In the 1950’s my family moved from a little Missouri town to the small town in Indiana where my father grew up. We lived with our grandparents for a few months while my father started a new job and we found a house to rent.
My little brother and sister, ages six and five respectively, roamed my grandparents’ big back yard and the neighborhood, but I asked if I might read the old books I saw in the parlor bookcases. My grandmother, usually so strict about us not touching her possessions, gave me permission. I read from books that far exceeded my school reading level.
Because we arrived in late September, my parents enrolled me in the local school a couple of weeks after school started. Perhaps because of the late start, or maybe because I was young for my grade, the third grade teacher placed me in the low reading group—not the blue birds, or the red birds, but (horrors) the yellow birds—in which the halting reading of those fowl pretenders tried my patience. At a new school for the second semester, I enjoyed an environment which let me spread my wings, the blue ones.
Unfortunately, being a rabid reader made me seem a little different. I was self-conscious. Other children didn’t understand why I spent so much time with my nose in a book.
I remember my Girl Scout Camp experience at age ten. The whole family piled into the car to accompany me to the rural campground. Our 1953 Chevy could easily seat three in the front, but we kids always sat in the back.
My brother stated his case first. “Mommy, it’s my turn to sit by the window.”
My little sister attempted a claim, but on this special day I didn’t have to compete. I was to be abandoned at camp. My siblings would each have a window seat on the way home.
It was mid-summer, 1957, in rural Indiana. The country roads formed a grid pattern across the flat townships, straight past family-owned farms with red barns and white silos, alongside emerald-green fields and woods, and through multiple tiny towns. All of the buildings stood close to the road. I wondered about the people who lived behind the curtains in the houses. What did they do with their time? Were they like the people in the books I read?
My dad had us singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and reading Burma Shave signs on the way to camp; we reached our destination before I could mentally prepare myself. Seven small raw wood frame cabins with green shingled roofs formed a semi-circle around a grassy area filled with a camp fire, game areas, and badminton nets. Completing the circle, a larger wooden building held the mess hall, shower area, and camp offices. Lines of parents and girls formed at the check-in tables there. Back of this building, I could see a pool. In every direction, dense woods closed the camp off from the world.
“Name?” asked the young woman behind the table.
“Joyce.” I barely whispered.
Daddy ushered my siblings to the cookie and Kool-Aid table. My mother, probably as nervous as I, sending her first child off into the world, smiled at me and put her arm around my shoulder. She signed the proper forms, and the counselor instructed a teen helper to show us to my assigned cabin.”
Gulp! Was I ready? Speech evaded me. I just followed along to the cabin and learned I would have a top bunk. My siblings were quiet, their eyes large, but, after farewells, through the tiny window, from my bunk, I could see them race to the car ahead of my parents like puppies freed from their leashes.
They were shouting stuff like, “I win!”
Camp activities kept us campers busy. There were meal times and clean-up. Crafts filled much of the mornings, and sports, especially swimming in the big pool, took most of the afternoons. Evening campfire times included singing, inspirational stories, and the traditional “Day is Done.” Tired girls left the circle smelling like wood smoke and feeling gooey as they licked the sweet s’mores chocolate and marshmallow from their lips and fingers.
Directed activities came easy to me. I performed the required tasks in silence, and no one took much notice. Even free swim was okay because, although I was assigned to the shallow end of the pool, there was a girl I knew slightly also relegated to the non-swimmers side. Donna was a tomboy. I wasn’t. But I needed a friend, and I followed her to the deepest part of our side where we hung onto the dividing rope.
“Get away from the rope!” the instructor shouted at us. “I can see you two planning to go over to the deep end.”
I was devastated. I hadn’t even thought of crossing the rope. Donna just scoffed. “That lady is mean. We can swim as well as those girls.” I backed away from the rope.
Free time before meals took place inside the cabins. At first that interlude felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t good at chatting and was shy about bouncing around from bed to bed like the other five girls in the cabin. Then I discovered that many of the girls brought comic books and magazines from home. I never had money to buy comic books. If I hadn’t been at camp, I would have been at the town library every other day borrowing books that filled my time with worlds where intriguing people knew what to say and do and experienced exciting adventures.
“Can I read your comics?” I asked a couple of girls.
They were willing to share, and I lay on my stomach on the top bunk reading throughout free time for most of the week. All of this time the five other girls were climbing up and down the ladders, jumping off the top bunks, laughing, yelling, and paying no attention to me. I was more concerned with devouring the reading material than in joining their play and becoming part of the group.
When I finished all the comics and magazines, I felt a need come over me to show the girls how feisty and normal I could be. I jumped from my bunk and began racing up and down the ladders, leaping from bed to bed—performing the craziest shenanigans I had observed that week. Then I realized they were staring at me. Three of the girls rolled their eyes at each other and smirked; one put her hand over her mouth as if to hide her scornful grin; and one sweet girl looked at the floor as if embarrassed by the derision proffered by her cabin mates.
When free time was over, I felt mortified to the point of being sick. I was meek and fairly quiet for the remaining day and a half of camp until my family picked me up exactly a week from when they brought me.
“I’ll ride in the middle,” I told my dad.
“It’s your brother’s turn,” he said.
“That’s okay. I got the window on the way here.”
“How was Girl Scout Camp?” Mommy asked.
“Fine,” I said.
As an adult I have enjoyed tent camping. Now, my husband and I own a recreational vehicle. I’m still a bookworm. A stack of books goes camping with me. However, I no longer try to prove that I’m one of the gang. In fact, I celebrate my differences and appreciate all of the types of people we meet. When someone asks me how our camping trips went, I can respond with “good” or even “great” and mean it.