I suspect each of us has experienced the ability of a song to transport us back in time to a particularly memorable place or experience. The driving beat of John Stewart’s “Gold” will do it for me, as will Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” or The Sweet Talks’ Afro-Funk gem, “Akumpaye.”
But more than songs enliven memory. When an especially sharp, clear rendition of reveille caught my attention at work one recent morning, I turned to find its source. A group of teenagers from that week’s sailing camp had gathered around the yacht club’s flagpole. With reveille concluded, the national anthem began, and hands went to hearts as they watched the American flag being raised.
I rarely think of my days as a Camp Fire Girl, but the morning flag ceremony at our summer camp was remarkably similar. As shown in the photo above, it has a bit of an odd look about it; perhaps those who designed it intended our raised hands to substitute for a traditional military salute. In any event, we treasured both reveille and taps. Bookending our days, they became part of a tradition binding generations of campers to one another, to the camp, and to their country.
Between the sailing camp kids and thoughts of my own camping days, I couldn’t help remembering another pair of campers I once encountered in a local grocery store.
Poor planning had led me to the store at the worst possible time — 6 p.m. — but before heading home I needed to pick up milk, lettuce, and the Ritz crackers I’d promised my mother. By the time I reached the checkout line, I’d thown in some celery and carrots; bananas; English muffins; two pounds of Peet’s French Roast; pear yogurt; and a pint of key lime gelato for good measure.
Unfortunately, I’d forgotten the Ritz crackers, and I couldn’t leave without them. The woman ahead of me had done some heavy shopping, and two teen-aged girls with her still were unloading items onto the conveyor belt. “Excuse me,” I said to the checker. “I forgot something. I’ll be right back.” “No problem,” she said, glancing at the woman’s still-full cart. “You’ve got time.”
Crackers in hand, I returned with time to spare. The checker, still busy with the group ahead of me, was grinning. “Well,” I thought. “She’s a pleasant one.”
Turning to add the crackers to my small pile of purchases, I stopped. Unloaded helter-skelter from the cart, they’d somehow been disciplined. Bananas marched in a tidy row, flanked on either side by carrots and celery. The yogurts had been stacked like a pyramid of cheerleaders. The pounds of coffee, lined up in parallel, were bridged by the English muffins, with the gelato suspended on the bridge.
It was quite an arrangement: neat, tidy, and clever. Looking up, I discovered the checker, the woman, and the two girls grinning at me. “It looks like the grocery fairy’s been here,” I said. At that, the girls dissolved into giggles and the checker laughed, saying, “That’s what they hoped you’d think.”
None of us could stop laughing. I laughed at the sight of my neatly arranged groceries, while the girls laughed with delight at their own cleverness. “Do you always do things like this?” I asked. They admitted it was the first time they’d rearranged groceries, but only because they’d never thought of it. “We like to play tricks on people,” one said. “Not mean tricks. Nice tricks. Surprises. It’s fun.”
As the woman paid for their purchases, I said, “Most girls your age would be texting or updating their Facebook status, not playing games with people’s groceries.” “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 smart phones 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 in the habit. We still text and stuff, but we look around more, too.”
If my experience with them was any indication, they not only look around more, they see more. I suspect the rules at their camp were meant to help open them to the world, and it seems they succeeded marvelously well.
I never asked for their camp’s name or location, but in my mind it lives on 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.
A modern incarnation of Camp Retro still exists out on the North Fork of the Guadalupe River near Hunt, Texas. The town itself dates to 1912, when Alvie Joy bought some land from his friend Bob Hunt and named the town after him. A store and post office were built at the junction of the Guadalupe’s North and South forks, leading a pair of earlier settlements — Japonica on the North and Pebble on the South — to fade away, while Hunt prospered.
Given the beauty of the surrounding countryside, it wasn’t long before summer camps, resorts, and vacation homes began to be established among the ranches that fronted the river.
One of those camps, Waldemar, has been operating since 1926. Connie Reeves, a woman I featured in a piece titled “Cowgirl Up!” taught riding at Waldemar for 67 years, introducing her basic philosophy – Always saddle your own horse – to more than 30,000 girls.
Beyond the variety of activities at 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 attending the camp.
For example, each girl receives points for good table manners, and the guidelines are distinctly retro. Among other things, the Waldemar girl of 2018:
• is prompt to meals.
• helps with the passing of plates (using two hands) and is always attentive and responsive to the requests and needs of others
• maintains good posture and does not put her elbows on the table
• waits until the hostess begins eating to begin her meal
• uses her silverware correctly
• participates in conversation but does not monopolize it. She makes an effort to be interesting and pleasant and includes all table companions, conversing only with those at her table
• uses “please” and “thank you” when requesting and receiving food
• remains at the table and is patient until all have finished their meal and the hostess excuses the group
• has a positive attitude about trying new foods
And so on. The Waldemar girls might as well be sitting at my grandmother’s table. The rules are the same.
Photo from an early Camp Waldemar brochure
Even more remarkable are Camp Guidelines for Parents related to email and other electronic communication. While the sending and receiving of letters is encouraged, email contact is limited. Only parents and grandparents are allowed to email campers, and the guidelines clearly state that emails “are filtered for g-rated language and content. Those deemed inappropriate will not be delivered to campers.”
A two-hour block of cabin time is set aside each afternoon for campers to write letters, read, or play quiet games, but, as is made clear in a section of the guidelines called “Get Unplugged,” they won’t be surfing the web or sending selfies to friends. The rules are made explicitly clear before anyone dives into the Waldemar experience.
Enjoying the experience of Waldemar means spending time with friends, staying involved in all that camp has to offer, and unplugging from the world.
Campers are NOT allowed to bring any electronics that have internet capabilities [such as laptop computers, iPads, cell phones, digital cameras, camcorders, gameboys, Playstation portables, iPods or mp3 players with photo/video or slideshow capabilities].
The iPod Shuffle, iPod Nano (7th or 8th Generation), Kindle, or other E-Readers are acceptable. Electronics will be turned in to the office if they do not abide by the rules.
Given today’s society, the rules may seem harsh, but the camp knows what it’s about.
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 enduring legacy of Camp Waldemar is that its values, its traditions, and the seriousness with which it commits itself to the well-being and development of its campers are reflected in the lives of the girls who spend time there.
In truth, the joys and benefits of Camp Waldemar 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 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 even self-imposed restriction as an end to freedom rather than as its beginning. There’s no question that their numbers are increasing. Aggressive in traffic, continually venting frustrations with slow shoppers or awkward checkers, obsessively tied to their devices and unspeakably nasty on social media, they’re an annoyance at best, and a curse at worst.
Old-fashioned as I am — an apparently obsolescing relic of another time — I’ll take the unplugged, giggling, grocery-arranging girls and their camping friends every time. The camp traditions may be retro, but they help to shape girls who are remarkably smart, personable, gracious, and fun.
Meeting a challenge at Waldemar
Comments always are welcome.