Sunday, May 30, 2010

Camp Wesleyan for Girls

One of the most traumatic experiences of my young life was the week in July of 1960 when my parents sent me to Camp Wesleyan.  I had just turned 14, I had never spent any time away from my family, and by the time it was finished I swore I would never attend camp again.   Camp Wesleyan for Girls was run by the middle-aged wives of ministers,  elderly missionaries and one particularly memorable overzealous wanna-be drill sergeant in Bermuda shorts.

My dad drove away in his old Chevy, leaving me adrift in front of the massive and crumbling Epworth Inn at Silver Lake, New York.  It was there that the first horror story embedded itself into my brain.  A group of us newcomers were standing around with our hard shelled suitcases and matching make-up cases, trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing.  A baby bird fell out of its nest in one of the ancient oaks and landed at our feet on the gravel .  Some girls were squealing and some of us were working on a plan to rescue this pathetic little creature when an older camper appeared and with the stacked heel of her cowboy boot swiftly smashed the unfortunate bird into the ground .

This is how we met “Tiger,” a girl whose apparel made my usual tomboy outfit look positively frilly. Tiger was wearing skinny dungarees, a Western shirt with pearl snaps, a black cowboy hat and cowboy boots.  She looked and acted like a boy (except we knew she was a girl because this was a camp for girls only).  Had the baby bird incident never happened I surely would have worshiped her (from afar) all week.  Tiger was best buddies with the entire staff and we newcomers were in awe of her and also scared to death of her – mostly however I think we all simply hated her out of pure instinct, for her aura of coolness and her seemingly casual cruelty.

Another incident I remember from that first hour involved a really shy girl whose parents had given her two cases of Hershey bars to hand out to her “new friends” at camp.  Campers swarmed her like a Biblical plague of locusts, the candy bars were devoured, and even at our young age (14 was a lot younger in 1960 than it is today!) we all unconsciously dismissed her as needy and pathetic.  I still think of her every so often and wonder how she managed to survive in the big mean world.

The camp stretched on into endless hours and days of unaccustomed dormitory living, communal bathrooms, being forced to go to bed too early, the wanna-be sergeant in Bermudas who used her bugle to wake us up at the crack of dawn, awful food, tedious and uninspired Bible classes – all supposedly aimed at turning us into missionaries – no thanks!  We new campers were terrified of the uppity clique of older girls who flaunted their familiarity with the camp routine.  Once in a while we were allowed to go down to the lake to swim or sunbathe – but there were no crafts, no music, no fun – it was like five horrible days of church with really bad meals and prison guards.

Before supper on the last evening, a grim-faced staff member came to the front of the dining room and informed us that there had been a terrible accident and their darling little Tiger had drowned.  We were shocked at this information – our young brains barely comprehending the dreadful news – someone we had all hated and now she was dead!  It was simply too awful for words. 

We were informed that later in the evening there would be a memorial service in the dining room for the dear departed.  (Why not the chapel? This was, after all, a church camp!  We were too stunned to think to ask questions.)  The lights had been dimmed when we arrived, a few candles were burning, and over on a low riser a shape(which we assumed to represent the deceased) was lying draped with a white sheet.  Soft music was playing and we were all completely cowed. 

The staff began a solemn service – which swiftly turned from flowery King James phraseology into complex doggerel and ended with a rousing chorus of “Hold that Tiger” whereupon the deceased threw off the sheet, sat bolt upright (cowboy hat and boots and all) and jumped to her feet and proceeded to stomp around in the midst of our astonishment.  The staff members were holding their sides and howling with glee.

I did not think this stunt was very funny back then and fifty years later I still think it was a rotten trick because it was such an utterly frivolous departure from the humorless tone of the overly staid camp.  Probably scarred our little Hershey bar camper for life – but, then again, who knows, maybe she grew up to became a missionary! 

It is only now as I write this that I stop to wonder about Tiger’s life – I suspect she was able to conquer any and all people and obstacles in her path.  Although I doubt if she ever became involved in wild bird rehabilitation.