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Tidiness at Summer Camp

Friday - 07/30/2021 — The summer after my freshman year at college I worked on the staff at a church-sponsored summer camp. Staff was a fancy word for grunt. We slept on narrow cots in a couple of dormitories. We cooked under the supervision of Ruth somebody-or-other, who had run the kitchen there for the past decade, then we served the meals, bussed the tables (which we had set up well before each meal), and cleaned up afterwards. And this is where the “tidy” part comes in. Ruth was an absolute fanatic about her pots and pans. If we left the slightest speck left on them, we had to re-do the washing until Ruth was satisfied. Any leftover sheen of cooking oil earned a frown and a curt instruction to “do it right.” We learned quickly to do our own inspections, to run our bare fingers over the inside of a pot as we washed it to find the tiny bit that had been missed by the sponge or the scrub brush. If we didn’t find it, Ruth would! My sister and I had always done the dish detail in our house, so I knew the routine, but some of the younger members of the staff had apparently never picked up a dish sponge in their lives. Believe me, they learned quickly under Ruth’s tart tongue.


We received our daily assignments from the minister who ran the camp (I don’t recall his name). We re-built a little footbridge (and I painted the underneath of it while balancing in a canoe!), we repaired things that got broken, we hauled firepit wood so the campers could “rough it,” we cleared brush from the hiking trails.


Campers from various churches all around Illinois came for one-week sessions. They slept in cabins and teepees on the other side of a small lake. There was a lodge on the shore opposite them which had a big central meeting room where they ate most of their meals. They sang songs around a campfire most evenings, followed by a snack that we’d prepared, loaded into trays (insulated if necessary), packed onto a small barge, poled across the lake, toted uphill to the campfire, served the campers, packed up whatever we needed to, poled back across the lake, toted everything (uphill, of course), washed up whatever we had to, and collapsed into our cots. The last evening meal of the week was always served at the campsite, which meant we had to take not just a snack but an entire supper (kept warm in steamer trays or cold in ice chests) across the lake.


When they left on Saturday morning (after we served them breakfast) we had to ready the entire camp for the next group which would come in on Sunday afternoon. The camp leader laughingly referred to what we did as religious serfdom—but we never laughed in return.



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