The Unhappy Camper

You think you know someone.

You think you can really trust them.

You think they’d never do anything to harm you.

And then they drive you out into the wilderness and dump you. They peel out of the gravel parking lot, leaving you and your small blue suitcase behind – abandoned like a box of unwanted kittens.

At the tender age of 9, I had to confront the harsh reality that my parents no longer loved me. Frantically, I wracked my brain, trying to remember what I’d said or done that resulted in my banishment to the godforsaken wilderness of Silver Lake Bible Camp.

It didn’t matter. It was too late.

“Bye! Have fun!” Mom yelled out the window of the rapidly disappearing car.

Fun? FUN? Who was that woman and what had she done with my real mom?

I’d been dropped off somewhere near Medical Lake with no trail of breadcrumbs to follow to find my way home. Since we lived in Ritzville at the time, it would have taken a lot of bread. But still.

“You’ll love it,” my mother said. “It’s on Silver Lake, just like your favorite book!”

I was a passionate Laura Ingalls Wilder devotee, but this was nothing like “By the Shores of Silver Lake.”

There was no Ma. No Pa. And no one was calling me Half-Pint. Instead, the camp director swept me along with a group of similarly abandoned children and began calling out cabin numbers.

I trudged to the small, wood-framed cabin without air conditioning, my suitcase bumping the gravel as I dragged it along behind me.

Rows of bunk beds lined the walls. This was it. The Big House. The Hoosegow. The Home for Unwanted Children.

The other kids didn’t seem to grasp the desperateness of our situation. Giddy, giggling girls vied for bunks. Most of them seemed to know each other. I didn’t know a soul. Finally, just two of us loners remained.

“Hey, girls! Here’s your bunk!” camp counselor Candy said, encircling our drooping shoulders in her tanned, toned arms. “Who wants the top?”

I shrugged. My bunkmate stared at the floor and then threw herself onto the bottom bunk, sobbing.

“Okay!” said perpetually perky Candy. “Cindy gets top bunk!”

It was all downhill from there.

I hated camp. I loathed it with every fiber of my small-for-my-age 9-year-old body.

Recently, I wrote an article about two friends who met at Camp Sweyolakan 60 years ago. They loved camp so much, they are still volunteering there. I enjoyed meeting them and sharing their story, but, honestly, it was like interviewing people from an alien planet. Everything I despised about camp life – these gals adored!

When I shared the story on social media and confessed I was an unhappy camper, I was relieved to find out I wasn’t alone. Response was fairly evenly split between those who thrived at camp and those who wilted.

I definitely languished.

Things I hated most in no particular order: arts and crafts, group activities, lake swimming and pig-kissing. Things I liked: the Snack Shack and chapel.

Let me break it down for you. I am not and never have been an artsy-craftsy person. I rarely colored between the lines. I was incapable of deciphering the correct amount of glue for any given project, and really, who the heck needs a macrame wallet?

Though I loved the water and could swim like a fish, my comfort zone included chlorine and concrete, not murky water through which tonight’s dinner might swim.

And softball, volleyball and obstacle courses? Listen. I was a reader. Not a doer.

Which brings me to the pig. The messiest cabin in camp was designated the Pig Pen, and the inhabitants thereof had to kiss a pig at evening chapel.

Did you know “cleanliness is next to godliness” is not actually anywhere in the Bible? Well, apparently the camp directors did not know this, and one day our cabin wasn’t up to snuff. Each resident had to kiss a pinkish, snorting, whiskery, slobbery pig.

Eventually, I kissed a lot of pigs before finding my Pork, er, Prince Charming, so I guess this was good practice.

I did, however, enjoy the singing at chapel.

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going. And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing.”

It was beautiful. The harmonies were lovely. But then the warm glow of communal worship was traded for the clammy confines of my mom’s sleeping bag on the top bunk, where I cried myself to sleep every single night.

My bunkmate’s parents loved her. She was reclaimed on Day Two of the five-day journey to Hades, leaving me to weep alone, while Candy patted my shoulder, her Close-Up, whiter-than-white teeth gleaming in the dark while she whispered, “Cindy, sweetie, your parents didn’t move while you were here. Of course they’ll come to get you Friday.”

Shows how much Candy knew. My parents did, in fact, take advantage of my absence to move to a new house.

The one remaining joy of Silver Lake Bible Camp was the Snack Shack. Well, it was until Day Two, when the three whole dollars my Depression-era parents gave me ran out.

Giddy with sugar lust and seduced by the name, I sunk my final 25 cents into a Big Hunk – the worst confection known to man.

Which meant when “free time” finally occurred, I had no money for the pay phone and couldn’t call home. I finally resorted to begging for a quarter, but my parents were moving and the phone had been disconnected.

So for every “Camp was the best experience of my life and shaped me into the confident, successful woman I am today,” there’s a tale like mine.

One full of grief, pig-kissing, macrame wallets and a lifelong loathing of Big Hunks.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists.


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One thought on “The Unhappy Camper

  1. I HAAATED camp. Went to Camp Sweyolakan between 3rd and 4th grade. I nearly drowned during swim lessons, and wrote home each day requesting items like someone in for a long stir in the state pen. Never made it through one meal because of the spontaneous bursting into song midst breakfast, lunch, or dinner- at which point, we had to stop eating, stand up, and sing. Never appreciated home more in my life.

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