Friday, November 16, 2007

The Week-est Link, Nov. 16: Remembering Summer Camp

1. There is only one link this week, and it is to Disney chief Michael Eisner's memoir Camp. Eisner has been a controversial figure in the recent past, and I have little to no knowledge about his controversies and thus can say little about his personal character. What I can say, though, is that his remembrance of his summer camp experiences at Camp Keewaydin in Vermont connected with me on a profound and moving level. If you have been to summer camp and were impacted by it, you will be stirred by Camp to remember your own experiences. The book is entirely clean, elegantly written, and in the end, quite moving. I recommend it, and you can find it on Amazon for very cheap.

Eisner's experiences at Keewaydin were shaped primarily by the camp director, a man called "Waboos" at camp, who cast a large shadow over the camp. Waboos oversaw every facet of camp life and personally invested in seemingly every child and counselor who came his way. The end result was a camp experience that markedly shaped those who had it, and that caused generations of families to go to Vermont each summer for a four-week stint. This resonates with my own experience and has prompted me to want to share my reminisces of summer camp (perhaps you'll do the same in the comments?). I went to a small Child Evangelism Fellowship camp in Maine called Camp Good News for the whole of my later childhood years. CGN was a Christian camp, and I was profoundly changed by the experience. I adored CGN and, from the time I was nine years old until the time I was twenty-one, missed only one summer, for reasons I cannot recall.

Like Keewaydin, CGN was run by a camp director, Mr. John Romano, who was the lifeblood of the camp. Mr. Romano was an Italian-American pastor from southern Maine, and he was a giant of a man. It's not that that he was tall (though he was, and is, a little thick). No, he was a moral presence, one of the old male guard who could pierce you with his eyes, make you sit up straighter just by entering the room, and cause you to lose all semblance of vocabulary if you acted stupidly. Yet he rarely showed this side, because he rarely had to. Children--and adults--revered Mr. Romano, and I was one of them. In a world of nasty peers and vivid disappointments, Mr. Romano was a man of rock, a good man, one by whom you could set your compass. He taught us kids to love God and to obey Him, he led the camp in the weekly game of Capture-the-Flag, he knew all our names, he impacted all of our lives.

Camp was a blurry rush of activity back then. It was a setting out of the 1950s, a purer era, a kinder era, one not dominated by media and bad attitudes. The ladies who worked on the camp staff always dressed nicely and always exuded dignity and composure. They were the type who would cause even worldly children to watch their language. Miss Melanie and Miss Vernell--they were the mainstays. They taught the Bible lessons and led the singing and the nightly Quiz-Down--an event invested with great solemnity at which quizzing on the daily Bible lesson took place. As I've said, they were women from a different time, and we all respected them and sought to please them, even if we feared them, just a little.

When we weren't shuttling around the campus--a rustic mix of cabins, concrete buildings, forest and fields--we were resting, or cleaning. Mr. Romano ran a tight ship, and he wished to teach children not only to be godly but to be orderly and responsible. The campers--usually 40 boys and 40 girls, each grouped into six "tribes" led by college students and adults, called either "Aunt" or "Uncle" (I was "Uncle Owen," which I never really got used to)--had daily chores and daily rest times. At rest hour and at night someone from the staff crept around the boys' and girls' cabins and listened carefully to see which cabins were quiet and which were restless. All the tribes, you see, were engaged in a competition by gender--boys were trying to earn points by their decorum, cleanliness and completion of certain projects, and the girls were doing the same. I can still remember the excitement of being in a cabin that was in the race for "honor cabin." It was thrilling, and we took it seriously, with an earnestness alien to a fallen world.

I loved CGN. I always went to "Sports Week" and played basketball. So much basketball. I loved the counselors and the staff and fellow campers and Quiz-Down and the swimming pool and showing off for the girls and maybe getting an address to write to at the end of the week from some fetching young lady (sometimes I even heard back). Above it all, though, the camp taught me to love God, and I deeply enjoyed the daily devotions and the seriousness with which faith in God was taken. CGN was a refuge for me, a place of safety and love and hope, and I yearned to go each year. My counselors exerted a great impact on me, and to this day I still look up to men like Anthony Romano and Brian Brunk. They were only five to ten years older than me, but they were giants in my eyes, as I suppose I probably was to the young campers I led when I worked there all summer just five summers ago.

Now, I live in Lousville, far away from Livermore Falls, ME, where CGN still stands and where it still exists. I've spoken about it in the past tense, but it's doing well in the current day. It's just that for me, it will always exist in my mind in some idyllic past. My childhood was shaped in some part by CGN, and I want to preserve that. I can easily recall how it was awkward for me to grow up and to be on the same staff as Mr. Romano. It never quite felt right. Then as now, I saw myself as the exuberant camper and he as the benevolent patriarch. He's aging now, as I am, but in my mind, he will always be the strong man of God who pointed me to Christ and who oversaw a camp that contained a little bit of magic for a boy in Maine.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a camper at Cherith was everything I needed. Now entirely separated I yearn to go back and to just be, and not always have to be told.


5:56 PM  
Blogger Stephen Newell said...

I was "Uncle Owen"

Oh no, you were not. That's it, your wife has to change her name now to Beru. You'll adopt a kid named Luke and he'll change the SBC.

3:59 AM  
Anonymous Ashante said...

Isn't John Romano Ray's big brother?

5:38 AM  
Blogger Mary Mc said...

Owen, great post. I too was indelibly impacted by my summers at Camp Willow Run in Littleton, NC. That is where I became a Christian when I was 10 years old and grew to love the Lord and His Word, primarily because of the example set for me by the amazing counselors. Praise God for faithful servants who sustain Christian camping.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...they were giants in my eyes, as I suppose I probably was to the young campers I led when I worked there all summer just five summers ago."

You were a giant in their eyes. I can attest to that.

11:17 AM  

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