Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The names have been changed

Thanks to a link on mojo's blog, I've seen a commercial that I just love, but that song! O, that song. Not only does it refuse to leave my head, but it takes me back to summer camp.

I've sometimes encountered songs I ought to know, and people who give me puzzled looks. "But didn't you go to summer camp?" they ask, when I say that the song is unfamiliar.

Oh, I did. Boy did I. Let's call it, oh, Camp Gethsemane. No reason. I just need a fake name that starts with "G" for reasons that will become clear. It was unique, it was intense, and it lasted 7 weeks, so the impressions it made got ground in good.

We did not sing universal camp songs. We almost exclusively sang Camp Gethsemane
songs. Each year, all the cabins would participate in a song contest and 3 winning songs would get added to the repertoire, all set to popular tunes, but with lyrics rewritten to sing the praises of Camp Gethsemane. Its exquisite patch of mountain land, given by God to His Elect, as a place to nurture our wisdom and strength for the crass world we spent the rest of the year in. Its values. The lifelong sisterhood we'd entered. The song in the video, "Boom-de-yada" is familiar to me but in melody only. Our version had a Gethsemane lyric that I've mercifully forgotten.

"Normal" songs weren't forbidden, as long as they weren't irreverent. If your cabin went on a campout or picnic, you'd sing a few standards around the campfire, "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore," etc. But few. Gethsemane-specific songs simply dominated to the point of killing most opportunities to sing secular songs.

That's kind of a joke, that word "secular," like we were in some kind of religious cult. But I have to admit, Camp Gethsemane was the place where the Christian Living teacher informed us that almost everybody was destined for Hell except certain correct-thinking Protestants, and the Jews, who deserved to go just as much as the Catholics did, but who were God's Chosen People and therefore had a free pass. This is a unique view I've never run into elsewhere. I won't say he was speaking for the camp leaders but I've never heard that they objected.

Every moment of every day was regimented. We took classes all day long, normal stuff. Canoeing, tennis, swimming, art. Evenings were programmed. We could each have a free period during the day, but with the time it took to walk from your last class, and allowing time to get your next one, time to sit and think and goof off was short. Behavior was regulated every minute. One night a large group of us from several cabins had a big happy pillow fight out on the tennis court. The director heard it (it was hard to miss) and descended on us, white-faced and enraged, as though she'd caught us doing drugs.

On Sundays we wore dresses to "chapel" in the assembly pavilion, and white all day long. We had a morning service, then broke up into smaller Sunday School classes, then reassembled in the pavilion for a church service wrap-up. Then in the evening we attended vespers.

The ceremonial aspect of Camp Gethsemane was spectacular. A final-Sunday vespers tradition involved carrying candles in a line down the hill to circle a large area of the campus, a shimmering circle in the dark, the ceremony capped by floating the candles on little square wood platforms out onto the lake.

It was breathtakingly beautiful, but even better was the Honor Circle Ceremony. It would have wowed Leni Riefenstahl.

Honor Circle Ceremonies were unannounced until the evening on which they'd take place. As night fell, we'd all line up by cabins and, when given the signal, march up the mountain behind the camp in one long line, to the mysterious shrine called, as was the special group of girls chosen there, the Honor Circle.

It was far enough away to keep us mere plebeians from wandering up there during ordinary daylight hours and profaning the sacred ground by ambling about, slouching on the seats and chitchatting, or God forbid, sitting in the Honor Seat (reserved for the Director, "Mrs. D," who as daughter of the camp's founder had been inducted into The Circle decades earlier). Though obviously a manageable walk away, one had to plan and think twice about violating its boundary, and few did. We saw the place only in the primevally forested darkness, illuminated at first by the counselors' flashlights as they led us up, and then by a huge bonfire.

The Honor Circle (the place) consisted of positively Druidical rows of primitive stone seats, just concrete blocks, really, in a half-circle, to accommodate most of the 300-ish campers. These rows embraced a stone fire pit. Behind the fire, in a facing semicircle was a single row of fancier benches with backs. These were for The Elite, the Honor Circle members, and the upper echelon of camp directors.

