Back in the 60s when we were kids, every summer my parents trucked us “up north” from Iowa to Pillager, Minnesota for summer camp. The camp was called Camp JIM (stands for “Jesus is Mine.”). It was located on the shores of Lake Hardy, not far from Fort Ripley, a Minnesota National Guard training center.
Since I come from a large family (we ranged in ages from Beginner campers to Senior campers and beyond), to save trips, Dad would just cart us all up in one trip at the beginning of the summer camp season and drop us off. We had to start out at Beginners camp in early June for the little ones, stay through Intermediate camp for the middle kids, and finish at Senior camp for the older ones. Then we’d wait a couple weeks until the next camp sessions began and repeat the sequence, which meant we spent the entire summer at camp. It was wonderful. Happy childhood memories. Pretty sure my dad was happy too because my mom usually went with us and either worked in the kitchen or the nurse’s cabin or did something useful to pay her way. Dad stayed home and got the whole summer off from parenting duties.
For us kids, if it wasn’t “our camp week,” we were employed in the kitchen or on lavatory duties or cleaning campgrounds somewhere until our age group was up. There were early mornings up frying up pancakes on huge hot griddles, cleaning up the mess hall, and then jumping in canoes and paddling out on Lake Hardy with drop lines and sinkers, hauling in buckets of sunnies and blue gills which my mom faithfully filetted, cleaned and batter-fried for us.
Off to the side of the main hall, there was a huge wooden water slide which extended from the top of the hill more than 50 yards down to the lake. It was built like the old wooden roller coasters back in the day. We would haul our little wooden toboggans all the way up to the top, wait in line, swatting black flies and deer flies, fit the little metal wheels of the “boggans” into the rickety tracks of the slide and ride down. A good ride and an even keel sent you flying out onto the lake for 50 feet. If there were two of you, you had more weight and went out even further. If the one on the back was too heavy, you couldn’t plane and sank rather quickly. There were no railings on the water slide so if you fell off, you either went rolling down the hill or if you lost your boggan, you slid the rest of the way down the slide on your stomach which resulted in angry red trail marks in your flesh after which you belly flopped into the lake to be fished out by nearby lifeguards. We sometimes got hurt but we didn’t care. It was worth it.
Every morning at 7 a.m. sharp, the loudspeaker crackled to life with a bugle Reveille followed by “Goooood Morning, Campers. It’s time to get up! Breakfast is at 7:30. No breakfast for you if you’re late!” We’d groan, roll over, try to ignore it but soon all the rustling in the cabin meant that the others were taking it seriously so we’d rub the sleepy sand out of our eyes, roll out of our bunks, clumsily pull on clean shorts and a T-shirt and shuffle up to the Mess Hall. Breakfast was different each morning: cereal, oatmeal (least favorite), hard boiled eggs and toast, or pancakes drowned in maple syrup with bacon or sausage (most favorite).
After breakfast, we had Chapel time with Bible lessons to which we toted our Bibles, notebooks and pens for taking notes (for the more serious students) or, in my case, doodling and drawing cartoons. Then it was off to sports activities.
These activities honed my softball and volleyball-playing skills, encouraged blueberry picking along the way to the field, and helped me decide I didn’t really enjoy greased watermelon contests in the lake. Those contests brought out the competitive nature of the big kids and it could get brutal. If you didn’t want to get scratched, elbowed or drowned, you stayed back and contented to cheer your team on loudly.
Out in the lake some distance from shore was a floating diving tour. It was a wooden structure with three platforms built at different heights. The lowest one was 10 feet above the water, the middle one 15 feet and the top one was 22 feet which felt like a skyscraper once you were up there. I managed the 10-foot jump without too much trouble, eventually got up the guts to tackle the 15-foot jump, but that 22-footer was daunting. I didn’t realize it then but I actually am afraid of heights. I get wobbly, feel unsteady and dizzy, like I’ll just pitch headlong into an abyss from which there is no return.
I didn’t dare try it as a Junior Camper but by the time I was an Intermediate, the challenge to keep up with my peers pressed me into taking the leap. I fell for-ev-er, down, down, down while my heart went up, up, up into my throat. Hitting the water from that height felt like hitting concrete and I went down much deeper under the water than I was used to. My ears popped, my feet hit the cold layer of water that runs along the bottom of the lake and I paddled like crazy toward the surface. Bursting up and out of the lake, I sucked in a lungful of fresh air and felt the triumph of having faced my fears and conquered them! Still, that ear-popping business was unpleasant enough for me to avoid trying too many more 22-foot jumps. And other campers were diving—actually diving from that height! Brrrr.
The founder and director of Camp Jim was Arnold Frei. He was a kindly man of short stature with red hair and a twinkle in his eyes. Every day at lunchtime in the mess hall, he’d get on the microphone and hand out the daily mail and postcards for the campers lucky enough to have been remembered by their friends and family back home. Then, we’d pound on the tables and demand that he sing “The Sauerkraut Song.”
It went something like this:
“If you will only listen to who I speak a-bout
I ain’t no voice to tell you how to make that sauerkraut
It’s made out of vinegar, so everyone suppose
And of that docile flower, they call that cabbage rose.
