Recently, the kids at Canvas returned home from youth camp and by the looks of the slideshow they must have a had great time! It was always like that when my girls went to church camp, as well. They adored camp, and when Tabitha was too old to attend, she became a leader so she could still be a part of it! They would come home completely animated by all of the shenanigans that took place, and not only that, but the telling of worship stories that changed their lives. As I sit here thinking about what a wonderful opportunity these young people have by attending church camp, I am reminded of my own days at camp….I hated it!!!
Hate is such a strong word, and if I could think of one stronger, I would use it instead. You see, from the time I was born until I was 19 years old, I went to a very strict church where you must lead a completely pious and boring life in order to please God. The women were to wear no makeup and their hair was to be a in a bun or a sensible style that never garnered any attention, and your attire must be very modest. I seriously thought as a child that being ugly was pleasing to God and a requirement to get into Heaven. There must be some back story here in order to understand my story. I’m recalling from beginning at age 12 when I was already a bit cynical, having been raised by a mother with dry humor and sarcasm. So this would be a good time to go get a glass of sweet tea or something because it’s going to be a bit lengthy.
Now, although this church was what’s called a “holiness” church, it was also dry as a gourd. Very rigid in keeping with the weekly program. No emotion…whatsoever. Oh wait, well there was my mother. Let me explain….even though this was the church we attended, we didn’t particularly go by their rules. My mother, back in her day, was quite a looker, even after birthing 7 kids! During the week she was just a regular looking mother, but on Sunday, or any other day that gave her reason to dress up, she did herself up real good. She would put on her makeup, although it wasn’t dramatic, fix her hair very stylishly, put on her girdle, (she never dressed up without it), put on clothes that she made look like they came out of a magazine, and blinged herself out before “blinged out” was ever coined as a term. My mother was by far the best looking and only “worldly looking” woman in that church…and ironically the ONLY one that ever shouted, except for an old lady who occasionally walked the aisles eyeballing any panic stricken parishioner who was slacking in their Godly duties and therefore was plucked from the pew for their yearly saving. And when my momma shouted, lord help if you were sitting close to her because it would send shock waves throughout your body if not forewarned. This was always followed by several repetitions of, “thank you, sweet Jesus”, and tears. I always thought it strange that my dressed up momma shouted and none of those very plain women ever did and they had to be closer to God because they were, well, plain and devout..
Well, because I was raised by a momma that didn’t follow that church code of moral piety, neither did us kids. We wore shorts and sleeveless shirts. Momma kept my hair bleached for the most part because she was sure that God didn’t really mean for me to be a dark blonde.
I digress, lets get to the tragic part. There was an old lady at my church that decided to pay my camp fees when I was 12 years old. The one time I was happy we were poor and this woman ruined it for me. My parents forced me to go because it was the polite thing to do since my way was paid. The only other girl going was in my Sunday school class and I didn’t like her. She was a spoiled and only child that made sure I saw her new clothes and shoes every Sunday. Momma told me though that she could wear all of the new clothes she wanted, but I was prettier and that was all that mattered. She told me that lots of times while growing up; it was her standard answer when I wanted something I couldn’t have. Anyway, this is what I had to look forward to…but it was sooooo much worse!
I was given a list of “absolutely can’t take to camp” and that included shorts and sleeveless shirts, makeup, and anything else that contributed to the snares of the devil. You know, all of the stuff I was used to having. I packed dresses, culottes, also referred to as gauchos, (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little recalling them), of which my parents had to buy me because they were awful and I didn’t own any. So I got all packed and off I went to what seemed to be a million miles away but was really only Friendsville. The whole time I’m thinking this must be how it feels heading off to prison for life. I had a knot of dread in my stomach 4 inches thick as I was dropped off and kicked out of the car while begging for a pardon, but it was useless, I must do my time.
My first instruction was to go to the girls dormitory, aka, child prison. I say this because the doors were actually bolted shut at night or any time we were not permitted to be there. The beds were metal bunk beds with thin hard cotton mattresses and the corners of the dorm were loaded with those “church spiders”. It was stifling hot and humid and there were no fans unless you brought your own, which I did not. I piled my things on a top bunk and turned to check out the adjacent bathroom. It was a row of concrete showers that were spray painted to cover the mold and it was the kind of paint that smells like a Chef Boyardee pizza. The mirrors were old and cloudy, but it wasn’t like you were going to need one anyway at this camp.
I decided to try and join in because I was stuck there for 5 nights so why not make the best of it, right? We had 3 services a day in the open air Tabernacle and when I say services I mean like regular church services, only longer. It was hot and sticky and lets face it, after about 30 minutes tops you’re going to lose a kid’s attention. The saving grace was the snack bar which served hamburgers, fries, drinks, and an assortment of sugary goodies. I would dream of that snack bar during service because our 3 meals a day were awful! Powdered eggs and powdered milk for one thing! Ewww!
For entertainment we played softball in our gauchos and never with the boys. I can clearly recall those polyester clothes sticking to me in that miserable blazing heat and humidity. I was forced to play even though I despised it. If you wanted a drink you had to go all the way up the hill to the water fountain, as this was the 70’s, and bottled water didn’t exist. If I had found a hill of hateful fire ants, (those ants that are perpetually ticked off), I would have stomped it because being covered and consumed by them with their poison flooding my body causing swelling to unimaginable proportions with intense suffering, seemed a better option. I really wanted to go home!
