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True Stories of the Church Camp From Heck and the Greatest Summer Ever: Part III
The church camp director's name was Dennis Willoughby. By all accounts and actions, he was a good and decent man, though I could tell he was growing tired of my whining by the time he allowed me to place my second phone call to my parents. He was also, in more than a bit of irony, a dead ringer for The Simpsons' resident stereotypical Christian, Ned Flanders. I secretly wondered where he kept his stash of sweater vests, but put the thought aside as the phone rang at home.
I had to make it clear how horrible this experience was, knowing full well that this may be my only chance to garner enough sympathy for escape. The phone rang several times before Dad answered the operator, saying he would accept the collect call. This was it.
"Dad," I said, choking back tears.
"What's wrong, Brent?" he asked, knowing that no matter how trying I was about to make my bible camp experience out to be, there was more than a little hyperbole attached to it.
"I want to come home. I hate it here. No one likes me, and I miss you and Mom. I just want to come home. Please, come get us."
"Brent, it's late. It can't be that bad, and your Mom and I aren't coming up tonight. Give it a chance. You've only been there one day."
"I know! That's how awful this place is," I sniffled, fearing not even my tears could change his mind. How cold-hearted could a person be?
"You only have to stay until Friday. It will be okay. I'm hanging up now, because this is costing way too much money. I love you, bye."
There was silence on the other end. I handed the phone back to Flanders, dejected and defeated.
"Son, just give the camp a chance. I think you might really like it here if you just gave it a good, honest chance. Now, buck up and let's get ready for bed."
I don't remember if I said anything as ol' Ned led me back to my bunks. It was late and I was exhausted after my day of plotting an escape that grew exponentially less likely by the minute. Even that soon-to-be-condemned building I was staying in seemed inviting enough. I got to my bed and laid down, a boy who'd lost all hope. Then I heard a familiar voice call my name.
"Brent!" a voice said in a loud whisper. I recognized it, but couldn't place its owner for the life of me. I wondered if I was hearing things. Had I really been here long enough to go completely mad?
"Brent! It's me, Ricky. You want a Cheeto?"
"Huh?" I said, trying to wrap my head around the randomness of it all. "Who?"
"Ricky Tudor! Do you want a Cheeto?"
Ricky Tudor had been, up until this point in my life, an obnoxious kid that I mostly avoided. He was a year younger than I and tended to hang around with my sister from time-to-time. He also had a penchant for being rambunctious. If there was trouble to be found, Ricky Tudor, one way or the other, would surely find a way to get into it.
At this point, however, Ricky was here to save me, at least in some small way. I was certain that the Lord this crappy camp strived to honor had forever forsaken me from the moment we had arrived at this little slice of Hell. In his place, there sat a snack food-bearing angel I'd spent approximately five minutes of my life speaking to, prior to the last couple of minutes.
There was a small hole in the wall of our lovely military barracks, and Ricky used this as a portal to pass his ill-gotten cheesy goodness onto myself and my fellow inmates. I don't know how, when or where Ricky had been able to pilfer a bag of Cheetos and sneak them by the camp's Gestapo, but he had. And I was grateful. This may have been the best snack of my life thus far, having suffered through the camp's less-than-desirable culinary offerings for a little more than 24 hours now.
"Where did you get those?" I whispered in wonder.
"Not tellin'. I'll get in trouble if anybody finds out."
"I won't tell anybody."
He ignored my statement and posed a question a lot of other kids probably had wanted to.
"Why were you crying?" Ricky asked, without the slightest hint of passing judgment or undue condemnation.
"I hate this place and I want to go home," I responded sadly.
"I hate it here, too," said Ricky, "but my parents make me come here every year."
"Have you ever tried to call them and ask them to come get you?"
"No, I just go. I already know they won't come get me, so what's the point? It's actually fun here sometimes."
Ricky's optimism helped a little, but not enough to stave off my homesickness for more than a few minutes. Having finally made a friend (and with a belly full of Cheetos), I rolled over and fell fast asleep. Not even the counselors and their flashlights could wake me this time. Maybe the morning could bring a new plan for going home, but for now, some good rest would do very nicely.