We assembled in awed silence. The littlest girls got the front row, not just because they were the shortest, but undoubtedly because they were also the most impressionable and the best recipients of Mrs. D's eye contact. Mrs. D stood at her seat with the blazing torch she'd carried up the hill. When the shuffling and jostling had died down and we stood in proper hushed attitudes, she gestured and we all sat.

Mrs. D. lit the bonfire which had magically been built sometime that day without general camper knowledge, possibly by Honor Circle members. They had various secret duties like this and had been selected for their devotion to Camp and willingness to keep their society's secrets, rather than being tempted to reveal them and impress younger girls. They had meetings so secret that their absence was never noticed and no one knew where or when the meetings took place.

The fire caught and climbed till a massive inferno flailed the air, and the director began her speech. It was always about how Gethsemane Girls were the select, simply by virtue of spending our summer in that rarefied atmosphere. We were finer, wiser, more self-sacrificing, and the burden we had to bear for God and Truth was tremendous. Mrs. D. was a hot flickering orange color as she marched back and forth around the fire and mesmerized us with her declaration of all we had to live up to, and of how Gethsemane would forge us for this Great Commission.

It was nicely timed and the fire would be just noticeably past its peak, as she wrapped up the speech and the next phase of the ceremony began. Honor Circle members silently rose and passed among the campers' ranks, tapping a few. If you were "tapped" you might just have a tearful fluttery sobfest, and you certainly gasped, because it meant you were considered so special, so pure of quality, thought, and deed, that you were Honor Circle material yourself. Your status was temporary. You were only an Honor Circle Member for this summer, though from your ranks the Permanent were chosen at year's end. Only 12 Permanent members sit as active members, though, as in a sorority, Permanent Honor Circle membership is for life. If you happen to visit camp on Honor Circle Ceremony Night when you're 30 ... or 80 ... you'd be expected to sit with the teens in the Circle that night as the fire blazes.

By the end we felt rather weak and burned clean as we filed back down the hill.

No group can win hearts without some more ordinary and achievable awards, so on the last day of camp, a great many campers received a more mundane pat-on-the-back award, called the "Gethsemane G." Dispensing these G's was prefaced by another speech about how Gethsemane and many positive attributes all began with "G." Girl, Godly, good, great, generous, genuine.

I never got a G, much less an Honor Circle Seat. I was not Gethsemane material, though it did hurt. The G was ubiquitous enough for getting passed over to be a real, yet vague, "You're just not our type" statement. Well, I can't really fuss about that because the place wasn't my type either.

But I always thought I was a pretty damned good person and some years later, I saw an initial charm that looked somewhat like the G I never received and bought it for myself.


Mike said...

I haven't posted much about my years at Camp Lord O' The Flies (also not its real name), mostly because my mother, who reads my blog and yours, has repeatedly assured me that, if they had known what was going on there, I wouldn't have been there all those summers. And, honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about the type of self-reliance I built there. In any case, sounds like you went to a camp where the director had too much control and I went to one where I hope he had no idea what was happening. Neither is a good thing.

ronnie said...

Wow. I spent all these years seething with resentment about the two weeks in the summer I spent in "Jesus Camp", where my psyche would be tortured with terrorizing imagery and threats of the damnation which surely awaited us if we fell prey to the tempations of the world and "backslid".

I never thought I'd feel like I might've gotten off relatively lightly!

And I am so glad you bought that "G" for yourself.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

I really should have added that my presence at this place was completely voluntary. I won a dance award the first summer which made me feel like i had a niche there, and it took 2 more summers to convince myself that the G thing was never gonna happen for me. But none of us ever feared pain or humiliation, no anarchic stuff. Camp G was just a wasted opportunity to help girls grow, used instead to pronounce some of us inadequate and dispense with us. Rejection there happened with cool cordiality.

Too much child "guidance" is in the hands of jackasses, either way.