Lessons from Summer Camp

I was nine years old, in the fourth grade and I took swimming lessons after school on Mondays at the YMCA. The “Y” bus would arrive about 15-minutes before the dismissal bell and it idled just outside the windows of my classroom at Roosevelt Elementary. I have often wondered if this is one of the reasons I enjoy the smell of diesel exhaust to this day. The idling bus was like a voice saying, “C’mon kid, let’s go play.” Once the bus arrived, the clock became agonizingly slow. Way too many seconds ticked by with no apparent movement of the minute hand. Eventually, the bell did ring and when it did, we exploded from our desks like racehorses at the gate. We grabbed our suits from our lockers, slammed them shut and bolted to the bus.

One of those Mondays, the staff at the YMCA ended our swimming lesson at little early. Before we boarded the bus for our return trip back to school, they showed us a slideshow of Camp Mahn-Go-Tah-See located in Hale, Michigan. We saw photographs of the log cabins, kids eating in the mess hall, more kids swimming in Loon Lake, a crafts class, a nature walk, a bonfire, the archery range and the rifle range.

Whoa. Go back. What was that?

That’s right, rifles. Not BBs either. These were single bolt-action long-shell .22 rifles. I knew right then and there that I was going to summer camp. They handed out brochures to any kid who was interested in going to Camp Mahn-Go-Tah-See. To my surprise, I was the only kid in my group of friends that wanted to go. Are you kidding me? Didn’t they see the rifles? C’mon. Were they nuts?

I ran into the house yelling, “I want to go to camp! I want to go to camp!” I was quickly told that it cost too much money. Story of my life. Everything I wanted in life cost too much money. However, the following week, the YMCA offered a solution to my dilemma. All I had to do was sell 84 boxes of overpriced chocolate mints to my neighbors for one-dollar per box. The YMCA would credit my account fifty-cents for every box I sold. One week at camp cost $42, so I would have to sell seven cartons, with 12 boxes per carton, of chocolate candy. For the next two months, I brought home one carton every week, and each following week, I would return with $12.

It wasn’t fun, but I sold all 84 boxes by the time summer vacation started. I had earned my own way to camp. Not only that, I also earned five-dollars for the Trading Post store at Camp Mahn-Go-Tah-See.

Eight-weeks later, the big day arrived and my parents delivered me to the parking lot of the YMCA early in the morning. The same “Y” bus was idling in the parking lot. I got a whiff of that same sweet diesel exhaust. Ahhh…life is good. I grabbed my sleeping bag and suitcase, and attempted to run.

“Not so fast, young man,” said my mother.

Mom had rules: “Do this. Do that. Make sure you do this. And brush and wash. Behave. Listen to the counselors.” Blah, blah and more blah. I remember thinking that all of the window seats would be taken by the time she released me. About this time, another pair of parents came by. They obviously knew my folks. They shook hands and talked for just a moment, but it was just long enough for them to complain about how much the YMCA had increased the summer camp fee. I expected my parents to point to their hard-working son—me, Horatio Alger—and explain to them that their son had earned his way to camp. I was ready to beam proudly; just waiting for my cue. Instead, my Mother agreed that it was expensive, but that they felt the camping experience was well worth the cost.

Say what?

Well worth the cost? What the hell was she talking about? I was pissed. I’ll bet I tried to interrupt their chat because I was quickly told to get on the bus; which I did.

Again, I grabbed my sleeping bag and suitcase and ran to the bus. I tossed my stuff on the growing pile in the rear of the bus. Luckily, I got one of the last window seats. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my mother waving at me.

She called out, “Eugene! Eugene!”

My eyes stared straight ahead refusing to look at her. I felt betrayed. Part of me contemplated yelling at her, ‘Screw you, mom. I paid for summer camp, not you,’ but I knew that might jeopardize the whole trip; best just to stare straight ahead.

Minutes later, the full bus left the parking lot to screams and cheers. My first solo adventure had begun. We sang endless verses of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and “The Ants Go Marching Two-by-Two, Hurrah, Hurrah,” for the next four hours. I still wonder how the bus driver could stand all that noise. (I suspect Valium was involved.)

