Thursday, August 5, 2010

Nostalgia for Girl Scout Camp

Elizabeth Zelvin

Since I discovered feminism many years ago, I have met a tremendous number of women who have told me they were Girl Scouts in their childhood. In retrospect, the Girl Scouts, and especially Girl Scout camp, which I attended from the ages of 9 to 13 and later returned to as a counselor, are responsible for a lot of the qualities, skills, and values that have helped me get through life. I don’t mean such skills as building a one-match fire or lashing branches into a shelter or table (though I can still lay a well constructed campfire, and I bet I could build a raft if my life depended on it and I had enough twine). I mean strength, self-reliance, harmony (both social and musical), and an appreciation for the outdoors and for other women.

I must admit I’m not one of the many mystery writers who read Nancy Drew as a child. But Nancy Drew had many of the qualities of a Girl Scout: competence, preparedness (she always had a rope or a flashlight handy if the situation demanded it), and no notion of waiting for men to lead the way. My Girl Scout jackknife was one of my most treasured possessions for years. While the only mysteries we solved were natural ones (How did the raccoon get into the latrine? What were these “berries”? Oops, that was deer scat), Scout camp was a place where I honed my writing skills in voluminous letters home and as the one who could always think up lyrics for my group’s campfire song.

Here are some of my most cherished memories:

Singing. Lots and lots of singing, both around the campfire with the sparks flying and a fading sunset filtering through the pines and in the dining hall while we washed dishes, up to the elbows in suds in a bucket or slapping a pot cover to release and wipe off the last vagrant drops of water.

The magical surprises, like the fairy breakfast and the farewell serenade. My first summer, I was young enough to be mystified when, on an early-morning walk through the woods, we found oranges and donuts hanging from the trees. Eventually the trail led us to a clearing where the oldest campers had made us breakfast. And I never got too old to be moved and enchanted when, lying in our tents on the final night of camp, we heard singing coming gradually closer as the counselors made their way through the entire camp, their flashlights like a bobbing line of fireflies in the dark.

Rest hour. As a kid, I would have laughed in disbelief if I’d been told I’d ever feel nostalgic about rest hour. For the first half-hour, we had to be completely still, lying on our beds in the canvas tent without whispering, reading, or any other activity. The flaps would be rolled up, there would be green and dappled sunshine all around us, and the breeze would toss the leaves and make them sigh and rustle. Put me in a hammock in the back yard on a sunny day, and I’m back there in a second. It’s a great time for meditation and the kind of creative daydreaming that a writer needs.

A number of years ago, I was in the vicinity of my old camp with my husband and a friend, and on an impulse, I suggested we try to find the place. (Children don’t pay attention to directions—at least, they didn’t in my day.) It was summer, and I imagined that if they’d let us look around, we would find a new generation of little girls singing as they did the dishes, swimming in the lake, and making their way up the mountain to the lookout called Bald Rock.

But when we got there, we found the camp had been abandoned. The tents with their wooden platforms were long gone. Of the trading post and the dining hall, only the tumbled ruins of stone fireplaces remained. We found the trail through the pines to the main campfire site. But I was devastated to see that the whole place had been trashed: litter, broken glass, and beer cans were scattered underfoot everywhere we looked.

I sat down on a rock and cried.


Vicki Lane said...

Great post, Liz! I was a Girl Scout and I have some fond memories myself (but we never got the fairy breakfast, drat it!)

Sandra Parshall said...

Would you believe I was once -- briefly -- an adult leader of a Girl Scout troop? I never went to camp, though. Organizations like the Scouts are needed now more than ever, and I hope they don't disappear.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, sounds like there's a story in that "briefly." Vicki, maybe someone should organize a fairy breakfast for newbies at Malice or Bouchercon. The imagination boggles. ;)

lil Gluckstern said...

Lovely and poignant, and filled with memories for me, thank you. Singing made so much bearable...

Msmstry said...

You mentioned a lot of my happy memories of Scouting—and brought up more reasons for today's girls to be Scouts instead of cheerleaders or majorettes those life lessons that were fun while learning them which continue to be useful.

As to your abandoned camp story, I have a nicer one. My daughter attended the Girl Scout camp that was built with monies I helped generate by selling cookies all those years ago. As a matter of fact, I got to camp there for trainers' retreats. Just think, pedaling around town on my bike, selling cookies for 40 cents a box really accomplished something worthwhile!

But, like Vicki, I never experienced a fairy breakfast…

Leslie Budewitz said...

"I bet I could build a raft if my life depended on it and I had enough twine."

Vines or supple young branches will do in a pinch. :)

Leslie, aka Eagle and Golden Eagle,
Timbercrest Girl Scout Camp (Treasure Trails Council, Montana) camper and counselor, 1969-77

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Girl Scout cookies! Ah, there are memories, and not fond ones, since I was shy and hated selling. In my day they were 20 cents a box and I remember when the chocolate mint ones came in, providing an alternative to the sandwich cookies. Maybe I'll blog about that one of these days. :)

jenny milchman said...

LOVED GS camp and loved Nancy. Sometime I *was* Nancy while at camp. Those mysterious woods you mention, Liz. This post brought me right back just as your visit did you.

MaxWriter said...

Liz, thank you so much for those memories. My sisters and I were Girl Scouts from Brownies all the way through senior year in high school (with a houseful of cookies every spring, plus my mother got the Leader of the Year award once).

Your memories of camp made me cry just reading them. I still love singing in groups, and, wouldn't you know, have found my spiritual home with the Quakers as an adult - our regular worship includes no singing at all. Rats.

I loved Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames Student Nurse, and biographies of all kinds of strong women. The notion of self-sufficiency, well nurtured at camp, appealed to me throughout my childhood, carried through into early 70's feminism at college, and continues to this day.

I never got a daughter to raise, but am pleased to have somehow produced respectful sensitive young men as sons. And who knows, maybe there's a granddaughter in my future!

Edith Maxwell

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Edith, look at it this way: that silence in a Friends meeting is just like the first half of rest hour. :) Thanks to everyone who shared their Girl Scout memories. Scouts really started off some remarkable women.