I Want My Whistle Back

The Reveille bugle blares brightly over the loudspeaker.  Girls and boys climb out of their bunks and throw on damp clothes that will never fully dry in the humidity. They hurry out of their cabins and meet up with a stream of campers from all the other cabins to assemble for the morning flag-raising. The long, sticky-hot summer day will be filled with activities like swimming, diving, horseback riding, waterskiing, arts and crafts, canoeing, ping-pong . . . and then some more swimming for good measure.

Ping pong table
Photo borrowed from http://www.campkeystone.us

The best nights are campfire nights. The campers sit on log benches, bug repellant spread thickly on their arms and legs. They sing silly, but indelible, counselor-led campfire songs….The other day….I saw a bear…a great big bear…a way out there…. Itchy, itchy, scratchy, scratchy, ooh I got one on my back-y. Ohhhhh, no more calamine lotion… 

Campfire Circle
Photo borrowed from http://www.campkeystone.us

The counselors are so cool. They stand on the benches next to their campers, twirling their whistles on lanyards. They wear tank tops, bandanas and dozens of friendship bracelets—a fashion don’t in any other setting that somehow looks perfectly right at camp. They are 16 to 20-ish year olds and, while they might not fully realize it at the moment, they are enjoying one of the most fun (and possibly the lowest paying) jobs a young adult could ever have. They are making friends and memories that will last a lifetime.

Counselors with tank tops and whistles 🙂

At the end of the night, everyone heads back to their respective girls and boys sides of camp (pity the boy found in girl’s camp or vice versa, this is a serious offense, one that will get you sent home). The loudspeaker crackles Taps, a sweet yet mournful tune to tuck all the campers in.

The evening is just getting started for the camp counselors.  After the kids are tucked in, a few of the counselors are “on duty” to watch over the sleeping campers, the rest are released to go out and get non-camp food, and—more importantly—to mingle with each other until curfew (pity the counselor who doesn’t make it back to camp by curfew).  Summer romances bloom and fizzle…and bloom and fizzle…and bloom and fizzle.  In the morning they wake up and get to do it all over again.

I was both a camper and then a counselor over several years at Camp Keystone in Odessa, Florida. Those summers were some of the most fun times of my entire life. As a camper I would stay there for 4 weeks at a time, but I would have stayed the entire summer if my parents would have let me.

Girl Campers 1989

I bonded tightly with my cabin-mates, none of whom went to my school in Tampa, but who could mostly all be counted on to reassemble year after year at camp. We kept in touch sporadically throughout the school years (no texting or email in those days), but it seemed like my camp friends lived so far away. It’s funny as an adult to realize that they were as close as Carrollwood, Sarasota, and Fort Myers.  I’m still friends with several of my fellow former campers and counselors –thank you Facebook! It is such a treat to see the grown-up lives of the girls and boys that I loved so much when we were kids at camp.

Camp Keystone was its own rustic, self-contained world and I loved every minute of being there. I remember every feeling, every sound and smell like I was just there.  The sound of the lifeguards’ whistles bleating across the lake. The squeaking springs followed by the slam shut of the cabin doors. The cooling afternoon thunderstorms that blew in almost daily—all of us trying not to touch any of the metal on our bunk bed frames, vaguely thrilled with the possible (but unlikely) danger of a direct lightning strike.

To this day I’ve never had a better nap than one in a cabin with rain beating on the metal roof and cool mist blowing in through the screen windows.

Camp Cabin
Photo borrowed from http://www.campkeystone.us

I also recall us scaring ourselves with the urban rural legend of the old man with a hook for a hand who lived across the lake, possibly he killed his wife, maybe he would “get” any campers that snuck out of their bunks at night. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but I do remember it was a spooky story!

I can still  feel the cool drip trail down my chin  and the smell of the alcohol drops that we dutifully squirted in our ears before dinner each night to ward off possible amoeba brain-attacks from swimming in the fresh-water lake. (It must have worked, not a single brain was invaded by amoebas at Camp Keystone, as far as I know.)

Dining Hall
Photo borrowed from http://www.campkeystone.us

As a camper I loved the awkward boy-girl dances, and the first real stirrings of innocent crushes. I loved that my friends shared their care packages from home that were stocked with industrial-size boxes of Blow Pops. I loved learning how to barrel-race a horse and how to water-ski. I even kinda’ liked the super-sweet “bug juice” that tasted slightly of iron from the well-water it was made from.

Most of all, as both a camper and a counselor, I loved being surrounded by hundreds of other kids who were having as much fun as I was, all day, every day.

It was paradise. If there is a heaven for me, I hope it is a lot like Camp Keystone.

Dock and Swimming Area
Photo borrowed from: http://www.campkeystone.us

TAPS

Day is done
Gone the Sun
from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well,
safely rest
God is nigh.

