The air was heavy with mosquitos and humidity. Shouts from young boys came from every direction as energy not burned off during the day had to go somewhere. Sunset was fast approaching, the end of my fifth day at Camp Ockanickon an hour or so away from our Southern New Jersey home,
I was familiar with it all: the tents, a dingy dining hall, a lake brown with decaying leaves and weeds that required a hose down after swimming, the nightly campfire, counselors with whistles, and a daily schedule full enough that everyone was too tired to notice the lumpy mattresses.
Nothing was different from what it should be except, this year, I was a C.I.T., a counselor in training. Not that different from a first-year student at a military school, the C.I.T.s were responsible for all the grungy, routine chores necessary to keep a hundred boys from hurting themselves or others over the seven days we were together.
Being a summer camp counselor was a position most of my acquaintances yearned for. Away from parents, annoying brothers and sisters, and not being at home for the seven weeks of summer break was the stuff of dreams. Living in the woods and being in charge was the ultimate…and there was your first real paycheck. True, it was sent home to mom and dad, but still, the path to financial independence had been started.
There was only one problem for me: I hated the job. I disliked the eight to ten-year-old boys I was supposed to guide through their wilderness experience. They had an independent streak wider than the lake. Bedtime and lights out held no meaning. Two of the youngest still wet their beds at night, too afraid to venture to the outhouse in the dark.
Amazing to me, within the first two days cliques had formed; the less popular boys found themselves picked on, ignored, or the butt of practical jokes from sunup to “supposed” bedtime.
The full-time counselors found my struggles funny. Being a few years older than me, they took it upon themselves to make sure I understood my place in the camp hierarchy.
The fun stuff, like swimming, boating, games, or free time to explore was for the “paying” customers. I was responsible for maintaining order and not losing anyone in the woods. But, actually doing any of the things a twelve-year-old boy would enjoy at a summer camp…were off-limits to me.
By the end of the first week, I was ready to admit defeat, throw in my whistle, and have my parents pick me up and take me back to the safety of my suburban home.
I was a quitter. I couldn’t handle my first taste of responsibility. I was homesick and unable to rise to the challenge. I had ruined my chance of becoming someone. If I had a tail it would have been tucked far enough under my legs to reach my chin.
During that low point, my grandfather did something that literally changed my life. He wrote me a letter. In it, he calmly explained what my choice to quit meant, what it said about me, and what it would mean to my future. The result was his turning a seeming personal disaster into one of the most important lessons of my youth, and one that directly affected the next forty years.
He assured me my decision was not a failure. While disappointing and seemingly a mark of immaturity, he wanted me to see the silver lining inside that dark cloud. He made the point that I had admitted my incorrect choice and had determined that all would be better off with my departure.
He made it clear that life is full of mistakes and choices that do not work out as envisioned. The only failure is not learning from such a development. He made it clear he loved me and knew my future was bright.
His words lifted a crushing burden from my shoulder. Though I was not ready to admit my leaving camp was bad, he give me the opportunity to see what had happened from a different perspective.
Within a few months, our family moved to a different part of the country. Camp Ockanickon was behind me. As luck or fate would have it granddad’s words would come alive, I had my first exposure to the inside of a radio station.
Instantly, I was captivated by the sights and sounds of what I saw. In less than an hour, I had found the path my life would follow for the next forty years. My grandfather’s grace and wisdom let me be open to a new experience not many months after my camp failure. His letter gave me permission to think about what could be, not what was.
His wisdom not only turneda humiliating childhood experience around, but he gave me the confidence to look for other opportunities to figure out where I fit in the world. His profession of librarian and lifelong lover of the written word is responsible for my passion for books, reading, and volunteering for a leadership role at my local library. He not only turned a humiliating childhood experience around, but he gave me the confidence to look for other opportunities to figure out where I fit in the world.
Bless you, granddad.