Monday, January 21, 2013

Three Summers That Changed My Life

The summers that followed my junior and senior years of high school and my freshman year of college forever changed my life. I learned to do things I had never done before. As I learned how to work and to deal with being a long way from home, I developed many characteristics and relationships that have served me well throughout my life.

The summer after my ninth grade year my two older brothers went away to Hawaii to work in the pineapple fields. The tales of their exploits made me want to follow in their footsteps. By the following summer my oldest brother was serving as a missionary. I wanted to accompany my next older brother to Hawaii, but I didn't turn 16 until a month after the summer ended.

I finally got my wish to work in the pineapple fields of Hawaii following my junior year of high school. As I explained in this 2009 post, it turned out to be a difficult but memorable summer for me. I continually struggled to meet the 6,000 plant-per-day standard required of each pineapple planter. I grappled with homesickness and depression. I lost weight while gaining character and bleach blonde hair. One of the many valuable things I learned was that, unlike my brothers, there was no way I was going to spend more than one summer working in the pineapple fields.

I was approached by a scout executive the following spring with an offer to spend summer working at a Boy Scout camp in the remote wilderness between the Tetons and Yellowstone. The pay would be meager and I would have little free time. But I accepted the offer after some encouragement from friends that had worked on scout camp staffs.

It took me awhile to agree to work at scout camp because I remembered the three summers I had attended scout camp. Overall, each of these weeks had been a good and memorable experience. But I remembered being a lousy hiker, being one of the less popular kids in the troop, struggling with scoutcraft and camping skills, and being homesick. I also thought of the guys that worked on staff in heroic terms. I felt inadequate and wasn't sure that I was camp staff caliber.

Living in a tent deep in the woods many miles from civilization for a whole summer was a new experience for me. Learning to be a proper staffer was somewhat challenging. For example, I was tasked with teaching the Pioneering merit badge. Knots and lashings I could do. But splices completely befuddled me. When some scouts came to me for help with splices I sent them to another staffer that had previously taught the badge. He soon sought me out and patiently taught me splicing techniques. I was intrigued. I soon found myself trying out my newfound skill whenever I could. To this day I am still quite proficient at splicing rope.

Despite the low pay, endless hours of work with very little free time, vicious mosquitoes and horseflies, nasty weather with little shelter, cold nights, and being away from civilization, I grew to love working at camp. The camaraderie with other staffers and the joy of serving scouts and their leaders far outstripped the negatives.

I returned to camp as a staffer the following summer as well. Some of my scouting buddies (including my younger brother) came along and ended up becoming great camp staffers that served for a number of years. My second summer on staff was even better than my first. I still occasionally run into people that remember me from when they came to camp as scouts all those years ago.

It is difficult to describe the qualities gained from working on a Boy Scout camp staff. I gained a great deal of self confidence from being entrusted with many duties. Even today I am amazed at the duties that can easily be turned over to boys that have worked on scout camp staffs. They are better at many things than even trained adults. You give them a job to do and they do it, usually very well, and often with an innovative flair.

Since those days of working on camp staff I have been to scout camp many times as an adult leader. I have interacted with many young camp staffers, including my own sons. I can see why camp staffers seem heroic to the boys that they serve. Heck, they seem heroic to the adult leaders. Over the years I have often worked on service projects at scout camps, partially in gratitude for all that I have gained from my experiences attending and working at camps.

I have been to many wonderful scout camps. But Camp Loll, where I served on staff, occupies a special place in my soul. The camp is situated on the shore of an icy cold lake called Lake of the Woods. A few years ago I penned a poem about my staff experience that I titled, 'Round the Lake of the Woods.

Those glorious days 'round the lake of the Woods
We frolicked, we toiled, and sang.
The woods nearby heard the loon's cry
And with the echo of young voices rang.

The clear summer night and the thunderstorm
Are things of beauty that I've loved,
With the deer's casual canter, the chipmunk's fierce banter
And the eagle's flight above.

Ah, the games that we played, the songs that we sang,
And the service with steadfast friend
Will glow in my soul as the campfire's last coal
When we joined hands and sang at the end.

But summer's now past; I'm back in the city,
And life goes on as it should.
Yet my heart often wanders to those glorious days
'Round the Lake of the Woods.

Taken together, the experiences I had during the summers I was 16, 17, and 18 formed a sturdy framework that has strongly influenced the rest of my life for the better. I wish for today's youth similar strong foundational experiences that will guide them into a purposeful and happy future.

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