We arrived at Camp Mahn-Go-Tah-See at noon and the camp counselors led us directly to the mess hall. (What an appropriate name.) We ate whatever they served us because we were starving. We retrieved our stuff from a mountain of sleeping bags and suitcases. Our counselors led us up a hillside staircase, over a wooden bridge, and down a path to our assigned cabins. Along the way, we came upon the boy’s washroom building. Inside, it was unlike anything we had ever encountered. In the center of the washroom were twin round contraptions that stood two-feet high and six-feet in diameter. A steel-ring step pad encircled these things. One boy stepped on the ring and water squirted in a perfect circle just like a fountain at a park. Without hesitation, one of the boys unzipped his jeans and urinated in it. Okay. So, that’s what it is. At the rear of the boy’s washroom were skinny white porcelain bathtubs attached to the wall. I looked around and was pleased to see regular toilets in this building. I entered a stall and used what I knew. As for the hanging bathtubs and the round fountains, I just didn’t care.

We ran back outside and headed toward the rows of cabins. I entered my assigned cabin and walked into a serious case of “dibs.” My cabin was full of alpha males arguing over who would get the top bunks. Are you kidding me? Arguing over a bed? Pillows and unrolled sleeping bags were on the floor and the boys were pushing and shoving one another. There were four bunk beds in each cabin, plus the counselor’s single bed, and it seemed that every one of these boys wanted a top bunk. They were yelling at the top of their lungs each determined to get a top bed. I couldn’t have cared less, so I threw my stuff on an undesired lower bed and left. There was much exploring to do. Besides, I came here to shoot rifles, not sleep.

Just beyond the cabins was the campfire circle. Logs big enough to build a shed were stacked uniformly in pairs. The hollow core of the stacked logs was stuffed with kindling composed of smaller branches and pine twigs. A couple of teenage camp counselors were still stacking the pile of wood which was easily over six-feet high. I continued down the path toward Loon Lake and came to a natural staircase of tree roots and step pads carved into the side of a hill that ended at the beach below. A white-wooden dock extended into the lake and several canoes were moored alongside. Floating ropes and small buoys marked off the shallow swimming area. At the top of the stairs was the nature center and crafts building. Past the mess hall was the trading post where I planned to buy candy after dinner, but it was closed now. I walked down the stairs to where the bus was parked and found the archery range. I decided that shooting arrows would be my second-choice activity if the line at the rifle range was too long. Right now, I was on a quest to find the holy grail of Camp Mahn-Go-Tah-See—the Rifle Range—but it eluded me. It was nowhere to be found. I kept looking.

Just beyond the archery targets and the bales of hay was a narrow path that led back up into the woods and disappeared around a bend. It looked promising, so I ventured into the woods. The path was narrow, but well-worn from countless previous campers. A clearing appeared ahead and I recognized a white wooden structure I had only seen in the brochure: the Rifle Range. This was it! Heaven! Paradise! Shangri-La! A berm of grass with a sand trap formed a perfect backstop behind the targets. The targets were clipped to strings on a pulley system. Eight strings led back to eight stations where we would lay on mats and aim our rifles. A sign on the wall stated, “5 Bullets, 5 coupons.” I quickly calculated that my $5.00 in trading-post coupons would buy 500 bullets. 500! Holy moly! 500 was like a million. 500 was an endless amount of bullets—however—there were six days of camping. I recalculated and came up with a very sobering number—85. I could shoot 85 bullets a day at five bullets a clip. I would only stand in line 17 times each day. That still seemed like plenty, but it would also mean a personal sacrifice; there would be no candy bars purchased at the trading post after dinner. Zero. Every coupon would be dedicated to purchasing bullets.

The next morning, I woke up to revelry being played on a bugle into the public address system. Everyone in my cabin got up, got dressed and headed to the mess hall for breakfast. While we ate eggs and toast with apple butter, the Camp Director, Neal Allen, told us the rules of the camp. After the expected safety speech, he explained the routine of each day. We learned that the camp bell would ring every hour-on-the-hour and we were instructed to go to a different activity at each bell. There were eight one-hour periods and there were many activities to choose from—swimming, canoeing, sailing, crafts, nature, team building, archery and rifle range are just the ones I remember. I planned my schedule accordingly. I decide to start at the rifle range, go to archery, go to the rifle range, go to archery, and just keep repeating these two activities. And I did it, too—for the first day—but by the second day I was bored with archery. Plus, it hurt my finger tips, so I started branching out. I mixed in crafts where I braided strands of plastic ribbon into key chains, went on a turtle hunt during nature hour, learned how to paddle a canoe, sail a sunfish and I swam in Loon Lake a lot. Remember the twin fountains? I had recently learned that the impatient kid had pissed into the community wash basin. A wash basin! Ha. Not any more. I decided to never use either one of those contraptions. The lake would have to do for the next week. Every other hour I returned to the rifle range to squeeze off 20 or 25 shots. I kept every target I shot as a souvenir. I would stop by my cabin after each session and place my targets inside my sleeping bag for safe keeping. By the end of the week I had a stack of precisely 100 targets.

