True Stories of the Church Camp From Heck and the Greatest Summer Ever: Part II
Bible Camp Blues
They say that art imitates life. Perhaps, then, it wasn't mere coincidence that my favorite Saturday morning cartoon in 1991 was Camp Candy, an animated program featuring the voice of John Candy himself. I used to wake up around 6 a.m. every Saturday just to tune into this short-lived show. The cartoon's premise was that Candy was a dimwitted summer camp counselor whose misadventures with the kids he was in charge of made for, in my opinion, outstanding TV. Now that was the summer camp I wanted to go to.
I remember thinking about this cartoon as I was led to the dilapidated building I was to stay in for the next five days at my church camp. In this case, art and life were as mutually exclusive as two things could ever be.
When I finally entered the place, I was certain I'd been transported directly into the deepest pits of H-E-double hockey stick. The place was as run-down as any I'd ever seen. I glanced at the bunk beds I'd soon be sleeping in, confident that if there were such things as bed bugs, I was bound to be snoring away with plenty of them.
There was only one other boy in the building at the moment, and he appeared to be far older than the 10-14 age requirement. He looked at me, picked up a broom and began jabbing me in the stomach with it's bristly end. I stood there and dumbfoundedly took the abuse, not exactly knowing how to react. This was the first and only time I'd ever been assaulted with household cleaning equipment.
Finally, I pushed the broom away and introduced myself. The last thing I wanted to do was start a fight with someone a foot taller than I, who also happened to be holding a makeshift weapon. Such was my resolve to make friends with anyone, even future prison inmates.
Our introduction was interrupted by the arrival of my camp counselor, a stocky and very kind individual named Josh. He shooed away the brute with the broom and took me on a mini-tour of the camp. It didn't last long, though, because I was soon to meet my bunkmates for a fireside chat and prayer session.
Prayer. If there was ever a time when I needed to ask a favor of the Almighty, it was right now. That favor? GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!
Everybody Dance Now
Already thrust into the most uncomfortable position of my young life, the next step was to meet my fellow inmates. Judging by the looks on most of their faces, they had as little desire to be there as I did.
We gathered in the field for our meet 'n greet and said a prayer. I asked God to let my sister and I go home as soon as possible, promising I'd never ask another favor as long as I lived. I've always been told that God is quite a forgiving being, so I figured a little white lie wouldn't hurt. If I was desperate enough to fib to Jesus, then no further explanation of my desire to go home is necessary.
After the prayer, Josh had us go around in the circle, introducing ourselves to everyone. After this, we were given free-time to do pretty much whatever we wanted. My plan was to make a break for the front gate of the Shawshank Church Camp, but thought better of it. Those couldn't possibly be snipers on the roof, could they? I cast aside my prison break plans and tried once again to make the best of the bad situation.
The only kid in my group smaller than I began a conversation with the other kids, exalting his love for C & C Music Factory's smash hit song, Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now). He stood up, put his arms behind his head, shouted "Everybody dance now," and began gyrating his hips. This went on for a couple minutes. I wanted to laugh at this ridiculous display, but the homesickness stifled even the slightest guffaw. He continued with his inappropriate-for-church-camp impromptu dance routine, finishing by saying, "You do that naked in front of a bunch of people, and you're sure to start a party."
Awesome. Now we've got a future sex offender in the group to go along with Mr. Assault and Battery. Was this church camp, or did Mrs. Kiefer accidentally drop me off at a center for juvenile delinquents?
The sun set and we headed to bed, instructed not to get up or leave our bunks for any reason throughout the night. Periodically, camp counselors with flashlights opened our door and shined the lights on us, making sure we followed those strict directions. I pulled my bedsheets over my head and cried (again) into my pillow. One thing was certain: I was getting out of here, come Hell or high water.
Master of Puppets
Susan and Andrea Kiefer, school chums and bible camp super-fans, had been, in my not-so-humble opinion, dead freaking wrong about everything about the camp thus far. The morning brought the first instance of the two girls being correct, however, as dawn wrought a puppet show I'll never forget.
After waking and getting dressed, we were escorted to a building to watch a couple filmstrips on how to be a good Christian, followed by the church camp's version of Sesame Street, Jesus-style. It was horrible. One couldn't expect Tony award-winning thespian skills in a place like this, but this was a sin against theatre if there ever was one.
