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