Okay, so I never went to band camp but I am loving the hell out of the book Camp Camp, which I bought a week or so ago for a buck. It's a loose collections of photos and former campers remembrances of camp. Most of the campers went to fancy camps in the northeast where they stayed for over a month and most of the campers interviewed for this book went to camp during the 1980's and early '90's, which was well after my camp years. But the thing about sleep away camp is that it's universal, those who went through it can smile and nod and appreciate the reminiscences of others because we all went through pretty much the same thing no matter if the camp we went to was for Methodist kids, Jewish kids, or what have you. And of course as I read this book I think back on my own camp experiences.
When I was in 8th grade I took Agriculture in school and since I took Ag, I was automatically enrolled in FFA, that's Future Farmers of America for those of you out of the loop. The only reason I took Ag was I was drunk with the power to finally choose my own classes and I chose it because it was a choice that I knew would make people scratch their heads and wonder what was wrong with me.
Anyhoo, after a year of barely understanding my teachers accent (I was still new to the south back then and I had a hard time understanding the slurred slow accents I was hearing), making wooden toolboxes, learning about tractors, and taking field trips to the stock yard to see cattle auctions I was finally rewarded for my troubles with a trip to FFA camp.
FFA camp was a week long affair and it was held in Virgina Beach, VA. It was the closest I would get to the Atlantic ocean for the first time in my life but oddly enough, they would not let us go to the beach. However, we did get to go to Busch Gardens which was totally cool even though I could not take advantage of the free beer they gave out on the tour of the brewery. I recall playing softball and being made captain of the team by some fucking smart ass hippie who thought he was being funny by making the skinny pale blonde kid with huge black horn rimmed glasses team captain. We also got to see some schlocky outdoor historical drama that I remember hating.
The other thing I hated about FFA camp was that I ran out of spending money on the last day. So it looked like I was not going to be able to eat anything on the long ride home because the plan was to stop and eat fast food on our 8 hour ride west back to Lee county. It was decided that our teacher and chaperon, a slack jawed hick named Cecil Clendenon, would loan me $10 so I could eat and that I would pay him back as soon as possible. Which was fine except that I had no way to pay him back because I had no job and was dependent on my crazy aunt and sorry ass uncle for cash. When he loaned me the ten bucks Clendenon told me that I would not be allowed to graduate from high school until I paid him back, which suited me fine since that gave me four years to pay his dumb ass back. He reminded me once again before I got off the bus to go home and he kept reminding me for months and months once school started back again that fall. He'd say something about that ten bucks every time I saw him in the hall. I finally paid him back after I got paid a pittance for helping someone put up hay. I saw him in the hall and as soon as he opened his yap to tell me he'd make sure I didn't graduate until I paid him back, I tossed ten one dollar bills at his feet and I said, "There you go, now we're even. I guess this means I'll get to graduate in three years, huh." We never spoke another word to one another ever again.
The above building is the kitchen/mess hall at the United Methodist Youth camp in Fort Blackmore, VA. I did a couple of summers there while in middle school. It wasn't bad except for the fact that I had to attend at the same time as my awful cousins did. And to make matters even worse, one year Cousin Smart Ass was a counselor and I was assigned to be in his group.
We did things like arts and crafts, play sports, listen to the fairy tales about Jesus and God, ate shitty food, went swimming, broke into small groups and got told how much Jesus loved us, and were forced to sing and pray around campfires.
Of course what we really did was ogle the girls, make rude jokes, accuse other male campers of being gay, tried to avoid being picked on, played pranks on each other, and come up with rude nicknames for the emotionally stunted adults who ran the place. I remember one horrible woman who had religion stuck so far up her ass it came out her mouth. She was married to some developmentally disabled man and we were all supposed to fawn over how wonderful and great she was for marrying a guy who drooled and had the social skills of a ten year old. She wore far too much make up, laughed too loud, sang too loud, loved Jesus a little too much, and she generally annoyed all us adolescent kids who wanted nothing more than to be left alone so we could figure out what was happening to our bodies as puberty struck us upside the heads. We all banded together as one in our hatred of this woman and we dubbed her Liver Lips, although I'm pretty sure I was the only one who had the guts to call her that to her face. And I recall she slapped me across my face for calling her that, in those days one could do that sort of thing and not worry about getting sued.
My crowning achievement, other than getting slapped by that horrid painted Amazon, was winning third place in the diving competition. My cousins snickered as I took to the diving board and I recall Cousin Psycho telling the preachers hot daughter, Karen Kirk, that I would surely suck at diving because I had a smaller penis than he did, which creeped me out because that meant he was looking at my young dick when we changed out of our bathing suits after swimming. I put his crazy comments out of my mind and I put all my energy and focus into that dive and lo and behold when I came up for air after I did it, other campers applauded me. I beamed when it was announced I finished third and Cousin Psycho didn't win anything. He glared at me the rest of the night and when it was lights out in the cabin later he was telling anyone who would listen to him that I was gay and a fruit for making a such a good dive.
