The Baptist Camp was way back in the country, on Highway T, out past Buckhorn and Deerlick, down on the Gasconade almost to Turkey Ridge. It took a good hour to get there. Highway T was a narrow blacktop road with no shoulders and no dividing line, and it curved up and over and through the low rolling hills like a water snake, crossing the same dry branch seven times. Every time the road crossed the branch, there was a diamond-shaped sign that said “Dip,” to show that a dip had been built into the road for the water to run through after a big rain came and filled up the branch. So one of the best things about Baptist Camp was going there and back, and trying to get your mother to drive the car just fast enough for it to fly up in the air every time you crossed a dip.
Somewhere around there in the woods was Smith Holler, where all the people were related to each other and married each other and had babies with no spines who couldn’t sit up. People laughed about them, although Janelle thought it sounded awful. She had never seen any of these Smiths, but it was bad enough to know that they were out there, lying in bed and not able to hold up their heads.
Baptist Camp was held for six days every summer. The girls went for 2 1/2 days, then the boys for 2 1/2 days. All the grownups in the church came on Sunday, the last day, for a church service and dinner on the grounds. Janelle loved Baptist Camp because it was camp, although there were many things she didn’t like about it. Once, she had gone to visit the 4-H camp where her Methodist friends went. They got to stay for a whole week at a big YMCA campground over by Doolittle, and the boys were there at the same time, and they had tents and campfires and got to cook out and eat roasted marshmallows. They had names for their different groups and special mottoes that Janelle didn’t understand, and they sang songs she had never heard before.
That was how she learned that 4-H camp was a real camp, where you learned to make fires and cook camp food, not like Baptist Camp where you just listened to people talk about Jesus and the Bible. But Baptists didn’t want you to belong to organizations unless they were Baptist organizations. In fact, Baptists were not even allowed to belong to secret organizations, like the Masons and the Rainbow Girls, where only some people could belong and you weren’t supposed to tell other people what you did there. Besides, there were so many Baptist organizations that no one who was a good Christian needed to belong to anything else, what with the Ladies’ Circle and the Sunbeams and the Girls’ Auxiliary and the Boys’ Auxiliary and the Men’s Christian Union.
The Baptist Camp was made up of three wooden buildings in a clearing alongside Highway T, with hills behind it, about half a mile from the river. One building had a dining room on the ground floor, with a huge sleeping loft upstairs and no glass in the windows, just big wooden boards that hooked up to the eaves to let the air in in summer. There was a two-story house with a kitchen where the adults stayed, and an open-air church that was just a wooden roof held up by two-by-fours.
Once, Janelle had found a magazine with lots of ads in the back for real camps in other states. They had names like Camp Loon Lake and Camp Lucky Pines, and they had horseback riding and canoes and nature hikes and Indian crafts, and she was sure that everyone who went there got to wear a uniform and sleep in a tent or a cabin with bunk beds and an Indian name. Janelle wrote off for catalogs for some of the camps in Minnesota and Michigan and Maine. When the brochures came, she spent hours reading them and trying to decide which camp she wanted to go to most, but she never got to go anywhere but Baptist Camp in Missouri.
Still, going to Baptist Camp was a highlight of every summer. First, Janelle packed her brown-striped suitcase with her bathing suit and jeans and short-sleeved shirts and pajamas and shower kit. Then she and her mother packed it in the car along with the old brown and olive-green sleeping bags and her mother’s brown-striped suitcase and Bible, because of course Janelle’s mother had to go to Baptist Camp too and help teach Bible classes and cook. They always took Carlene and Annalee and Annalee’s mother, and they set off through the town and out into the green country, down the narrow blacktop road that wound through the hills. When the car went over the dips, Janelle thought she would die of happiness, her mother laughing nervously and being a little scared to drive so fast, and the other girls shrieking along with Janelle, but never quite as loud.
