Mark Twain once said that humor is tragedy plus time. One need not look further than childhood to realize this statement is usually true. Remember the time your hamster bit down so hard on your finger, you had to pick it up and violently shake it free, flinging it against a wall and paralyzing it from the neck down? Back then it was pure tragedy, an unjustifiable disaster that resulted in the creation of the first ever animal Special Olympics (Caramel winning a gold on the Wheel), but now, in retrospect, it seems funny, justified even. Bon voyage you disgusting little bloodsucking rodent.
But there are certain childhood experiences that you may not, twenty odd years later, find completely humorous. These are the memories that bring about bittersweet emotions, the kind you can laugh at if only through tears. My first summer camp, Camp Leoni Meadows, is one such experience.
I was sent to Camp Leoni Meadows with one of my best childhood friends, Wendy. Our moms had known each other since they were teens and thus, we had known each other since birth. Wendy was a year older than I was and her sister, Karyl, was a year older than my sister, Alexa. All four of us were sent to camp at the same time, but Karyl and Alexa, being older, got to go to aquatics camps, while Wendy and I were relegated to the “normal” camp.
The idea to send us to this particular camp, I believe, was hatched one drunken evening. Jill and Barbara (Wendy’s mom and my mom, respectively) were up late one night polishing off their second or third—maybe fourth—bottle of Zinfandel. It was a May evening, and the two mothers were pondering how, for one hundred dollars apiece, they could get rid of their children for the summer so they could have more of these multiple wine bottle evenings. Obviously summer camp was the easiest option, but where, in the year 1984, would they find such an inexpensive place?
Spread out before them were pamphlets (no internet back then) advertising tennis camps, arts and crafts camps, weight loss camps—you name it—but none that fit the prerequisite budget. None, that is, except for the church camps. They were not always explicitly labeled as such, but once you start reading between the lines (on the cover of one brochure: “and may you be able to feel and understand, as all God’s children should, how long, how wide, how deep, and how high His love really is … ”), you immediately knew there was more to the place than just archery and sing-alongs.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with church camps. They are perfectly fitting for those who are religious, or who have attended church more times than they can count on one hand. Neither Wendy nor I had. I prayed to God when I had piano recitals, or when I thought the spider in the corner of my bedroom was going to eat me in the middle of the night, but that’s about all the praying I did. Furthermore, this camp was not just run by Christians, it was run by Seventh-day Adventists. In case you don’t know much about the Adventists (which I still don’t, really) they are vegetarian. Being a vegetarian is fine, but this was back in the day when tofu was only used for cattle feed: no one knew how to cook it and meat substitutes were something you could caulk your bathroom pipes with. Not only were we surely going to be sinners in the land of saints, we were destined for a week of culinary disaster.
Wendy and I knew nothing of this as we were shipped off to the woods in a huge lumbering bus. I carried my dad’s old army duffle bag, its pea soup color perfect for hiding the massive amounts of dust that would eventually cover everything we owned. There was something slightly military about the camp as well; in the morning we would line up and salute the American flag while someone played a bugle. After care packages and mail were handed out, we learned how to correctly fold our flag—military style—so it wouldn’t touch the ground.
Back in our rustic cabin, which we shared with about six other girls and a counselor, Wendy and I were the only ones who did not bring bibles. Even back then, I was hugely disdainful of Goody Two-shoes girls, so we kept our distance from those whose piousness threatened to suffocate our freedom to mock. There was plenty of prayer, which we tried our hardest to avoid, but they always lured us through song, like Sirens calling the unfaithful. The words were fervently sung by some over eager counselor who had learned four chords on her wooden guitar:
“Okay campers, another round!
Heaven, is, a wonderful place
Filled, with, glory and grace,
I wanna see my savior’s face!
Heaven is wonderful place
(Bluesy) I wanna go there …”
We sang along and made the most of our situation. We did ceramics and went swimming, and bought games at the camp store. We went horse-back riding, and my filly decided to bolt out of line and take off at a gallop, unresponsive to my frantic rein-pulls to stop. A counselor had to chase after and rescue me. That, even by the end of the week, was funny. We had even started to adapt to the horrendous food, which was something akin to hospital food meets Delta airlines. Then came Sabbath.
According to the Seventh-day Adventists, Saturday is the seventh day and the one that “God has set aside for focused fellowship with His people.” Focused fellowship, for us campers, meant writing your favorite scripture on a scratch of paper, hiding these sacred words somewhere on your person, and taking a holy hot-as-hell hike to the top of a mountain. The idea was that you would face challenges along the way—say, two guys jumping out of the bushes, holding guns and demanding you relinquish your notes from God—but if you were pure of heart and loved Him, you would make it to the “top.”
Wendy and I choose our words from a bible, randomly flipping through pages of text that were as foreign to us as hiking. I hid my piece of wisdom underneath my pink retainer, figuring that even if the mean men were to find it, my saliva would’ve washed the ink off, and my perpetrators would be fooled.
We started out on the hike with our counselor and cabin mates, and the only thing carrying our little legs up the mountain was promise of a barbeque at the end. About halfway up the hill, two young men came out of nowhere, sticking possibly real, most likely plastic, guns in our faces and yelling:
“Gimme your scripture! Where is your scripture?!! Fork it over, heathens!!”
We shrugged and turned our pockets inside out. If I had half the sense I have now, I would’ve kicked one of those boys right in his baby-maker and set off running. But I was young and tried to be polite.
“Uh, no scwipture here swir, just out for a stwoll in the woods,” I responded, lisping from the large wad of pulp in my mouth.
They grimaced and finally let us pass. Every once in awhile, Wendy and I would shoot each other stares, asking, “What the hell? I mean what the hell is this nonsense?” but we couldn’t say it—the h-e-double hockey sticks word—so we just kept hiking.
At the top of the mountain—phew! We made it alive—there was a barbeque, of sorts. We were still eating vegetarian, so there was freshly grilled rubber veggie dogs, and sliced deli “meat” that was the same grey color as rotting flesh. During lunch, we all gathered in an outdoor auditorium and listened to a man speak. He used to be a druggy, then went to jail and found God and now was a born-again Adventist. He was old and craggily and wore faded overalls. Even back then I could tell he was one of those creepy zealots, the kind that might snap back to their old demons given the slightest provocation. His speech, and the rubber food, made my stomach hurt.
After it was over, we got a ride down the mountain and the next day, thank God, camp was over. We returned a few pounds lighter, with black boogers from all the dust, and more than a few bones to pick with our moms.
“How could you!! Didn’t you get the letters we sent pleading to come pick us up? We were tortured!”
But Barb and Jill just sat in the front seat, laughing and laughing. Time had already healed their tragedy; this was pure humor.
(Author’s note: Brie, perplexingly, returned to Leoni Meadows the following year—to aquatics camp—to learn how to water ski. It was a much better experience; the gun-wielding God Squad is apparently afraid of water.)