Monday, July 16, 2007

Happy Campers

Yesterday we dropped off my nine-year-old son for his first week of "sleep-away" camp at the Presbyterian camp for our Synod. It brought back memories of my own first camp experience at about the same age. It was an experience in early independence and adventure--and also an early experience of blatant racism, thought I didn't figure that out until much later.

It was the summer of 1973 at a Girl Scout camp in the mountains of North Carolina. When I arrived, a friendly young counsellor told me I would be in Tent #8. We hauled my gear over there and met my tentmates: three girls from Ashville who were friendly, funny and black. We campers did not spend much time in our tents that first evening, but I had the comfortable feeling that we would be friends.

However, the next morning at breakfast, the lead counselor for our area informed me that I would be moving to tent #4. I found this confusing, but obediently gulped down the rest of my pancakes and went to gather my belongings. Later that morning, during craft time, the same counsellor sidled up to me and whispered that she hoped I hadn't had too bad a night, but that she had rescued me as soon as she could.


After lunch, the Camp Director visited our area. I noticed that she and the lead counselor were looking in my direction and having what looked like a very tense discussion. The camp director got all the girls from my section together, sat us down and gave us a "talk" about how we were all Girl Scouts together at this camp and that we would ALL treat EVERYONE with KINDNESS and RESPECT.

Okay. Pretty much what we were used to hearing from grown-ups, but she sounded mad.

After that things settled down and I enjoyed the rest of my time there, although I lost half my stuff and wrote a famous letter home which began, "Dear Mom: I am a mess!"

When my parents came to pick me up, they questioned me about the tent reassignment and gave each other a meaningful look. My Mom sighed and said, "Well, look at it this way. Ten years ago those black girls probably wouldn't even have been allowed to come. "

This was my first hint that my whole, perplexing first 24 hours of camp had something to do with the skin color of my first tentmates.

Years later I hypothesized that the lead counselor had filled the fourth bed in the "segregated" tent with the girl with the funny, foreign sounding last name. When the little girl showed up and proved to be a perfectly "normal" looking white girl, she rushed to fix her "mistake". (Though if she had know about the half-Jewish part, she might have left me where I was.)

We moved later that summer, so I never went back to that particular camp. I wonder whatever became of that lead counselor.


Songbird said...

Brother. I wish I felt we had gotten WAY past that kind of thing.

cheesehead said...

Snarky response to your last sentence: She probably went on to own a string of country clubs.

Sincere response: at least you went somewhere where there were people of color. I met my first African American in college. No joke. My lessons came way late in my life.

Presbyterian Gal said...

Isn't it amazing to review one's life story through the wider lens of our adulthood! I pray that such perspective would help improve our society and then I give thanks that I have enough memory cells left to remember back that far.

What an experience that must have been. And I wonder what the girls in your first tent must have felt.

Princess of Everything (and then some) said...

Oh that is just so sad.

Gannet Girl said...

I immediately wondered about the girls in the first tent, too.

This is the kind of story that makes me roll my eyes when people start in on "Let's go back to the good old days."

Mary Ann said...

I have a stupid question. I don't understand what the counselor's intention was in the stressed talk about RESPECT.

Is it clear to you, and if so could you explain?

Purechristianithink said...

Well, all that was clear to me 30+ years ago was that the Camp Director was furious with the Lead Counselor for our wing of the camp and that she was telling us we all had to be kind and respectful to everyone at camp.

With some perspective, I believe she was speaking more to the staff than to us--letting them know that anymore attempts to segregate black campers from white campers wouldn't be toleraed.

ppb said...

Um, my sister, who lives in your state, just dropped HER 9 year old off at a Presbyterian camp yesterday....any chance it's the same one? How wierd would THAT be?

Did you have to come up with a "tunic" for some theme thing?

Gord said...

Sad isn't it.

ANd it is telling that you didn't even clue in. AFter all racism needs to be taught. The default is "hey new friends".

Purechristianithink said...

ppb--No, when we left, they were decorating vests and working with green bandanas.

ppb said...

I'll have to inquire as to the presence or absence of vests and bandanas! Sis and the kids live in central CA. I don't know if it was a synod camp or a presbytery camp.