Rise and Shine
Though I scarcely believed it could, the sun did come up the next morning. As the morning before, the day began with a song:
Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, children of the Lord
Thinking myself the Christian world's supreme heretic, I cringed in disgust at the happy little ditty. Rise and Shine may, in fact, be the world's cheeriest song, narrowly edging out Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry, Be Happy. But sorry, Bobby. I still had plenty to worry about.
It may sound incredible, but as I munched on more outdated cereal, I made plans for another phone call to Mom and Dad. At this point, one of my few remaining hopes was to simply annoy them enough to come get me. There would be a potentially stern punishment waiting in the wings for me at home, but I reasoned that if my parents were to actually see this despotic hell-hole in person, they might come to understand my plight and find some forgiveness for me. Tam could back me up, too, so the situation still had a chance of coming up reasonably rosy.
I spent the day mostly with Ricky and another kid who absolutely hated the place. I ran into Tam again and she was getting along better, having long-since resigned herself to staying. That was the difference between my sister and I: she was as easy-going as people come, while I was uptight on a level far beyond my years. This dichotomy didn't serve us all that well in this situation.
The rest of the day is pretty fuzzy. I don't recall many of the activities we engaged in, nor do I remember feeling nearly as homesick as I had the day before. I was still carrying around a fair amount of embarrassment over my tear-filled breakdowns, so maybe that was the reason I continued to ponder ways of escaping the bible camp prison. The Stockholm Syndrome had already set in, but it hadn't embedded itself quite deeply enough into my psyche just yet to truly give in to the notion of staying.
Evening came and I knew it was make or break time. If I decided to risk one more call, I had damn sure better be confident in positive results. It would take guts to tangle with Flanders one more time in order to get on that phone again. Oh well. No guts, no glory.
As the sun set on another day of "bleh" and mucho complaining, I headed to Flanders' office once more to use the phone. Mom and Dad certainly would not be all that enthused to hear from their seemingly incorrigible son once more, but a distraught kid's gotta do what a distraught kid's gotta do. The church camp had gotten as intolerably boring as it was run-down, and the time to part ways with the "awful" place was, at last, at hand.
Surprisingly, Flanders didn't put up much of a fight this time. I began to think that he viewed me as something of a lost cause and had finally decided that ridding the holy grounds of my heretical presence might be the best thing for all parties involved. As far as I was presently concerned, he could have doused me in holy water and called for a spur-of-the-moment exorcism. Whatever would get me out this place was totally dandy.
For the final time, he dialed up my parents and placed another collect call. I was belly button deep in hot water already, so I figured I had little to lose as he handed me the phone once more.
I don't remember how the conversation went this time. There wasn't much of an argument between Dad and I and there was little in the way of resistance on his part. Again I cried into the receiver, pleading to come home and elaborating on the sheer "suckness" of the Shawshank Church Camp Penitentiary. Dad let me spill my guts on everything: the assault in the "barracks" with the broom, the avoidance from most of the other kids, the puppet show from Hell, the stale food, the "bank" taking our money, and the flashlight-bearing Nazi camp counselors. I think it was that last little detail that finally turned the tables in my fight against the horrible, supremely terrible, no-good bible camp.
Dad said he would come get us tomorrow evening, meaning I still had to spend one more night and day in the awful place. Victorious with an asterisk, I handed the phone back to Ned who looked at me with more disappointment than my parents ever had. My will had finally persevered, but at what cost?
Ricky and the only other kid I associated with were impressed with my sympathy-gathering skills when I told them my parents were coming to recue me the following evening. This was unheard of. No camp-goer had ever been freed early from this devil's den of a summer camp. I had received parental parole of the most highly unlikely. I was a bit of a hero, but my victorious conquest came with an unforeseen price: guilt.
And so it was that night and sleep fell on this church camp "hero," the spoils of my unprecedented win forever sullied with a blasphemous black eye. Reputation mattered more than I thought it ever could at this moment, and I felt I had ruined it...for myself, my sister and the family as a whole. This would be a tough one to live down.
I slept peacefully, despite my remorse, and eagerly awaited the next day. Maybe I couldn't save my reputation here, but getting home would make it all better regardless.
