Given a choice, each of us tends to avoid certain experiences. I steer clear of Houston freeways during rush hour and turn off political commentary I feel raising my blood pressure. I never go boating on holidays, and above all I try never to stop by the grocery at 6 p.m. to “pick up a few things for dinner”.
Unfortunately, poor planning can force me into the very heart of pre-suppertime pandemonium, as it did the night I made a pass through our local supermarket intending to pick up nothing more than milk, lettuce, broccoli and some kitty treats. 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, pear yogurt and a totally unnecessary pint of key lime gelato.
Plunking down the little plastic bar to divide my purchases from those of the people ahead of me, I began unloading my cart. Then I remembered the Ritz crackers. My mother was quite fond of them, and she’d asked if I’d pick up a box the next time I was in the store.
The people ahead of me in line – apparently a mother and two lovely daughters – had done some heavy shopping and still were unloading their own items onto the conveyor. Pondering the situation, I made a decision.“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 woman’s still-full cart. “You’ve got time”.
Knowing the crackers were two aisles over, halfway to the meat department and on the bottom shelf, I found them quickly enough and returned to the line with time to spare. The checker, still busy with the group ahead of me, was grinning. Well, I thought. She’s a pleasant one.
As I turned to add the Ritz crackers to my little pile, I did a double-take. My tumble of items, unloaded helter-skelter from my cart, had been transformed. The bananas marched along in a tidy row, flanked on either side by their vegetable friends, carrots and celery. The yogurts looked like cheerleaders, stacked into a pyramid with the tangy gelato on top. Canned goods had been separated out and arranged in squares of four cans each, with 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 discovered the checker, the woman and the two girls looking back at me. “Well,” I said, “it looks like the grocery fairy’s been here”. The girls dissolved into breathless giggles and the checker laughed as she said, “That’s what they thought you’d say. 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 it was the first time they’d rearranged groceries, but that was only because they’d never thought of it. “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.”
As I paid for my own purchases 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 was any indication, they not only look around more, they see more. Apparently their camp was setting rules not to imprison their spirits but to open their eyes, and it seems they succeeded marvelously well. I never thought to ask about their camp’s 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.
An incarnation of Camp Retro lives out 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, faded away. Given the 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 remembered 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 2012
“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 true 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. Any one of us can begin saying “please” and “thank you” at the dinner table, or anywhere else in life for that matter.
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, as well – 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 only add to the joy of Camp Retro.