By Brenda Kern
Hey! The slide show's about to start, and I'm your narrator.
This first one was taken from a bus seat. See that odd road, slanting to the left off the highway? That means we're here--we've reached Northeast Campgrounds, in Northeast, Maryland. Yep, the name of the town was actually Northeast--the town founders must have been known far and wide for their creativity! Some dirt from vehicles exiting the campgrounds helped mark the entrance, because maybe half of the roads through the campground had pavement in the days of my childhood.
Across the highway, on our right, is the baseball field. I had an early athletic triumph there; I remember it well. I kept my foot on second base and caught a ball thrown to me in my glove, all before the runner got there! For me, that was an amazing feat! I usually was exiled to the outfield, the one between first and second base (right field? Left field? I can never remember), where no little girl ever, EVER, hits the ball, and this little girl could freely daydream.
Since my dad was so heavily involved in the district's camping program, that meant spending several weeks at Northeast every summer--for Boys' and Girls' Camp, Junior High Camp, Senior Camp, and the big daddy of them all, Camp Meeting. Plus, we'd go a little early to do some preparation and cleanup--which brings me to one of my very favorite Northeast memories.
The plumbing network at Northeast was ... ancient, decrepit, and apparently barely holding together. The entire system was shut off after the last event in the late summer, and had to be turned on again by the new summer's early arrivals (that would be my family). As a follow-up, every faucet, shower, water fountain, etc., had to be turned on and run for a few minutes after the pipes were opened up. That was my assignment, and I recall a couple of key reasons for it:
#1. The water ran a rusty orange for the first few minutes, and
#2. Various creepy crawlies had discovered that they liked the somewhat moist environment of the plumbing outlets, and had wedged themselves into a spigot or were "embracing" a faucet.
What I'd see were mostly water beetles and Daddy Long Legs, but a few other kinds of spiders had found their way to the wet spots. I faithfully turned everything on and got rid of the buggies, all except for one key location--the girls' shower room. Early, early on the first morning of camp, I'd sneak in and squeeze into a little alcove just big enough to hide a little girl who could hardly wait for the screams to begin.
Oh, that rusty water! Word to the wise--even after the rust color had left the water, the rust flavor never really did. The only way to not taste the rust, we discovered, was to hold your nose when you took a sip. The cafeteria tried to serve beverages that covered up the flavor--tea and punch--but since they were made with the water, that rust flavor was never quite completely subdued. What was in the water? And how did it affect us all? I don't really want to know--it's a wonder all of us Northeast campers aren't dain bramaged.
Also served by the cafeteria staff was a substance euphemistically referred to as 'oatmeal.' This stuff could sustain a linebacker! It could be eaten with a fork, and if you got some from the edges of the serving tray, an advertising slogan could have been "...the oatmeal that eats like a steak!"
Typical of camp food, I guess. But all of our nourishment wasn't from the cafeteria....
Next slide: there's the snack shack! I saved all year long so I'd have "spending money" there at Northeast, and when I finally made it up to the counter, I'd always request "a Cherry Smash and a Lemon Ice!"
What's Cherry Smash? A soda only a kid could love--the ingredients list must read something like: water, sugar, a different kind of sugar, still a third sweetener, a red dye soon to be banned in 38 countries, carbonation, and a flavoring somewhere in the neighborhood of cherries. But, it WASN'T made from campground water! Hooray!
Lemon Ice was a slightly slimy frozen concoction perfect for the wickedly hot and humid summer nights there in Northeast, MD. Somehow, I'd always manage to get lemony stickiness all over my entire body when I ate it, which made me an especially inviting target for the 'skeeters.
The mosquitoes, mosquitoes, mosquitoes! I can't believe I haven't mentioned them before now. They were aggressive--made you wonder if they'd gone through commando training. They were numerous--and that's a major understatement. And they were enormous beasts, possibly the offspring of intermarriage between mosquitoes and dragonflies. One might occasionally see one of them training a gerbil to sit, fetch, and roll over. They especially enjoyed satisfying their vampiric needs via attaching to sweaty, sweets-engorged little kids. See this scar on my arm? And that one? Evidence of brave battles with 'em that remains to this day! As I knew the campground "like the back of my hand," they probably knew my body "like the back of their..." What? Wing?
The cafeteria, snack shack, gift shop, and tabernacle were centrally located, with paved roads around them, as I recall. Roads and paths led off in all directions from there.
Next slide--I remember this one. This wider road leads to the cabin area, where the female campers were usually housed--boys chose the "Tent City." The cabins had another thing that delighted my childish heart: bunk beds! I ALWAYS remembered to be quick enough to get what I wanted by calling it: "I get a top bunk!"
Do you see all the smaller paths leading off from the roads? Do you also see the funny shapes coming up out of the ground? The whole campground was riddled with what I called 'trippers.' One of the many kinds of trees growing all around here has a habit of pushing its roots up through the surface for a foot or two, making a perfect object for a child to trip over. Some of them even came up far enough to have space under them to catch a foot. I've got more scars on my legs from the problem of the 'trippers.' At night it was really tricky to navigate these paths, so anyone with a flashlight became everybody's best friend. That's why my suitcase always held a flashlight and plenty of batteries--instant hero, by virtue of flashlight possession!
