“Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, and turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy and privacy, a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.” — Richard Louv
(Part two of a two-part series)
Two years in a row of attending summer church camp made me feel like a pro. I had needed lots of encouragement from my older sisters to sign up that first year, but now I found myself encouraging everyone in my Sunday School class to jump in for an experience like no other.
My third summer, the cabins filled to the brim, 10 returning campers were chosen to bunk in the big old barn. I was among them and landed a top bunk. It felt like a very big deal. We were given a bit more freedom inside that large space, and no camp counselor was assigned to stay with us.
A half-wall separated our bunk area from the open upper barn where Bible study, various meetings and recreational events were held. When I stood up on my tippi-toes in my bunk, I could peek over into the common area.
We spent a big part of our afternoon free time swimming in the big pond.
“This is NOT my idea of a place to swim,” said one bunk-mate with great disdain, who refused to go beyond wading. I tried to picture anything better and finally came up with Ellie May’s “cement pond” on the Beverly Hillbillies.
But who would want to trade this place? We could dive from the dock, swim and float and somersault to our heart’s content on that enormous body of water. Huge trees surrounded the pond, with wild flowers everywhere adding to the beauty.
Poison ivy grew well, too. Boy campers had thrown someone’s toothbrush into a deep bed of it, and that poor kid went after it, then used it. He spent a day in the sick bay before heading home, miserable and swollen beyond belief.
The days were filled with games, crafts and Bible studies, our free-time swim, followed by the long climb up Vesper Hill each evening for church services after chow. It felt as though we stood miles from civilization, and that alone helped hold the attention of a bunch of young sinners.
The messages, wrapped in singing and prayer, all felt more powerful than ever before. After the night-time campfire stories, candy swapping and marshmallow roasts, the first real quiet of the day brought that small tinge of homesickness.
I suddenly felt so far from home, missing the farm animals and familiar faces that make a childhood feel secure. (Later in life I would be stunned to realize that camp was only a county away, which still seems like a sleight of hand, somehow.)
We headed for bed in the big barn, exhausted from those full days. One night stands so clear in my memories it’s hard to believe it was eons ago. Suddenly, the peaceful nodding-off-to-sleep was blasted back to wakefulness by a piercing scream, so loud I jumped from my top bunk to the floor.
“What? What’s wrong?” it seemed everyone yelled at once. “There’s something up there!” the screamer managed to croak.
We all looked up in the nearly total darkness and saw nothing. We tried to joke the girl back to her normal state of silliness, but she wasn’t having it.
“I KNOW I saw something. I am not making this up,” she whispered.
I had already seen what had flipped her out, and said, “Hey, that bat was just in here looking for bugs,” I said calmly. I didn’t expect what came next.
Ten screaming girls nearly pierced eardrums all over camp. Before the night was out, three of the girls had demanded a transfer from the barn to the security of one of the small cabins. I helped assure the rest of the girls they had nothing to be afraid of by remaining.
Bats, barn swallows, purple martins and blue birds were known to me as welcome and respected bug eaters, and I was not one bit bothered knowing they did their job while we slept in that great barn. When I was praised the next day by camp leaders for keeping my wits about me, it might have been the first time I felt proud to be a farm kid, raised to be wise to things many other kids my age could not have known.
It was a pretty good feeling and carried me through the rest of a long week away from home. On camp’s final day, I was awarded the medal for “leadership camper of the week” and couldn’t wait to get home and hang it on my bedroom wall.
That swooping bat, among a few other challenges I had managed to rise above, gave me some bragging rights to carry with me, from camp to home and school, and through some of the tough years of being an adolescent in the world.