believe it or not, back in 1990 i was a young, relatively thin and tan summer counselor at singing hills, the elementary-school-aged summer camp at laity lodge youth camp (LLYC) — an amazing 1900-acre encampment nestled
in a canyon along the frio river. that's me in the white hat.
there i taught 6 and 7 year olds how to properly use a carabiner, how to tie abseiling harnesses from scratch, how yell to their belay and rappel off cliffs; i prayed with homesick kids, played guitar in nightly "round-up" worship services, got in shaving cream fights, played a lot of dodge ball and capture-the-flag, snuck the kids out to secret midnight popsicle parties that were really over about 9:45pm, worked on art projects with them, and painfully worked through the most immature, insanely jealous stage of my fledgling relationship with a young, beautiful girls counselor named amy, but that's another conversation. the memories go deep there. and in short, i grew to love the place.
now its almost two decades later and i still have this affinity with that land, with the water and the hills and the people i've met.
this weekend we made one of at least three yearly pilgrimages back to leakey, texas, back to LLYC, and specifically, back to the camp's annual work weekend.
it's a blast, despite that "work" word. a lot of alumni families, current staff, work crew and random folks who have been associated with the youth camps for the last 40 years bring multiple generations of their own families there to pool their energy for a weekend and come together to put the finishing touches on the camp just prior to opening day. we sweat, we work hard, and in exchange, we get fed like kings (e.g.: saturday evening was beef tenderloin), we get to stay in the same cabins as the campers, and we worship there along the banks of the frio, singing many of the same old-school worship songs we did 18 years ago, replete with hand motions and silly inside-joke asides. whether you're back east, in the deep south, or up in the texas hill country, any camp that's survived 40 years builds up a lot of traditions. we sleep, we laugh. we talk.
this year's work weekend, i was on the grounds crew. weeding flower beds and later raking acorns out of a volleyball sand pit. harder than it sounds. in prior years i've hauled heavy equipment out of their winter storage barns, climbed precarious ladders to clean cobwebs off of huge wagon-wheel chandeliers in the ranch-house, hauled speaker mains and monitors into place in their pavilion, worked with six or seven men to drag unbelievably heavy pontoon docks into the water for the swimmers ... that kind of thing.
we go home and then, two months later, we'll take our kids to be campers there. this year, three out of our four kids will be old enough to attend. we can only afford the one-week session, but the kids love it nonetheless. amy and i have this years-old tradition with the kids. on the last stretch of the highway, just before arriving at camp, we pass a road sign for the haby ranch.
"Hey, Mama…," I call in a really over-the-top vaudeville voice.
"Yes, Daddy?" she sweetly comes in on cue, knowing what's next.
"Say, that's the sign for the Haby Ranch … do you know who used to live at that ranch?"
and then as an answer — to the younger kids' delight and to the older kids' chagrin — the whole mini van launches into an overly loud version of Bill Grogan's Goat, a call-and-response kids' song we used to sing for our campers back at singing hills:
Bill Grogan's Goat (repeat),
Was feelin' fine (repeat),
Ate three red shirts (repeat),
Right off the line (repeat).
Bill grabbed a stick (repeat),
Gave him a whack (repeat),
And tied him to (repeat),
The railroad track (repeat).
The whistle blew! (repeat),
The train grew nigh (repeat),
Bill Grogan's Goat (repeat),
Was doomed to die (repeat).
He heaved a sigh (repeat),
Coughed up the shirts (repeat),
And flagged the train! (repeat).
the song is timed by daddy to wrap up just as we arrive on the camp property. the kids get dropped off, we drive home, and miss 'em and send them care packages.
then, one week later, we drive back to pick 'em up and hear the crazy camp stories that we used to tell our own parents. and we remember that camp is ineffable. we remember getting frustrated with our own parents' line of questioning following camp. so we don't pry too much, making sure to leave camp a sacred mystery. i am already predicting that kate, who shares my tendency for waxing nostalgic, will weep much of the ride home because of the painfully beautiful experience and the inevitable departure. it is a thin space, to be sure.
but this place, part of the HEB Foundation, is more than just a youth camp.
many of you are aware of the related adult, ecumenical retreat center there on the same property, overlooking the river, a couple of hours' drive from san antonio. heck, this summer alone (!) you can catch the following at laity lodge's adult retreats: lauren winner, j.i. packer, marva dawn, gordon macdonald, david dark and sarah masen, michael card, gordon atkinson, ashley cleveland, charlie peacock, and cynthia clawson. whew; that's just a partial list. now, a friend of ours, john, has started a family camp there at laity lodge as well. this is in addition to everything i've already mentioned, plus free foundation camps for groups during the year.
in a few weeks, it'll be time to pull the kids' camp trunks out of the barn and start filling them with flashlights, rain ponchos, and travel-sized toothpaste. there will be health forms to get signed and more gasoline money spent than we'd rather.
and somewhere out there tonight, there's probably a college grad student googling for capture-the-flag, just making sure she's got the rules straight in her head. and somewhere out there tonight, there's probably a school nurse biding her time until she can spend nine weeks with "camp" instead of "school" in her title. and somewhere out there tonight, there's probably a young, relatively thin and tan college kid, making sure he's got picks and backup strings and capos packed tight in that hard-shell guitar case.
let the summer begin