Oh, sauerkraut is bully, I told you it was high
I think I ought to know for why,
I eat it all the time.
Chorus: Then it’s sauerkraut, then it’s sauerkraut,
Priced good you know, ’cause you love it so.
Then it’s sauerkraut, then it’s sauerkraut,
Only five cents, one pint.”
We campers loved to join in on the chorus.
“THENNNNNN it’s sauerkraut, then it’s sauerkraut,
priced good you know, ‘cuz you love it so…
ONLY FIVE CENTS ONE PINT!”
Summer camp is where I learned to like sauerkraut although I don’t think we actually ever had it there. I just liked the song.
There were cabin inspections, and merit and honor roll ribbons to earn. We found boyfriends and crushes. We sang in the choir loft high above the knotty pine chapel.
Once during a big moment in a choir number, I was about to inhale for the next big note and a large blue bottle fly got sucked into my throat. I doubled over choking while the rest of the choir went on with gusto. I remember thinking, “Which is worse here? Should I try to gag this fly back up and out the same way he went in, (which meant he would pass over my tongue a second time spreading his filthy germs) or should I just swallow and let my stomach juices destroy him?” I chose the latter but worried the rest of the day about it. At summer camp, you begin to learn critical thinking skills. You can’t just go running to Mom or Dad to save you.
“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly—perhaps she’ll die!”
The cabins were bare-bones, uninsulated wooden structures lined up along sandy, pine-needle covered paths, located a half a block from the nearest outhouse where you did your business. Summertime temperatures in northern Minnesota ranged from 50 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside. It wasn’t much different inside. If you were lucky, you had a sleeping bag made from cotton because if you ended up in one of those nylon mummy bags on the 100-degree nights, you got too sweaty and laid the whole night outside of it getting eaten alive by mosquitos. One of the most nerve-wracking experiences of camping everywhere is hearing the annoying whine of a mosquito humming around your bed. When the whining stops, your breathing stops while you wait for that telltale sting. We lived in bug spray. Because I am a blood Type O, mosquitoes loved me. By summer’s end, my legs were covered with red lumps and welts. The itch was unbearable and I scratched until I bled. We didn’t have Benadryl cream back in those days.
As we girls got older and more interested in boys, we’d make our way to the one heated bathroom with electrical outlets up by the mess hall. We could take quick showers, plug in our hair dryers and do our hair and makeup, lined up like military brats in front of one big mirror. We looked lovely until swimming hour.
In the evenings, we’d have campfire time. That’s when we’d look for that really cute boy we had our eyes on to see if we could sit by or near him. If we managed that, we sat with hearts-a-flutter taking in the sun setting on the mirror-smooth lake, the music of loons calling punctuated by an occasional boom from Ft. Ripley’s cannons as the Guardsman did their military exercises. The stars twinkled overhead and the bonfire crackled and roared. We’d get reflective and think about life and heaven and hell and how to be a witness. That’s where I first learned the Kum ba yah song.
Or the other one, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going (echo: going)…” We’d light wooden stick matches and throw them in the fire as we shared our testimonies about how we first got “saved.” These were seminal moments in the lives of pre-teens.
Friday afternoons were the big sports competitions. The top two cabins who had won the most softball or volleyball games duked it out on the field for the championship. I am proud to say that I was frequently on the winning-est softball teams because I was a slugger. I got to be a pretty good volleyball spiker too.
Then that night was Banquet night. Each cabin was in charge of artistically decorating their table for the banquet. It involved a whole day of planning, collecting water lilies, sand from the beach, coloring pictures, finding pretty things from the forest and hopefully not mistaking nice leaves for poison ivy. I only got poison ivy once but my brothers and sisters who seemed to be more allergic than I was got it on a regular basis. We showered and dressed up in that one “nice outfit” our parents packed for the week.
Friday evenings were special because you knew it was your last night at camp. There was an Awards Ceremony in the Chapel for the winners of ribbons and merit badges for Softball, Volleyball, Cabin Inspection, a top award for the best, most responsible camper in each cabin who displayed courtesy, a good attitude, timeliness, obedience and so forth. A few others got Honorable Mention ribbons because they were almost as good as the Best Camper. I never seemed to be able to achieve the Best Camper award but got plenty of Honorable Mentions. There was a disobedient streak, a rebellious streak, or maybe just an artistic streak in me which caused me to fall short of perfection. Always a “second best”; always second chair flute, never first chair; always a bridesmaid, never a bride….
After Banquet, dessert was traditional root beer floats and then we happily spilled out to the lake front for our last campfire night. It was now or never to get next to that cute boy so no effort was spared and all shyness was tossed aside. Sneaky hand holding under a shared blanket, exchanges of addresses with promises to write, stolen glances and adolescent yearning all happened in the span of one hour. It was magic.
Saturday was one last breakfast and then back to the cabins to pack up, clean them thoroughly for one last cabin inspection, then tearful goodbyes and “forever” friendships made. Those promises to write? Well, we girlfriends wrote regularly, sometimes for years. The boys wrote back…once. It was the best time of my childhood.
Send your kids to summer camp. You’ll give them memories which will last a lifetime.