June 3, 2016

Essay by Bernie Brown: "Pray for Me: Memories of Bible Camp at Lake Okoboji"

I am blissfully retired in Raleigh, NC where I read, write, cook, and watch birds. I have had several short stories and essays published in print and online journals, most recently Moderrn Creative Life, Clever, Tales from a Small Planet, and The Raleigh News and Observer. My most ambitious goal is to publish at least one novel in the next few years. bablossom.wix.com/bernie-brown-writer

 



Pray for Me: Memories of Bible Camp at Lake Okoboji

Mom didn’t want me to go to Bible Camp. “You’re too young. Wait a couple of years,” she said.
But I wanted to go. Passionately. The teenagers told stories about making out in the woods, but that was of no interest to me. I had heard that kids my age could sign up for crafts. At seven years old, the youngest age at which kids could attend, that was reason enough to go. I loved making things. Crayolas, glue, fabric, scissors, paper. They all sent me into a swoon. I sewed for my dolls, made houses of cardboard boxes, drew pictures and colored them. The smell of Elmer’s Glue was perfume to me. Macaroni designs glued to construction paper. Heaven!
So I cajoled. I asked my mom when her guard was down. I used my sweetest voice. My whiniest voice. My most begging voice. I asked her when she was in a good mood about something else. At last, she caved. Not only did she cave, she embraced the plan. If I was going, then I would be properly clothed. Out came the sewing machine. Out came the dress patterns. We made a trip to Bonneson’s Fabric Store.
I still remember the sublime shorty pajamas she made me of light, soft seersucker fabric in tiny stripes of mint green and bright pink. The top swirled around with scallops at the bottom, scallops she trimmed with pink bias tape. The bottoms were the standard bloomers design, which I liked for their nice puffiness and comfort. Mom could sew better than Coco Chanel. She even put her signature red thread X on the back waist of the bottoms so I could tell the back from the front.
I started packing my little cardboard suitcase with the gold hinges weeks in advance.
When the mid-July start date arrived, Mom in a pretty homemade print dress, and Dad in an open neck plaid shirt that showed off his farmer tan, drove me to camp in our new blue 1955 Dodge.
The immediate look of the camp pleased me. The buildings—dorms and lunchroom near the lake, open air pavilion on the hill—all stood in a clearing surrounded by a fortress wall of pine trees. Knotty pine ran amuck in the bunkhouse interior. Half walls separated the dorm rooms with ceiling beams exposed above, very exotic to an Iowa farm girl.
The lake also looked pretty green, which didn’t thrill me half so much as the pine trees. But that comes later.
I met my roommate who had red hair. I didn’t know many people with red hair so I kept looking at it. She was from Clarinda, which was home to the state mental institution. I worried that she might be crazy, just caught it from living in close proximity. Well, neither her red hair nor possible mental instability proved to be a problem. What did make me keep my distance was the unfortunate knowledge that she wet the bed! Remember this was the unenlightened fifties when the only cause for enuresis was weakness of character. The other girls talked about her. Now granted, I saw no evidence of her flaw; but I do remember her crestfallen looks in the mornings, which frightened me. Our paths never seemed to cross during the day time.
The most enormous screened-in porch set the scene for heady pancake breakfasts. The pancakes swam in a lake of butter and syrup, more syrup than I was ever allowed to use at home.
And after breakfast, the piece de resistance, the long-awaited, dreamt-about, happily-anticipated Crafts.  We crafters sat at the same tables where moments earlier we had consumed enormous stacks of pancakes, the tables still sticky with spilt syrup.
My heart beat a little faster. I looked around with eager curiosity. What wonderful supplies would we be offered? What project would consume my energy and imagination?
We made coat hangers covered in plastic cord.
They were hideous. The whole exercise was tedious and boring. Never was I so disappointed. This couldn’t be all we were going to do, could it? Where was the paint, the heady smell of glue, buttons, drinking straws, all the fodder for glommed- together art projects like we made in school?
And then there was the lake itself. It smelled funny, and green stringy stuff floated on top.  I hated swimming in it. It was not at all like the Audubon County Pool with its familiar reek of chlorine, its water lapping clean against the blue paint that shone through it.
