I grew up with music. My sister, seven years my senior, played flute in her middle school and high school bands and marching band and she sung in choir. My pastor's family during first, second, and third grade, were straight from the Sound of Music and encouraged all kinds of music from the congregation and led a youth choir. My grandmother played organ for her church and my mom now plays piano to ours. So it wasn't suprising that I was in countless bands and choirs up to my highschool year.
One of those groups was the Crook County Boys Choir, an after school group prided by our instructor, Mr Cochran, as the only boys choir in the state of Oregon. We met once a week, usually around six O'clock, at a church just a few blocks from what was then the Crook County High School, where we practiced for several hours. This memory is not about the choir as much as it is about codifying the memories I have of the years I attended boys choir camp.
My mother drove me into the Cascade mountain range of Oregon on my first day. We got out of the car then walked to Mr. Cochrane. I saw some of the other kids I knew from choir, met my cabin counselor, and walked my things up to my cabin which was just up the hill a few hundred yards from the lodge building where I would later have meals with the rest of my peers. And then my mother got in the car, reversed, and slowly drove away.
I began crying uncontrollably.
I'm not sure how to explain what was going through my mind. Terror. Fear. I felt abandoned. I must have known I was going to be left at camp for a week but once she got in the car it hit me, she left me in a strange place in the middle of nowhere. Sure, I knew everyone here but wasn't close friends with any of them. I was a socially ackward introvert and I'm been left completely alone with a bunch of people who I knew by name, but didn't feel close to. I felt alone, I cried, I screamed, and my counselor, only a few years older than me, comforted me and said most kids feel that way their first time. What a fool, I thought, what a complete idiot to suggest he understood the debth of my suffering.
I spent the next few hours in a numb shock but he was right. The next day I felt right as rain. By the end of the week I didn't want to go and while I don't recall, on parting I probably also cried.
The boys choir was made of thirty or forty kids from fourth to seventh grade (based on a 34 year old's memory, mind you). Up the dirt paths, which went in a long loop up the hill, were eight or ten small cabins where we spent our nights. Each cabin was simple, unheated but with small windows. Twelve bunk beds, six on each side, just enough for a sleeping bag, pillow, and the few things we were allowed to bring, lined the left and right walls. One door in front, one in back. Simple by most standards but it was the high life given I was used to camping in tents.
Outhouses and showers were in buildings outside, a few minutes walk from any of the cabins. Both years I was in the same cabin which for me, having a cat like personality, was perfect, making it easy for me to nest. I don't recall showering and perhaps avoided it for as long as possible given my anxieties being naked around others. I would have only used the bathrooms during the day, not wanting to rush to them in the cold and dark of night, and more than likely wouldn't have gone number two except at the lodge which had more modern facilities.
We generally ate three squares a meal and this was one of my favourite times of day. For instance, while there was an expectation that we had to eat breakfast by a certain time of the morning I recall being able to have breakfast at my leisure. Since breakfast time was always at the same time at my house this gave me a certain sense of freedom which I'd never experienced before so I enjoyed it greatly. Hot lunches were also a luxury I didn't have at school being one of those kids who always had a lunch box usually containing a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich, a fruit, and milk money. On top of that I could always have seconds and boy did I love getting huge helpings of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, french toast, and while I hated being such a string bean, something for which I was often teased for at school but it did have the benefit that I could eat as much as I wanted whenever I wanted without gaining a single pound. Yeah, breakfast must have been my favourite as that's all I remember--but it probably didn't hurt that the lodge was heated so I'd get up in the morning, nearly freezing my balls off, get dressed, and rush on down to the lodge where I could eat and drink a cup of hot chocolate. One last comment on the food. Growing up my family always had Tang "juice" in the morning and while this was available at the lodge we could also have hot Tang. Weirdest drink I'd ever encountered up at that point in my life but God was it good!
A path led down from the lodge a few hundred yards to a small lake. A trail lead a mile around the edge of the lake and at the far end was a regular camp ground and boat jetty where we sometimes went to swim. A minute's swim out into the lake was a wooden platform which I may or may have swum to on my first year, but on my second I avoided the water all together, thinking it too dirty.
Not sure when that changed for me. When I was younger my brother and I would play in the creek back behind our house and it was fully of slimey rocks, mud, and all manner of small insects. This never bothered me. In the summers our family would head to Crooked River Resevoir which was full of green algea that covered my body when I got out. Yet this never bothered me. But at some unknown point I preferred being clean to getting dirty and I avoided situations where the unknown, such as the deep murky water of the lake below the lodge, might grab me by the feet.
Treks around the lake and swims were all but a daily occurrance, something we did in our free time, something we didn't have to ask permission to do as long as we had a "buddy" along and given that most of us had never experienced such freedom in all our lives we enjoyed it greatly.
