Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hello Muddah! Hello Faddah!

With summer on its way and the kids starting to filter out of school, I got to thinking about that perennial summer ritual of childhood: summer camp. I went to summer camp in 1976 just before my 12th birthday. The place was called River Valley Ranch in Manchester, MD. I checked their Web site to see if they were still around, and boy are they ever. Check this out:

This video is so slick, it looks like something from Nickelodeon, and all those activities almost make me want to go back again. Half pipes! Zip Lines! Go Carts! Paintball! We didn't have anything like that when I was there. I guess with all the helicopter parents nowadays wanting to give their kids the absolute best, they had to upgrade big time to compete. When I was a kid, the parents just wanted a safe place to unload the kids for a week.

There was the horseback riding and the swimming pool when I was there, but we only got to ride the horses once and we went to the swimming pool twice. My aunt and uncle had a horse farm, so riding a horse was no big deal to me, and this was even less exciting because you were basically led around in a conga line by the counselors with no freedom to ride on your own. The equipment was pretty worn out too. One of my stirrups fell off my saddle.

Most of the time we sat around bored out of our minds. There were volleyball nets and some balls, but it was up to us to organize a game. The counselors were generally too grumpy or too busy flirting with each other to pay any attention to us. You could buy little craft kits to tinker with. I bought a leather comb holder kit where you just sewed two pieces of leather together with some vinyl string and you could put a complimentary plastic comb in it. With my tangled curly locks, I couldn't drag a comb through my hair anyway.

Speaking of grooming, I was impressed with the bathroom facilities in the video. When I was there, the showers and toilets were something out of Turkish prison. I remember one afternoon taking a dump only to discover there was no toilet paper in the stall. With no one in the bunk house, I thought I was stuck until I remembered having a packet of tissues in my duffel bag. Holding my pants around my knees, I had to shuffle all the way down the long bunk house to my bed which was right next to the front door. As I riffled through my bag with my pants down, one of the counselors walked in and stared at me like I was about to engage in some unChristian-like ritual of self love. Huffily, I declared, "There's no toilet paper in the stalls!" Rather than make an attempt to find any for me, he just walked away, happy that I wasn't committing a sin.

When I was there, River Valley Ranch was divided into two basic areas: the main ranch known as Frontier Town and the smaller area up on the hill called Fort Roller. The younger kids stayed in Fort Roller and the teens were in Frontier Town. I stayed in Fort Roller. The video for that area looks more familiar to me:

This video is also more blatant about revealing the Christian focus of the camp with the cheesy Christian pop soundtrack and the children waving their arms in the air in praise. I find it a little disingenuous that the Web site has so few mentions of anything Christian. The brochures from the time when I went there were more upfront about their agenda. What they don't tell you in all these slick videos and fancy graphics is that the children will spend most of their time in bible study or being preached to with all the fire and brimstone of a televangelist. If that's what you want for your kids, that's fine, but they should be more upfront about it.

I went to RVR because a friend of mine talked me into it. His family was Southern Baptist and perfectly comfortable with this kind of Christian indoctrination. My family were casual Lutherans who talked about spiritual matters in a fuzzy, touchy-feely sort of manner. I was a babe in the woods when I went to that first revival meeting. There was a Christian music group performing that week which consisted of a family whose style was basically bluegrass, as I recall. In between songs, the father would get up and preach about burning in hell for your sins and eternal damnation and such. Kinda put a damper on the bluegrass music. More specifically, it scared the crap out of me. No more sinning from me, Lord, no sir! That is, if I had committed any sins at age 11. I must have. The preacher said we were all sinners.

We sat through these revival meetings every night for the whole week, and during the day had regular bible study. For some strange reason, though, we were always reading Revelations, like the rest of the bible had nothing to offer. Let's get to the good stuff! The earth will end and only the good Christians will go to heaven. At this point, our counselor said, "You know how much you are missing your family right now? Well, this is only one week. What if you are a good Christian and they are not and you go to heaven but they do not. You'll have to spend all eternity never seeing your family again!" That one brought some tears. No amount of swimming or volleyball will wipe out that buzz kill.

Everything was so Christian-centric, you felt more like you had joined a cult rather than going away for some fun at camp. Every night, the counselors would read us stories from the bible. When one kid asked if we could tell ghost stories instead, the counselor sniffed, "We don't tell ghost stories here; we tell God stories." Then he would try to lead us in singing some Christian songs. One of the ornerier kids in the group would counter with a hymn of his own that went something like, "Get down, get down! Pull your panties down!" At least it had a beat and I could dance to it.

Mercifully, it was only a week and my mother and brother soon arrived to rescue me. My friendship with the boy who talked me into camp soured after that. I didn't talk to him at all for the rest of the summer, and very little after that. I was just shell-shocked by the whole experience. However, it did get me thinking more seriously about my spiritual beliefs and I began to study more about religion on my own, which I suppose is a good thing. And I'll never get that camp song out of my head:

Sing the RVR song,
as you're ridin' along,
over river and dale to the end of the trail,
sing the RVR song!

Jesus Christ by my side,
he's my friend and my personal guide,
over river and dale to the end of the trail,
sing the RVR song!