On the second morning our dorm leader told us that we were going to make up a story using all of our names in it in a clever way and compete with the other dorm for best story.. Finally, something to stimulate my brain! Our leaders name was Dawn, so I suggested we started our story with, “At the crack of dawn”. In my defense, I meant the breaking of morning. However, by the glaring looks on everyone’s faces, I’m fairly sure they were thinking of the mid sagittal crease which separates each set of gluteous maximus’. For a fleeting moment, I imagined them carrying me off and tying me to a stake. Then forming a circle and using only that glare, cause me to be consumed by spontaneous combustion. Seemed a fitting way to go considering where they thought I was headed anyway. I was doomed for 3 more days…and it never got better.
Year two, same old lady paid my way; same old dreadful, hot, and miserable 5 nights.
With year three soon approaching, I wondered if there’s a chance the old lady might go on and be with Jesus, (ok, I really said die) and I wouldn’t have to go to camp. Nope! She lived. As I arrived at camp I had determined that I might as well just get it over with the best I could…at least they still had the snack bar. This time, I had also brought make up and defiantly wore it even as it melted in the summer haze. Then at service that evening, my eyes met a boy and there, within my despair, I felt a tiny spark of excitement! Only during a limited amount of free time were girls and boys permitted to be together so, that evening before dorm curfew, this handsome boy introduces himself to me as Richard Masters. He tells me I’m the prettiest girl at camp, (as I’m seeing all of the designer gauchos on other girls I think, my momma is right, I must be prettier), so Richard and I talk and he bought me a Coke. That night I silently prayed, thanking God for not letting that old lady that pays my way die because I’m pretty sure I’ve found my future husband. I daydreamed of Richard during the sweltering games of softball instead of being eaten alive by fire ants. Oh! How I longed for those brief moments of time when we shared a burger and coke!
The third night proved to be magical. Dorm curfew was called, but Richard and I lagged behind not wanting the evening to be over. As the grounds were cleared of stragglers and only the two of us remained, it happened. Richard told me he liked me a lot and kissed me flat out on the lips! It was brief and innocent and sweet. We both sort of looked at each other and shyly stepped back without saying a word. He turned and went towards his dorm and I floated back to mine. It felt as if my feet weren’t even on the ground until I entered the dorm and was met with an accusatory stare from Dawn. Gravity sent me crashing back to Earth. I got ready for bed without either of us speaking and climbed into my bunk. Had I been seen blatantly breaking the rules? Was Dawn just letting me think about what I’d done before telling on me? I already imagined old Christian women observing from the roof tops with stones in their hands ready to pelt a sinner at the slightest infraction. I lay in bed half the night worried that there was going to be a stern-faced, devout woman with no makeup and her hair in a bun come drag me out into the night for a flogging because I dare let a boy kiss me! My heart pounded and my pulse raced at every creak and sound in the night, sweating not only from the miserable humidity, but also from a terrible case of nerves! Hadn’t I suffered enough?! Finally after 3 years I had a reason to want to STAY at camp!! I was happy when morning arrived and I had survived, but I was still watchful..just in case.
I still shared time with Richard and was very smitten with him, but we never dared to chance another kiss. It was just too risky. The day we went home, I was sad to be leaving my new love. We promised to return the next year and for once I looked forward to camp.
As camp time was approaching I was now 15 and, in my opinion, far too mature to go to camp. But the old lady was still alive to pay my way and there was Richard to look forward to seeing…..but I needed a back up plan in case he didn’t show. I absolutely was not going to stay if he wasn’t there! Sure enough, Richard was not there. I was told he had moved away and my heart sank. I simply could not endure 5 nights there without Richard. Remember the back up plan? On the evening of day two, I put my plan into motion. I pulled out a cigarette I’d stolen from my sister and I lit it right smack dab in front of the Tabernacle!! If this didn’t get me sent home nothing would because, to my church, smoking was right on up there with capital murder! Practically unpardonable and rule number 3 if you wanted to “join” the church!
Soon I was on my way home and happy as could be! My church camp fate sealed and my freedom bought at a price I was more than willing to pay! After this, I wasn’t allowed to ever return and I didn’t care if I was in trouble. My daddy thought it was pretty imaginative and said he didn’t blame me because he knew I hated it, but momma would be mad because my way had been paid and what would people think of the stunt I pulled? I don’t really recall how my momma reacted, but I’m pretty sure she was ok with it. After all, we never played by their code of moral piety.
When my girls started going to camp I was a bit worried, but times had changed. Fun was now allowed as long as the shenanigans didn’t get too out of hand and the girls and boys stood at least a foot apart. Kool aid in the shower heads, adding baby oil to the hair conditioner, water fights and games, and kid oriented worship that truly benefited my kids…Yeah, camp was different, for the different church I raised my girls in anyway, and I was happy that they loved going made such wonderful memories!
Hmmm…I think I’ll google Richard Masters. 🙂