Morning came and trumpeted out the Rise and Shine song again. My disgust at the song as well as the church camp itself had largely disappeared the moment Dad said he would come rescue my sister and I. Time to make the best of my remaining time here, hoping I would do a better job at that seemingly insurmountable task I'd monumentally failed at so far.
If nothing else, this day was certainly different. After another expired cereal breakfast, we boarded a school bus to a local swimming pool. The place had been rented out to only church camp kids and staff, which meant we had the entire facility to ourselves. As God's children splashed away happily, my guilt steadily faded away under a hot summer sun. I still didn't feel like one of "them," but for the first moment since I had arrived at the church camp, I was happy.
Dad placed a call to the pool, saying he would arrive to pick us up almost immediately when we returned from the pool party. Talk about a hollow victory. I was having a time that rivaled anything enjoyable prior to the bible camp sentencing, and now, it would soon be over. The old adage "be careful what you wish for" had come to pass and a lesson had been learned, albeit a little too late. There was no way to avoid going home now, and I had found out, not nearly soon enough, that there can be good in nearly any situation.
As we happily swam and reveled, unknowlingly, in some of the simplest joys of childhood, the day passed quickly and evening came. We piled into the bus once more and set off for the camp. I was perhaps a little wiser, but that's something I wouldn't discover for years to come.
When we reached the not-so-dreadful-after-all church camp, Dad was waiting for us beside his old Dodge Charger. We were greeted with hugs from Dad and odd stares from the camp staff and the other kids. I had made us pariahs in a sense, and my escape seemed empty. We got into the car and drove away, self-excised infidels in the eyes of the others. But I still believed. Everything would be okay when we got home and this unpleasant little incident wouldn't mar the rest of my amazing summer at all.
As I had hoped, the rest of the summer was indeed spectacular. We still attended church and no one made fun of Tam or I (at least to our faces) about leaving the awful bible camp early. Everything had returned to normal. We resumed our baseball games in the middle of Townley Street, traffic be damned. We visited Grandma's house, the closest thing to Heaven this world had to offer, a lot and just enjoyed being kids altogether. Chelsea, my youngest sister, had not broken my new Sega system as I had feared.
Everything had fallen right back into its place, the Time-Space Continuum undisturbed and unaltered. Even the paper route became cool again, though Dad still drove us around, making sure they were delivered on time. One day, I would understand his respect for obligations and priorities. For now, the brightest summer sun I'd ever seen would do.
Time passed and circumstances, as they invariably do, changed. The following year brought a recession that hit many families hard, ours included. We moved away from our happy little home, our beloved-more-than-words-can-say-grandmother, and all our friends and family in the Autumn of '93. We became teens, then adults. I went off to college and learned many more of life's tough lessons, as well as a plethora of its joys.
Time and distance separated us from a good deal of the people we cared the most for. Our wonderful neighbors moved away. Our friends graduated and began careers and families of their own. Everyone moved on and several passed on.
Finally, Grandma passed away in late summer 2009, leaving only the heart and good will she helped instill in each of us to carry on.
But for a brief few moments, we were all together, united and joyous under a loving God's beautiful blankets of happiness and sunshine. If there is truly a Heaven, I imagine it's something like that great summer of so many years ago. I hope my friends and family will be there. I know my Grandma is. I hope there's better food. To live in days like those again would truly be the greatest reward for a life well-lived. I can only hope to be worthy someday.
In the years to come, if I ever sit down to write my memoirs, there will be a chapter on the greatest summer ever - one briefly interrupted by life-lessons learned from the strangest summer camp imaginable. As the memories grow ever more foggy, the nostalgia and whistful wishings over that time gain strength. I remember the faces and the voices of those great people of wonderful days long-since passed. I remember the utter beaming joy of being a kid.
I try to remember to be careful what I wish for.
It's been said we only see the greatest moments of our lives in retrospect, never as they are actually happening. It's just one of the sad truths of life, I suppose. People often say "if I only knew then what I know now..." I'm not sure any knowledge of the future could have changed a second of that summer or that year, and I wouldn't want it to.
Some times and memories are special enough to stand on their own, no forethought or careful planning necessary. We take and accept them as they were, "warts" and all. This was such a summer, such a year and an indelible experience that will go with me for the rest of my days.
And I wouldn't change a thing.
Posted August 24, 2010