I only stayed in the lake as long as counselors watched. When they joked with other kids or scolded some smart aleck boy, I snuck out and tried to hide. When it came to eating watermelon late in the afternoons, I did hide. I didn’t like watermelon. I simply didn’t see the point. You had to slurp it and it got all over your face and hands, and seemed an enormous waste of effort for something that was mostly . . .well, water. And then the seeds! All that spitting! It made me shudder.
Evenings we had devotions in the pavilion. This was Bible Camp, after all. Everyone gathered on the long, wooden benches perched on the cement floor. The pavilion sides opened onto the night air and the star-filled sky and the sweet breeze. I didn’t mind devotions. Mostly we sang Sunday School songs with hand motions like This Little Light of Mine. I sang and “hid my light under a bushel” with all the enthusiasm I couldn’t muster for crafts or swimming.
And then, oh, heart be still, they set up a wonky screen in front of the hall because we got to see a movie. I had only seen a few movies in my whole life. I imagined Sunday night television Lassie, only longer and bigger and better. Instead it was something called Little Lord Fauntleroy. I could hardly pronounce it, and it was supposed to be “good for us” teach us some sort of Christian lesson.
For the life of me, I could not stay awake. That movie was the most interminable, most incomprehensible piece of cinema I have ever been asked to enjoy. I only remember the child—was he the “little lord”? I never did figure that out—was sent away to some sort of school, Bible Camp, maybe. As punishment for an exceedingly minor infraction, he had to stand on a small stump that barely had room for his feet for an extended length of time.
That single scene aroused something in me besides boredom—horror mostly—that I would have to do that here at Lake Okoboji for not eating watermelon.
Alas, aside from the natural beauty of the camp and the charming facilities and the tasty breakfasts, Bible Camp filled me with cruel disappointment. On the final day, I happily stayed in my room packing my cardboard luggage while the other campers were outside doing – what else? Eating watermelon.
I lovingly packed my new shorty pajamas. They, at least, had brought me pleasure and I could take them back home with me. The despised plastic-coated hangers lay on the bed. I wanted sorely to leave them behind, but decided perhaps my mom could use them. I tucked them in on top of my PJ’s. With a final click, I snapped shut the gold clasps and waited for my parents to arrive. I watched out the window, and when I got a glimpse of the familiar blue Dodge, I tore outside, suitcase in hand. Ignoring the watermelon eaters on the hillside, I waited for Dad to park. He had hardly turned off the ignition when I climbed in, bumping my suitcase against my leg, my eagerness to leave even greater than it had been to arrive.
~Bernie Brown 

6 comments:

  1. Mary HowardJune 05, 2016

    What a charming essay. It is witty, heartfelt, and strikes familiar chords of parental protectiveness, little girl perseverance, childhood joy, and visceral disappointment. Every detail rings true. Excellent!

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    1. Thank you, Mary! I didn't realize until now that I had such nice comments on my story. I am glad I happened by.

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  2. Loved this! Traveled back in time with you...

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    1. How kind of you to comment, Mary! I am late checking these comments, but such a delight to find them. Thank you!

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  3. Bernie, I enjoyed reading your bible camp experience today. It reminded me in many ways of my childhood camp experiences. Mine were "girl Scout" camp and Church camps. To this day, I simply cannot recall anything about them nor why I wanted to go to them - except for rainy and cold June days that were miserable and swimming in the cold creek regardless of the cold. I think if there had been an art camp I would have many good memories for I, too, have always loved making things. Nice work!

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    1. So sweet of you to comment, Lynda! I am glad you understand my camp disappointment. I, too, would have much preferred art camp. Alas, only Bible Camp existed at the time. Thanks for your kind comment.

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