My first church camp was Camp Ghormley*, up on White Pass in Washington State. I went in maybe 1986 with my church youth group. I was young – Thane’s age perhaps. I remember loving the songs around the campfire, the way the bark on the pine trees fit like a puzzle, the deliciousness of a 5c green apple Jolly Rancher, and that our youth director (in one week) fell off the zip line and hit his head (blood everywhere) and slid down the railing of a cabin in tight shorts (extensive and embarrassing splinter removal). His name was Clayton, he had a Texan accent and a funny tick of jerking his head to his shoulder. We tried really hard to keep him out of trouble, but it took more than the combined powers of our Church youth group to work miracles like that.
There are no photos of me at Ghormley. Cameras were expensive. I certainly wouldn’t have given one to a kid to take to camp. So all I have are vague memories and well-memorized camp songs.
In fourth grade, we moved from the town with the big Presbyterian Church (it was PCUSA at the time) and to a town where on some Sundays the folks on the “Great War” honor roll were more plentiful than the folks worshiping in the pews. There wasn’t a youth group (there were four of us though!) but there was still Presbytery church camp. After a break of a year or two, I went to Buck Creek (now defunct, I’m afraid) where I went backpacking for the first time in my life. Even though we got rained out and were poorly kitted, I was totally and completely hooked on backpacking. We slept under the stars, back at the field at Buck Creek, and the Perseids were in full blossom across the sky and I could not shut my eyes. From then on, I took every possible opportunity to do backpacking camp. I loved the backpacking. I loved nature. I loved the songs, and the sense of worship. It’s still one of the most holy things for me.
So when Grey was like in 1st grade I started looking up the Presbyterian Camps in the area. Our church had a relationship with Camp Wilmot, so it was a short search. The very first summer he was old enough, he was signed up. But as I followed circuitous GPS directions into the “parking lot” (eg field area) I was struck by serious doubts. He was so little. He was so clearly uncertain, and nervous. And so was I, I realized. I knew *no one* at this camp. No kids. No grownups. Nothing. I was going to leave my beloved first-born child in the wilderness in the hands of strangers.
I drove away anyway.
Around Thursday I got a letter. It was short – two sentences. They were both dedicated to how amazing Anthony’s BBQ chicken was.
When I picked him up he was tired, happy to see me, and ready to come back again the next year.
The next year, he talked no fewer than four of his friends into coming to camp with him. (I think he’ll do very well in sales, if he chooses, as a career.) Where he’d been alone and afraid the first year, he was in excellent company and confident the second. And he remembered his favorite “camp shirt” as well.
Last year he was ready to do both sessions. He’d originally claimed that he didn’t need to be picked up, but called on Thursday asking for a day at home. They don’t go to bed until like 10 pm there and they’re up at 7, which is a short sleep ration for a kid his age. Also, I think he missed the cats.
This year is going to be the epicalest yet. Today I drove a packed car up to New Hampshire with a wild game of poker in the backseat (Grey: “I packed poker chips!”) and a friend in the front seat. This year he’s going to do a full two weeks. On the second week, his brother will head to camp for HIS first ever sleepaway camp (and Adam and I will be childless! Craziness!) And he and his Camp Wilmot compatriots have been talking about the awesomeness of the camp all year. This year, a total of ELEVEN kids from our town will make the trek up to White’s Pond to experience Anthony’s BBQ chicken.
There are so many incredible and wonderful things summer camp does. It gives us all practice in living without each other. The role of a parent is to raise a child who doesn’t need us. Camp is an excellent experiment in structured self-reliance. No one made Grey change his shirt, but he came home happy and healthy. He packs his own bag. He knows things that we do not know. I think it’s a grievous thing to send a person to independence for the very first time when they are an adult, and there is no safety net. Summer camp is how you practice for college. It’s also a place for children to have deep meaningful thoughts, and begin to stretch the muscles of what *they* believe and what *they* think and what’s important to *them*. Some of my greatest moments of faith happened at summer camp. I can only pray that my sons find the experience meaningful and moving too.
It also plays an important role for we parents. I am more than halfway through the raising of Grey. Thane is only a few years behind him. Who are Adam and I, when we are not coparents? What interests do we share? What bonds have we strengthened? In the week our children are learning to kayak and kyrie, we can also remember the love we have for each other.
It’s hard to walk away from your kid, like I did that first year. It’s hard when your kid walks away from you and doesn’t look back. But it’s good and right that they practice doing just that.
If you’d like to follow along with all the info we get on camp, you can follow “Camp Wilmot’s Facebook page. If you’re suddenly dying to send your kid, you can still register for week 2. And if you happen to have a truck that will pass registration and which you don’t want anymore, that’s a tough capital purchase for a scrappy summer camp. They’d be incredibly grateful for the donation!
* If I’d known about this at the time, my campfire ghost stories would’ve been epic! “But upon his sudden death in 1948 (he was stricken fatally ill at the camp as he was preparing to begin a week of camp for children) members of the church moved to have the camp named after him.”