What's that path there, leading off into the woods? We always ventured down that one at night, a pack of us with me--"Flashlight Girl"--in the lead. This meandering trail leads down to another 'skeeter feeding ground, also known as the Movie Pavilion. In the evenings, we'd all troop down there and watch some early Disney classic--I remember seeing The Absent-Minded Professor--or the Keystone Kops, or Laurel and Hardy, or endless animated features. The pavilion was a big cement slab sprouting poles at the corners and at key positions along the sides. The poles held up a roof that more-or-less kept out water if/when it rained. Seating offered was folding chairs or the floor, and one always faced a decision: Do I sit near the outside edges, where there's a breeze, and offer myself up as a feast to the little itch fiends, or do I sit more toward the center, safer from 'skeeters, but with precious little chance of any air carrying any form of coolness? Hmmm....
Another time my flashlight and I came in handy was the middle-of-the-night bathroom run ... to the Port-A-Potties. Oh, the horror. Oh, the dread. Oh ... the smell. Just sitting here remembering it makes my eyes water and my respiratory system demand that I cough.
Ah, the smells of camp.
Next slide--here's another bus shot on the way back from the swimmin' hole. Imagine sweaty kids, fresh from a somewhat muddy natural body of water (pond?), at the peak of summer, at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, in a bus that had seen better days, with Naugahyde seats... There. You've got it--I can tell from the squinched up look on your face. Again, as a veteran camper, I can give a word of advice: Always put a towel under you before you sit down! Otherwise, the ripping sound you hear as you stand up will be accompanied by your own yelp of pain.
What? Are those kids in the slide all yelling in thigh-pinkened pain? No, they're singing. We sang the stupidest, most wonderful songs in the bus on the way to and from the swimmin' hole. One little ditty, "Three Cheers for the Bus Driver," was especially fun for me to sing, as my dad often was the chauffer being cheered in song: "He's dashing, he's daring, he smells like a herring...." It was great fun for me to sing this line RIGHT IN HIS EAR!
And, to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne," an especially silly song:
We're here, because we're here, because we're here, because we're here...
We're here, because we're here, because we're here, because......e (big finish now, with emotion and gusto)
Sigh. So many memories, so many friends made. Of course, we'd swear that we'd write EVERY WEEK when we got home, and always, and see each other next year, and insist on being in the same cabin again, and.... All those nameless, faceless friends, lost to the haze of history.
Get back to the narration!
Off one of the bigger roads are the two 'hotels.' They are just what you think they are--big buildings for this campground, two stories tall, with individual rooms off a center hallway and ringing each level. When my family got to the campgrounds early and I had done all my chores, I'd pick a room and get lost in a book.
I say I'd select a room because I seemed to have a particular skill, long forgotten now, of picking locks and gaining access to the cooler places I knew. I could also unhook a screen door's hook-and-eye lock in a flash.
Next to the hotels was the playground, where I spent many hours of those lazy childhood summers. It had a metal slide that could do even more damage to your thighs if you were foolish enough to utilize it while wearing shorts. The playground also featured swings that were the "bucket" style--a heavy-duty strip of rubber-coated canvas supported the swinger in a U-shape while they kicked higher, and higher, and higher...
Also much-in-demand was the spinning ride, the kind that would look a bit like a Bundt cake when viewed from above--flat metal surface, metal bars like inverted misshapen "U's" circling the outside. We all showed how daring we were by jumping onto or off of it while it spun and spun and spun! We achieved our own kind of high by hanging our heads off the side and watching the trees watch us go by.
This slide reveals a trail heading into the woods, leading to the bonfire pit. I remember throwing a stick into the fire that symbolized my old self, and watching the rain of other sticks going in, too. I remember thinking about all the "new creatures" around me, and imagining how we'd all go back to our "regular lives," but be different kids. How many former Northeast campers are fully grown adults living changed "regular lives" because of a bonfire moment at camp?
And how many more were changed forever down at the altar in the tabernacle? The tabernacle was much like the pavilion, but had a better roof. Also, it wasn't situated in the woods, so the mosquito problem wasn't nearly as severe. I probably didn't realize it at the time, but I was learning about concepts like holiness and evangelism during those Camp Meeting services, the ones where the offering was collected in what looked like the buckets from Kentucky Fried Chicken, without the chicken.
I also learned to look ahead and anticipate the return of Jesus. Here's a slide of a choir. I remember the lyrics of one song that I particularly associate with Camp Meeting at Northeast:
Coming again, coming again.
May be morning, may be noon.
May be evening and may be soon.
Coming again, coming again,
Oh, what a wonderful day it will be...
Jesus is coming again…
Jesus is coming again.
I had wonderful times up at Northeast, times locked away in my memory slide show, but still vivid and present. These times molded my life, subtly but surely, and I'm grateful.
Here's the last slide: That's me, asleep on the bus, but the smile on my face makes me think I'm dreaming of returning next year, and doing battle with the rusty water ... and the trippers ... and certainly with the evil mosquitoes.
Hail, Northeast Campgrounds! May you live long in the memories of grown-up little kids, like me.
Brenda Kern is a grown up preacher's kid and has been a Christian most of her life. She has worked almost exclusively at Christian nonprofit organizations throughout her career. Brenda enjoys writing articles and essays sharing her insights on faith and Bible stories, as well as the occasional humorous story from her 'real life.'
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