Diane Vogel Ferri

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Come By Here

Pastor Bob rented a school bus and once year our lives were at the mercy of his erratic navigating of the yellow beast. The joyride took us from our flat northern suburb to the hills of central Ohio. We knew we were getting close to camp when the road relentlessly twisted and curved and forty teenagers began screaming and falling out of their seats. Pastor Bob was on a mission to deposit us at camp in record time every year––safety be damned––we had the prayers of an entire congregation covering us.

We weren’t afraid, because we were stupid teenagers, and we looked forward to this parentless week all year. Besides that, our spiritual guru was like an affectionate and kooky uncle whom we all adored. He truly would give anyone the shirt off of his back, but no one would want it because you could smell his sweat-soaked clothing from yards away. His inability to tame his sweat glands was some type of medical condition, so it wasn’t his fault, but we tried our best to avoid his affectionate hugs.

The camp was set firmly into a steep hillside and you were either climbing a hill or sliding down a hill. Fighting gravity all day was exhausting. The dark, dusty cabins were at the top of a hill and a beautiful thousand-acre meandering lake was at the bottom of the dirt path. Tree roots serving as makeshift steps and branches to grasp were the only reason you didn’t take a dangerous tumble moving from one activity to another. Prehistoric rock slabs stacked like enormous pancakes were scattered throughout the surrounding forest. A chapel nestled in the woods was made completely of wood––the benches, the podium, the large cross, where, each morning we sat solemnly under a canopy of oak trees and listened to the day’s message given by one of our pastors.

There had been no improvements on this church-owned camp for decades. (It certainly wasn’t accessible to anyone not able-bodied.) We didn’t care about the lack of conveniences because it was the best week of summer––the most fun you could have in the 70s––or so we thought from our limited perspective. In addition to the wacky fun that can only happen with clergy, adult volunteers and camp staff watching over you day and night, those days formed the person I was to become for the rest of my life.

One disappointing year I got my period the week of camp. No swimming in the heavenly waters for me. No one had introduced me to tampons, or they weren’t readily available back then, I’m not sure. Even though I was naive and unworldly I did have a boyfriend that year.

“Why can’t you go swimming?” He asked repeatedly. I shivered as he moved closer, speaking into my ear. Of course, what he really wanted was to see me in a bathing suit. He’d probably waited all year for that, too. (In my very early teens I had developed overly large breasts for my five-foot-two frame.)

“You know!” I would shyly reply.

“Know what?” He apparently had not paid attention in our abbreviated sixth grade sex ed class.

“I can’t tell you. Just believe me.” I whispered, red-faced. But it ruined portions of my precious week as I tended to my biological needs instead of swimming and boating (anticipating being dunked by a boat full of rowdy boys.) My boyfriend never did figure it out.

To most of us the week of camp was an adventure in freedom, but in reality we were all on a short chain. The adults were ministers, their wives, and fun-loving volunteers who liked kids. Each day’s activities were planned down to the minute: bible study, serious small group discussions, chapel, singing practice, and campfire each night. During mid-afternoon free time you had to choose an area to play in, not just wander around getting into mischief. Most everyone preferred the vast, blue lake where you could swim or sail in tiny boats. The lake’s various inlets and hideaways helped you imagine you were exploring and out of reach.

The youth group had introduced drums, guitars and contemporary music into church services. My boyfriend, Doug, was not only the cutest boy at camp, he was also the drummer. What could be more attractive to a fourteen year-old girl? He had curly brown hair and dimples. He was funny and popular, and he was mine. I knew next to nothing about sex but my body was tingling in new places every time I laid eyes on him. So camp was not just a place to become a better Christian, but a place to learn how to sneak off behind a cabin and possibly steal a kiss.

I cannot emphasize enough how sheltered my life had been or how little I knew about my own body. The confluence of hormones and a great desire to be a good Christian girl was quite a conundrum. I came from a happy home in a quaint village so small you could walk to church and school––picture Mayberry. Access to information about sexuality was very limited and my mother was not comfortable with the topic, although my womanly body was of great concern to her. When we shopped for bathing suits I would usually come home with a matronly one-piece suit fashioned with as much material as possible.

At home I was very happy, but I took every chance to get out of the house to see my boyfriend and feel those tingles again. A week at camp, away from the suspicious eyes of my mother, was exhilarating to say the least. I was constantly torn between being the good girl my faith called on me to be and the bad girl I couldn’t help being when I watched Doug bang out his frustrations on those drums.

Midnight walks in the woods were a large group activity, but it was dark enough to manage a few kisses. We never went further than that, but it created quite a romance that dramatically ended when he and his parents moved to New Mexico the following year. We declared our undying love, and although that love was never consummated, I later conceded that God had probably saved me from teenage motherhood by banishing him to another state.