It was a perfect week. Every hour of every day had been filled with non-stop activity. As if that wasn’t enough, the Camp Director stopped by our cabin on the last night, dressed in full Native-American head dress, and read off a short list of names of “Honor Campers,” and I was on the list. What! Really? Me? I was already in my skivvies, but I pulled on my jeans in a heartbeat. My fellow Honor Campers and I followed the Camp Director to a special campfire held in our honor. Each of us received a single feather headband and a patch that read “Honor Camper—Camp Mahn-Go-Tah-See—YMCA.” We were told that we were selected because each one of us had attended every activity the camp offered and our cabin counselors had recommended each of us for demonstrating leadership qualities during the past week. We wore our feathers, sang songs and danced like (politically incorrect) Indians around the massive fire. It was a perfect ending to a perfect week.

The next morning we packed up and took our stuff to the bus. I actually looked forward to the four-hour bus ride home. Again we would sing endless verses of songs as miles passed by the window. The ride back would be just as much fun as the ride up.

Crap. What are they doing here?

My parents were waiting by the bus, but they hadn’t seen me yet. They were out to ruin my good time. Maybe I could sneak on the bus without them seeing me. It was a short-lived plan.

My father’s voice bellowed, “EUGENE!”

They saw me. Double crap! I looked at them and then hung my head. I looked at the ground and felt tears welling up. If they were expecting a kid who was happy to see his parents, well, they had the wrong kid. As far as I was concerned, this was still my vacation and they were here to cheat me out of the last four hours of my summer camp experience. My father called me once more, so I dragged myself over to where they were standing. I’m sure they were expecting hugs and tales of the past week.

Instead I heard myself ask, “What are you doing here?”

My tone and attitude poisoned the moment.

My father said, “Your mother thought you probably missed us, so we came up here to drive you home.”

My mother chimed in, “Didn’t you miss us?”

I had an epiphany! I misunderstood their mission.

They thought I would be homesick by now. Ha! No chance. There was still a chance I could ride the bus if they realized I didn’t miss them.

I smiled and replied, “Nope, I’m fine. Can I ride the bus home with my friends?”

Their expressions were like deer staring into headlights. Clearly this was not the answer they were expecting. My father told me, in no uncertain terms, to get my things and put them in the car. It was a long quiet ride home.

It was only fitting—I started this trip being pissed off and I ended it being pissed off.

Yet, my camping experience taught me quite a few things. First and foremost, I learned how to “safely” handle, load and shoot a bolt-action long-shell .22 caliber rifle. I also learned how to steer a canoe, and I enjoy both of these activities to this day. More importantly, the whole experience taught me to be self reliant and independent at an early age. I was proud of the fact that I had earned my own way and that I went by myself when none of my friends wanted to go. I also learned not to take credit for the accomplishments of others; in other words, give credit where credit is due.

Looking back, I realize that my mother was just trying to make conversation with other parents. It hurt my pride when she took credit for my hard work, but that was a lesson, too; the lesson was “toughen up.” Life isn’t always fair. If you get knocked down, just get back up and move on. Not everything I learned was good. I realized that I was—and still can be—a vengeful “little shit” that holds a grudge. This is a not trait I’m proud of, but I recognize this fault and try to let the small stuff roll off. It’s not always easy.

My mother and I were never close after that long ride home. I realize now it was a turning point in our relationship. We tended to leave one another alone. (Why start an argument?) She probably never knew how I felt because I never told her, however, she certainly told me how she felt. I was an insolent, ungrateful and disrespectful child. (Whatever.) So be it. However, through adult eyes, I can see her point-of-view. I guess I learned a final lesson. I learned how to forgive—albeit, a little late. (I’m still working on forgetting.)


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