As the heat rises and summer torpor overtakes the land, a small fleet of Sunfish, Optis, and Lasers splashes its way into Galveston Bay. Sailing camps are in session, and even the smallest skippers are eager to begin tacking their way toward competence.
From my vantage point on the dock, I watch and smile. Older campers look and act like any other group of teens. Studies in calculated cool, their swagger might seem a little too self-aware, but there’s no mistaking the meaning of the jostling and sideways glances that mark their passage through the week. They’re as interested in the social seas surrounding them as they are in the waters of the Bay, and they’re learning to navigate both.
The youngest sailors present quite a different picture. Some are fresh from first grade. Most stand barely taller than their oars. When their sailing dinghies are rigged, tied bow to stern with awkward, tentative knots, the long, bouncy string of boats being towed into the Bay looks for all the world like an old-fashioned pull toy.
While the teen-aged sailors wave and shout to one another, the youngsters often seem timid and uncertain: made hesitant by the vastness of the water and their own inexperience. Throwing off the line that attaches them to the string of bobbing boats, and taking command of their own ship for the first time, is no small thing.
But by week’s end, even the youngest are smiling. Their watery world has been trimmed down to size, and they see it for what it is: a new environment that can be understood and challenged. They’ve learned to turn turtle with panache, and to right their own boats. They’re increasingly confident, and they’re having fun.
My own youthful camping was done in the woods, not on the water: but camping is camping. When my friends and I trekked off each summer for our week at camp, competence and fun were our goals as well. We lived in cabins, camped in the woods, cooked over fires, and quaked with fear in the midst of the dark, moonless grove as our counselors told us the grisly tale of “The Creature Who Lived in the Woods and Preferred Small Children for Supper.”
Looking at a photo of our Bluebird troop, time collapses. I remember shy Colleen, who discovered she was pretty; Judy, who overcame her fear of swimming; Janet, who found she enjoyed hiking, and began losing her chubbiness. Another Judy, afflicted with a 1950s version of the helicopter parent, came home and said to her ever-worried mother, “I’m never sick at camp and I’m not going to be sick at home.” And she wasn’t. To our great delight, she soon was biking, swimming, and eating cake and ice cream with the rest of us.
Most of my craft projects are gone now –the popsicle stick cabin with the tissue paper smoke; the punched-tin lantern; the woven potholders; the leather pouch. But the memories remain, refreshed from time to time by the simple correspondence between a camper and her parents:
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
Dear Mother and Daddy ~ Valerie got thrown out of our cabin for bad words. I don’t know where she’s gone. I don’t care. The best thing about camp is going to the Trading Post and buying candy.
Postcards were our way of sharing the camping experience: postcards, and the stories we told after returning home. In those days, the parents we knew didn’t go camping with their children. In a world of closely-knit families who vacationed together, worked together, and gathered around the dinner table every evening, camp was an opportunity for children to move beyond the family circle and experience life on their own.
Today, in our more fragmented world, camping provides an opportunity for parents and children to share time together in ways not always possible during the course of daily life.
One of the best camping stories I’ve heard came from an acquaintance after a first overnight stay with his son at a nearby Boy Scout Camp.
During their time at camp, they fished, and floated on rafts. They played games, and during craft time the boy learned to whittle with his father’s pocketknife. They built an after-dinner campfire, toasted marshmallows, and told wonderful, scary stories.
As the stories became just a touch too realistic, the boy crawled into his father’s lap and said, “Daddy, I’m scared!” Assured that he was safe, he gave a sigh, leaned back and gazed up at the stars.
Later that night, as he was being tucked him into his sleeping bag, he said, “This is my best camping trip ever!” His dad couldn’t help laughing. “But it’s your only camping trip ever!” Looking at him, the boy said, “I guess that’s right. But it’s so much fun!”
By now, that boy is a teenager. No doubt he’s experienced other camping trips, with or without his father. As time goes on, there will be more adventure, more travel, more opportunities to learn new skills: even if his formal camping days come to an end.
Like the boy, each of us has multiple opportunities to “camp out” in our lives: pitching our tents in the midst of new places, learning survival skills, clearing out the underbrush of fear, and marking our trails for the sake of those to follow.
But in a larger sense, we have only one trip, one chance to camp out along the river called Time. When the day has ended and the fire burns low, what will we remember?
Will we have taken some time for play? Will we have admitted our fears? Will we have known the joy of learning? Will we have worked to provide for our own needs, and the needs of others? Will we have stopped to enjoy the true luxuries of life, the variety of nature, and the warmth of companionship? Will we sleep at last in peace: secure in the universe and certain of its shelter?
Perhaps we will. If we are able to accept, without bitterness or regret, the hard reality that there is one and only one opportunity to watch Time’s river flowing away, at trip’s end we may sigh with our own sense of satisfaction and say, “I’m sorry it’s over. But it was so much fun.”