True Stories of the Church Camp From Heck and the Greatest Summer Ever: Part I
Parents just don't understand. When my father suggested sending myself and the elder of my two sisters away to our church's summer retreat, I was certain he'd finally gone totally bonkers. After all, we already attended church religiously (har har!) each Sunday. To a boy about to enter 6th grade, one who was quickly running out of completely care-free summer days, this was akin to imprisonment. An entire week spent away from my friends, my bike, and my beloved Sega Genesis videogame system? Surely you must be mad, Dad.
But before I go into more detail, allow me to take you back -- way back to that fabled summer of Jesus and Jesus Jones, of Hammer pants and fashionable mullets, of Family Matters and discovering Pee-Wee's real Playhouse was quite different from the one on television, the year 1991.
Living the Dream
I'm not being excessive with my praise when I say the summer of 1991 was like, uh, the bestest one ever. We were still at the dawn of a new decade, and though I was still very much a child, I was beginning to learn some of the inner workings of this loco world we call home. These were those fabled halcyon days I'll spin whistful yarns about one day, rocking my remaining years away in an old folks home. I thought it might be best to tell this story before the arthritis gets me...and because I can't think of anything else to write about right now. Hey, I never said I was creative or all that talented, just a little bit of a dreamer.
And maybe that's what made this summer so special: I was at an age where a person can dream bigger than this crazy third rock from the sun. It was a time when the world could truly be my oyster - a time when anything could happen and all of it had every right and opportunity to be good. It was also a time when my parents could send me away for a flippin' week to the middle of nowhere against my will. I guess you can't have everything.
But I certainly thought I did. The summer began with me taking my lazy posterior down to the local newspaper office. On the advice of my best friend, I had made the decision that delivering papers was going to be my first form of gainful employment. The carrot dangling at the end of this endeavor was one o' them snazzy Sega Genesis videogame systems. 16 bits! High definition graphics! Stereo sound! Arcade games at home! 150 frakking dollars! Yeah, I was gonna have to actually work for this one.
Perhaps sensing my youthful enthusiasm and videogame-inspired (obsessed?) determination, the kind people at the Bluffton News Banner hired me immediately. After a couple days of training with a guy who looked like the world's biggest Dr. Feelgood -era Motley Crue fan, I was off and set-up financially to get my new gaming system and lock myself in my bedroom for the rest of the summer.
But lethargy and the constantly changing whims of a young man, no matter how determined, can try even the most resolute soul. I soon grew tired of lugging those newspapers around by myself and took to whining incessantly about my employment. My Dad, kinder and more understanding than most, made my job a family affair.
My sisters and I would pile into his '84 Dodge Charger everyday and set off on the paper route. I like to think this was my Dad sensing my abnormal but somehow strangely charming personality peeping through, but it was probably just his fear of getting angry phone calls from Banner subscribers. Whatever the reason, he cranked up the Fort Wayne Top 40 radio station and hauled my lazy ass all over the neighborhood.
C & C Music Factory, Scorpions, Bon Jovi, and other popular artists of the time were the soundtrack to my newspaper delivering. The old red car with the hot-as-lava leather seats could never have had the slightest inkling those days would forever be happily burned into my memory. My stubborn refusal to follow through with my responsibilities had been inadvertently rewarded with some of the greatest memories of my life.
And my Sega.
I had saved a little money, but nothing close to what was needed to pay for the awe-inspiring game system I so craved. Dad bought it for me anyway, stating quite clearly that the rest of my paper route money was his until it was paid for. Whatever. The videogame was mine and that was all that mattered.
So the summer of Sega went on, but there was so much more. There were a couple family vacations here and there, plenty of impromptu baseball games in the middle of our street with the neighbor kids and best of all, many amazing days spent at Grandma's house. It was all a kid could ask for. The sun, for whatever reason, had decided to shine down directly on my happy person. God Himself had given me everything I could have ever hoped for. But God, apparently, has an interesting sense of humor.
Just Go... You'll Love It
I remember the exact moment when my Dad decided my sister and I were going away to church camp, like it or not. He, my sister Tamara, and myself were standing in the house of Ron and Rita Kiefer. Both were completely wonderful, church-going folks who'd go out of their way to help anyone in need. They had two daughters, both of whom were classmates and friends of mine. And man, did they ever love church camp.
The two girls described in grand detail all the fun, yet pious activities we'd be engaging in from the moment we set foot on the camp proper. There would be music, games, sports, swimming, puppet shows; the whole entertainment enchilada. In my mind, I was picturing Pleasure Island from Pinocchio. After viewing that movie, I had instantaneously decided that going to a place like that would most certainly result in my being turned into a donkey. No, but thanks anyway. This ass will just stay home.
