For the last 16 years I’ve spent one week each summer as a Cabin Dad at the Episcopal Church Camp in Way, Mississippi. A Camp called Bratton Green.
I was first asked to attend the camp in 1995. The rather handsome young priest who extended the invitation asked if I would serve as a cabin dad. My eight-year-old son was to be a camper. And, if I agreed, my five-year-old daughter could come along, too — in a position affectionately called a staff brat.
The camp was built around a serene 20-acre lake. It was a bit run down, especially the cabins. My cabin was built in the 1970s. No air conditioning. A tattered beige linoleum floor. Bunk beds made of heavy wood. Mattresses that, no doubt, had not been replaced in decades.
During our training sessions, in the days before the campers arrived, the young priest offered us guidance and insight. He had come to this camp since he was a child. In fact, his parents met at Bratton Green. He reminded us that the boys and girls who were about to arrive were fragile.
He asked us to keep in mind that most of them still believed in the magic and mystery of our world. He asked us to be patient. Encouraged us to be gentle. And suggested that a single act of kindness can be life altering.
Then he added one more charge. In his soft, powerful manner, he said, “Talk about God.”
I wasn’t prepared for this. I had armed myself with stories to read to the campers at night. I’d mentally gathered every gross detail about my younger brother — a man who lives for bathroom humor. I had brought along copies of the Weekly World News (the only newspaper in America that had a fully-staffed bureau in Roswell, New Mexico). I had packed a recent copy of The Top Ten of Everything and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not.
And, of course, my old standby, a fully illustrated copy of The Guinness Book of World Records. But I had not the first idea how to begin a conversation about God. Especially with eight- and nine- year-old boys.
As the campers arrived, I greeted their parents, helped the boys make their beds, taped name tags at the end of their bunks and fielded the typical questions about whether or not we were going to raid the girls’ cabins. When the last camper arrived and the parents were gone, I had my first talk with the boys in my cabin. I knew better than to jump right into a conversation about God. We needed to get to know one another first.
“OK!” I yelled. “Everyone sit on your bunk.”
When they were all settled and quiet, I suggested we go around the room, tell our names and hometowns, and then reveal to the group something very interesting or unusual about ourselves.
“Not typical or average,” I said, “just about everyone has a pet, or a brother or sister. This needs to be something special.”
To break the ice, I told them my name was Neil. That I lived in Oxford and that I was nearly 40 years old, but still classified as a senior at Ole Miss.
Cadien, a tiny boy from Jackson, demonstrated how he could bend his elbow backwards. Joe, a portly kid from West Point, told the group, “he was very popular at his school.” Will Stephens, a kid from the Delta, told us that he was going to be off his medicine during camp. And one of the boys I knew from my church said, “My name is Bradley Briscoe. I’m from Oxford. And my momma likes to drink vodka.”
The camp bell rang, and the boys all ran to the pool for the swim test. And I was saved from that initial conversation.
That night, right before lights out, after an exhausting day of running, swimming and camp games, I pulled out a copy of The Book of Common Prayer. I thought a good start for this talk about God would be the interesting and unusual Prayers and Thanksgivings in the back of the book.
I read the short prayer for our enemies. Then, I read the one for our armed forces. Certain they would appreciate the irony, I continued on with the prayer for the victims of addiction. They seemed genuinely intrigued. I went on to the prayer for all sorts and conditions of men.
Proud of my first steps, I stopped and asked if anyone had questions. Bradley Briscoe said, “Hey, Mr. Neil, do you got a prayer back there for constipation?”
That ended any hopes of a conversation about a higher power. I told the two high school counselors to get the boys ready for bed. I walked back toward my private room to the sounds of uncontrolled laughter and flatulence.
As the week progressed, I grew weary. Everyone in my cabin grew weary. Will Stephens, the boy who took a break from his medication, never slept. He would sit up in the middle of the night and scream at the top of his lungs.
At 4 a.m. one morning, he tossed a can of Lysol across the room. It hit another camper in the head. Every night, it was something new. He would wake up and start to jump on the bed. Other times, he would burst into a hard rock, air-guitar routine. One night, he became tangled in plastic Venetian blinds.
Standing at the end of his bunk bed, I would plead with this child. For sleep. Or quiet. In the dark, I could see his eyes dart back and forth. He could not help himself. I bargained with him. I offered candy, attention, a canoe trip on the lake.
On the third night of camp, I’m embarrassed to admit, I even offered the boy money if he would just be quiet. Will Stephens answered, “I want to drink coffee.”
Will Stephens’s behavior wasn’t restricted to our cabin. He had, in fact, terrorized almost everyone — campers, counselors, cabin parents, even clergy.
A 6:30 a.m. one morning, as I sat in the cafeteria, enjoying a cup of coffee and writing in a journal, Will Stephens ran toward me.
“Hey, Mr. Neil,” he said, panting, with more energy than any sleep deprived human should have, “can I have a cup of coffee.”
“Does your Mom let you have coffee?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Well, I can’t give you coffee, Will,” I said. “But why don’t you help me set the tables?”
I walked over to the silverware cart to grab forks and knives. This would be a good use of his energy, I thought.
While my back was turned, Will Stephens had climbed up on the coffee counter. His feet dangled in the air, his torso was stretched across the green linoleum, and he reached for the coffee pot. I ran toward him and yelled for him to stop. But I was too late. Will Stephens pulled the pot toward him, it tipped over and scalding coffee spilled onto the counter and onto Will’s chest and stomach.
At first, no sound came. Then, a high-pitched scream that pierced the quiet morning air.
The first thing that came to mind was an old episode of Bonanza. A boy who was dying from high fever was saved by a wise native American who submerged the child into the cool water of a horse trough. I glanced over at the icemaker. Then at Will Stephens’s reddened skin. I picked him up and stuffed him head first into the ice machine. I pressed his skin against the ice.
By this time, the dozen or so campers and staff who were up and about had gathered around the screen windows of the cafeteria. They saw Will Stephens’s legs flailing in the air, and my hand holding his upper body in the ice machine.
The screams continued though muffled a bit.
One of the campers yelled, “Way to go Mr. Neil! It’s about time.”
“You don’t understand,” I said.
A cabin parent gave me the thumbs up sign.
Will’s burns turned out . . .
(To be continued next week)
Neil White is an author, playwright and publisher. On occasion, he will contribute other stories of mortification to HottyToddy.com