Forty years ago I was a young adult (at least outwardly), partway through a Journalism degree, and not doing well. I wanted out of school but didn’t want to disappoint my mom and especially not my grandmother, a force of nature who turned 90 that year.
I moved home from university residence in early May to find a different job than the past two summers (I already had wanderlust from the time I was 17. Daniel Tammett and Chris Bonnello both write about the appeal of travel to escape society’s expectations.) I got passed over for a lifeguard promotion in my university town; looking back this was likely due to my poor organizational and people skills. By the end of June, I still hadn’t found any writing-related work in my home town, when a good friend a year older called from her camp in the mountains six hours away—they had an emergency vacancy for a lifeguard and would I interview?
One of the camp’s board of directors agreed to vet me, so some kind soul drove me two hours each way to a fast food outlet, and I managed to convince that official. I mask pretty well as I’ve had job coaching.
I don’t remember how I got to the remote camp site; I expect someone met the milk run bus and drove me up into the hills, and a summer never to be forgotten. Only problem was no one prepared me for the responsibility of being thrust onto Senior Staff with all the unspoken rules and assumptions. My girlfriend worked with the campers so I rarely saw her—we sang together at campfire and did the Sunday chapel service with me playing a ramshackle piano. I remember Christmas in July fondly!
My boss Deb and I ran the waterfront, a man-made lake with a long dock down the middle and the swimmers on one side. The underprivileged kids we served scarcely knew how to swim, so we taught drownproofing and basic strokes. It was an 18-day boarding camp with all-female staff, and families paid on a sliding scale. My two bugbears were the noise (I had to duck out of the dining hall which landed me in trouble—I didn’t know about sensory avoidance and audio hypersensitivity) and the pet rat which my cabin mate had rescued from a lab just before arrival. He was nocturnal of course, and I heard every sound. I became cranky and dysregulated due to sleep deprivation, and tried unsuccessfully to figure out the camp rules so I could fit in. I also relate better to men, and I think the all-girl environment was also stressful.
Then in the third and final session the dreaded stomach flu with vomit and diarrhea spread through camp, and Deb stayed in the infirmary for two or three days. I had to take over the waterfront and keep everyone safe (there was no spinal board or direct phone line to emergency at that time, so I won’t identify the camp.) At 20 I was still a child and an undiagnosed autistic, but I grew up that week, making sure all shifts were covered, the kids buddied up, doing frequent numbered roll calls to check if any were missing.
Deb recovered, and I still have the letter of gratitude she gave me at the end of the season. I left to go into Third Year Journalism with no place to live, just excited to go to a rock festival and church camp with my friends. Deb’s belief in me made all the difference, that and the lake swims at sunset.
About ten minutes’ walk down a country road we had a dock where staff could relax when they were off duty. The work was easy and the sunsets spectacular. Above is a photo of it today. I learned about dark colours to avoid mosquitoes which still plague me. That peaceful place kept me sane, that and a Sunday broadcast from my university station, which I began to host 2 ½ years later (but that’s another tale.)
In a matter of weeks I evolved from nearly being dismissed and a total meltdown with nights crying in frustration to camp hero for keeping the swims going at the pool and lake.
That camp experience was the pinnacle and the end of my lifeguarding career, as I moved into communication work after that. I didn’t know it but my hardest school year was to come. My ‘muddled’ life started to make sense and I discovered the importance of mentors. Five years later I was married with a home and a new career in public relations. A story for another time….
PS I tracked down Deb in mid August 2020 and got to thank her.
Here’s a little of the letter I kept that changed my life:
“I think that you have developed many of the skills we discussed (such as punctuality)…you never let me down once knowing how I counted on you. You were needed a great deal whether that was ever felt by you (it wasn’t)….people won’t be able to push you around or walk all over you like I’m sure they have in the past. This kind of toughness you need to survive you’ll also need in Journalism….you have developed a sense of what’s going on around you.”
A song I’m sure Deb introduced me to – Let Time Go Lightly by Steve Chapin (sung by Harry). Here’s lovely version from that time. I tried hard to work it out on the piano.
“To share a fire with a friend or two” It’s just perfect for the summer I began to grow up.
Another song one of the staff played on guitar – Streets of London by Ralph McTell: Here’s a live cover recorded right before the lockdown started, by my friend Martyn Joseph:
If you missed it, here’s my take on the Lockdown written nearly 2 months ago. https://littleorphanaspie.com/silver-lining-life-under-lockdown-day-112/
And the moral is Keep Journals and memorabilia, because you never know when you may doubt your memories, and how your past might influence you. Those writings will convince you that change can and will happen. I learned to be a mentor because I was mentored. I even got a new name from one sweet girl, but that’s my secret!