Summer camp: hymns and macaroni and cheese

When the days grow long and hot and the fireflies flit about at night, my thoughts return to summer camp. I went to camp from the age of 7 to 13, and it was always the highlight of my year. Camp was more than a vacation, it was an opportunity stretch my wings, to try new things and make friends with people whom I wouldn’t get to know in my daily life.

For three years, from the ages of 7 to 9, I went to Farm Camp, operated by the College Settlement in Philadelphia. It was located on a former farm in Horsham, Pa., once a rural area and now a suburb of the big city. (It’s no longer called Farm Camp, but it’s still going strong and operated by the College Settlement.)

The younger children slept and had most of their activities in and around the “Mansion House,” a large former home across the street from Main Camp, where we would go to eat, swim and boat. The girls slept in the Mansion House; the boys slept next door in a barracks-like “Bunk House.”

My first religious services

Camp was also where I had my first experience with religious services. My family was completely non-observant. My parents didn’t go to synagogue even on the High Holidays. And I was too young to go to church with my friends, which I did occasionally when I got older.

On Sunday mornings at camp, the Jews, Protestants and “nones” from Mansion House (I don’t think there were any Muslims among us, though one year there was a Hindu counselor from India) would troop over to Main Camp for a non-denominational service. The Catholic kids weren’t with us; they were bused into town so they could attend Mass.

We would sit on logs positioned in a large circle. I don’t remember much about the service other than the songs, which have stuck with me all these years.

We sang some standard Protestant hymns, like “Abide With Me” and “Faith of Our Fathers,” and gospel tunes like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”  and folky tunes like the one about Johnny Appleseed:

Oh the Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need,
The sun and the rain and the apple tree.
The Lord is good to me.

There were also some Southern Baptist-style hymns with messages I found intriguing, because they were so far from anything I had heard elsewhere: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through, my treasure is laid up somewhere beyond the blue…”

One song had a tune that evoked a strange yearning in my 7-year-old psyche as the words conjured up images of angels:

White wings, that never grow weary,
They carry me cheerily over the sea.
Soon now, my heart will grow weary,
I’ll put on my white wings and fly home to you.

After all these years one can never be sure one is remembering the words correctly, so I did a little Web search and learned that this was originally a sailing song! The last two lines are usually “Night falls, I long for my dearie, I spread out my white wings, and sail home to thee.” Who knew?

Interfaith sensitivity

The thing that impressed me most about the Farm Camp services was how interfaith they were. While they were obviously based on Protestant services, the organizers went to some length to ensure that non-Christians were comfortable. Bible readings were always from the Hebrew scriptures. When we sang “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” the end of each verse was “children of the Lord.” It wasn’t until I started going to school assemblies in fourth grade, where we always opened with a hymn, that I learned the real words are “soldiers of the Cross.”

When I was 10 I moved to another camp that specialized in art and music. My younger sister, Sue, attended Farm Camp for many more years and shares my fond memories.

“I so enjoyed the Sunday service at camp that I felt sorry for the Catholics who had to miss it. I didn’t understand for many years after why Catholics, and not the Protestants, had to go to church,” she told me.

When Sue was about 10, she wrote an essay about why camp was so important to her.

“I don’t recall why I wrote it, but I’d showed it to my counselor, who must have shared it with other counselors. I was asked to read it aloud at one Sunday service,” she said. The essay was also printed on the front page of the camp newsletter, which was a mimeographed job on colored paper produced near the close of every two-week session.

“I was so pleased and proud of myself. I saved it for many years. It’s likely still moldering in our attic in a box.”

“We do indeed still do Sunday service, a chance to be reflective with campers at the campfire site and a chance to share stories,” camp director Karyn McGee told me.

“We pick a theme, and often use great books that we read aloud (and sometimes have staff act out) to generate deeper thought. Mostly we read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Sneeches by Dr. Seuss, and other non-denominational fun yet deep stories.

“Sometimes we plant a tree afterwards, and sometimes we burn a twig each. Twigs gathered from many trees, many sources but combined together in our campfire become the foundation for next session, year, decade’s group who will also sit under these beech and oak trees and share their stories.”

The College Settlement of Philadelphia is still influenced by Quaker values, said Jan Finnegan, the agency’s director of development. “The Sunday service does not have a clergy person or particular format but reflects an understanding of living in harmony with one another and the natural world, being reflective and creating a community of acceptance and equality.

Grace before meals

Camp was also where I first encountered grace before meals. Three times a day the entire camp would stand at the tables and sing, to the Westminster chimes tune, “Morning (or afternoon or evening) is here, the board is spread, thanks be to God, who gives us bread. Amen.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid who wondered what a “board” had to do with the meal we were about to eat.

By the time my sister Sue was a teen at Farm Camp and it was her bunk’s turn to lead grace, they were able to get away with, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yaaaaaay God!”

I encountered numerous new foods at camp, including tapioca pudding and macaroni and cheese. You no doubt did a double-take at that. How could anyone grow up in America without eating macaroni and cheese?

Well, my mother didn’t like it and so she didn’t make it, and it was completely off the radar for my Europe-born grandmothers. We walked home for lunch from school, so I didn’t get it in the school cafeteria.

I still love mac and cheese, and it was another reason I looked forward to camp every summer!

Here’s a good recipe for this all-American staple that’s easy to make because you don’t have to boil the pasta first or make a separate cheese sauce. You do need a blender (regular or immersion). It uses a great deal of cheese, but if you’re worried about fat, you can cut the amount back some with no loss in yumminess.