Sunday, March 11, 2012

Summer Camp

It's March and I'm betting a whole lot of parents out there are starting to eye summer camps for their kids, and in that vein, since my editor is on me to tell my stories, I'll thrill you with one from way back when...

And please, don't go the American Pie route and quote the so wasn't like that.

Mom and Dad knew that I needed to get out and since I didn't have a whole lot of friends, they decided that a day camp would be good for me, so they packed me off, right up the road to T bar M Tennis Ranch where a day camp was being held.

T bar M is nestled just outside of the town I grew up in, right smack dab in the middle of the Texas Hill Country.  On the drive up highway 46, away from New Braunfels, you can open up the windows and smell the humidity-soaked air filled with fresh cedar.  The further you go up highway 46, the more dense the trees get until you finally get to the ranch entrance on the left.

I remember stepping out of my mother's gray Lincoln Town Car and seeing the main building for the first time.  It wasn't anything unique, but I could see the other kids milling around and I automatically became apprehensive.  My Mom took me into the building and I was introduced to a camp counselor that took charge of me.  Waving "bye" to Mom, I was taken on a tour of the facility, which at that time consisted of just a gymnasium, a quasi-soccer field, a pair of cabins, an open-air barn-like structure, a set of tennis courts and a cafeteria.  It wasn't very big, but for the next week, I did arts and crafts, prayed a lot (it was a Christian summer camp), and got to swing a tennis racket (which I was horrible at, but had fun).

Since my first summer at T bar M was such a success, Mom and Dad figured that it would be cool to send me off not just for day camp, but for a complete one-week (seven-day, six-night) stay the following year.  Now what I didn't know, until far later on, is that they would drop me off at camp, go home, pack their bags and hop onto a plane to Vegas for a week.  I don't know about you, but that's pretty brilliant.  Put your kid in camp and head to Vegas.  While I was studying the Beatitudes in the Book of Matthew, they would be in Sin City.   Think about it this way, they had a sitter and I'd be in a different locale away from my day-to-day life.  It was a Win-Win for everyone involved because I will tell you without hesitation or doubt that the highlight of my life during that time was to pack my bags for a week and go to camp where bullying wasn't an option.  It was a seven-day pass that I relished every single year from when I was 10 to finally 15.

The first day of camp was always a blast.  I'd get checked in and assigned to a cabin (which was done by age).  In the beginning, the cabins were named after a German word for a "Fruit of the Spirit".  The eldest boys were in "Styrke" or "Strength", and so on.  I can't remember the names of the cabins I stayed in to save my own life right now, but I will tell you that they had zero air-conditioning and bunk beds lined the walls for 32 kids per cabin (which were divided into two's, duplex style with the counselors in the rooms between).

What's neat about those summers is that I will never forget the "contraband" searches that went on in our footlockers the first day.  Oh, don't even get twisted, they confiscated gum, candy, snacks, soda pop and even the king sized bags of Skittles and Jolly Ranchers that Mom had sneaked into my stuff when I wasn't looking as a surprise.  That's right, "contraband" was also known as unhealthy food.

Back in the day, going to T bar M was like going to a health farm.  If you wanted something to drink it was a choice between juice, milk or water, there was no such thing as soda pop until the big cookout that happened on the second to last night of camp.  Every morning we would get up, get dressed and head to the mess hall where you could find cereal, eggs, bacon and fruit to start the day off right.  Here's the thing though, you had to clean your plate and whatever you took, you had to eat, so it became clear from the beginning that if you poured milk onto your cereal, you had to drink every last drop of it.  I remember counselors coming over to the table and asking kids, "Ok, you finished the cereal, but what about the milk?  That's right, down it!"  If we hadn't eaten everything on our plates we got the "there are starving children in..." until we cleaned our plates.  Since we knew we had to finish everything, campers did, to the point where we would remind each other to finish our plates or drink our milk before the counselors could bust us for it.

Then, after the meals, one cabin always got assigned to clean-up duty.  That's right, I remember busing and wiping down tables, and when you do that, it reminds you to eat very neatly, and as I recall, since we had to clean it up, we all became really neat, really fast.

The days were very simple, we got up in the morning, had breakfast, went to Batters Box (the twice-daily bible study).  After that we went to our activities, ate lunch, had a moment for something known as F.O.B. (which meant Flat on Back or Flop on Bunk) our rest time, then back to more activities, then back to Batters Box, then on to dinner and the nightly sing-along in the open air barn.

Every year I got a choice of which activities set I wanted to take part in; the first two years, day camp and my first full week, I played tennis.  Dad was a tennis player back in the day, so I tried my hand at it.  After two years of that, I threw in the towel, tennis wasn't my game, but they had a program called "Adventure" and it wasn't on a tennis court, it was ropes courses, the rappelling tower, archery, hiking, canoeing, if it was an outdoor activity, we did it.

Well, I'll never forget my first time on the rappelling tower.  To my little 12-year-old stature, the 50-foot-tall rappelling tower was not only high but terrifying.  Walking up the stairs inside of it, then finally to the ladder that reached the top, I could tell the tower was well built, it was open-air with round metal beams painted silver with grey landings and enough shoe prints to know that there were a lot of kids who had safely gone up and down it, so I felt relatively safe.

Finally getting to the top, I could see over everything (and to this day I still love a great view), but the problem was, now that I was up there, I had to come down, and by volunteering to climb the tower, that meant that you were volunteering to come down not by the stairs but by rope.

