NewsPub Notes

Camp Hell

[A re-run from July 2011, in tribute to summer-camp season.]

When I was about 13, an older first-cousin got married in South Georgia at the same time as Boy Scout camp in North Georgia. My mother and father and sisters were driving down to the wedding, but, uncharacteristically, they let me choose whether to go with them or go to camp with my friends. It was a hard choice, because I looked up to my cousin, who, though I was nowhere near old enough, let me drive when he visited and basically treated me as an adult. I also wanted to go along with my family, because we always went places like that together, and they were going by the beach for a few days after the wedding. Nevertheless, faced with this unaccustomed choice, I opted to go to the mountains with the Scouts.

As soon as the school bus pulled away from the curb, I knew I had made the wrong choice (as I certainly would have felt, too, had I gone with my family). A devastating homesickness seized me, but there was no turning back.

A highlight of any camp trip—Scouts, 4-H, etc.—was a stop at some roadside stand that sold, in addition to candy bars and Cokes, specialties of the area, like rattlesnake eggs or fresh apple juice. You could buy a gallon jug and try to make it last all week at camp. At this particular stop, the jug I purchased with my spending money turned out to be “hard” cider, that is, fermented—alcoholic. And many of us bought a particular kind of cigar for furtive smoking, soaked in rum and wavy: “rum-dipped crooks.”

I should add here that our Scoutmaster was not able to accompany us to camp this time. His place was filled by a couple of college boys, who kindly consented to pick up the slack, which no doubt accounts for the cider and smokes.

Those amenities were meant for after-hours. The real purpose of Scout camp was classes to earn merit badges, along with athletic competitions, swimming, campfires and weaving lanyards and bracelets from those long strands of plastic purchased at the camp store along with our Zeroes and Milky Ways. Soon after we arrived, though, we realized that our collegiate keepers didn’t really care whether we attended merit badge classes or anything else. So, faced with the choice between classes and doing nothing, most of us took the path less traveled by. Merit-badge classes would have occupied my mind, but the empty time that enveloped us merely gave free range to my morbid fantasies.

My father was a notoriously fast driver, which helped make missing my family grow into the certainty that they would be killed in a fiery crash. Perhaps if I were with them, I would see the oncoming car and warn my father in time, but I was not there, and they would die. There were no cell phones, so I imagined how some Scout leader or state patrolman would come looking for me at camp with the news.

Not even the pornographic playing cards somebody produced could erase the foreboding from my mind; in fact, they made it worse. We sat around the tent at night with our crooks and our cider peering at naked women by flashlight. These cards were what would now be called “vintage porn.” The hair- styles were the same as those in my mother’s college yearbooks from the 1920s, which, along with the cider, no doubt accounted for the blunt shock of recognition the night I turned over a seven of spades and saw through the smoky haze my mother as a young woman, the spitting image of her picture in the yearbook. Heartsick on top of homesick, I wandered aimlessly, unable to grasp this new realization but determined that my Methodist mother’s death would seal her secret with me.

The week finally played out, and I was now sure that the authorities were waiting to tell me when I got home. The long, dread-filled return trip ended when the bus turned the corner and my anxious eyes spotted, instead of the authorities, my father, leaning against our still-intact car. He was OK. It had all been a nightmare. None of it was true. The realization flooded me with relief, followed immediately by guilt for the wasted week. I had chosen to go off with the Scouts, but I had earned no merit badges to show for it. I couldn’t even tell my father about the one terrible lesson I now realized I had learned at camp: that it is absolutely true what they say about an idle mind.