That ended the last or next to last day of my second year there. While down at the lake a couple of the kids bumped into some guys with bows and arrows who shot at them. It was probably a bullshit story manufactured to attract attention and that's exactly what it did. Once the adults heard we were no longer allowed to go anywhere near the lake. Some kids were enthralled by the story which everyone was talking about but others, like me, were more skeptical and angry that our freedoms had been curtailed due to the paranoia caused by a couple liars.
Drama such as this was rare, though. Mornings were a chance to snuggle deep inside our sleeping bags, fighting out the cold--in fact one morning I'd overslept breakfast and no one woke me as they had been trying to find me but I was sooooo miserably skinny and when they looked at my bunk it appeared as if my bag was empty. We spent much of the day hiking, swimming, and goofing off, and at night we gathered around a large campfire between the lodge and lake where we sang Koom By Ya, other songs, and shared ghost stories. I looked forward to that last bit of the day, staying up late, looking at the stars, imagining the life before me, and every so often becoming overwhelmed by emotion and shedding a tear. And I pondered my mortality, something that had begun to keep me up at night, trying to make some sense out of the reality that one day I would close my eyes and never open them again, trying to make peace with the inevitability of it and that it was the one thing for which I had absolutely no control.
At least once each year the camp counselors would sneak us all into one cabin well after lights out and tell stories to scare the shit out of us, stories about one handed murderers running around the forest with axes, their minds intent on cutting unsuspecting teenagers into tiny little bits.
Oh, those were the good days!
Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all play. We had chores, like doing dishes or helping with the meals, and everyone met several times a day to practice playing recorders and singing. I have to admit I hated both. I simply wanted to go play with the new friends I'd made but no, it was a choir camp so we'd all go in one of the buildings and learn the fingerings on the recorders, something I'd forget the day I'd leave camp and have to relearn the following year. And we'd sing and we'd sing and I'd yearn to get back outside and once Mr. Cochrane gave us the go I was out the door like a bolt of lightening.
And kids could be mean. There was usually a group of kids I steered clear of (these were, of course, the ones that spread the bow and arrow drama). I recall once they'd discovered bloodied toilet paper in one of the toilets and narrowed the source down to one of the overweight boys. While it's easy to look back and recognize he was probably suffering from hemeroids or something worse he'd become the butt of jokes for days afterwards.
One had to be careful about what others knew.
And then there was me. I was typically a "good" kid, quiet, respectful of adults, direct 'A' student, followed directions well, and I sincerely cared for the people around me (at least the ones I didn't consider jerks). And yet when I got excited, when I was given that rare chance to feel powerful over someone, I sometimes slipt and took it with verbal cruelty unlike me.
Such was the time where I held a stick in front of my loins and flipped it around like a long penis in front of my cabin counselor, reminding him how his penis didn't hang down straight like most but hung down and to the left. Understandably angry he punished me by making me help with the dishes, even though it wasn't my turn that night, and said I wouldn't get to go to the camp fire that night. Feeling very rediculous with how I had acted and incredibly upset by not getting to go to camp fire that night I did the dishes and then begged, with tears running down my face, to go to camp fire to which he agreed. Maybe we both just needed to cool our jets.
The end of the week was always special.
One day, for instance, was for our version of the summer olymics. There were dozens of competitions: three legged races, timed shoe tying, ping-pong, trail sprints, and much, much more. All things considered the rewards, little trophies made out of wood and written on with Sharpies, but the competition was always fierce as seems to be the norm for boys of that age. Looking back I recall the fun and joy and excitement of it all but must admit recognizing how truly insecure I was, how I really needed to win as many trophies, beat as many kids as I could, to feel okay about myself. And I did too, every summer I walked away with an arm full of first, second, and third place trophies (although I was nowhere near as good a ping-pong player as many, thought I loved playing, and likewise got second in the shoe tying competiont because I was nervous and fumbled for a second knowing full well I was still faster than anyone else there when my fingers weren't shaking from nervousness).
And then there was the skit show at the end of the week. The kids in every cabin were given the task of coming up with a comedic skit. At the end of the week we'd eat a special dinner and then watch the skits, one by one. One year I recall ours being this weird little ditty where one kid was a bus driver. A friend of mine and I wore pillows under our shirts and got on the "bus" first. When the driver asked who we were we said, "Two all beef patties". As the skit progressed other kids got on the bus and announced who they were. Then a "cop" stopped the "bus" and asked who was on board. The driver responded with our names, which said in order sounded like, "Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettice, cheese, pinkles, onions, on a sesame seed bun"--i.e. the theme ditty of McDonald's restaurant commercials of the time.
Finally, on the last day, our parents arrived. Though none of us wanted to leave we were all packed. Everyone headed to the large one room building by the lodge where we normally practiced. We gave a concert including recorder music and choir songs. And then we went home dreaming we'd be back some day.