Before I climbed the tower, we were given a full schooling on the harnesses and equipment that are involved with rappelling.  There's lots of carabiners, figure eights, lots of knots and special lingo that communicates your intentions while hanging on for dear life and praying you don't fall.  There is "On Belay" which is what the person about to descend asks their safety person (the person holding the rope at the top) if they are ready.  If they're ready, they'll say, "Belay On."  After that, when you get ready to go, you tell your belayer, "Climbing" and they'll reply, "Climb On."  Yeah, yeah, I know, get going, right?  But you have to know these things if you're going to go down a 50-foot wall.  So, after getting schooled, we put on our harnesses and began to climb the tower.

So, there I am in my harness on at the top of the tower.  I remember getting up there and seeing a very handsome blonde man (the counselors came from different college chapters of The Fellowship of Christian Athletes), and with his Texas A&M t-shirt on (my Dad's Alma Mater) I felt better. I had an Aggie looking after me. Now if that phrase alone doesn't make you laugh, you're not from Texas. Aggie jokes are almost the exact same as any other slight-type joke you've ever heard. (Example:"Did you hear about the Aggie that drove his pickup into the lake? His dog drowned while he tried to get the tailgate down.") So yeah, I had Aggie looking after me.

Standing up there and admiring the view, the idea of going down the side of that tower was something that quickly became a very "what the heck was I thinking" kind of moment. Now, I will tell you that the first thing anyone tells you when you're that high up doing something like rappelling is "don't look down."  And what's the first thing we do?  Oh yeah, I politely held onto one of the safety bars at the top and looked down.  It's ok, you can facepalm!  I do it all the time! Anyhow, I take one look over the side and realize that this is just NOT for me. Panic, apprehension? Oh yeah, there was a lot of that, but I am such a sucker for blondes...even at 12! The blonde counselor sees me panic and tear up and says, "It's ok, you don't have to! Just stand up here for a minute and calm down. You can watch the other campers do it. It's really not that bad."

So, wiping at my eyes, I stand up there for a few minutes and watch some of the other campers go down the wall and after some coaxing and some talking, the blonde counselor gets me tied into the ropes and gets me ready to go down the wall.

What they don't tell you, when you are that age, is that the hardest part is taking first step.  Now for the last three years we've been doing nothing but talking about how the first step is the hardest to take.  I know this from experience because it was my 12-year-old butt hanging precariously off of a 50-foot rappelling tower.  When you swing yourself over the safety bar and you're standing on the top-most rounded beam of the tower, your body is at the exact same angle as the wall, straight up and down.  What you have to do is extend your legs and let the rope out so that your butt goes down but your legs stay straight and you become basically perpendicular to the wall, allowing you to "walk" down it.   The hardest part is letting go and allowing the rope to start to move, taking your butt with it.

Hanging out there like that, the counselor looked at me and said, "You're doing good girl, it's going to be okay..."  and he kept saying things like "Great job girl..." at one point after about five times of being referred to as "Girl" I politely looked at him and said, "By the way, my name is Sheri, you can call me that."  There I am with my butt hanging out over a 50-foot tall rappelling tower struggling to get down and I take the time to introduce myself.  I ask you, in what world does this happen?  The counselor broke into a full-on laugh saying, "You're quick!  Wow, right on Sheri, it's nice to meet you. You're doing great, I'm proud of you, now just extend your legs and start walking down."

I will have to say that going down that wall wasn't easy.  Let's add onto the fact that my shirt rode up just enough to leave a patch of skin at my waist, where the rope was resting, for me to get a nice, fat rope burn.  But, I leaned back, extended my legs and step by step got down the wall.

After I got down to the bottom and I got unhooked from all of those ropes, I looked back up at the distance I had come, with my fellow campers cheering for me the whole way...and thinking to myself, "Wow.  I actually did it."  But that didn't stop me walking away from everyone to bend down and kiss the ground.

But it was all about that first step.  The old saying "That first step is a doozey" doesn't lie, but it's that first step that makes all the difference in the world, it's the difference between giving up and walking away or saying you had the courage to do what didn't think you could.

That afternoon we covered more of the Beatitudes in the Batters Box.  Ironically the verse we covered was Matthew 5:8, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." I couldn't help but think that my meek butt on that rappelling tower sure did earn my feet hitting (and inheriting) the earth.

Over a course of five years, I spent my summers at T bar M, and for me, they're some of the happiest memories of childhood.  It's kind of funny that I can now look at my parents and say, "By the way, while you were in Vegas, I did this..."  Those summers weren't all perfect and storybook but I will tell you that the counselors saw a very emotionally beat-up little girl and did their best to make my time there as peaceful and loving as possible.

After seven days of that, my heart broke every time I had to go home.  Counselors would come in on our final day and give back our unopened "contraband" for us to share while we were packing our footlockers, and I would wish with all my heart that I could stay there forever.  But, all good things come to an end and as I'd walk up the cedar mulch-filled walkways out to the parking lot, I'd always look back and think to myself, "I'll be back next year."  What I didn't know is that I would never go back again, but the memories would stay with me for a lifetime.

If you have a young person who needs to get away from it all, I highly suggest shipping them off to T bar M for a week this summer.  Yeah, they've got soda pop now and there are a lot more cabins with English names that are air-conditioned, but it's still worth it because the memories they'll take away from it are worth their weight in gold.

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