Did you go to camp as a kid? I did: Camp Pettijohn Springs just over the Texas-Oklahoma border. I started going when I was about twelve years old and went every summer until I was eighteen. It was both a broad, flat red-dirt plain and hilly, tree-covered wood. The girls got the cabins in the shady trees, the boys got the cabins on the sun-baked expanse.
The pool was at the bottom of a hill, and its deep end was full of algae and weeds, so that when I jumped off the diving board, I would curl my legs up under me, lest my toes brush those creepy leaves.
The mess hall was a favorite place. Here is where Bible Bees happened in my younger days, meals were wolfed down, and talent shows were put on.
We had an annual talent show act performed by our youth minister, a stand-up routine in which he acted like a silly little boy with a sideways baseball cap and puffed-out cheeks, then two of the senior boys set up that daffy thing you’ve probably seen where one guy has his hands behind his back and the other one does the actions- including the eating of whipped cream and squirting of ketchup and such. We laughed like maniacs every single year. All the singers, including me, would perform Contemporary Christian numbers, and I think I remember someone playing the spoons. Right outside the mess hall was a propane tank emblazoned with the word “Danger.” We sat on it like it was a horse, lots of harmless flirting happened around the Danger.
The traditional Sunday night arrival supper was baloney sandwiches, but for the rest of the week, food was pretty good. KP duty meant your cabin stayed after meals to wipe down tables and mop up cement floors. At meal times, you were not permitted to put your elbows on the table, if you did and were caught, a song might ring out:
“Get your elbows off the table, David H!
Get your elbows off the table, David H!
We have seen it once or twice and it isn’t very nice,
Get your elbows off the table, David H!”
It was always followed with another song, “Round the Mess Hall You Must Go,” which finished with a stipulation. You might have to run around the mess hall skipping backwards, perhaps hopping like a bunny or singing loudly. If you were lucky in love, you’d be assigned the direction “holding hands,” and the whole Mess Hall population would wait with bated breath to see who you picked to hold hands with.
I saw my first tarantulas and centipedes at Camp Pettijohn. I was so traumatized by the centipede that I could barely sleep for fear that one would crawl, with its hundred nasty little legs, into my sleeping bag.
There was a small metal building that served as our canteen, and twice daily we queued up to get sodas and snacks with our canteen punch cards. My favorite was peach Jolly Rancher sticks dipped in a Sprite, the candy would give just a hint of peachy goodness to the Sprite. When we were teens, boys and girls might use their canteen cards to buy their crushes treats.
The only air conditioned building on the whole site was the chapel, which was a sweet little brick building overlooking a drop-off covered with trees. The windows at the front of the little chapel gave us a glorious view of Oklahoma sunsets over dense green leaves. If memory serves, it was carpeted with some sort of green turf. There were gorgeous devotionals in that chapel, and mid-day Bible studies in shady cabin breezeways.
I always came back from camp with an awesome tan, a suitcase full of dirty clothes smudged with sweat and red dirt, and a list of new pen pals. I slept for about eighteen hours, then got up to head to Sunday morning church, full of light and joy.
As a youth minister’s wife, I spent several years in my 30s attending a different camp, this one in Texas Hill Country along the Medina River; while it shared some traditions and characteristics with the Camp Pettijohn of my youth, it had its own beauty and rituals. Here I was cabin counselor and lifeguard, trying to love on girls while calming my own introverted spirit. A cabin of thirty noisy sixteen-year-olds can be a lot to take in! I loved Bandina for the years I got to attend: its traditional camper vs. counselor softball game, its rope swing, its large, shady gazebo. The food, cooked lovingly by a team of folks from the various churches, was fantastic- way better than the food at Camp Pettijohn (sorry, Pettijohn peeps). Evening worship and talent were in a sweet little outdoor amphitheater, and hymns were accompanied by the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling the gravel that lined the aisles. Late night devotionals happened on the rocky riverside. During the dark hours while campers were sleeping, deer always came out to find snacks and crumbs left on the wide open field around which all the cabins were encircled. My favorite times were the singing sessions in the screened-in dining hall, when 500 people sang songs both silly and holy with every bit of their bodies and souls. The very best memories, though, are spending time there with my own kids. When my youngest wanted to be baptized in the river, I drove to be there and walked into that river with my baby girl and her big brother, who baptized her.
It made me sad when the folks who ran the camp told me I couldn’t come any more because I had switched to a different flavor of church. That sort of closed mindedness, that denies people whose walks might be a little off the approved path, can make it hard for folks to stick with church. At least, it did for me.
The best part of camp was always the friends. In both of these camps, you spent quality time with kids and adults from other churches, other towns, other states. You made real friends. I still have a handful that I am in touch with. Back in the 80s, you had to write real, honest, paper letters; and we did. Now, kids get to follow each other on Instagram- so cool! Camp creates connection. We all need it.
I have been asking people to share old camp stories, and have gotten some great responses:
“A raccoon ate my toothpaste.”
“Finding out I was very naturally good at archery, when I was struggling and behind on every other activity out there. It was nice to find my ‘thing.'”
“Breakfast in bed for having the cleanest cabin.”
“Pranks, kitchen raids, spying on others, building campfires – I worked camp staff for years. We had the most fun when getting in trouble was a possibility.”
“Hiking up Hermits Peak and holding hands with a guy by the time I got to the top.”
There have been a few stories that are sad: abandonment worry, being shunned, getting hurt. I guess every good thing has some dark stuff, too.
My life now is defined by a mission to recognize magic in an ordinary life, and to share it; and I believe that for many of us, summer camp was, and is, magical. Whether church affiliated or not, camp gets us into nature. We swim and hike and tell tales under the stars. We sing- have you ever heard of a camp without songs? Whether it’s “Big Booty,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” or “El-Shaddai,” music is pure enchantment. We use our hands to make cool crafts. Best of all, camp creates friendship, and love between people is about the best magic there is.
What’s your camp story?