June can be a very rainy month in Ohio and sometimes we were cooped up in musty cabins for our studies instead of draped across enormous rocks in the sunshine. There are still moments after a summer storm when I can smell the wet dirt and the sweetness of sycamore trees just as it had smelled at camp. I remember kids slowly emerging from soggy cabins in the morning, slogging across muddy paths to get to breakfast in the main hall. Morning meals were sometimes silent after late night rowdiness in cabins, but sleeping in was not allowed. Weary counselors looked like they might be regretting spending their vacation days with juveniles. By lunchtime everyone was fully operative and food might fly past your face at any moment––possibly the worst behavior of the week.

The song, Kumbaya (come by here) had been recorded by Joan Baez in 1962 and by The Seekers in 1963, among other recordings. The word kumbaya was not synonymous with a corny, overly sentimental moment, as it is now. It simply appealed to God to come and meet our human needs.

I played my cheap Suzuki guitar at the nightly lakeside campfire and we sang it quite earnestly, among other songs of faith like Michael Row the Boat Ashore, and thrilling new songs from Godspell. It was an emotional time of day for all of the campers, especially when we would get to the verse, someone’s crying Lord, kumbaya, because there was always someone crying. There was something intimate about the fire-lit faces of your friends and the water lapping at the shore. We wearily confessed our faith and love for each other. The last night of camp was a tear-fest of promises to be friends forever and proclamations of how our lives and been changed by living together for a week and growing in our faith. It was free therapy for adolescent angst and I recall it with genuine fondness.

Many of the campers were friends of church members. Without exception they would get caught up in the loving atmosphere. My church became a safe place for young people with unhappy homes. Church camp had the power to alter a lonely life and forge lifelong friendships. It reined in the untethered emotions and energy of young teens and provided them with a Christian identity as well as a set of moral guideline to try to live by. The adults guiding us were sincerely loving and non-judgmental. When the term What would Jesus do? became popular I realized that the leaders who had influenced me had been the ultimate examples of WWJD.

After a death-defying bus ride back home on Saturday we would take over the entire Sunday morning service with testimonies and songs we had learned. There were also light-hearted skits we had practiced all week at camp. Parents were often taken aback by their children’s enthusiastic statements of faith and many times it was the catalyst for a while family to become active in the church.

My camp experience was so significant that, as an adult, I became a counselor and spent vacation time there with my own little children in tow. There was nothing I wanted more than for my son and daughter to be a part of the blissful days of church camp. But, by the time I was a counselor things had changed. Teenagers were much more worldly and bold. We discovered boys and girls alone in cabins together, some were uncooperative with the rules and activities, there were fights and arguments. It was disheartening. By the time my own children were teens it was a completely different experience for them. My punk rock daughter was humiliated by a rigid adult for her clothing choices and camp became a negative memory for her. My son was apathetic about going, which broke my heart.

The very term Christian has become something unrecognizable to me in this country. It has no resemblance to the joy I had growing up in a small Methodist church in Ohio. Everyone was welcome there. Everyone was loved, accepted, and included. Our interactions with the adults were marked by humility and kindness, not exclusion, rigid rules and judgment.

The simplicity of those years is striking now. We needed nothing but each other, some musical instruments, and the clothing in our suitcases, to have a glorious week together. We had no connection to the outside world or electronics of any kind. We were truly happy. I wonder if such innocence even exists now. In recent years, through social media, I have reconnected with many campers from those years and it is like we are in a special club of enduring memories, not just of the camp, but of the sincerely caring adults who inspired the rest of our lives.

On Sunday morning campers and families would join together the brilliantly white New England style sanctuary, and the youth would conclude the service by making a large circle around the congregation, hold hands, and sing a favorite song called “Pass it On.” I wanted to do that then, and I still do.

Diane Vogel Ferri is a teacher, poet, and writer living in Solon, Ohio. Her essays have been published in Scene Magazine, Cleveland Stories, Cleveland Christmas Memories, Raven’s Perch, and by Cleveland State University among others. Her poems can be found in numerous journals such as Plainsongs, Rubbertop Review, and Poet Lore. Her chapbook, Liquid Rubies, was published by Pudding House. The Volume of Our Incongruity was published by Finishing Line Press. She has done many poetry readings locally. Her novel, The Desire Path can be found on amazon.com. Diane’s essay, “I Will Sing for You” was featured at the Cleveland Humanities Festival in 2018. A former teacher, she holds an M.Ed from Cleveland State University. She has an Author Page on Facebook for current news and is a founding member of Literary Cleveland.  

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

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