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35 thoughts on “I Want My Whistle Back

  1. That was great Stef. I went there for a few summers and i thought it was SOOO far away.
    and my sister was a counselor also. Nice read. Kelby

  2. I was a camper and counselor at Keystone (1991-1994) and I have to say that you absolutely captured the heart and soul of what it meant to be a part of the Keystone tradition. To this day I keep fond memories of my time at there very close to my heart. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. What a great article! While my husband, Rob, attended Camp Keystone for many, many years, I was a counselor there only one summer – 1986. It was there that I met my husband and fell in love. We married the following summer, having just celebrated our 25th anniversary. We have four beautiful children who enjoy going to and working at summer camps. Thanks for bringing back many wonderful memories!

    • Thank you Sheri! That is awesome that you met your husband at camp. I think maybe he was my neighbor growing up (on Riviera, Davis Islands). What camps do your kids go to? I’d love to send my daughter when she gets a little older. I wish Camp Keystone was still open!

  4. this is the best article ever…you hit EVERY nail on the head..it never doubted me that other campers had the same experience! I hated leaving home for 8 weeks but didn’t wan to leave each summer when it was time to go! Camp Keystone will FOEVER be with me!!!

  5. What great memories. Thanks for helping me to re-live them. I worked at Camp Keystone from 1977-88, as Assistant Director for my last 2 years. If I remember correctly, I may have taught you canoeing? Thanks for the wonderful pictures and memories, Stephanie, and thanks for bringing it to my attention on my birthday Sheri. Andy Ironside

  6. I was at Keystone from 1969 – 1972 for six week sessions and they were by far the best summers of my life. All of the sounds, smells, songs and feelings that you describe were the same when I was there. I had crushes on many a counselor and danced with many sweaty palmed boys at the Saturday night dances. After my best friend and I broke the lock on the mailbox trying to get our mail early (we would sneak out during rest period) we were given the job of sorting the mail. A fitting punishment for the crime and of course we loved it.

    Remember hanging fans from the rafters or the bunk above you to get that cool breeze in the steamy Florida afternoons? Filling your counselors bunk with baby powder when she was out at night with the other counselors? Trading clothes before the banquet and trying to guess who would make “Honor Board?” I could go on and on. It seems like I was just there. Oh and the circus! Well, don’t get me started!

    I’m glad that so many other people got to experience that little piece of heaven in central Florida and still carry the memories with them. (Along with a fondness for greased watermelon fights.)

  7. That was amazing! Fabulous times, terrific memories 11 years for me ’77 thru ’87. That is where we all seemed to grow up. Camper and counselor, all times were cherished. Thanks for taking the time to bring back such vivid memories!

  8. Camp Keystone was the center of my world for so many years. Thanks for capturing the memories! The Domeier family wouldn’t be the same without that special place and the wonderful people.

  9. 3 generations of the Schneider family attended… my father and uncle helped build some of the cabins. Then in 1984-1987 my brother and I attended. I have so many great memories from camp:) wish it was still around…would have loved to send my child:(

  10. Funny I was just going through a box of old things and found the owl plaque that once hung in Hawks Haven with all of my co- campers names written on.

    100% blown away to see Andy Ironside\’s name on here. For a second I smiled and then remembered a few too many wedgies I might have received before I could run faster to my cabin than him. Those were the days!

    The Apple Dumpling Gang is alive and well in San Francisco, Atlanta and South Florida…

    Cheers – retrocarmelapple at gmail.com

    • Marc, it’s good to hearyou and your fellow dumplings are doing well! You must have me mixed up with someone, though – I never participated in the wedgie thing. “Work Crew” was the extent of my discipline. Andy

  11. This really took me back to my camp years – both as a camper and a counselor. Good times!

    Dan “Dashdrum” Gentry

  12. I went to Camp Keystone when it was Camp Buccaneer right around the same time as that photo maybe a couple years before! No way… I had a camp photo I found not that long ago…the counselors WERE so cool 😉 You’re description is wonderful. Thank you!

      • Camp Buccaneer sounds familiar but I don’t know if it was down the road. There was a girl scout camp on the same lake I think. Thanks for your comments! 🙂

      • Actually Camp Buccaneer was across Gunn Highway on a different lake. The founder was a person who had owned Camp Keystone before Connie, possibly. Dee Dee Domeier and her sister Gina Flynn worked there in the early 90’s. Ask Randy Amos, he would know the details. There was a relationship between the two camps during my later years as Assistant Director, 1987-88. We had a counselor volleyball game and maybe some camper competitions as well. We also had events with the Girl Scout Camp, Camp Scoutcrest on closeby on Crescent Lake. Andy Ironside

      • Thanks Andy! I knew I remembered some connection but couldn’t put my finger on it. That was right around when I was there. When I got older I went up to Rockmont in NC, but I remember camp here in FL being much more relaxing…much like Steph’s post…way better dances!

      • I went to Buccanneer Day Camp too. It was off of Michigan Road just East of Gunn. It was fun, but once I found Keystone I was in love!

  13. Thank you for he great memories! I think of this place often, it taught .e alot growing up as a kid there. I only went two years and i remember it all like it was yesterday. Those were the good times! Its a shame that we dont have more places like this for our kids nowadays

  14. Well, I am ruined for the rest of the day now. I’m so glad you wrote this, but now I will be remembering Keystone for the rest of the day and will be unable to get any real work done. 🙂

    It’s so funny to read your own memories in other peoples’ writing.

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