School has ended, summer has arrived and the sudden spill of Sunfish, Optis and Lasers onto the water means it’s sailing camp time on Clear Lake.
Watching from my work dock, I have to smile. The older kids arriving for the first week of instruction look – and act – like any other group of teens. They remind me of the skateboarders who congregate in our grocery store parking lots – studies in calculated cool. To adult eyes their swagger might seem a little too self-aware, a bit overdone, but there’s no mistaking the meaning of the jostling, fist-bumping and sideways glances that mark their passage through the week. They’re as interested in the social seas that surround them as they are in the water, and they’re learning to navigate both.
Watching the littlest sailors is quite different. Some are just out of first grade, and many are barely as tall as their oars. With their Optimist dinghies rigged and tied together stern to bow with awkward, tentative knots, they’re towed into the lake by their counselors, the long, bouncy strings of fiberglass boats looking for all the world like old-fashioned pull toys.
Some of the young campers have sailed before – you can tell by the uplifted faces, the waves, the giggles and shouts as they pass one another. Others seem timid and uncertain, frozen by the vastness of the lake and their own audacity. To throw off the line attaching them to the string of bobbing hulls and take command of their own ship is no small thing, after all.
But by end of the week there are giggles all around. The lake has been trimmed down to size by experience. It’s become their lake, not a mysterious ocean. They’ve learned being tossed into it doesn’t have to mean death by drowning. and they’ve learned to right their own boats. They’re confident and happy, and they’re having fun.
My own childhood camping was done in the woods rather than on the water, but camping is camping. First as Blue Birds and then as Camp Fire Girls, my friends and I trekked off each summer to spend a week at Iowa’s Camp Hantesa where we lived in cabins or teepees, camped overnight in the woods, learned to cook over fires and scared ourselves beyond words with grisly tales of The Creature Who Lived in the Woods and Preferred Small Children for Supper.
Looking at the photo of our small troop, time collapses and I remember: shy Colleen, who learned she was pretty. Judy, who overcame her fear and began to swim. Janet, who found she could hike and began losing her chubbiness. Another Judy, who declared to her mother, “I’m never sick at camp and I’m not going to be sick at home.” After a couple of years, she wasn’t, and her mother accepted the reality of a healthy – and hence more independent - daughter.
As the decades pass, mementos of those days have disappeared or been disposed of – the popsicle stick cabin with the tissue paper smoke, the punched-tin lantern, the woven potholders and the leather pouch. But the memories remain, refreshed from time to time by re-reading the simple correspondence between father and daughter.
Dear Linda ~ We got home OK. Mother and I are going out to Stone’s at Marshalltown one nite this week. Sandy was over today. Mother told her you were at camp. Are you having a good time? We hope you are. Write and let us know what fun you are having. Love, Daddy
Postcards were our way of sharing my camping experience – postcards, and the stories I told when I returned home. In those days, in that world, parents didn’t go camping with their children. In a world of closely-knit families that vacationed together, worked together on the weekends and gathered around the dinner table every day, camp was seen as one opportunity for children to move beyond the family circle and experience life on their own.
Today, things have changed, and camping has become an opportunity for parents and children to share time together in a way not always possible in the course of daily life. One of the best camping stories I’ve heard was told by an acquaintance who went with his son on his first overnight to Camp Strake, a local Boy Scout Camp established before I was born.
During their time at the camp, they fished and floated on rafts. They played games, and the boy learned to whittle with his father’s pocketknife. Just as we did at Hantesa, they built an after-dinner campfire, toasted marshmallows and told wonderful, scary stories. The young boy was luckier than some of my friends during our story-telling days. When the tale became just a touch too realistic, he crawled into his father’s lap and said, “Daddy, I’m scared”. Reassured that stories are just stories and that he was safe, he gave a sigh, leaned back and gazed up at the stars.
Later, as his Dad tucked him into his sleeping bag, he said, “This is my best camping trip ever!” When his Dad replied, “But it’s your only camping trip ever!” the boy looked at him and said, “But it was so much fun!”
I don’t know, but I suspect that young fellow already has experienced a few more camping trips, with or without his father. As life goes on, there will be more adventures, more travel, more opportunities to learn skills and appreciate the world around him, even if his formal camping days come to an end.
Like the boy, each of us has multiple opportunities to “camp out” throughout life - to pitch our tents in new neighborhoods, to learn survival skills, to clear out the underbrush of pettiness and resentment before destructive fires begin to burn and to mark our trails for the sake of those who follow.
But in a larger sense, we are given only one trip , once chance to camp out in this Cosmos. When the day has ended and the fire burned down, what will we have done? Will we have taken time to play? Will we have admitted our fears? Will we have learned new skills? Will we have learned to provide for our own needs and the needs of others? Will we have learned the joy of letting go, and the enjoyment of life’s smallest luxuries? Will we have listened to the birds, and watched the stars? Will we sleep at last in peace, feeling the security of our place in the universe and certain that all of the enjoyment, all the pleasure, all of the simple gifts are meant to be ours forever?
Perhaps we will. If we are able to accept without bitterness or regret the hard reality that there will be one, and only one, chance to camp out along the banks of time and watch life flow away before us, if we dare to participate, if we accept what is over fantasies of what should be, even at trip’s end we may be able to say, “I’m sorry it’s over. But it was so much fun!”