catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 13 :: 2010.06.25 — 2010.07.08


Pine Trail Camp

In 1976, when I was in fifth grade, I spent one week of my summer at a Bible camp in Saugatuck, Michigan. Located on a lake, Pine Trail was everything its name suggests — towering trees shaded thea camp from the outside world and littered the gravel driveways with acorns and needles.  A huge wood-beamed archway declared the entrance and a long, winding driveway led the way onto the grounds.

Pine Trail had the smell you only find at camp: cedar and mustiness combined with fresh lake breezes and the lingering odor of old campfires. This week was my first experience as a camper, and I was excited and scared. I was excited mainly because I was going to be rooming with my best church friend from home, Janet. I was scared because, as the oldest child in my family, I was rarely allowed to spend time away from my parents.

Freedom thrilled me and left me a bit shaky.

At our camp, the girls were assigned to live in a cabin — 12 girls per teen-aged counselor. Janet and I found our bunks, arranged our sleeping bags and met the other girls. Janet, the most outspoken, decided with whom we would be friends and whom we should avoid.

We were opposites, which was why we were great friends. I was tall and skinny. My legs looked like two sticks coming down from my shorts. I had long, dark, straight hair, parted in the middle and held back by two barrettes. I was smart and quiet and obedient.

Janet was a head shorter and chubbier. She had a bobbed haircut and wore glasses. She was the youngest of her big family, and her dad called her Louise or Little Weasel. She was used to getting in trouble. In our relationship, Janet was the leader and I was the follower. Janet’s family had been cooks at the camp, so she was on a first-name basis with the director. She was allowed to do things a normal camper could not — like sneak into the kitchen at night for cookies. Her knowledge also got us into trouble.

Pranking was as much a part of camp as the Bible lessons each morning, afternoon and evening. We were expected to have fun, to be kids, and this included playing jokes on the other campers, the counselors and the camp director. Janet came prepared with a full arsenal of ideas.

We placed a bucket of water carefully above the door so it fell on the head of the camp director as he performed cabin inspections in the morning. We didn’t mind forfeiting our award for “cleanest cabin.”

There were the requisite panty raids between the boys’ and girls’ cabins. The boys stole our underwear and hung it on the morning flagpole during revelry. In turn, we covered their pillowcases inside and out with shaving cream.

The annoying girl in our cabin found herself the subject of pranks as well. Led by Janet, we locked her out of the cabin and banged on the door so hard when she was in the bathroom that the door came off of its hinges.

This one met with the director’s firm disapproval. I found myself accompanying Janet in punishment. While others went to the beach, we were sentenced to stay behind and pick up trash around the camp. I wasn’t too happy, and I was very worried that my parents would find out.

Janet upped the ante. For our next prank, we decided to wrap the director’s cabin with plastic wrap. Janet found two industrial-strength rolls of plastic wrap in the off-limits camp kitchen. We sneaked them back to our cabin and hid them under our beds. When darkness fell, I, Janet and two other girls made our way like Indian guides to the director’s cabin.

It worked beautifully. I felt the thrill of danger as we slowly walked around the cabin with the giant roll once, twice, three times. Slowly, the cabin was ensconced in clear shiny wrapping. Perfection. Dropping the rest of the roll, we hurried back to the cabin.

In the morning, the mood at the flagpole was dismal. The director was on a warpath. Who had done such a dangerous thing? He demanded. Who would put lives in danger by wrapping a cabin and blocking the entrance? If there was a fire, how could the people inside have escaped? It turns out he had resorted to cutting the family out.

I hadn’t thought of such a thing. I hadn’t meant to asphyxiate anyone or cause them a slow-burning death. I figured that anyone could escape from plastic wrap, couldn’t they? Wouldn’t it melt when the fire hit it?  Plus, to my secret relief, they didn’t really seem to know who did it.

I looked at Janet and my friends, standing with their toes on the line around the morning flagpole. I looked away. My heart was beating so loudly that I was sure the director would hear it. Nobody said a word. The silence was deafening.

As a Baptist girl, my guilty conscience was hard at work. All of the Bible verses I had so conscientiously memorized were pounding in my temples. “Thou shalt not murder.” But I hadn’t meant to murder, had I? “Thou shalt not lie or bear false witness.” Was it lying if I didn’t say anything?

But God knew. My sin would surely find me out.

