Back in June 1988, I waited at the Li’l Champ convenience store at the corner of State Road 218 and Blanding Boulevard in Middleburg, Florida. It was early Monday morning, the week after school let out. Before long, a school bus pulled into the parking lot, and I boarded with my small, blue suitcase. I looked at the bus crowd, and noticed other young women like myself, supposedly ages 12 to 16. I saw a couple of chaperones, as well as other girls I knew.
The bus took us to O’Leno State Park, in High Springs, Florida, not 20 minutes from Itchetucknee Springs. This is was my first year going to my church girls’ camp. I was twelve years old, and I was pretty nervous. It was kind of a last-minute decision of my parents to let me go, so I had no idea what was going on.
An hour and half later, the bus passed through the park entrance and pulled into the campground, joining other buses. Groves of trees towered and shaded the surrounding ground. The leaders corralled us into the mess hall, where we would find out our cabin assignments. Usually 12 or 13 cabins were used. I don’t remember all my cabin buddies, or even my cabin leader’s name. Sorry, y’all.
We had classes that occupied our days that week, such as first aid. We had requirements to pass off in order to make it to the next level the following summer. The first year girls were known as yearlings. Second: Mountaineers; third: Inspirators (is that even a word?); fourth: Adventurers.
In first aid we learned CPR and the Heimlich maneuver and how to tie a few cravats for bandages and maybe a chair-carry for the injured. We learned about pressure for bleeding and bugbites and broken bones and burns and ticks. In the infirmary the nurses kept ticks taped to posterboard, a “tick chart” to keep track of the sizes of ticks they plucked from lucky girls during the week.
In campcrafter class we learned about knots and knives and orienteering and building fires and being friendly to the earth and cooking our own meals outdoors. We went on hikes that required us to wear a hat and long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with a collar, anything that would catch ticks. In humid, boggy Florida during the summer. The leaders advised us not to shave our legs prior to coming to camp so that we could more easily feel the ticks crawling.
For swimming class we learned how not to drown. My first year my cabin leader gave me the award for being Most Likely to Drown in the River. I still suck at swimming, people. At the creek where we swam stood a 15-foot tall platform where we could jump off. Most of the girls just sat on the floating dock. I dove off the platform and learned how compressible water is to the top of one’s head.
Crafts class was fun sometimes, except I didn’t like the projects very much, but I enjoyed hanging out with the girls.
The cabins were made of wood, and each of them held four bunk beds – metal frames, small, slablike mattresses with the light green vinyl covers. We brought our own bedding. Over the years I learned to bring a fan. I bunked with six other girls and a cabin leader my first year. Everyone seemed really nice. I was incredibly quiet then, but I enjoyed watching everyone else interact.
The food was usually pretty good. Women from church volunteered to cook for the week camp was in session. We sat at tables, cafeteria style. We learned when it was our turn to eat. It was a different order for every meal. We read from the mailbag, and we sang to the latecomers, they’ve been primping, now they’re late, come a little sooner, we won’t wait.
We learned a fun cup game while we waited for our turn. Two claps, three drums to the bottom of the cup facing up, one clap, pick up the cup with the right hand and set it to the right slightly (boom); clap, pick up the cup with the right hand, bringing the cup’s mouth to the palm of the left hand, set the cup down right side up (boom), pick the cup back up and put in the left hand, bang the right palm on the table (boom), and place the cup mouth down on the table space of the person to the right. The rhythm starts over and gets faster until your cup ends back in front of you. I still remember it, obviously.
The days began with a flag ceremony at the flagpole. A cabin was in charge of raising the flag, leading the Pledge of Allegiance and reading a scripture and starting the day with prayer. The days ended at the flagpole, usually just before dinner. Another cabin lowered the flag, folded it correctly (another thing we learned in campcrafter) and blessed the food.
Each cabin had chores throughout the week. Everyone hated the bathrooms. Imagine anywhere from 70 to 100 girls sharing bathrooms and showers for a week. Then imagine any number of them being on their periods during that week. Not an anomaly, but close to The Twilight Zone. I liked being in the kitchen. I liked flag ceremony. I liked sweeping out the lodge.
We had some sort of program every night in the lodge after dinner. Learning camp songs, spiritual activities and lessons. Practicing our skits. Skit night was Thursday night, when family members and stake leaders visited. Sometimes the skits were great. I remember being a part of some really lousy skits. I don’t recall what they were about, but I get embarrassed just trying to trudge up the memories.
We learned about pranks. Once I borrowed a salt shaker from the cafeteria and sprinkled salt in the bed of a cabin and a girl I did not know. Imagine lying down to sleep one humid, summer night and your bed suddenly leaches all the moisture from your skin. That’s not a fun prank; that’s mean. That’s something I never confessed to, either. I returned the salt shaker, but I kept mum. Then I also participated in helping wrap the leaders’ cabin in fishing wire while they slept. Pretty awesome, and far more benign. Who would have thought a church girls’ camp would send me to hell?
We had “girl talk” in the cabins after the evening program, when we were supposed to be getting ready for bed and sleeping. Our cabin leader conducted a birds-and-bees discussion one evening my first year. We were all tucked away in our bunks. Well, the first time, it hurts. And yes, there’s a little bit of blood, but that doesn’t happen every time. Yeah, it gets pretty big. How big? Well, LALALALALALA LALALALALALA HUMMANAH HUMMANAH. This was not what my 12-year-old ears wanted to hear.
We learned about boys, who were completely off-limits during camp week. Word was that the Scout camp was on the other side of the creek, just across the bridge. Sometimes the boys would pass through our camp and we’d gawk and smirk and sometimes giggle at each other. Imagine a teenage girl’s raging hormones. Then imagine 70 to 100 of them. All in one place.
Friday morning, we’d all go tubing down Itchetucknee Springs. Clear, cold water, peaceful. We’d end up sunburnt but with blue lips from the frigid water. Everyone looked forward to it, especially if the summer was unforgivingly oppressive. Then we’d return to camp and relax the rest of the day before dinner and before testimony meeting.
Friday night testimony meeting was a big deal. We sang songs like “I Walk by Faith” and “Walk Tall” to bring a calm spirit to the meeting, which was necessary after all the female-adolescent shriekiness all week. Back then, we arranged the benches in the lodge in a circle, we brought our blankets, and we listened to testimonies late into the night, to the point of girls falling asleep on the floor. There was a lot of crying and saying how much we’d learned and loved the girls in our cabins even if we started out as strangers or hating each other. I won’t ever forget the way those testimony meetings made me feel.
Saturday morning, we packed, cleaned out our cabins, did our chores and had breakfast. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses. We all hugged and compared treats and ugly crafts and picked up scraps around the campground. We doused all the smoldering coals. That first year, I boarded the bus that took me back to Middleburg, a metropolis compared to High Springs, even in 1988 when most of the roads weren’t yet paved. I planned in my mind what I’d bring next summer. I dreamed who would be in my cabin and of being able to see the new friends I made.
Every year, for four years, I became as we’d left the campground: better than when I had arrived. I guess that was the point.
I miss girls’ camp.