Until I was 11, the two weeks spent at the Lexington County Girl Scout Camp were a major part of every summer. There were so many activities required before I was ready. We went shopping, packed the towels and sheets and made sure the swimming suit still had enough elastic to stay up when I dove into the lake. Mom and I argued about those sheets she insisted I take. This camp had outdoor latrines.
About those sheets, as a new bride in the Depression she had learned many money-saving tricks. The one that caused so much embarrassment was her sheet saving trick. She would split old sheets in half and then sew them together with the strong outer edges now creating the new middle. Today it sounds clever…as a pre-adolescent I felt like the weirdo I knew everyone saw. I worried that people could tell there were terrible things happening at home.
But when it came to swimming, I left my weirdo status behind. Swimming at that lake was my number one pleasure at Girl Scout Camp. The summer I was eleven, the swimming counselor promoted me to the advanced group. My status among my fellow campers was elevated. I got a bit of respect not previously shown. Sometimes fellow campers even let me move to the head of the line at meal times. And I had more friends that summer than at previous times.
This recreation spot had few luxuries; however, swimming was one of the activities for which the camp provided amenities. That summer a new swimming dock opened. While lower level swimmers were restricted to activities behind the colored ropes, the advanced swimmers, like me, were allowed to dive off the end of the dock. What a glorious feeling that was – standing at the edge of the dock looking across the lake to the distant mountains!
Those mountains--actually foothills of the Appalachian Trail several hundred miles to the north, were the destination for most of our hikes. This activity took us along dusty paths among the native brush and lanky trees bordering farmland, about which we developed several myths. The rusted pile of metal next to the creek we crossed to get up our mountains was the source of some thrilling tales. Federal Agents, we believed, had found this bunch of metal when it was a functioning still. South Carolina, long a “dry” state, had a history of illegal whiskey making. Agents discovered the still and, just a few weeks prior, had destroyed it, so our myth ran. Of course the demolition occurred in a dead of night raid shortly before we arrived for our weeks at camp. We were sure the farmers running the still were arrested. The thought of illegal activities right there in the midst of our proper summer camp added to the pleasure of our hikes.
Fire building was an essential skill. We were carefully taught how to lay the wood in cleared space. This area was surrounded by stones to prevent the fire from jumping out of the circle. First the heaviest branches were laid in a careful cross-wise pattern. Then crumpled newspapers were stuffed, but not tightly, between the logs and finally, the kindling, small sticks that start fast and burn a little more slowly than the paper. Creating this all-important center for cooking, that dinner was as monitored as if we were NASA scientists preparing to launch a satellite.
The construction of the fire, then waiting for the proper level of flame and hot coals to develop, forced the 15 hungry hikers to experience patience. Tasks assigned to help us tolerate the wait were gathering more wood to fuel the fire, wrapping potatoes in tin foil and preparing the sticks for roasting hot dogs. Finally. The fire was ready. Now we got as close to the fire as possible so we could push those potatoes deep into the coals for roasting.
And we roasted hotdogs. It’s amazing how good that simple food tasted when it was roasted in a fire after a tromp through the woods. Then we usually had to wait another 20 minutes while the potatoes finished cooking. And finally, after cleaning the crumpled tin foil, the wrapping papers for the hotdogs and buns, after eating those amazingly tasty potatoes…finally s’mores.
Now the moment we had anticipated for the entire hike: we were given graham crackers, pieces of Hershey’s chocolate bars and two marshmallows. The clean sticks were loaded and carefully held above the heat from the coals. The goal was a toasted, not burned, spongy white marshmallow. However, eating that wonderful treat usually got the best of us and crisp black outsides were ignored for the joy of the combination of white gooey-ness, melted chocolate and crisp graham crackers. It is the memory of those delightful sweets that eases the pain of the secret I carry from that eleventh summer.
The attention I got as a member of the advanced swimming group was only one event that makes that summer memorable. The fact that the counselor for the craft program thought my projects were average wasn’t so important. Swimming was my joy, and doing so twice a day balanced out the mostly tolerable chores we were assigned.
As Girl Scouts we were expected to complete basic housekeeping chores. Every evening we checked the assignment sheet so that we’d know where we were to be after breakfast and before we could swim. We were given those cleaning duties on a rotating basis so it wasn’t predictable when we would get the always-awful latrine duty. Cleaning up after meals was pretty easy. We weren’t supposed to wash dishes but we did clear the tables of everything that was left after we took away our trays. We wiped down each table with disinfectant. Even today, the smell of those cleaning products takes me back to Girl Scout Camp. We were to sweep the dining hall and our own cottages once a day. After sweeping, the campers on supper duty mopped the dining hall floor.
This camp offered only basic amenities. The only running water for camper use was at sinks and showers in the washhouse. The only toilets were for counselors – not for us lowly campers. Somebody had to insure that those latrines were sanitary and that somebody was us campers. A totally unpleasant task; fortunately it was rotated so each of us had that job only once during each two week session.
