Extra Pulp: Happy Camper

As Laura Anders Lee fondly recalls her summer camp days, she sends her son off to make his own memories.

Watching a bonfire can transport me right back to summer camp. The dancing flames are hypnotic. With a loud pop, an orange spark spirals upward, and I follow it until it disappears into the darkness. Suddenly, I’m 9 years old again, underneath the pines on Lookout Mountain. The words of sacred campfire songs come rushing back and flowing out of me.

Summer is quickly approaching, and now that I’m the mother of two very busy boys, I understand exactly why my parents filled my schedule with Girl Scout camp, church camp, sailing camp, pottery camp and various others—daytime to sleepaway. But some of my sweetest memories are of Camp Saddlerock, named for a large rock on property shaped like a saddle. I attended the all-girls camp in Mentone, Alabama, for three consecutive summers, living out of a trunk with two weeks’ worth of T-shirts and shorts.

Nestled in the state’s northeast corner near Georgia and Tennessee, Mentone is perched on the brow of Lookout Mountain. The region is tame enough for dozens of children’s camps, yet rugged enough for Bear Grylls, who once featured the area on his hit show Man vs. Wild.

The night before camp, my family and I stayed at the state park and visited DeSoto Falls, a magnificent 104-foot waterfall in Little River Canyon. My brother’s camp was located upstream, while mine sat downstream. The next day, my heart leapt with excitement when we pulled onto the dirt road lined with rhododendrons. My parents got me settled into my cabin, and they were off.

My campmates and I started each morning with vespers, a flag-raising ceremony, and breakfast at the dining hall. I ziplined through trees, learned to ride a horse, walked a balance beam, and shot a bullseye with a bow and arrow. We canoed and swam in Little River, the chill making us catch our breath even on the hottest July day. Outside the dining hall, a slender pine was the designated Gum Tree. I marveled at the wads of gum in blues, pinks and greens that campers had disposed of over the years. (Instead of a gum tree at my brother’s camp, they had a tree with a growth on it that looked like a butt.)

After lunch, we retreated to our cabins for quiet time. In our preteen years, we shaved our legs on our bunkbeds with Vaseline lotion and disposable razors and asked who had gotten her monthly visit yet. Before social media or cell phones, we wrote old-fashioned letters home. I was constantly starving at camp, and I wrote my parents to please send food. A box arrived a few days later with a case of Combos from Sam’s Club. In between meals, I devoured the cheese-filled pretzels along with ice-cold cans of Coke and Snickers bars I bought at the canteen.

When the dishes were cleared away, we sang for our supper, asking our camp director’s permission in unison: “Marrr-ty, may weee pleeease siiing?” We sang from morning to night, before and after meals and always to start and end our day. We sang everything from camp cheers, tribal rain dances and Bob Dylan to “Trees, swayin’ in the summer breeze,” and “Smile, don’t you know God loves you.”

One night per session we gathered in the open-air gym in nervous anticipation. Soon the boys would be arriving from their camp down the road for dinner and dancing. I still remember the outfit my mom and I picked out at the mall for the occasion: a short skirt with built-in spandex shorts that made me feel as stylish as Debbie Gibson and Paula Adbul.

The last night of camp, we floated candles on Little River, the light shimmering on the calm water. As we sang, “there’ll be peace like a river in my soul,” it felt like the song was written just for us, especially about this place. We cried and hugged our cabin mates, promising to write letters—and we did. I miss the days of pen pals.

My oldest son, Anders, will go to camp for the first time later this month. He’s the same age as I was the first time I went to camp. He’s not ready for a two-week session like I was, and his camp will be close to home—not in the mountains of Mentone. But he’ll stay in a cabin under the pines. He’ll swim in a lake, eat in the dining hall, and maybe he’ll learn to whittle or skip a rock. And at night, there will be a bonfire and camp songs—songs that I hope will feed his soul for a lifetime.

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