The best times at camp were the times where my cousins weren't around and I could just be myself. I got to do that at yearbook camp and MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) camp, both of which were held on the campus of Emory & Henry College in Emory, VA.
MYF camp was different from the camp at Fort Blackmore in that only teens in high school got to go to MYF camp. And for some reason I got to go to MYF camp alone for two years straight, which suited me just fine.
One summer I went was also the summer I got to go to the UN in NYC. MYF camp came after the NYC trip and while at MYF camp I got not one but two letters from girls I had spent time with on the NYC trip. They were two girls from Maine who I had befriended and both sent me photos of themselves in their letters. Once word got out that I, a 98 pound weakling, a pale smart ass with huge black horned rimmed glasses had gotten not one but two letters from two super cute chicks from out of state, I became a rock star to those other kids. They laughed harder at my jokes, saved seats for me in the dining hall, and some actually looked up to me. It was mind blowing because in reality I was actually shy around girls and was probably the biggest geek in that camp.
It was in MYF camp that I met my once and future friend Mullins. He was a loud mouthed braggy kid with a a good right arm, while his left arm was a stub. It was half the size of his right arm and it had a few deformed fingers on the end of it. For some reason, the second we saw each other we hit it off. While playing cards one day during a break from having to count our blessings that we were living in the USA where we were free to praise Jesus all the live long day, I put on one of those Aussie cowboy hats that belonged to another kid. Mullins took one look at me in that hat and he said, "You look like a god damn prairie dog in that stupid hat." Everybody in the room cracked up and for the rest of the week everybody, even the girls and camp counselors, called me 'Prairie Dog.'
Flash forward to a couple of years later to when I got to King College. Imagine my shock when I run into my old MYF camp buddy Mullins. Of course we remembered each other and of course he told everyone to call me 'Prairie Dog.' King was a small school back then, it's grown considerably since I left, and my nickname spread like wildfire. I'd be willing to be there are people I went to college with who have no recollection of my real name but who would instantly remember me if you told them my nickname.
Yearbook camp was also held at Emory & Henry and I got to go for two years straight. The first year I learned the nuts and bolts of making a yearbook and I had some fun as well. The second year was much different because in between those years I had discovered that I liked to smoke pot and drink beer. I made the mistake of taking a bag of weed with me to camp and I befriended a kid from Big Stone Gap, another little town in SW VA, and he and I got stoned a lot together. Basically, he and I made it our mission to ditch the work and to get stoned as much as possible. I'm sure we both showed up at work session reeking of pot but somehow we never got caught, although I do remember hearing whispers saying that I was some kind of drug dealer/superduper pothead.
There was another camp I went to in the late '70's, I'm not sure what the real name of it was, we always called it Horse Hollow Camp. It was a religious camp run by a flock of Minnesotans who had made their way south one day when the snow melted. They brought with them a strange hybrid Pentecostal/evangelical/Lutheran faith and they did their best to ram it down our young throats.
These odd Minnesotans would rouse us at dawn, march us into the dining hall, feed us, make us clean up en mass, and then they marched us into the tiny church on the camp property. They'd harangue us all morning with their Christian fairy tales, stories about how persecuted Christians were, how the Soviet Union was the devil, how we needed to go to places like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Ukraine and win souls to Jesus. After lunch we were allowed to play sports like tetherball, softball, basketball, and whatever other kind ball sport they could think of. Then after supper it was back to church so we could hear more about how much the Lord loved us but only when we obeyed him. They'd bring in preachers who would work themselves into a frenzy of salvation and the weak kids would start crying, speaking in gibberish, which led them to turn their lives over to Jesus. The devout girls would sit and dream of dating Jesus but if you broke one off from the herd she might let you feel her boob in the woods or if you got really lucky, she might give you a hand job if you promised to turn your life over to Jesus at the next altar call.
The last night at Horse Hollow Camp was the big night of the week. It was the big bonfire, or as they called it, the Fagot Fire Night. Everyone was encouraged to toss a fagot, a small log, onto the bonfire and to give your testimony as you did it. The hope was as the fire grew, the lives dedicated to Christ would grow as well. For me, it was the most embarrassing night of the week. And I wasn't embarrassed for me because there was no way in hell I was going to toss a log on that fire or stand up and claim that I was giving my life to Christ, I was embarrassed for those who did stand up and do that shit. I hated the ostentatious shows of piety and the holy roller crap, but I didn't mind the stolen kisses or the odd girl grope.