There are things in life I prefer to avoid whenever possible. Driving Houston freeways during rush hour is one. Listening to political commentators who raise my blood pressure is another. Above all, I try never to stop by the grocery at 6 p.m. to “pick up a few things for dinner”, although circumstance or my own lack of planning occasionally force me into the heart of the pre-suppertime pandemonium.
The night I made a pass through our local supermarket intending to get only milk, lettuce, broccoli and some kitty treats, lack of organization was the issue. As usual, shopping without a list meant I ended up with far more than I’d intended. By the time I reached the checkout line I’d thrown in some celery and carrots, English muffins, two pounds of sale-priced Peet’s French Roast, some assorted canned goods, yogurt and a totally unnecessary pint of key lime gelato.
Plunking down the little plastic bar meant to divide one customer’s purchases from the next I began unloading my cart, then suddenly remembered Ritz crackers. My mother’s quite fond of them, and she’d asked if I’d pick up a box the next time I was in the store.
I pondered the cart belonging to the people ahead of me in line - apparently a mother and two lovely daughters. They’d done some heavy shopping and still were unloading their own items onto the conveyor.
“Excuse me,” I said to checker. “I forgot something. I’ll run and get it, and be right back.” “No problem,” she said, glancing at the girls. “You’ve got time”.
Off I ran. The crackers were two aisles over and halfway to the meat department, but I knew Ritz were on the bottom shelf and I found them quickly. When I got back to my cart, the checker still was busy with the group ahead of me, and she was grinning. “Well,” I thought to myself. “She’s a pleasant one.”
Then, as I turned to add the crackers to the pile, I did a double-take. My tumble of items, unloaded helter-skelter from my cart, had undergone a transformation. The bananas were marching along in a tidy row, flanked on either side by their vegetable friends, carrots and celery. The yogurts had been stacked into a pyramid, with the tangy gelato on top. Canned goods had been separated out and placed in neat squares of four cans each, with the English muffins serving as a sort of bridge between the little tin islands.
It was neat, tidy and clever, the nicest arrangement of grocery purchases I’d ever seen. Looking up, I found the checker, the woman and the two girls looking back at me. “Well, I said, “it looks like the grocery fairy’s been here”. That’s when the girls dissolved into breathless giggles and the checker laughed out loud. “That’s what they thought you might say, ” she said. “They wondered if you wouldn’t think the grocery fairy’d been here.”
None of us could stop laughing. I laughed at the sight of my groceries marching along like a little army, while the girls laughed with delight at their own cleverness. “Do you do this sort of thing a lot?” I asked. They admitted they’d never rearranged groceries before, but that was only because they’d never had the chance. “We like to look around and see if there’s a trick we can play on somebody – not a mean trick, just a nice trick. A surprise. It’s fun.”
With their mom beaming in the background, I said, “Most kids your age would be texting or updating their Facebook status, not playing games with people’s groceries.” “Yeah, well… We don’t text as much as we used to,” the taller girl said. “We went to camp last year and they didn’t let us have cell phones or iPods or anything, and we kind of got used to it. We had a lot of fun and I guess we’ve never, like, gotten back into texting. We still do it, but we look around a lot more.”
If their spontaneous fun at my expense is any indication, they do look around more and they see more, as well. I suspect their camp was setting rules not to imprison their spirits but to open their eyes, and it seems they succeeded marvelously well. I haven’t a clue about their camp’s actual name or location, but in my mind it’s taken on life as Camp Retro - an oasis of halcyon days and limpid nights, a refuge for complete sentences and proper spelling, a place of creativity, wonder and joy.
Recently I discovered an incarnation of Camp Retro up on the North Fork of the Guadalupe River near Hunt, Texas. The town of Hunt dates back to 1912, when Alvie Joy bought some land from his friend Bob Hunt and gave the town its name. When the store and post office were built at the junction of the North and South forks of the river, a pair of earlier settlements, Japonica on the North and Pebble on the South, just faded away. Given its climate and the beauty of the surrounding countryside, Hunt prospered, and it wasn’t long before summer camps, retreat centers and vacation homes began to be established among the ranches that fronted the river.
One of those camps, Waldemar, has been operating since 1926. I became aware of Camp Waldemar while writing Cowgirl Up!, a celebration of western women and their art. Connie Reeves, one of the cowgirls highlighted in that piece, taught riding at Waldemar for 67 years and is estimated to have introduced her basic philosophy – Always saddle your own horse – to more than 30,000 girls.
Beyond the variety of activities at Camp Waldemar – the archery and kayaking, the drama and crafts, the emphasis on teamwork and personal development – a deeper exploration of the rules and regulations reveals some remarkable requirements for girls who attend one of their sessions.
For example, each girl receives points for good table manners, and the twenty-one guidelines are distinctly retro. Like her predecessors, the Waldemar girl of 2011:
“is prompt to meals… She helps with the passing of plates (using two hands) and is always attentive and responsive to the requests and needs of others… She uses her silverware correctly… She does not waste food… She uses “please” and “thank you” when requesting and receiving food… She avoids whispered conversations that exclude other girls at the table…
And so on. The Waldemar girls might as well be sitting at my Grandmother’s table. The rules are the same.
Even more remarkable are Camp Guidelines for Parents related to email and other electronic communication. While the receiving and sending of letters is encouraged, email contact is limited. At Camp Waldemar, only parents and grandparents are allowed to purchase email “credits”. The guidelines clearly state that emails are filtered “for g-rated language and content” and “those deemed inappropriate…will be charged to the sender but will not be delivered to campers.”
A two-hour block of cabin time is set aside each afternoon for campers to write their own letters, to read, to nap or play quiet games, but as is made clear in the section for parents called “Get Unplugged”, they won’t be surfing the net, videotaping one another or listening to Lady Gaga. Everyone knows the rules before they reach camp:
Enjoying the experience of Waldemar means spending time with friends, staying involved in all that camp has to offer, unplugging from the world, and being safe by leaving your valuables at home.
Campers, please do NOT bring the following with you to camp: Nice jewelry, nice purses, expensive make-up, Cell Phones (Honor Code), Gameboys, Play Station portables, Digital Cameras, Camcorders, iPods/mp3 players with photo/video/or slideshow capabilities, Portable DVD Players, PDAs, Blackberrys, Lap Top Computers. These items will not be allowed at Camp Waldemar.
For four weeks Campers can live without these devices and luxury items. Trust us when we say that there is so much going on at camp they will adjust beautifully. We all can use a respite from TVs, phones, and beauty products for a short while.
Indeed we can. The beauty of Camp Waldemar and its values, its approach to life and the seriousness with which it commits itself to the well-being and development of its campers is that positive results can be seen in the lives of the girls who go there. The truth of Camp Waldemar is that its joys are available even to those unable to participate in its camping programs. Regardless of our age, our gender, our available time or financial status, any of us can turn off a cell phone or unplug the tv. Any of us can write a letter instead of sending an email or text, and any one of us can begin saying “please” and “thank you” at the dinner table.
Certainly there are those who object to such discipline, people who experience such restrictions as an end to freedom rather than its beginning. But I suspect I’ve met a few of those folks in the grocery store, too – aggressively competing for a shorter line, yelling into their cell phones, venting frustration at slow shoppers or awkward checkers. I may be an old-fashioned, obsolescing relic of another time, but I’ll take the unplugged, giggling grocery-arrangers every time. They make it fun to be at Camp Retro.