Finally, there was the camp with its big oak trees and the green jungle of the woods behind it. First, all the girls went up into the hot, airless loft over the dining hall and laid out their sleeping bags and quilts and their suitcases and bags. Usually there were some wasps in the loft, and the girls screamed and ran while the mothers tried to shoo the wasps out.
At the first meeting, everyone got a mimeographed schedule, which thrilled Janelle, for she loved the idea that the next 2 1/2 days were planned and filled with activities, even if they were things like “Bible Study Class, 10 to 11.” You didn’t really have to listen in class, anyway, because you could daydream and giggle and make faces and roll your eyes at other girls and pass notes and pull out your eyelashes and bite your fingernails.
For the noon meal, they ate at the picnic tables inside the dining hall, and the women of the church—Carlene’s mother and Annalee’s mother and Dolores’s mother and Mrs. Wills and Mae Cooper and Iva Holland, wearing flowered aprons over their housedresses—brought out paper plates and cups and potato salad and macaroni salad and Jell-O salad and baloney sandwiches and potato chips and Kool-Aid. In the afternoon, there were other classes, but late in the afternoon the girls got to walk down the blacktop road to the Gasconade, where there was, under an old metal bridge, some shallow water just right for swimming.
After swimming, they walked back to the camp, the sun making the river water steam up out of their wet clothes, then went upstairs and changed into dry clothes and got ready for supper. After supper, there was always a talk or a sermon in the church arbor. The preacher might talk about Moses and the Israelites, and how they struggled in the wilderness for forty years, or about Jesus and how he wandered in the desert for forty days, being tempted by the devil. But Janelle knew that the wilderness in the Bible was not like the wilderness around the Baptist Camp, because the one in the Bible didn’t have green trees and brush and birds and butterflies, only burning sand stretching away as far as the eye could see.
Baptist Camp didn’t have campfires and camp songs, but every summer one of the deacons would make a big wooden cross and wrap it in burlap bags, then soak the bags in kerosene and set the cross on fire, so that all the girls could sit around it in a circle and sing “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” and “Just Over in the Glory Land.” Then someone would give a talk about Jesus or tell a Bible story and talk about being a good Christian.
At bedtime, Janelle never wanted to sleep, and couldn’t understand those girls who stayed down at one end of the loft and wanted everyone to be quiet, when it was so much more fun to tell ghost stories and laugh so hard you couldn’t stop and try to make other people laugh by saying ridiculous things, and whispering and giggling even after Mrs. Hodge and Mrs. McKnight came up the stairs and told them all to be quiet. Janelle always tried to be the last one to go to sleep, and usually she was.
Outside in the night, the darkness pressed up against the thin walls of the dining hall; there were no other lights or houses out there in the country, and cars hardly ever came along the road. You could see stars through the windows at each end of the long loft with its slanted walls. You could smell the old wood cooling and hear it creaking in the night.
Somewhere, far to the north, Janelle knew that children were going to sleep in their small, neat cabins, surrounded by pointed pines and clean cold air on the shores of lakes. But the world around the Baptist Camp was wild and mysterious, the trees and brush and weeds growing so fast that they had to be cut and hacked back every spring to keep them from swallowing up the buildings. The air was even more full of flying bugs and the sounds of animals and night birds and insects than the air around her house in Big Spring, and although somebody’s mother always led them in prayer every night before bed, Janelle knew in her heart that there was something in that darkness that even Jesus, in his long white robes, could not save them from.
Carolyn Miller is a poet and freelance writer living in San Francisco. Her most recent book of poetry is Route 66 and Its Sorrows (Terrapin Books, 2017). Two earlier books, Light, Moving (2009) and After Cocteau (2002), were published by Sixteen Rivers Press. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, and Prairie Schooner, among many other journals, and her awards include the James Boatwright III Prize for Poetry from Shenandoah and the Rainmaker Award from Zone 3.
Cover image: Artwork by bill bissett.
Cover image: artwork by Irene De Matteis.