A young girl finds she doesn't fit at "church camp."
The lunchroom at the cabin retreat could hold a squadron. But, to my teenage eyes, the number was more like a couple hundred screaming Baptist kids. I put my hand on a log timber supporting the ceiling and picked at a splinter while I waited in the lunch line. It was solid and something sticky stuck to my palm. I pulled the hand back and discovered pitch.
I tried to wipe if off on my jeans, then surveyed the vaulted ceiling. Timbers crisscrossed at forty-five degree angles, stained a deep red. The fifty or so picnic tables were the same hue. Low windows with green felt drapes hung in various stages of disarray. For its size, the lunchroom was drab, dark and close.
Kids were shooting by me to sit with their friends at tables, their lunches filling the air with the smell of overdone hamburger and tomato sauce. Someone had cornbread and I thought I might do that. I could eat cornbread all day.
The lunch line moved forward. The hulk in front of me belonged to a boy who moved like Frankenstein, his feet shuffling forward. I had no idea what he looked like and determined to keep it that way. Behind me, two girls giggled and tittered like birds fighting over a piece of bread.
I picked up a cold metal tray, still damp from the dishwasher. It was stamped with spaces for the various culinary delights I was about to encounter. The women behind the food hunkered in white aprons and wore hairnets just like my school cafeteria, which is where I wished I was.
I watched a cold bun opened and a Sloppy Joe created in a second, the drippy beef come out of a ladle immersed in a pot approximating our trash can at home. Another second and canned peaches splashed in another indent of my tray. Jell-O finished the meal. I stared. Where was the cornbread?
“Could I have some cornbread, please?” I wasn’t sure which woman to address, so I surveyed all three of them, thinking them like mushrooms: short, fat, a brown head and a white stalk.
“We’re out.” Mushroom #1 said.
“Oh.” I looked at the sloppy joe. “Well, I don’t eat beef. Could I just have the bun and some cheese?”
The woman dishing out the Jell-O looked up. “What?”
“I don’t like beef. I’m wondering if I could just have a bun with some cheese….or something.” My voice, never strong, drifted off at the incredulous look of the woman.
“Hey Martha! This one don’t like beef!” Mushroom #1 looked at Mushroom #2, the prodigious producer of Sloppy Joes.
“That’s what we got.” Martha, whose eyes barely made an appearance from the fat cheeks of her face, nevertheless pierced me with a squinty gaze.
“A bun,” I yelled back. “Just give me another bun.”
“Hey.” One of the girls behind me tapped my shoulder. You’re holding up the line. Get your butt in gear.”
“Then go around me.” I looked at the freckled face of a ten or eleven year old.
“Now you want two buns? What are you? Some kind of pig?” Mushroom #3 glared at me.
“I don’t want the Sloppy Joe.” I told her.
A boy behind bumped me with his hip. “Move it, Honey.”
“Just give me another bun, PLEASE!” I wailed.
The three mushrooms ignored me and filled more trays. The noise level, already high, rose. Other boys pressed behind me, yelling things like “I’m hungry!” “Who do you think you are?”
Defeated, I took the tray to the dining room. Another busload of kids had arrived from God-knows-where. The racket was tangible. If I put my hand out, I thought the noise might vibrate it. I dropped the tray, food and all, into the trashcan and headed to the door.
“Hold on there, girl.” I felt a hand on my arm and turned to what I assumed to be an adult counselor. He was a man my dad’s age, with a much more substantial paunch. His tousled brown hair and harassed look made me back up and look for an escape.
“You need to dump the food and put the tray in the wash window,” he announced as though I sat across the room and might not hear.
I twisted my arm away. “Leave me alone.” My throat constricted and I clenched my teeth against tears.
He gripped me again. “Little smart aleck, are we? What’s your name?”
“Susan,” I gulped.
“Well, Susan, I saw you were disrupting things up there in line and have no respect for the rules here. Do you have an excuse?”
“I wanted a plain bun.” I could see where this conversation was going. I was already guilty.
“Our food not good enough for you?”
“Hey, Paul!” Another man yelled from across the din of the lunchroom. In the second Paul looked away, I felt his grasp relax and I pulled free. I ran. I did not look back. By some miracle, the latest busload was now in line and the doorway clear.
My long legs pumped with everything I’d learned in Track, my hair caught in my mouth and I pulled it away as I skirted out the door. Where was the road? I could hear men yelling inside and they were getting louder.
I peeled off to the right, up an incline to the trees, found a gnarly pine with a reasonably low branch. I scrambled up, the bark clawing into my palms, but my feet found purchase and I rose higher. Gulping for air, I perched and looked down. Paul and his fellow counselor were outside the front of the dining hall.
“Susan! Susan, you get back here this instant!” They split and walked around the sides of the building, yelling my name. Reassembling within a fifty feet of me, they mumbled and finally one said, “She’ll be back.” They went inside.
I wondered what my fate would be with these good Baptist men. Watching from the tree, I saw the doors to the lunchroom close and the noise level dropped. I heard a chipmunk charge up an adjacent tree. He chattered from a branch across.
I smiled. “Are you God, little guy?”
The chipmunk blinked and sat still.
Well, if you are, fine. If you’re not, hopefully, He’s listening.” I looked off in the distance, over the camp was, to another ridge.
