Sunday, November 14, 2010

SUMMER CAMP - Parts 2 & 3

The newly-built chapel at Lake Yale, circa late 1960s

Part 2 – Campers, Happy and Otherwise
For seven days each summer in the 1960s, Baptist parents in my hometown and other small towns up and down the Florida panhandle sent their children to Lake Yale Baptist Assembly Grounds, a summer campground that hovered at the edge of a lake, a lake that was more a wide, boggy pond in those days than it was a recreational lake. The campground itself was a strange aggregate of concrete, barracks-style bunkhouses outfitted with stacked metal bunk beds and old standing lockers arranged in no particular order between the painted concrete floor and the exposed, unpainted rafters from which cobwebs dangled and blew about in the hot summer breeze. Torn screens were all that stood between us and mosquito swarms and all the other assorted, bloodthirsty flying things that take up summer residence near bog-lands. 
Shower rooms, sinks, and toilets were, largely, communal affairs. The chipped porcelain sinks were stained brown and the handles were, inevitably, reversed so that the tap's cold water was marked with an H while the hot water was marked with a C. That always made for an interesting start to the morning. The water in the bathrooms, both hot and cold, was riddled with a foul sulphur smell and a light mustard color: an altogether unappealing combination for the camper . . . though, should we be tempted to complain about it, we would be tersely reminded that our "modern" facilities were not as rustic as those neighboring secular summer camps where outhouses were still in use.
For propriety's sake, the girls' toilets were housed in individual wooden stalls with latching plywood doors and, between each shower-head in the bunkhouse bathroom, a plastic, mildew-speckled curtain hung from rusted metal hoops which, while unattractive and barbaric, still afforded Baptist girls the modesty which they'd been encouraged all their lives to uphold. The camp showers may have been primitive, less elegant than the bathroom accommodations at our homes, but at least they weren't like our gym locker-room shower at Lakeshore Junior High School, which was open, and uncomfortably public. At school, there was a large tiled trough which ran along one end of the locker room from ceiling to floor. From it, twelve sleek silver showerheads and twenty-four handles and twelve soap dishes stood in sharp relief against the white tile and grout. Most Baptist girls shuddered to even consider that oversized shower stall, to think of stripping down and standing there among the shapely secular girls who were lathering up, shampooing their hair, and talking about boys or class assignments . . . as if their everythings and altogethers were not on display for just everyone to see. Baptist girls learned, instead, to tolerate the ripe after-smell of sweat and dirt on our bodies, or to muffle that fragrance with a generous sprinkling of baby powder.
It had a devastating effect on me, I'm certain, in ways that I'll probably never fully comprehend or own up to, that struggle between remaining modest as the Church insisted I should and the deep-seated, and probably devilish, desire I felt back then to move into the wider circles of adolescent society. I suspect I had grown up classically repressed, or so the psychologists would have probably diagnosed me had my parents believed sufficiently in psychology or therapists to send me for therapy. But no; what my parents believed in most was honesty and humility; they believed in right-standing with God and modesty of the flesh and the spirit. They believed in in the Word of God and its commands to avoid all worldly enterprises that might cause me to fall into temptations of the flesh. So, like most Baptist girls from my church, I avoided anything to do with exposing my most-private body parts to anyone around me, even if that meant I had to stay clear of showering after gym class. That practice provoked Bobby Thompson to loud ridicule of us when, to get a laugh from other kids at school, he'd announced one day in the hallways between classes that "You can smell a Baptist coming before you can see a Baptist coming." I put my head down and kept walking and praying whole-heartedly that there would be a special place of torment awaiting that little pervert in the After-life. Baptist girls might smell odd after gym class, but that sure didn't stop him from trying to cop a feel from one if he found her alone.
What seemed most odd to me at summer camp though, looking back on it now, were the yearly rumors that circulated among the girls about the boys' dorms and toilets at Lake Yale. The boys may have been having a good time at our expense, but that didn't occur to us back then. We’d heard that the boys had been instructed to sleep with both hands out from under the sheets, folded across their chests. To insure that the new rule was followed, the counselors made nightly flash-light checks in the boys' bunkhouses.
Why? I asked once and Wendell Harris told me that there should be no "touching" of their privates, even in sleep. What made counselors think the boys would touch themselves while they slept?  Unless.  Unless they knew it could happen because it had happened to them too, once-upon-a-time. Still, it was hard to imagine such a thing, looking at some of those camp counselors – some of whom were only a year or two older than we were. Some of them looked so androgynous, it was almost hard to imagine they even had fully-loaded privates.
