We loved to climb up in the rafters there. Unfortunately, the counselor slept right by the only door, so the traditional last night sneaking out event was nearly impossible. Brannon guys had it good the first few nights of camp, but were missing in action on Thursday night.

16-room Dorm had divided rooms with one set of bunks in each room. The dividers didn't go all the way to the ceiling which afforded you many opportunities to torment your neighbors with shaving cream and water balloons. And, since the counselor also slept in a room, sneaking out wasn't just possible - it was a moral imperative. A few hard-core counselors would attempt to stay awake, posted in the hallway all night, but most could be out-lasted. Then it was simply a matter of evading the other hard-core counselors who patrolled the grounds, and wisely concentrated on the area around 16-room Dorm and Missionary Dorm (its female equivalent).

Each camp week was good for at least one big storm, and we always seemed to be in our morning service in the large tabernacle buidling when it blew in. Hearing the rain pelt the building's metal roof brought the coziness of being sheltered, but also the disappointment that the day's outdoor activities were in jeopardy.

Hanging out in the pump house was a big deal. For evening vespers, a fire was built in the fireplace of the new fellowship building. After an energetic day, coming out of the cool night air, into the warmth of that building ... there was more sleeping than vespering going on during those sessions.

3. "Keeping in touch" after it was all over. All good things must come to an end. But when you are young, you're still silly enough to believe that that can be beaten. The final morning of camp is spent sneaking away from cabin-cleaning duties to say semi-final "goodbyes" to friends. We would hug, and sign each other's stuff, including but not limited to articles of clothing that were being worn that day, and invariably exchange addresses and vows to keep in touch until next summer.

The week or two after camp is filled with writing letters to camp friends and repeatedly checking the mailbox for word from those same friends. Letters from girls are the best. Their writing is so round and soft, and they somehow work smiley faces and hearts into the "Love, (so-and-so)." And the really good ones perfume their pastel stationery.

But something happens over the course of a few letters. The first letter is all camp memories and "missing you," stuff - maybe even daring talk of working out a mid-year visit. The next is half-"missing you" and camp, and half things that are going on at home with school and home friends. The third letter is all home talk and the fourth never happens. But by then you don't even notice as you also have settled back into your home routine. But occasionally during the year you fish those first letters out of your box of memories and take a few moments to re-read and re-smell them and dream of next summer.

2. Walking the country roads by moonlight. I was a city kid, and was always struck by how big the sky looked and how many stars it held out in the country. The night before camp started it was tradition for those who were already on the grounds (usually just counselors, but occasionally circumstances worked in our favor and we got to head up a night early) to go for a midnight walk over the roads and lanes around the campground. Once the sun set there was almost no traffic in that rural area. But the occaisional car would find its way onto our path, and being young we imagined great peril in being so much as seen out and about late at night, away from camp. The first sign of headlights on the horizon sent us diving into the weeds and behind the trees at the side of the road.

1. Being a counselor. When I became old enough I was a counselor for Crusader Camp. This was the ultimate hook-up. You got an extra week at camp with many of your summer friends. You had a whole night to hang out before the campers arrived which meant a head start on the guy/girl pairing up for the summer. And, you got to become the people you had always looked up to when you were going to Crusader Camp. And thus the cycle continued, for not only had you looked up to your counselors, you had been learning how to be a counselor by watching them all along the way.


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