I could see the gears turning in my father's head as the girls went on and on about the place. Surely he couldn't actually be considering this. I drifted off and stopped paying attention, turning my thoughts to how to beat that hard-as-nails last level of Sonic the Hedgehog . After a moment or two, Mrs. Kiefer entered the room and asked Tam and I if we wanted to go. We both stood silently for a moment.
"They're a little apprehensive about it," Dad said.
I know he said these exact words because this was the first time in my life I'd ever heard the word "apprehensive." I still think of that moment every single time I see or hear that dreadful adjective today. Unfortunately, "apprehensive" didn't begin to describe the half of it.
"Oh, you kids will have a great time," said Mrs. Kiefer.
"Yeah, you said the same thing about Bible School last summer," I wanted to say, pretending it wasn't at all likely I would burst into flames upon entering that church again.
I kept quiet. Dad said he would talk things over with Mom and would get back with them in a couple days. Mom!?!? I was more afraid of her will than God's. We were SO going.
The "Genesis" of the Trip
I recall reading once that George Washington, upon taking the oath to become the first President of the United States, compared his feelings to those of a criminal heading to his execution. To sum it up as succinctly as possible, I think "dread" is the word we're looking for here. The designated day for our departure to the dreaded church camp fast approached and no amount of Altered Beast marathon gaming sessions or Full House watching could make the apprehension go away.
It was as though my parents had attached a disclaimer, an undesired caveat, to my summer of doing whatever the heck I felt like. I had judged it completely unfair from the get-go and this negative attitude didn't help matters in the least.
At last, the day arrived and Mrs. Kiefer showed up at our house, cheery as she always was, to take my sister and I away. I turned over as many ideas as my pre-teen mind could fathom for escape, but there was no way out. I decided then and there that I would try to make the best of the awful situation, never realizing that if this was to be considered "awful," I really had no idea how good I had it in life.
We piled into Mrs. Kiefer's van and set off toward the outskirts of Muncie, Indiana; which would one day become my collegiate stomping grounds. The only future on my mind, however, was the coming week, destined to be memorable, if nothing else.
The Church Camp Redemption
It didn't take long to get to our camp. The destination was only about an hour's drive from our happy little house, a place I missed more than I thought I ever could already. I was perhaps most surprised that I had resisted the temptation to throw myself out the window. I think the $25 Mom and Dad had given Tam and I softened the blow a little bit. For two tweens on our first camp get-away, that amount of money was a king's ransom, James or otherwise.
We departed the vehicle and I was shocked to see what could best be described as a shantytown. The buildings that we would be sleeping in were painted white, but the paint had long-since started to chip away. There wasn't much in the way of recreational things outside either. There was a baseball diamond and maybe a large field, if memory serves, but that was about it. I wasn't one to judge the Almighty's decorating decisions, but there was nothing impressive about His campgrounds. I said nothing, fearing a well-placed bolt of lightning would end my trip before it ever began.
My sister and I made our way to the check-in area, feeling like two prisoners heading up the river for a good duration. Looking back now, if this had ever been filmed, it would have required a Morgan Freeman narration, or at least a little Tim Robbins. We got to our spot, told the people who we were, then were promptly relieved of our money. All funds had to be placed in a "bank" that could only be visited at certain times. This was located in a little shop, run by some pretty rude people, right in the middle of the camp.
Next, we were informed that boys and girls were not allowed to associate with one another except at certain times. Great. There went the only people I knew in the entire facility. That "apprehension" my father had spoken about suddenly came pouring out again...in tears.
Yes, friends and readers, there I was, in the middle of the church camp, bawling like a baby after only five minutes. This is why I have to live a life on the "straight and narrow." I'm not cut out for prison.
Getting back on topic, other kids in the camp stopped to look and laugh at my quasi-tantrum and were quickly hurried on to whatever they were supposed to be doing by the people in charge. I've always assumed it was making macaroni pictures, though I could be wrong. Suddenly, as though he were the Savior Himself, our church's preacher saw me and came over to talk about things. I was so glad to see him that I didn't know what to do. He sat and explained things in his genial manner, saying to give the camp a shot and maybe - just maybe - I might have some fun. I asked if he was going to be staying with us, but he said no. He had to get back home. Clearly, this was not the answer I had been looking for.
As bravely as I could, I left our preacher behind and headed for the building that was to be my home for the next five days. I knew no one and had no idea what was to come. It seemed that my friends,who had made this God-forsaken place out to be a child's wonderland, were insane indeed. I was certain my parents had gone off their respective rockers as well. Would I make it through all five days? Could I try to enjoy myself and possibly make a new friend or two? Would my little sister find a way to break my brand new Sega back home? The answers to this and more...soon.
To Be Continued...
Posted August 19, 2010