It was a bit of a blow to my 9-year-old self-esteem, but was really more of a safety precaution. As a red cap, you see, I was only allowed in the shallow end of the pool.
It would be a few more years before I progressed to yellow cap (I could swim to the rope) and to green cap (I could use the entire pool), but until then I had fun splashing and laughing with my newfound friends at Girl Scout camp.
I had done day camp before at Golden Springs Community Center, which was basically like an entire day of after-school care. I saw some of the same kids, I ran around in the sweaty gym, I nibbled the same soggy sandwiches, I yearned for the occasional field trip to the city pool, which was more of a free-for-all than an organized play date.
By the summer I was 9, I sold enough Girl Scout cookies to earn a “campership” to spend a week in the great outdoors with girls from all over the county, and some from other states. The possibilities seemed endless … canoeing or paddle-boating in the lake … learning how to make a woven square or circle out of the plastic strings known as gimp … sampling a variety of home-style cooking from the kitchen … being over the moon the night we made our own dinners in our respective camping areas … running around Bambi’s Meadow, an open, grassy patch of land that was the only place we were allowed to run at camp … getting checked for ticks afterwards … living in a cabin with four other girls and competing for cleanest space every day with the five other cabins … learning how to properly raise an lower a flag … having the chance to be in an environment where I was constantly engaged and encouraged by the adult figures around me.
Summer camp was more than a break for my mother; it was break for me, too. There were no projects to turn in, no computers to provide distraction, no phones blaring or vibrating in the background (as if we would have had a signal). It was as peaceful and tranquil as one could get — a childhood detox, if you will.
Going to camp helped me hone my skills and be appreciated for what I could contribute to the lives of others. I rarely felt homesick, as my mother would send me letters starting the Friday before camp started, so I would be sure to receive them that Monday and every day after until I returned.
Camp Cottaquilla offered a variety of themed camps within the basic camp experience. If you were into ocean life, then maybe spending part of your week at Dauphin Island was your thing.
Could you sing, act, or dance? Try the program known as “Razzle Dazzle.” Acting teacher Miss Traci would careen down the paved drive in her convertible every day and prepare us young thespians for the “big” production we put on the last day of camp.
A few summers later, I was old enough to participate in the much-talked-about Night Owls program, in which we would leave camp after dinner every night and go out for an activity — skating, bowling, the movies — and stay out so long that we were allowed to miss breakfast the next day. As a preteen, I remember feeling like pretty hot stuff, spending my nights out on the town in enticing downtown Anniston.
To me, it was a rite of passage to have attended Cottaquilla long enough to be able to choose which program best fit my interests — and also to know the histories of the other campers who had woven their own tales through the years.
When I returned every year, I would look for the familiar counselor faces and try to guess the real names of my leaders, as they all went by pseudonyms during our sessions. It was only at the end of the week, when we would do our last flag lowering, that their names were revealed to us. This was a very important component of camp, as it always kept us grasping for the true identities of the young women who were really watching us during our stay.
Our last night of camp, Thursday evening, was always one of remembrance. The entire camp would gather around a big bonfire and sing every song we learned that week — from Magdalena-Pagdalena-Ruperstine-Doderine to spirit songs for our respective bunks, transitioning over into songs like “Linger” (Mmm — I want to linger — mmm — a little longer — mmm — a little longer here with you/Mmm — It’s such a perfect night — mmm — it doesn’t seem quite right — mmm — that it should be my last with you) and finally ending with “Taps,” properly demonstrated by the camp director, who went by “Ladybug.”
Some would cry, others would sit in meditative silence, but as we left the fire and re-emerged the next morning, all packed up, we seemed a little more reserved and wise, ready to go back home and start the next school year with an experience that only us girls could understand.
My first year at Cottaquilla, I attended with three school friends. The next year, I came alone, and continued to do so for a couple more years. As I grew older and later experienced summers consisting of work, summer school and internships — and now, with no designated weeks off at all — I am always able to tap into those memories and smile.
During my week away at camp, I learned more than just how to swim (as I finally did) or, upon returning home, to appreciate a bed with more than just a mattress and a metal frame. That week taught me to appreciate what it was to be a kid — no regimens, no college prep courses, no inhibition — just good, honest fun — even if it meant that once I returned, my mother would spend the next week using the finest grade of stain remover possible to rid my clothing of the fine, dingy film of the outdoors.