We lived in the lower middle-class section on the south eastern side of Detroit. In the summer, my grandmother Mayse would have grandfather Mayse drop the family off at a large building in downtown Detroit. Grandma had to show our vaccination papers. A nurse would have us stick out our tongues and say, “Ah-h-h.” Another nurse would take a pair of toothpicks and use them to separate our hair so she could check us for cooties.
If we passed the physical, mothers or grandmothers and children (no men allowed) were loaded onto a school bus and driven to Leonard, Michigan to the Salvation Army Summer Camp. For city kids, who played baseball in the alley with sticks for bats and stones for balls and seldom set their feet on anything other than concrete, it was Paradise. Each family shared a duplex-style cabin with another family. The showers and bathrooms were a few cabins away.
A huge, fan-shaped swimming pool was open every day. Meals were served in the mess hall and for some of the less-fortunate families, it was the healthiest diet of their entire year. The afternoon snack was graham crackers and milk.
The camp set on a large lake. Rowboats and canoes were tied to the pier and camp counselors would take us out on the water. The counselors were tops with us. They made sure we were safe while we swam, biked, or canoed.
At the auditorium, we saw movies. One night of our week, the counselors put on a show, doing comedy skits or singing and dancing. Another night would be spent around a campfire making sandwiches from graham crackers and marshmallows…no chocolate.
That precious week of every summer wasn’t the only time I got out in the country. We often visited the family farm in Tennessee. Except for a rural location, it wasn’t the same. The farm was a working enterprise. The camp had one purpose only, to entertain children and to allow us to expand our world and enjoy ourselves in a safe place.
One summer, a nearby farmer brought several horses over and we took turns riding while the horses were led by a counselor. It was the first time most of us had ever sat on a horse. For me, it gave me a love of horses that lasts to today and was the first of many, many rides.
We weren’t supposed to go off the property, but one day a girlfriend and I went “over the hill.” There was a big meadow, probably the size of a football field. It wasn’t marked off for any special use. The entire field was covered in Queen Anne’s Lace, so many of them, they touched one another all the way across the expanse. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I broke off a stem and sniffed the flower to find the scent sharp, bitter, and disappointing. It was probably for the flower’s protection. Had they smelled like roses, I would probably have picked a whole bouquet. Now I know it was better they were left to go to seed and bring beauty to the field for another year.
Not all of my childhood memories are happy ones, but the week every summer when the Salvation Army welcomed us to their wonderful get-away ranks among the best events of my life.
Despite some political differences, I still drop something in the red pot at Christmas time.
I owe them.