Posted by: trevormeers | May 31, 2011

Fantasy Camp

It was a night just like tonight. A soft wind sighing through the pines high above. Spring frogs trilling in the bog below the new cabins, calling sunset down onto the forest. And as a 10-year-old kid from Iowa made her way alone along the path to the chapel, she saw with her own eyes—don’t try to tell her she didn’t see it—a head with fuzzy hair rise up in the window of the Boaz cabin, then drop suddenly back down into the shadows.

She could’ve turned and run back along the other path, the one that takes the long route through the pine plantation so that you don’t have to walk by Boaz. But who knows what’s in the long, straight rows of pines this time of evening? So she turned on the afterburners, roared down the sandy path, not even glancing at Boaz’s screen door as she rocketed by, then coasted to a stop when she reached the stairs of the staff quarters, sauntering in to see her parents like nothing happened out there.

Allison still has three weeks until her first official trip to summer camp, but she got a shakedown cruise—spooky cabin legend and all—over Memorial Day weekend when we visited friends who live year-round at Camp Fairwood in central Wisconsin. Fairwood recently marked its 45th anniversary as a Bible camp. Before that, it was a baseball camp run by a one-time Tigers and White Sox baseball player named Earl Torgeson. Before that, it was a hardscrabble farm. And before that, it was roughly 230 acres of mixed oak and pine forest springing from the sandy high ground above several bogs and ponds. Most of the property has remained reassuringly unchanged through most of those stages.

The hayloft-turned-chapel, where the faithful gather on nearly every summer evening.

Ostensibly, we dropped in for a few days at Camp Fairwood to help with projects around the grounds and generally enjoy some camaraderie with Brad, Jenny and their three small kids, who all moved to Fairwood full-time about a year ago. (Living in a refurbished farmhouse in the middle of camp is pretty great most of the time, they say, although moms still occasionally try to dump kids at the front door since the house used to be the camp nursery.) Selfishly speaking, however, the weekend wound up giving me more screen-door-slamming fun than I’ve had since The A-Team went off the air.

One evening, I climbed the stairs to Fairwood’s chapel, which occupies the converted loft of the farm’s original barn. Rough-hewn siding milled from the property’s forest covers the walls, and the old loft ladder still climbs the wall above the pulpit, heading straight for heaven as the week’s speaker opens the Book between dinner and snack-bar time each night. Sitting down in the back row, I could almost feel the gaze of an invisible preacher drilling through me into the metal chair, driving me to forsake an addiction to soft rock music in time to throw a confessing stick into the Friday night bonfire.

Heading down to the barn’s rock-walled basement, I found the snack bar, where a sheet of plywood displayed the coming summer’s selection, empty candy-bar wrappers pinned in place like a sweet-tooth’s butterfly collection. Reflexively, my palms started sweating as my brain summoned up forgotten angst over whether I should make the bold move of buying an IBC root beer for the girl I’d been watching across the dining hall since Tuesday lunch. Then I noticed the frozen novelties freezer behind the counter, not yet plugged in for the season. I flashed back to the night under the yellow light bulb outside the Baptist camp canteen when I invested my ice-cream allowance on the first fruity push-up treat of my young life. Nobody told me there was no safety stop built into the push-up tube. So in my excitement, I shoved it up to maximum licking height before the first taste, only to watch the whole cylinder of frozen goodness shoot up and out of the cardboard tube and drop onto the ground, where it lay studded with pine needles like a sherbet porcupine.

On Saturday afternoon, I made some pretense of helping around Fairwood, as Brad and I installed a life-jacket rack down by the lake. We slid the metal bar back and forth through holes we drilled in the 4×4 posts, trying to decide if we’d built it loose enough to be usable by some unknown 19-year-old girls’ counselor who uptalked the last word of each sentence? Who would use it this summer? With no one around to help her figure out its operation?

Under the comforting cover of broad daylight, Allison heads back to the Boaz cabin to declare it Boogey Man-free.

On Sunday afternoon, we dragged a canoe and two kayaks down to one of the few public access points on Pleasant Lake across the road from camp. As Brad and I tugged the boats to the water, we had to shove aside a brush pile stacked halfway into the public path by the owners of the adjacent lake home, as if to discourage the riff-raff from disturbing their wine-tasting as we dragged our cheap boats past their deck. When Alli and Brad’s kids were splashing around in the kayak a few feet off-shore, I didn’t say a word as they wandered down the shore into the private beach space, banging the plastic kayak against The Man’s dock. Eager as I was for a confrontation with the guy smoking a cigar and staring at us, he didn’t say a word.

The rest of the time, we shot .22s at the gun range. We took an evening hay-rack ride. We made Allison peek inside the Boaz cabin to prove there was no Afro-headed ghost lurking within. We played Oinky, a maddening game that leaves adults at family camp standing for hours, trying to toss a ring onto a hook screwed into a pine tree. And, of course, we visited the dining hall, where I enjoyed the camper’s version of walking through a pro football locker room. In my camp years, few things proved as fascinating as the cooks’ enviable job of cranking open enormous cans of food and dumping them into bowls the size of wash basins. While other kids dreamed of winning the Friday swimming contest, I longed to get my mitts on a barrel-shaped can of chocolate pudding or pears and pour out its Paul Bunyan contents like a fisherman gushing his catch onto the deck.

Livin' the dream with a giant can o' pears and the Binford 5000 can opener to match.

In the Fairwood kitchen, I found an entire rack of neatly organized peaches, pears, queso caliente and more, all in hefty cans. A stainless-steel table even had an industrial-size can opener just for dealing with these culinary behemoths. But since camp wasn’t yet in session, nobody needed two pounds of pears emptied out. So I simply looked at the racks and started calculating when I could come back as a volunteer cook. I think the whole family would come along again—as long as there’s an agreement that nobody has to walk past Boaz after dark.



  1. I am living your dream and had no idea – dude, I open cans with the identical opener (okay, minus the rust) on a daily basis as lunch lady!!! Yes, I am on summer break for 11 or so weeks, but come mid-August I’ll be back to opening cans like nobody’s business and all of it in the broad daylight 🙂

  2. Boogey-man or wayward groundhog? Hard to tell, especially with a 10 yr old imagination & at dusk surrounded by a forest…
    Jumbo can opener + jumbo can of beans = happiness!!

  3. 🙂

  4. I heard the doors of Boaz banging last night and wondered…blowing wind or boogey man?

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