“I’m not good at this religious stuff,” I began. “You know I fall asleep in church and this retreat thing….this is just not going to work. Did you see the bunks where we have to sleep? I’ve never slept with anyone in my life and now they want me to sleep with thirty girls who won’t shut up. You were on the bus, right? Well, then, you know what I mean.”
I moved my legs out from under me and dangled them below. “So, here’s the deal. Yeh, I know you don’t make deals. Okay. Proposal.” I contemplated my red tennis shoes swinging back and forth.
“You and I, we get along fine. I promise not to bug you unless I’ve got a serious problem, all right? And I’ll work things through Jesus. My Dad says chain-of-command is important. That makes one less human you have to concern yourself with. And, in return, you don’t get mad if I don’t go to church and do this kind of stuff?”
I turned as the squirrel whipped his tail, ran up the trunk, then came back, chewing on something held in his tiny paws. He looked down to the dining hall.
At least fifty kids were leaving the lunchroom and charging to a baseball field. I recognized some of the girls including the preacher’s daughter who taunted me about my freckles and my friend who talked me into this trip, then wouldn’t speak to me on the bus. I sighed. Obviously, I was not missed.
“So, God,” I turned back to the squirrel who seemed to have all the time in the world. “I’m going to go back to the cabin, get my stuff and walk down to that motel we passed on the way up. I’ll call my mom to come get me. You just sort of make sure I don’t get caught. That sound reasonable?”
“Ch-ch-ch-ch.” The squirrel dashed down the tree, looked back up at me once and vanished.
“I’ll take that as a sign. Thanks.” I climbed down the tree more carefully than I’d gone up, my hands scraped with the original ascent. With a sweeping glance to the dining hall and the now raucous baseball game, I ran to the cabin. Opening the door, the smell of mosquito spray hit me first, then mold, rotting timbers.
I looked around. I was alone. I walked over to my bunk and pulled my backpack over my shoulders. At the door, I doubled checked all directions, but it seemed everyone was at the game.
Freedom made me light as a feather. I trotted down the road, my backpack banging. After a few minutes, I could hear a car engine. They were looking for me. I ran up in the woods, found a huge pine and hunkered down behind the trunk.
A battered green pickup drove slowly by. Two of the men from the lunchroom were calling “Susan! Susan! It’s okay. Come on back!” They continued down the road.
I sat on the pine needles. They would be back. I took off my backpack, propped it against the trunk and lay down.
I could go back, I reasoned. They couldn’t kill me. On the other hand, it might be ugly and I would be even more of an outcast than I was. If I could get to the hotel and call my mother, she might rescue me. The sound of the truck returned and I laid still. They were not calling my name this time and simply rumbled by. I picked up the backpack, slung it behind me and started walking to the hotel. It was further than I remembered, but there was only one road so I stuck to it, the dust covering my new red tennis shoes.
An hour later, hot and tired, I arrived at the Pine Creek Inn. I pulled open the screen door and a bell tinkled somewhere. A woman, whose lined face reminded me of my grandmother, greeted me. She pulled a loose wisp of gray hair back and tucked it into her bun.
“Yes?” She folded plump arms over her ample belly and regarded me with a cocked smile.
“Can I please use your phone? I need to call my mother.”
“Are you from the camp? You should go back. They’re looking for you.
“No!” The word came out much louder than I intended.
The woman dropped her arms and placed her hands on the counter. “Young lady, you will not speak to me that way.”
“I’m sorry.” A ball of emotion was making its way up from my stomach and now resided just below my throat. If it went any further, I would burst into tears. “You see, that camp is awful, no one likes me, and they make fun of me. I just want to go home.” I knew I sounded whiney, but there was no other explanation.
“That’s life, girl. Get used to it. I’ll give the camp a call and have them pick you up.” She reached for the phone and I put my hand on top of hers.
“Okay, but then I want to call my mother.”
The woman looked at me, then at my hand on top of hers. “How about you call your mother, then I’ll call the camp.”
“Thank-you,” I said. She removed her hand from beneath mine. I picked up the receiver and dialed the operator for a collect call.
“Mom?” I started to cry, which sent my mother into a thousand questions as to whether I was alright. I finally reassured her I was fine, but camp was not for me. She asked where I was. “Hang on. Maybe this lady can give you directions.”
I held the phone to the manager. “Her name’s Elaine.”
“Elaine? This is Betty Parsons, Pine Meadows Inn.” There was a pause. “No, no, she seems to be fine. I’m not sure what goes on up there, but she’s not the first.”
Betty gave directions to my mom. I could not hear the response, but Betty said, “Don’t worry and don’t rush. She’ll be fine here.”
”She hung up the phone and looked at me. “It’ll take her about an hour. You had lunch?”
“Oh. No, not really.” I didn’t want to get into the details of lunch.
“Well, you need something. How does peanut butter and jelly sound?” She smiled; her watery blue eyes washed warmth over me. She picked up my hand and pulled me to her.
“Peanut butter and jelly would be wonderful,” I mumbled into her shoulder. “Do you think God will punish me for leaving camp?”
Betty chuckled. “You’d be surprised all the things God understands and I’m sure this is one of them.”