Paradise comes in all shapes and sizes. The Buddhist monk seeks the emptiness of nirvana. Some Muslim jihadists dream of seventy beautiful girls. But if he could put it into words, a nine-year-old boy’s deepest longings would find ultimate satisfaction in the gunfire, greasy food, and girl-proof haven of Camp Hemlock.
Elisha returned from his first Hemlock adventure with the dazed look and mumbled speech of one who has just found El Dorado. Some of that daze was the result of sleep deprivation, no doubt, and the ginormous Mountain Dew Slurpee he drank on the way home. But the stream of superlatives that gushed from his mouth seemed fantastical, of mythical proportions. I quickly saw that I had made a big mistake by letting work responsibilities keep me from attending, and I promised not to let that happen again. But I didn’t fully accept the tales of wonder I was hearing from my son…until the following summer.
Camp Hemlock occupies about 20 acres outside Wardensville, West Virginia. We pulled off Trout Run Road and drove across a stream, past a large recreation field, and stopped at the small, two-story lodge. About a dozen cars were parked under the trees on both sides of the gravel road. As Elisha and I dug our duffle bags and sleeping bags out of the trunk, I had little indication that we were about to step through the pearly gates.
We walked toward the noise and found a swarm of boys already dirty and sweating from the games set up around the lodge. Horseshoes. Box hockey. Tether ball. Best of all were the Battle Sticks – lengths of PVC pipe thickly padded on both ends, which boys used to jab and whack at each other until one lost his balance and fell off the Battle Log. As soon as he hit the ground, he would hustle back to the end of the line for another round.
Elisha and I found our cabin and claimed bunks among our fellow Wolverines. The smell of mold, mouse droppings, and generations of unbathed boys created a special fragrance. Spider webs and plywood splinters added to the décor. Before the night was over, we would cover the floor with mattresses and cheer until light’s out for round after round of tag-team wrestling. It became a cherished Wolverine tradition.
At the sound of the triangle dinner bell, boys packed into the dining hall and wolfed down food good enough for the gods: sloppy joes, hot dogs, French fries smothered in cheese sauce, peanut butter sandwiches, Honey Nut Cheerios. There were always seconds and often thirds. Each post took turns making the meal and cleaning up afterwards. The father who volunteered to serve as Master Chef for the weekend was treated with reverence, honored as a holy man. Long after they graduated from the Christian Service Brigade program, I have seen young men drool at the memory of meals served at Camp Hemlock.
After dinner we gathered on benches around a fire circle. The wood was stacked and ready, but there was no fire…until a dad launched a flaming arrow from his compound bow and sparked a towering inferno. The sky darkened. We sang, adding our voices to the choir of crickets. We laughed at skits and listened to a biblical story. We roasted marshmallows – that is, the boys roasted marshmallows while we dads did our best to keep burning sticks and flaming white goo out of their eyes. At the end of a long day, s’mores insured that everyone stayed hyper until bedtime.
A small amount of sleep took place between light’s out and reveille. Depending on their personal disciplines, some boys and dads marched off to the bathhouse for a shower while others raced back to the Battle Sticks. Breakfast abounded with pancakes and sausage. For thirty minutes afterwards, boys and dads paired off for devotions. The secret was to find the right spot – a secluded log or a mountainside boulder. Elisha and I probably spent half the time searching for that special place. But as we talked about the campfire message from the night before, the lessons sunk deep.
Another trumpet serenade called us to group activities at the recreation field. We rotated in posts from station to station: knot-tying, knife and axe, fire-building, slingshots, archery, and GUNS! Each boy got to shoot 10 rounds with a .22 rifle and then shoot five arrows. On the first day of camp, they got the feel of their weapons. On the second day, the boys competed against each other for the highly coveted marksmanship awards.
After lunch we had the afternoon free for swimming, soccer, naps, or extra time at the rifle and archery range. One group of boys and dads spotted a rattlesnake on their hike to the top of the mountain. The timing proved unfortunate for the snake – this was not a group inclined toward wildlife preservation or animal rights. A dad ran for his shotgun. The boys returned with a nice set of rattles and weekend bragging rights. With each telling of the tale, the snake’s fangs got longer, the shot got louder, the spattered blood got gorier.
The cycle of food, fire, fellowship, and fun repeated during the next 24 hours. For most of those blessed and stressed boys who made it to the final round of the rifle and archery competition, glory got away. But not for Elisha. He took first prize among the Builders in archery and he fared pretty well with his rifle, too.
Group activities culminated with a massive water balloon fight. Dads and boys faced off against each other on opposite sides of the field with coolers of water balloons in the middle. We bared our chests. We shook our fists. Both sides boasted like Scottish Highlanders jeering at the English cavalry. And when the signal was given, we charged. After the carnage, both sides claimed victory. And still do.
By the time we ate lunch and began to clean up, most boys had exhausted their manly vigor. Swabbing toilets and mopping the dining hall proved slightly less exhilarating than shooting snakes. But we made it. And after we stopped at 7-Eleven for a cup of strong coffee and a super-sized Slurpee, Elisha and I were ready to leave heavenly Camp Hemlock and get back home to Mama.