A week at Church Camp

Church Camp

There was only one summer camp for us rural kids, and that was church camp—Camp Stewart, it was called. We lived in the remotest corner of a kudzu-choked forest north of Shuffletown for a week of Bible study, evening vespers, and, on Saturday evening, skits. Presbyterians ran it. Our parents gave us no choice.

The actual camp wasn’t much. You could call it rustic, but it was downright primitive. We slept in tin-roofed cabins built on fieldstone foundations. There were paths, well worn, leading from each cabin to a cement-floored community bathroom. It had nowhere near enough individual shower stalls. And never, not once in that long, long week, did all the commodes flush properly. One or two was always plugged. I do not remember what I learned of Jesus Our Lord and Savior’s life back then, but I will never forget how the bathroom smelled.

I attended Camp Stewart with my cousin Yvonne. Yvonne from an early age was one of those children adults believed to be without malice. I knew better. But I will say she wasn’t afraid of Evil … and we were exposed to a lot of it at church camp. Every night our counselors would fill our heads not with images of the Christ child or stories of his apostles but instead, all manner of ghost stories involving chicken-headed ladies, bloodthirsty vampires, or pirates wandering around with swords through their eye sockets. I would listen to tales that made me want to cry, made me want to go home, made me stay awake for all 168 hours spent at camp while Yvonne yawned, totally unfazed. When the story was finished, our counselor would have us all get down on our knees and recite the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t think anybody, with the exception of men in foxholes, has ever recited the Lord’s Prayer with such fervor and hope as we seven cabin mates … leaving out Yvonne, of course, who was asleep before the amen.

Yvonne was in perfect control of not only her mind but mine, on occasion. There was a nice boy who rode our school bus, Dale Gordon, who was older, fourteen at least. He had a crush on me. I didn’t really fancy him … I was in love with Tommy White, forever, cross my heart and hope to die—but Yvonne got it into her head that Dale was the perfect mate for me. >She decided that, during this week at Camp Stewart, I should declare my love for him and reserve him for a wedding sometime in the next decade.

One morning as we sat rocking in chairs outside the camp store, writing postcards home–I was furiously scribbling Come get me, please?–Yvonne announced her plan.

“Judy?” She said, pursing her lips in that my-mind’s-made-up way of hers. “You ought to send Dale a card. Tell him how much you care for him and tell him you think there is a great future for you two.”

“Who?” I was underlining the phrase Come get me NOW.

“Dale Gordon. His daddy is a preacher and that would be good.”

I do not recall what she said to convince me this was a good idea. She must have told me it would get me home sooner, because fifteen minutes later, I had declared my undying love to this boy on the back of a two-cent postcard and mailed it.

Just as it slid out of my hand and down the chute, I experienced, for the first time in my life, second thoughts, the sensation of sinking regret. In the next couple decades, I married many men, but Dale, you can be sure, was not one of them.

But I got even with Cousin.

Every afternoon that week of camp, we had about an hour of free time before supper. Yvonne and I always headed to an oversized swing hung by ropes from the limb of a massive tree. The seat was so large we could stand facing each other, grab each rope, and pump. Boy, could we make that sucker swing. There were times, I swear, when it seemed like it was almost horizontal with the ground. The wind rushed past us and we held on for dear life. But we were young and invincible, so we kept pushing it a little higher, and a little faster, each day.

Well, one afternoon, just as we were swinging past Mars, the limb cracked. Yvonne always recalled that I landed on top of her. She hurt her neck. I hurt my back. People came running. The adults stood us up, brushed off our clothes, and asked us if we were trying to kill ourselves. They checked us for broken bones and then formed a circle around the swing to debate whether or not to fix it. Yvonne and I staggered off to supper.

Three decades later, a doctor convinced my cousin to have the cracked vertebrae in her neck repaired. After the operation, I went to see her. She was heavily sedated, but she rose from her pillow and pointed her finger at me like the ghost of Banquo.

“You did this to me when the swing broke! You landed on my fucking head, you idiot. This is all your fault.”

“Yeah, well!” I sputtered. “YOU shouldn’t have made me mail that postcard!” I rubbed my back, which still hurts me whenever it rains or I get worked up.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, dropping back on her pillow and closing her eyes. “I forgot that postcard.”

A smile spread over her face. Then she drifted off into a drugged sleep.

essay from my book, ShuffletownUSA.

To Comment

NOTE: Comments are moderated to eliminate spam.
This may cause a delay before your post appears.