by Nancy Martin
I went to Girl Scout camp every summer. Not just because I sold the requisite number of cookies or because I desperately wanted to learn how to shoot an arrow through a straw-stuffed target. By age eight, I already knew how to do that. My parents were very outdoorsy, and we spent every weekend--even in blizzards--in the fresh air learning one marginally useful skill after another. Want me to start a fire? Gimme a minute with a flint and some dry pine needles. I can snow shoe, throw a spiral football pass, lash a pack to a pony, and I used to be a pretty good shot with a BB gun.
No, I went to summer camp because my grandparents donated land to the Girl Scouts and helped the organization build a summer facility where girls (my grandparents raised five during the Depression) could learn by living in an Adirondack for two weeks in the summer. My mother felt it was important that the family support the camp by attending, too, and since my sister and I were the only female grandchildren who lived within 1000 miles of the camp, we dutifully packed our footlockers every June.
Because the camp was located in the mountains of Pennsylvania, we spent a lot of time learning how to entertain ourselves when it rained. We braided lanyards. (At the time, I found limited use for the lanyard, but that was before everybody had to prove they're not terrorists by wearing ID in their school, workplace and to sporting events.) We learned to string macaroni necklaces. We learned to harmonize as we sang endless camp songs. (One is Silver and the Other Gold, anyone?)
Sure, I excelled at the outdoorsy stuff. Canoeing, archery, fancy diving, too. I could consume many a rainy hour by reading, of course. But what I really learned at camp were things bigger than lanyards and how to dip a canoe paddle without making a splash.
The polar bear swim still bugs me. See, every morning, those girls who wanted to earn their polar bear badge had to get up half an hour before everyone else, run shivering down to the water through the dewy grass and plunge in for a pre-breakfast swim. If you managed to rouse yourself every morning for two weeks, you became an official polar bear.
A good girl, I got up every morning for thirteen days. On the fourteenth, I heard the early bugle and thought, "Eh, I think I'll sleep. Who needs another dopey patch that's just going to sit in a drawer" So I rolled over for another half hour of sleep.
I am still annoyed with myself. I gave up. One lousy day early, and for the sake of a mere thirty minutes of sleep, I quit.
What a loser.
Why does the polar bear failure bother me so much? Here it is, forty years later and I'm still thinking about it! Still ashamed of myself. I have a hard time giving up on things because I know how it's going to feel if I do---lousy.
The other really big thing I learned at summer camp was to share the Fizzies.
The water from the camp's well tasted terrible. It was hard to brush your teeth with such disgusting stuff, and forget about drinking it. All the girls were slowly dehydrating themselves because of the taste of the water. Here's the part where my grandparents come in.
My grandparents were invited to the camp every summer to be honored at a dinner. (Believe me, the hot dogs were no great culinary prize, but that wasn't the point. There was a big ceremony for them.) It was embarrassing, yet kinda cool to be summoned to the stage to stand beside them while all the scouts sang the camp songs to us and gave my grandmother of a bouquet of flowers. It was my first brush with being singled out for something that I perceived as big. After the dinner, our grandparents sneaked my sister and me out to their car and opened the trunk, which was full of goodies. A plate of homemade cookies for my sister and me, plus the biggest box of Fizzies I had ever seen. Fizzies were little Alka-Seltzer-like tables with fruit flavorings. You dropped the Fizzy into a glass of yucky water and presto--! You had carbonated Kool Aid. The box was too big for me to carry alone. My sister had to help me wrestle it out of the car's trunk.
My grandmother said, "You know what to do with these, right?"
She didn't have to tell us to share our booty with the rest of the campers. (Well, no way my sister and I could consume all that carbonation and survive.) We were the lucky ones who got to stand up front while the other campers sang to us. So we gave the Fizzies away like mad for the rest of the week.
If you're lucky, it's your responsibility to give back.
Lessons from camp. They've stuck with me. That, and the memory of Stephanie Dershack getting mad and hitting me in the head with a softball, but maybe that explains a few other things, too.