My second summer at camp, Granville Jones had whispered to me that the long wall of urinals in their bathrooms had been "altered" for privacy: plastic hinged lids had been fitted over each urinal and, somewhere about halfway up the front of each lid, a circle had been cut out – all so a boy's modesty could be preserved while he peed. He just had to unzip and quickly flip his “member” into the porthole in the lid. No one would be tempted to satisfy his curiosity by peeking at another's parts or making comparisons or, God forbid, be tempted to anything lurid or lustful. Or perverted.
Right away, what came into my mind, as Granville talked, was how some of the smaller boys – like the Hogan brothers, twins from Apopka who wore little round John Lennon spectacles and Beatles' bangs – would have looked, stretching as high as they could on the tips of their toes, trying to reach that porthole, or how the larger, taller boys would have had to squinch down, knees bent east and west, in order to get to it, all of those boys with desperately-full bladders, all of them fumbling with zippers, holding their privates in their hands.
Of course, the "flaw" in my imagining was there, right there, right where I'd arrive at the specific moment of their desperation: though I had both a brother and a father at home, they too were typically Southern Baptist in their modesty, so the only penises I'd ever seen belonged to pets or barnyard animals.  Somehow, the amusement I'd felt at imagining the absurdity of those covered urinals was forestalled by having the imagined boy fumbling to extricate from his breeches something which faintly resembled a cow or goat or donkey penis.
The bunkhouses, which our counselors called "dorms," spindled outwards from the two larger, more significant structures of the camp. The largest was, in our later years, a new chapel with arched, open, wooden rafters and stained-glass windows. It was a magnificent structure with its stained wood inside and outside. No painted drywall anywhere. And the traditional pews had been replaced by folding chairs set up in a line or semi-circle, which seemed oddly at odds with the wood siding and interior woodwork of the chapel. The second-largest structure – and perhaps the most intimidating to campers – was the dining hall where we took our meals three times a day. It was an oblong concrete-block building that had been badly white-washed and which was peppered with doorways which were badly-fitted with unpainted screen doors which banged ceaselessly whenever a wind came up. Inside the dining hall, rows of folding tables and long metal benches were arranged haphazardly. At one end, nearest the doors, were several ping-pong tables – but never any paddles or balls. Useless things. White-trash décor.  That's how we spoke of them. And along the far wall, nearest the kitchen, was the infamous "food line."
Each morning, we rose from our bug-infested bunks to shiver in cold showers and brush our teeth with the foamy yellow gunk our toothpaste became when it was mixed with the cold sulphur tap-water. We rubber-banded our ratty, sleep-tangled hair into ponytails and pulled on clean shorts and t-shirts after shaking them wildly to free them of any spiders or ticks that might have taken up residence in them overnight. When the morning bells sounded, we took ourselves, Bibles in hand, en masse, across the dew-wet pine straw and dirt paths through those torn screen doors of the mess hall, to face again the long double-rows of industrial-sized metal trays of the food line which were heaped with rubbery pancakes and thick grits and the grayish-yellow lumps that hand-lettered placards identified as "scrambulled eggs." Some days there were sausage links but, after a first summer at Lake Yale, most campers knew enough to religiously avoid ALL breakfast meat.
At the end of the food line was a bucket-shaped plastic jug filled with grape jelly. Over it, all morning, the flies circled and did touch-and-go landings, lifting off again after having deposited into the warm purple goo all their gathered bacteria and, probably, the microscopic eggs of their young. Beside the jelly jug was a charcoal-riddled steel pot, about the size and shape of a football helmet, which had been suspended over a lit Sterno can. In it, hot syrup roiled: for the pancakes, if you dared to eat them. Which we did. Every morning. Those powdered eggs were unthinkable to us. Well, to all of us except Sheryl Coker who ate them and rolled her eyes to heaven and praised the Lord and Jesus and the Holy Ghost for such yummy yellow miracles as scrambled eggs by the heaping plateful. She was a twelve-year-old from Palatka and she was crazy for the Lord, and for the abundance of the earth, even then weighing in somewhere around 170 pounds.
The buttered white bread, toasted on one side only, was soggy on the underside and scorched on the topside and it was obvious to even the inexperienced campers among us that the long ragged gashes on the toast-top meant that the more severely-burned layers had been scraped off into the trash barrels. The smell of burned bread hung in the air, suspended there among the other lunchroom smells: dish detergent, souring garbage, the bite of ammonia in old mops and cleaning rags, and the reek of human sweat.