For two gosh-darned hours, the ugliest puppets and marionettes you've ever seen played out a Christian-themed program that just had to be the brainchild of Beelzebub. Today's kids can "get their God on" with Veggie Tales and anything Kirk Cameron has ever been in. Unfortunately, we were about a decade too early for that. The puppets looked like something you'd find in the dumpsters outside Jim Henson's Workshop, and the fugly things were more horrifying than the wrath of the Old Testament God. And He was as vengeful as a deity could ever be.
The hideous puppets couldn't have been more scary if they'd been driven onstage in an Astro Van full of dead puppies and children's tears. I was certain this sorry spectacle was breaking more Commandments than a typical day for Charlie Sheen, but we all watched it nonetheless. It was awful and if I close my eyes, I can see it plain as day, as though it happened only yesterday. But I'll try not to do that and move on.
After the curtain fell on the traumatic puppet show, it was time for breakfast. We were seated in an open-air building with our respective groups and given our choice of stale cereals. I picked Froot Loops, long a favorite of mine, and enjoyed the expired food offerings with some warm milk. My thoughts once again turned to escape, but I began to realize my only hope would be placing a collect call to my parents. In the days long before cell phone use became an everyday thing, this unenviable task would be my only way of pleading with Mom and Dad to come get my sister and I. Fearing the repercussions of that call (a certain grounding) more than an encore of that dreadful puppet show, I cast the thought aside and went back to moping in my cereal. More free time was ahead, as well as the chance to meet up with Tam again, so maybe we could put our minds together and come up with another way to get out of here.
It had only been about 12 hours since I'd last seen my sister, but it felt like forever. We had always been close, so I surmised that she may be having as little fun as I was. She could be my perfect accomplice in plotting our escape and getting back home to my friends and, of course, my Sega system that I missed so much.
As it turns out, she was just as much an outcast as I was. She said the girls in her bunk left her out of their activities and didn't invite her to partake in much of anything. One of the girls in her bunk, only a couple years older than Tam, told stories of her sexual escapades and other tawdry tales. Okay, that's three future felons we've run into now. If nothing else, those three crazy kids were in the right place to get some religion in their lives, but none of that helped the situation my sister and I were in at the moment.
I again decided that calling Mom and Dad would be our only hope of getting home. I ran the idea by Tam, who was decidely nonplussed at the prospect of placing a collect call to our parents. She was just as miserable as I was, but getting into more trouble when we got home was a consequence she wasn't willing to risk. I was on my own with this one.
Phoning it In
After parting ways with my sister, I headed to the little shop (of horrors?) in the middle of the campground. I was able to re-obtain some of my $25 and went about perusing the place in the hopes that doing so might take my mind off of the distressing matters at hand. It did. A little.
Some readers may recall an artist by the name of Jack T. Chick. He wrote and drew religious-themed mini-comic books. We were apt to finding these little things stuck under our windshield wipers, often when returning to the car from a Kmart visit. Mom and Dad always let me keep them and Grandma had given me several that she had received from church. Those had been free, but I had liked them enough that spending a dollar on each didn't bother me in the least. I bought five or six of them, then found a couple little trinkets here and there I intended to purchase for Grandma. If I was to go through with this phone call, I'd better get something for the parents, too.
Finding nothing that would persuade them to rescue me (or forgive me for the expensive phone call if they did), I went back to my falling-to-pieces housing area and read each of the comics from cover to cover. They were all the same basic premise: sinful guy meets his maker, having never repented his sins and winds up cast into a lake of fire. It was pretty grisly stuff for a kid to read, but it was entertaining and far more eye-opening than anything seen thus far in my church camp visit.
Finally, I decided to make my move for escape. I headed to the main building on the lot and again broke down crying. I spoke with the camp's director and he finally let me make that fateful call.
But no one was home. It was getting late and my chances of getting out before having to sleep in that crummy bed again had instantly gone from slim to absolute zero. The homesickness and the indifference the other kids seemed to have for me combined into the surest form of misery I'd ever felt. These were the times that tried young men's souls. I decided to try my parents again, and this time, they were home.
To Be Concluded...
Posted August 22, 2010