The camp nurse was not someone I generally got to know, but most campers made at least one visit for skinned knee, wasp sting or a headache. We all knew who she was. The first day of camp we all gathered in the dining hall before the first meal. It was then that she explained we were to wear our shoes at all time, should NOT eat any of the berries growing in the woods, and we should report any bug bites other than mosquito to her. She also told us that if we had any symptoms (tummy ache, head ache or so on), we should report them to her, if they didn’t go away after a nap and a quiet afternoon.
Because I didn’t put too much energy into the bangs and bruises I got, I wasn’t thinking about the injured toe when my counselor, Sandy, told me to “do something about that ugly-looking toe” sticking out of my sandals. I put on a band-aid and forgot about it. Later that night, just before lights out, Sandy called me into her room. It was really pretty special to be in her “grown up” room. She was checking to see that my toe was okay. She was pretty, had short blonde hair and green eyes, and she smiled a lot. I remember how gentle she was looking at my poor banged-up toe. She also put her arm around me as she looked at the injury. There was something about her attention that I didn’t quite understand; but I did know it was pretty special to be with her without anyone else getting in the way.
She bandaged my toe again after cutting away some of the dead skin and, after a hug, sent me on my way. Sandy’s treatment of my toe occurred several more nights. What a confusing experience. I wasn’t sure if I wanted her to pay attention to my foot or if I should just go to the nurse. If I went to the nurse, I wouldn’t have this very special attention and if I went to the nurse, maybe I wouldn’t get the hug Sandy was giving me. I kept asking myself if I really wanted her to treat me in this kind of nice, kind of weird way. And then, Lucy, my good friend in the cabin said, “You been playing doctor with Sandy, ain’t you?”
There was so much going on that was confusing. I didn’t know what all this attention from Sandy meant and I sort of knew it probably shouldn’t be happening. I didn’t know what to do. I did like Sandy and I really liked the special attention I was getting, but I was scared that I ought not be going into Sandy’s room. It would have been so easy if I had known what I was feeling and someone had told me what I was supposed to do. I really did want her attention and I didn’t want her to get in trouble. Maybe if I just ignored Lucy…If Lucy said something, other people must have noticed Sandy being nice to me.
After a few days of Sandy’s non-medically trained attention, I decided I’d better go to the nurse. I told Sandy I was worried because my toe wasn’t getting better and she conceded that I should probably talk to the nurse. I felt Sandy was hurt by my choice to talk to the nurse and I didn’t want to end my relationship--well um, friendship--with her. That stirring of adolescent hormones was incredibly confusing. I didn’t understand, but I knew what I was feeling for Sandy was not just what I had for my big sister. The feeling was strange and I was having it for my female camp counselor. What did I know about romance? And even more, what did I know about relationships between two women?
There was so much to try to understand…so much that didn’t make sense to me. What I did know was that whatever these feelings might be, I couldn’t tell anyone. Who could possibly explain what was happening?
Sandy wasn’t like anyone I had “hung out” with in the past. Most of my friends were part of the small Jewish community in Columbia, South Carolina or were children of people from the University (of South Carolina) where my father taught. Here was someone who didn’t really know about Jews – she was from a small town in South Carolina and had just completed her first year at a small women’s college in Columbia. She was nice and she was energetic, but she wasn’t real smart (I could tell because I had to explain my jokes to her). And she cared about me. That last characteristic made her very attractive. Her focus on me provided a reassurance I had not had with other friends.
“First love” seems to be both a trite and a powerful phrase to put on the confusing connection I developed to Sandy. I can list the positive qualities she showed and more importantly, I can describe how her attention helped me feel better about myself. Perhaps she was my first love. What is true is that she did care for me and she did not know how to disguise her innocent desire to take care of me.
When I went to the camp nurse, she examined my toe, cleaned it, wrapped it with an efficient hand and instructed me to stay out of the water for a few days. She also asked who had been “taking care of this mess?” I naively provided a direct answer, proudly giving Sandy responsibility for trying to care for me. She listened, wrote notes about the injury she had repaired and sent me on my way.
I walked back to my cabin, stopped along the way to listen to a birdcall and went into the latrine. When I entered our cabin, Lucy gave me a look.
“Looks like your girlfriend got kicked out of camp,” she informed me in her knows- everything manner.
I was shocked and sad and didn’t know what to say. Lucy grabbed my arm, “C'mon, girl. Time for dinner.”
“No! I need to think.”
“C'mon. Nothing to think about.”
I looked around the cabin for any sign Sandy had been there. It would be nice to have a sign.
Lucy started out and I followed her. We reached the front of the dinning hall that had a big veranda around the entry. I turned around just before walking in and I saw Sandy, carrying a suitcase and walking down the dirt road toward the highway.
Copyright © 2016 Susan T. Lindau