August 21, 2013

Camp is silent…. almost

They say the two happiest days of a camp director’s year are the day camp starts and the day it ends. My deepest happiness yesterday – as every year on that day – is from the simple fact of sending everyone home in one piece. That they grew and learned and had a ton of fun is also pretty fulfilling… But this year is different from any other year because we’re busy dismantling the Main Lodge, preparing to demolish it. We’re taking down all the plaques, and Alex, our head of maintenance, is on the tractor digging up the water pipes all around the building.

The last night of camp, we said our farewells to our beloved Main Lodge. When the campers and staff left Rustic Lounge after the summer’s end slideshow, they were led (by torches of course) past huge old black and white pictures of the Main Lodge from the 1930’s and 1940’s (illuminated with candle lanterns). When the arrived in front of the Main Lodge to stand in front of their candles for the candle-lighting ceremony, Max and Mara and I were standing on the Main Lodge roof, just behind the Arowhon sign. We were wearing long cloaks with the hoods up. I told them that on each of their candle bases was a piece of the Main Lodge for them to take home… then, before they put their candles in the lake to float away on a wish, I read them this:

Every time I think about the Main Lodge coming down, I want to cry.

It’s really been my home for my entire life. When you think about a building it’s hard to understand why it’s so important. But the memories keep flooding my soul, and reminding me: It’s important because so much has happened there in 79 summers.

I remember being an Inky in 1954, eating in the Inky dining room that Eugene had blocked off for us so that we wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the noise and chaos of the older kids in the Main Lodge. If you walk in the ML today, you can still see the seam on the floor where the Inky divider was. Every time I look at that seam, I recall being four years old. And my best friends from those Inky summers.

I remember squirting ketchup all over the table in the ML on hamburger day and being sent by my counselor to sit on the mantle behind the head table. It was supposed to be a punishment for bad behavior but, like so much at camp, sitting on the mantle became a badge of glory. Nowhere else in my life did I feel so visibly cool. 40 years later that same thing happened in the Main Lodge, to the next generation: a Point boy got caught sneaking out and we decided to punish him with a day of dishwashing. Of course that became cool too. What is it about camp that sprinkles stardust over almost everything? And causes everyone (especially the people in charge) to learn something new pretty much every day. Clearly dishwashing was hardly a punishment.

Skits in the Main Lodge: Watching the great staff of the 1950’s sing and soft-shoe and satirize their way through something as simple as: “From Newfoundland to Granada, it’s movie night in Canada.” It didn’t matter that we were going to watch a crackly print with bad sound on Eugene’s unreliable 16 mm projector in the Rec Hall, and that the movie was going to stop every time the film broke – which it often did. It didn’t matter that the seats in the Rec Hall were probably why chiropractic was invented. What mattered to us as campers was watching skits with these fantastic staff singing and dancing and clowning without inhibition or fear – and thinking: “I want to grow up and be like them.” Those old movie night skits were role modeling at its greatest. As campers, we wanted to grow up to give like they did, to dance like nobody was watching. And that happened in the Main Lodge.

I remember 1st class speeches in the Main Lodge. There’s no such thing as a bad 1st class speech, because the camper getting the award has worked so hard and persevered for so long, and we’re all so proud of them. I have a particular memory of a head sailing instructor standing in front of the ML making a speech about two girls who had gotten their 1st class award in sailing together. He made an eloquent speech about how special the girls were, but that wasn’t the interesting thing. What intrigued me was that a minute into his speech he started crying, and he cried through the rest of the speech, tears running down his face.

He was horribly embarrassed but I found it a great moment in camping. (We call those GMIC’s in full staff meetings nowadays. They’re in the ML too.) It was great because he was showing how much he cared about those campers and how deeply moved he was by their hard work and their achievement. Is that not camp? It was about the campers – and also about how profoundly staff grow – and care – when they participate in the growth and development of their campers. And it happened in the Main Lodge.

I remember another 1st class speech, by a riding instructor who had never made a speech in her life. She had arrived at camp with low self-esteem in her “invisible backpack.” She told me the day before that she simply couldn’t do it, so we had a talk about stepping up for your camper, and finding stuff within you that you don’t think is there, because they need you to. She wrote that speech and practiced it a bunch of times. She was so scared I could see her body shaking while she delivered the speech – flawlessly. And when she left camp at the end of that summer she was not the person who walked in the door for Pre-Camp. She was taller, prouder, stronger, with newfound faith in her abilities. She had grown to become part of the next generation of leaders. That happened in the Main Lodge.

Then there’s “the plate.” When I was growing up it was just another Melmac dinner plate. Nowadays we slap a camp decal on a Melmac plate so it looks different. But it’s still just a Melmac plate. Yet this humble object possesses apparently magical powers, for when I stand up and wave the plate, the entire dining hall chants “The plate is up, the plate is up, will everybody please hush up” and then they fall silent. They do this shockingly quickly.

Why is it shocking? Because at every other good-sized camp I know, the directors must use a microphone to make announcements. We don’t require amplification because the citizens of Planet Arowhon are so (generally) respectful and sharp about stuff that they fall silent and listen to announcements. This is an unusual skill for 500 young people. (Yes, there are 350 campers and 150 staff at camp these days.) It is the skill of using self-control in a large group, and of a community’s consensus to behave respectfully. It’s a rather uncommon skill for those so young. And it happens three times a day in the Main Lodge.

I remember singsongs in the Main Lodge, from the ‘50’s to today. Some of the songs have changed, but the feelings have not. Whether we’re singing a slow soulful song on a Friday night or belting out section cheers, we create and reaffirm ourselves as a community every time we sing or cheer together.

It is unfortunately true that the great tuneful singsongs of yesteryear are less so. We sing less well than we did 50 years ago. I know because I remember. This is perhaps due to having two camp directors (Leon and Joanne) who wouldn’t recognize a tune if we ran into it on the back road. But we’re got spirit. One of my #1 favourite things to do at camp happens at dinners when there’s ice cream for dessert. I grab my Melmac bowl and a spoon and run to where the Inter Boys sit. I jump up on one of their benches and start banging bowl on spoon in a simple rhythm. Soon they’re all doing it. I then run to the other five sections and do the same, using different rhythms. Within 1½ minutes the ML has erupted in a hurricane of 500 or so spoons on Melmac. To most adults this is exquisite torture. But no, this is the sweet sound of children at play, having fun making a lot of noise together. It’s the kind of harmless crazy kidstuff they don’t much get to do at home any more.

We are literally, celebrating our communal voice and cherishing our connections to each other every time we raise our voices in song or bang spoons on Melmac. In the Main Lodge. After I put the plate down when they sing that dopey wonderful song: “Oh Joanne, put the plate down, the plate down…” Which they sang before me to Elly and before him to Eugene and before him to Lily. And will sing after me to Mara and Max.

In the new Main Lodge.

Saying a ceremonial farewell to the Main Lodge

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