On Sunday – the Lord's Day as it was called at camp – there were the inevitable weekly flecks of green and red "vegetables" in the recycled egg mix which had been flattened somehow and cut into squares and were being passed off as "Vegetable Omelets." Most of us recognized that those flecks were the leftover, already-going-soft green and red peppers from Saturday evening's dinner salad, so we mostly bypassed the Sunday special and continued working the rubbery pancakes with hot syrup.  We also had large jugs of Ovaltine on Sundays, something to stir into the glasses of lukewarm powdered milk. If you added the syrupy mix to the milk, it turned an unappealing shade of gray. If you didn't use the Ovaltine, you just drank the same watery-looking milk you'd been drinking all week long.
But because it was Sunday, and because even Baptist lunchroom staffers felt compelled to ease the burdens of the less-fortunate among them in any small ways they could on The Lord's Day, there were also little plastic tumblers of cloudy apple juice. Also warm. But after a week of powdered milk and sulphur tap water, the pulpy juice tasted good as sin to us, like something that would do you in on any day except the Sabbath. . .and maybe on the Sabbath too if you were reckless: some of the first-time campers went back for second helpings of that apple juice. After stomach cramps and the skittles took them down for a day and night, they never did that again.
That, we were all told later, is what greed will get you.
That, they assured us, is the wages of gluttony.

We were reminded, in case we had forgotten, of all the starving children in Africa who would be glad to share a glass of apple juice between themselves. . . .

Part 3 – Instructions in Sin
We were told other things too. Each morning after services, we were sent off to be "counseled." Girls were counseled separately from boys, so I can't tell you what the boys were told, because even my good friend Donnie Ledbetter wouldn't tell me what went on in the boys' counseling sessions. I figured it must be pretty bad because, whenever I tried to press him too hard for information, he'd turn red in the face and start making circles in the dirt with the toe of his tennis shoe.
We girls were told by our counselors that Lake Yale would tolerate no "fraternization" between boys and girls. We belonged to the Lord. Our bodies were his temples.  Holy.  Holiest of holies.  We were expected to "save" ourselves for marriage. Just what part of that holy temple we were supposed to save for marriage was mostly unclear to us back then. They didn't explain and we didn't yet have the courage to ask. All else, however, was spelled out pretty clearly.  No sneaking off. No kissing. No necking or petting. No buttons unbuttoned. No zippers undone. No pressing up against another.
These things, we were told, would get a camper sent straight home. And not a one of us wanted to go home just then any more than we wanted to bring the awkward temples of our girlish bodies, saved or not, to marriage. Not even the ticks and snakes or the counselors or the sulphur water or the long daily sermons were as bad as sitting back in Duval County all summer, bored, hot, and with no social life to speak of because everyone interesting in our world was at summer camp.
The problem with Lake Yale Baptist Assembly Ground was that it had been built – and solemnly dedicated to the Lord's work – on swampland. This guaranteed that campers got eaten alive by mosquitoes all the blessed day long and then had to pick the ticks off each other after campfire each evening. And trust me when I say you don't want to hear about the chiggers and gnat-swarms. Even if we'd known, back then, what necking and petting were, even if campers had wanted to engage then in a little harmless touching, who could have withstood the lemon-Pledge fragrance of our mosquito spray? What boy would have had even a fighting chance with buttons or zippers given the oil-slick of our bodies, perpetually-thick with Coppertone, insect repellent, and sweat. What boy would have thought any of us even remotely attractive with our shins skinned from volleyball games in the sand, or our arms and faces and legs covered with scabs where we'd scratched, endlessly, the bug bites?
But all that never seemed to occur to the counselors. Our inability to fathom even the simplest sins seemed just beyond them. What mattered to them, most of all, was that we would never be able to say, from those summers onward, that we hadn't been warned.
Sin. We were to avoid it. Strenuously. At every turn.
In order to avoid it, one red-haired girl from Sanford suggested to the counselor, don't we need to know exactly what sin is?
Oh, you'll know it, said "Sam-which-is-short-for Samantha," our fierce, muscular counselor who looked solid and beefy as a football player in her short-shorts and tank top.  You'll know, she said emphatically, fingering the tarnished silver cross knotted onto a leathery string around her neck, her sweat-stained "Jesus-is-Lord" ball cap covering hair so severely shorn you'd have sworn she was a guy had you walked up behind her.
You'll feel the warm glow of it all over you at first, she warned us, and it will seem sweet. So sweet. You'll feel so happy.
