The other day the conversation turned to summer camps, and boy, did that bring back a flood of memories.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, when school ended, many a local boy and girl shipped off to camp. At the O’Neil household out Wilsonville way, my mother was already ready to pack my suitcase and wish me well. My father wasn’t as keen on my going, but then he didn’t have to spend the entire day with me like my mother did. Some things are easier to understand once we get a few years on us.
Over the course of a decade, I went to church camp twice and 4-H camp four times as a camper, plus two more as a counselor. High school brought band camp!
As a Royal Ambassador for Christ at First Baptist Church in Newport, I attended two summer camps at Camp Carson.
To me, the trip to Camp Carson assumed all the importance and allure of a world tour. In reality, if you know where to look, you can pretty much see Camp Carson from our back porch. But geography wasn’t my strong suit.
The first year was spent “camping” in the dormitory. That was pretty neat, for I had never experienced the joys and adventure of sleeping on the top level of a bunk bed. Upon dropping me off, my dad, who was known to pinch a penny until Abe yelped, handed me a dime and a quarter “in case I needed some spending money.” He later claimed he wasn’t aware of the camp’s canteen where one could purchase Coca-Colas and candy bars, but I still have my doubts about that.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember a whole lot about that first year, other than the water in the swimming pool was icy cold.
The second year at “R.A. Camp” promised to be filled with adventure, for the week included a two-night camping trip up on English Mountain. I had never roughed it, but I was a devoted follower of television Westerns, so I was ready for some “grub” cooked over a fire and telling tales while seated around a campfire.
What I got was spending the entire time in a leaky tent while a summer monsoon poured and poured and poured down rain with never a let-up. The tasty grub turned out to be some sort of horrible concoction, which our leaders called “Chicken a la king” cooked in tin cans. I wanted to point out to them that, after all, we were at a CHURCH CAMP and to lie and call this mess by such an elegant name would be frowned by upon by Christ Jesus, but, for once in my life, I held my tongue and prayed for sunshine.
Instead of sunshine, I got more rain, so much that it began running in rivulets under the tent, dampening our bedclothes and making the situation even more miserable. A couple of my fellow campers actually began to cry and call for their mamas. I thought that was quite foolish, and at times, I considered just striking out for home. After all, I could have made it in about two or three hours.
That was also the year I attended camp under an assumed name.
For some reason, I decided I would rather be named Tony. I guess part of that wish came from the constant trouble I faced from people who couldn’t pronounce my first name. Tony O’Neil, with its Italian-Irish lilt, sounded a lot better to me, so when I arrived at camp that year, that’s how I registered myself and that’s what everyone called me. Everything went well, until my dad came to collect me at the end of the week and was told no one by the name of Duay was in attendance at camp that week. We had a little talk about that later.
I joined 4-H Club during my fourth grade year at Newport Grammar and remained an active member throughout high school. For the most part, I truly enjoyed everything about 4-H, especially the many trips it offered. By the time I finished high school in 1969, in addition to my years at Clyde Austin 4-H Camp in Greeneville, I had also traveled to Chicago, Washington, DC, Fontana, NC, Nashville, and Knoxville.
As a camper, I spent a week each year in Greeneville. In those days, both boys and girls attended camp at the same time, so the chaperones were kept busy making sure we adhered to high levels of morality.
We lived in dormitories, similar to those at Camp Carson, with communal showers.
Each day started with a recording of “Reveille” played over a loudspeaker. We had to line up in military fashion. We watched in awe as the American flag was hoisted up the flagpole and then recited the Pledge of Allegiance. There might be an announcement or two and then we proceeded to the cafeteria for breakfast. I vividly remember one year the solemnity of the moment was disrupted when it was discovered someone had stolen a lacy brassiere from one of the counselors and it was proudly wafting in the breeze atop the flagpole.
The food at 4-H Camp was really good—just nourishing country cooking. Occasionally we faced a cook who counted the number of beans ladled onto our plates, but for the most part, they allowed us to eat all we wanted.
Our days at 4-H Camp were filled with all sorts of activities. I was surprised to find I had quite a talent at archery and always looked forward to time spent at the range. Swimming was also high on my list of fun things to do; I actually learned to swim the first year I went to camp there, and while I was never tapped to compete in the yearly swim mete competition, I cheered for my mates.
Craft time was also a part of 4-H Camp and quite frankly, I could have done without that. While I sincerely admire those with artistic talents and the patience it takes to create a work of art, I just don’t have the bent and certainly not the patience for such efforts. As I once wrote in an earlier column about Bible Schools, my creations were never selected for display.
One year at 4-H Camp, the project for everyone was to weave a basket. Our kits included a round piece of wood about the size of a salad plate. Small holes were drilled all around the edges and into these holes we place long pieces of limber wood.
Once these were in place, we then began weaving similar pieces of slender wood in and out. When we reached the halfway point, we spread the top of our basket just a bit each time so that the top of the basket was wider than the base.
I managed to hold my own during this part of the project, but then came the time to “finish it off” with an elaborate weave maneuver around the top. If done perfectly, this resulted in a quite attractive looped edge, but such was not to be in my work.
After worrying with my attempts and uttering (under my breath) every bad word I knew, I hit upon a plan. When the counselor wasn’t looking, I simply grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off the ends of my weaving around the top of the basket and declared myself finished. The end result looked like it had spent time under a working lawn mower, but I didn’t care. I was done and ready to move on to something more fun.
Upon returning home that year, I plunked the ragged effort down on the table and told my mother, “I made you something.” I don’t recall her crying with appreciation.
As a member of the CCHS Band all four years in high school, I gloried in our days at band camp. Each summer, we packed up our clothes and instruments and boarded buses for Western North Carolina for a week in the mountains.
For the most part, the week was one of hard work—rehearsing our music for the coming football season, learning the intricate steps to our marching routines, and getting ready for the various competitions, both marching and concert, looming on the calendar.
But band camp wasn’t all work.
In the afternoons we spent time in the pool. For a country boy like me, an honest to goodness swimming pool was luxury beyond belief.
Our yearly shaving cream fight also brought indescribable fun, as we gathered in the field and smeared each other with shaving cream, toothpaste, and anything else we could get our hands on. The result was one unholy mess, but we thought it great fun.
During that week, we also learned a lot about one another. I still remember the shock I experienced when Jimmy Youell sprinkled sugar on his grits one morning! Whatever was he thinking? I would later learn that how one eats grits depends on the part of the country where one was reared.
We’re about ready to enter July, and I sincerely hope that all our young people who are headed to camps return with great memories to go along with the chigger bites, sunburn, scrapes and bruises that are also part of the deal. Fifty years from now, you’ll enjoy reminiscing about these days.