The rich girls in Jackson, Tenn., the girls whose lives and wardrobes I envied, went off to camps at Beersheba Springs or Sewanee, or to their lake houses at Pickwick, and returned with deep suntans and shiny, green-tinged hair. They rode horses and rowed canoes and commandeered outboard motors and yawned and looked bored when they talked about it upon their return.
That summer, my church ran a camp for teen-agers in a spot of shady woods with a running creek and a big pond that almost qualified as a lake. Ramona Nelson, stiff and bossy, was going. Beth Wilson, who was a year younger than I was and crazy as a loon, would be my companion.
On a Sunday afternoon, we loaded our bags in a trailer to be pulled behind the rented school bus that would carry us down winding country roads to camp.
Skippy Shelton's brother Andy, with a million freckles and a lazy eye, sat on the back bench of the bus with Beth and me. Propped up among the suitcases and duffle bags and ice chests in the trailer were Skippy, his long strawberry-blond hair ripping in the breeze, and his friend Bob Lacey with his black curls and hoodlum eyes. They smoked cigarettes, flipping ashes into the pile of luggage and flipped us the bird when they saw us staring out the back window.
Skippy was a year older than we were and had gotten caught smoking pot, according to Andy, in the living room of his parents' house, watching Tarzan movies one Saturday afternoon. Naturally his parents freaked out and insisted that Skippy go to summer camp to pray and exercise and get straight, but mainly to keep him off the streets where drug dealers surely loomed at every corner. Bob Lacey was Skippy's partner in crime, but Skippy convinced his parents to let him bring his friend along anyway.
It had been an emotional year for the teen-agers at our church. A massive revival had rolled into town and set up at the football stadium, starring a man who called himself "The Reverend of Bourbon Street," a New Orleans preacher formerly racked with drugs and booze and women, who had turned his life over to Jesus and wanted us to do the same. We didn't expect to get caught up in the wave of sin and salvation, to rush forward in the end, crying, telling a stranger how bad we'd been, how good we wanted to be, rededicating our lives to Jesus under the approving eyes of the Reverend of Bourbon Street with his white suit, string tie and alligator shoes -- but we did.
We arrived at camp and claimed our bunks in screened cabins with concrete floors. We swam in the muddy pond then rinsed the red dirt from our bathing suits and our hair in flimsy outdoor showers. We ate a quick dinner of hotdogs and potato salad in the outdoor pavilion, swatting flies and watching mosquitoes land in our iced tea glasses. Then we gathered for the evening worship service.
Skippy Shelton and Bob Lacey had been scarce all afternoon, but slunk up and took seats on the back row just as we finished singing the opening hymn and sat down to listen to our sweet youth minister, Brother Carl -- fat, effeminate and sweaty in the wet summer air.
Brother Carl started talking about the wonders of nature, and Skippy Shelton and Bob Lacey started making farting sounds. Beth Wilson snorted and grabbed my arm and almost fell off the pew laughing. Ramona Nelson turned and glared. Brother Carl gathered himself and praised the water, the birds, the insects. Skippy and Bob, low in their seats, imitated bombarding battalions of mosquitoes, buzzing maliciously behind our backs. By now we were all hysterical, holding our noses to keep our laughter in, our eyes leaking tears.
We went to bed thrilled with the first day of camp, especially the worship service. We pondered what tricks Skippy and Bob would be up to the rest of the week, but awoke the next morning to find them loaded in the minister's station wagon, headed back to Jackson. A long week of heat and flies and muddy water and lessons from Brother Carl loomed ahead of us. We waved sadly at Skippy as the car turned on the packed dirt driveway past our cabin.
Skippy's red hair whipped out the car window as he turned to us, raised his arm and flipped us the bird.