A far-off, dreamy look had come over her then, a look like old folks get sometimes when they speak of their lost youths, that look they get that tells you that the better years of their lives are far behind them now, mere memories.
So happy, she repeated dreamily.  Yes, little sisters, that's what sin will make you feel like. Black, bitter sin.
But the way she said "black" and "bitter" and "sin" soundly oddly sweet. Delectable. Like rich chocolate cake. Like a triple fudge brownie. Like a hot fudge sundae topped off with whipped cream and nuts and a maraschino cherry on top of it all, saluting you honorably the whole time with its little red stem. And that was always the problem with these little sessions: the counselors never seemed to realize they were taunting us with sin, tempting us to it, even as they strenuously forbade it.
Sam-which-is-short-for-Samantha went on: It might feel good at first, deep-down in the pit of your stomach. Or in other parts.
Parts?  Anita Knold interrupted, What parts?
Sam snapped back then, looking around at us as if she'd just remembered we were there. She cleared her throat and was fully back with us then. And fully, wholly determined that we should understand the spiritual and physical consequences for "giving in to boys."
Women, she said, are vulnerable to certain kinds of sin. And she went on then to tell us how, as females, our souls were in peril and, if we ever found ourselves feeling "that way" in our parts, we should run as fast as possible to the chapel and fall on our knees at the altar of God and pray, pray, pray for our eternal souls. With each pray, she slammed her hand on the cover of her Good News Bible so that all the crimson ribbons marking scriptures fluttered and shook like a belly dancer's scarves.
Belly dancers. Good and evil were taking each others' hands, in every thought I had. Even then.
Thus went the girls' counseling at Baptist summer camp.
Each summer the faces changed: ours, the counselors'.  Our bodies changed too. As did the yearly definition of sin which, with each successive summer of counseling, swam more and more sharply into focus. Still, we were reminded, we were Southern Baptists. No dancing. No drinking. No fraternization between ourselves and those boys who seemed to be studying us with ever-growing interest. No matter what changed, year to year, for Baptist girls, the message never changed: thou. shalt. not.
And therein for us lay one of the chronic problems with being Southern Baptist: nothing ever changed, really. Once saved, always saved. Henceforth and forevermore. Our Catholic girlfriends had Vatican I, then Vatican II. Our Mormon girlfriends had a living prophet; when he died, they got a new one. First they had polygamy, then they had monogamy. And then there were the Methodist girls, who were always the most enviable among us: they got to dance and play cards. When they came of legal age, they would be allowed to drink in moderation. Dancing and drinking, though even they couldn't "go all the way" with a boy at the drive-in and they still had to "save" themselves for marriage. But dancing could get pretty close to fornication the way we Baptist girls saw it from the sidelines. All that grinding and hip-bumping to the music at school dances. All that steamy dance-floor sway-and-rumba with boys.
Sometimes it is pure torture to be Baptist, Anita Knold sighed once from the sidelines of the junior-high school dance, and every good Baptist girl around her sighed in agreement because that's how it felt to be a known quantity – a "good girl" who wouldn't let a boy get to first base. I'd sighed too, sweating indelicately in my borrowed blue chiffon gown with the spaghetti straps, that white orchid pinned awkwardly to the left strap stabbing my shoulder whenever I slumped. I'd meant it too, that sigh. Lord God in heaven, how I'd meant it.
Shortly after that dance, shortly after the whole blasted evening of standing at the side of the gym while other girls got asked to dance, summer was upon us again and we were heading back to summer camp. Most of us were fifteen by then, almost old enough to start dating. Each of us owned a new transistor radio which we tuned to the Big Ape, WAPE. Each of us were curious about love and romance and all those unnamed ways we could fall, with a boy, from grace. Each of us wanting to know exactly what went on between boys and girls in those parked cars at the drive-in movies. Each of us wearing our first bra, an uncomfortable contraption with stitching around the cups that made them look pointy and unnatural, no matter how well-endowed we may be. Each of us waiting, hopefully, for some first sign of "The Curse," so we might have to use those sanitary napkins our mothers had packed in the bottom of our suitcases, just in case.
We expected seven days of Bible lessons and memorization of scripture. We expected nights around the bonfire with guitars and singing. We expected to meet other Baptist teens from Baptist churches in Sanford and Apopka, from Palatka and Clearwater. We expected counseling sessions and sermons daily in the new chapel. We expected miserable meals and bugs and stinky water.
What we weren't expecting was the arrival of a new youth pastor. . . .