We left the flagpole that morning subdued. Should we confess? How much trouble would we be in? We hadn’t meant to hurt anyone. We thought it was funny. It seemed funny at the time.  Our moral dilemma was settled by the arrival of the director, his arms folded. I don’t know whether or not he knew our little group was the responsible party, but he had made an educated guess.

The tears of fifth grade girls were fairly ineffective. He had seen it all. He had weathered campers before us — we weren’t all that original. This, he said, would be our last prank of the week. It would not happen again.  Our entire cabin bore the punishment. Last to dinner. Last to leave, as the clean-up was solely our responsibility. No beach the next day — our usual trash detail. And, worst of all, no canteen.

Canteen was a wooden snack hut set up down the hill by the volleyball net. In the evening only, the canteen would open, a Coleman lantern swinging from a chain under the big willow tree and campers would spend their allowance money on cans of pop, candy bars, ice cream and popsicles.

There would be no canteen for us.

The one thing the director had not said was that we could not go the end of the week banquet. We had all thought that he might use this as the ultimate punishment, so we felt like a huge burden had been lifted from our shoulders.

The end-of-the-week banquet was a formal affair. The food was upgraded just a bit from the usual routine of spaghetti or mac and cheese. We still ate at the same long tables and benches, but we could sit where we wanted, or even with dates.

This was a boy-girl affair and Pine Trail was a haven for innocent summer romance. Rumors would always circulate about who was seeing who and what couples had been seen walking up the dunes to kiss. While Janet and I had never had boyfriends, we had certainly chased boys, teased boys and stalked boys. We had decided early on in the week who our crushes would be, and spent the rest of the week following and pestering our selections.

As the banquet neared, boys and girls got serious about pairing off. Janet and I, however, were still in search of the perfect men. Thinking back on it, there were probably only about a half dozen boys that age who were confident enough to ask a girl to a banquet. The rest retreated to the safety of friends or sports.

The day before the banquet, Janet returned to our cabin slamming the screen door. She had news, big news. She had dates for us for the big banquet. I was thrilled.  Was it the boy I selected — the nice one with the big, blinky eyes?

Oh, no, Janet said, someone else. She grabbed me by the arm and drug me to the baseball diamond where a taller boy with dusty blonde hair was playing catch. “That’s my date?” I asked. “Oh, no,” she said, “that’s my date! You have to go with his friend.”

I saw the friend. He was the one trying to catch the ball, but couldn’t. He was too short. He was scrawny and freckled and pimply with the brightest red hair I’d ever seen.

“Oh no,” I said. “I’m not going with him. I don’t even know him.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “He doesn’t care. Plus, you HAVE to go. If you don’t go with him, then Scott won’t be my date. You HAVE to go or I’ll never be your friend again for the rest of my life.”

My heart sank. Never friends again? She was serious. What should I do? Visions of the banquet flashed before my eyes. Me sitting, at the long bench, with the red-haired boy.

The rest of the day I was quiet. I had a decision to make. Go to the banquet with a boy I didn’t even know or lose my best friend in the world.

I told Janet my decision to go and she was excited. We had fun dressing up for the big evening. We had bought matching long brown and white checked dresses before we even came to camp. The musty cedar-smell of our cabin was replaced with the scent of bath gels and hairspray. The girls were getting fancy.

As the sun set, a parade of cleaned-up, dressed-up girls made their way toward the dining hall met by a crowd of nervous boys. Scott waved us over. He took Janet’s hand and shoved me at the red-haired boy.

“Hi,” I said. “Hi,” he muttered. That was the last word he said all night.

As I sat by my silent date and looked across the dining hall at a group of my friends who were sitting together and laughing, enjoying themselves without the help of boys, I knew I’d made a big mistake. I’d given up my own idea of fun to please Janet, and ruined my last night at camp.

I looked at my date; he was as miserable as I was. “Do you want to go sit by your friends?” I asked. He nodded and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Yeah,” he said, grabbing his plate and making a break for it.  I picked up my own plate and walked over to my friends, glad that I had finally done what I wanted to do.

We all make choices between who others want us to be and who we are. Sometimes those choices are tough because other people have a great influence on us or because we don’t really know ourselves.  That summer, at Pine Trail Camp, I learned a little bit about who I was. I learned I could survive a week alone without my mom and dad. I learned I could get in trouble and still live to talk about it. I learned the joys and sorrows of having a best friend. And, perhaps most of all, I learned to stand up for what I wanted.

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