It was amazing that they allowed me to go to Brownie Camp that year at all.
Only two months earlier, I had been thrown out of my Brownie troop for pretending to poison all of my fellow Brownies with L.S.D. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had wandered into the lunch room and encountered a full box of sugar cubes on the table. Children, of course, love sugar; so I went around offering sugar cubes to all of the other little Brownies. Once they had chewed on it sufficiently, I told them that they had just dropped Acid, and would begin to hallucinate in about twenty minutes.
It was the 60’s.
I was nine years old.
I didn’t make a very good Brownie. I detested the costume; it was the color of baby excrement; and I didn’t like the “uniform;” it reminded me of being a soldier. It was the same feeling I had later when I dropped out of the Marching Band in 8th grade; I loved the flute, but I detested the marching. Uniforms reminded me of the images I saw daily of the Viet Nam War. My father had made us wear black arm bands to school, and had told us not to pledge allegiance to the flag until the war was over. I didn’t like uniforms.
The sash I wore over my brown issued dress was empty of Merit Badges, save one. And that was the Badge I had earned for Creative Writing. It was the only badge I tried to earn, or that interested me. I loved it; it depicted a little old fashioned ink pen with a pool of spilled ink pouring from its tip.
I didn’t enjoy the Brownies. I hated their rituals and their songs. And the cookies; I hated those damn cookies; especially being forced to peddle them door to door like the Jehovah Witnesses which my parents always hid from. So pretending to drug an entire troop of little girls sounded like a marvelous way to entertain myself at the time; and it was my favorite day of Brownie’s ever.
When I was tossed out of the Troop, my mother didn’t like it even one little bit. “I’ll give them a piece of my mind,” she told me, as she picked up the phone. I offered protest, citing the many reasons I was actually glad to be thrown out, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
I remember her pleading on the phone with the Troop Leader, reiterating over and over that it was simply a childish prank, and I shouldn’t be excluded this way. But the Troop Leader fought back; saying that the sugar cube incident wasn’t the only reason I was expelled. She told my mother that it was also because I was “swearing.”
“Swearing? What did she say?” I heard my mother ask. Then, to my horror, she began to rattle off a litany of the worst expletives in the book; words I would never dream of saying.
“No, none of those,” I learned later was the Troop Leader’s response. “She used the Lord’s name in vain.” My mother loved telling this part of the story, and used this gushy pious voice when she mimicked the Troop Leader.
“OH GOD, PLEASE,” was my mother’s annoyed response. It was apparent where I learned that one.
Needless to say, I was immediately reinstated into Brownie Troop 566. In part, this was important to my parents who had planned a month long trip to Europe that summer; just the two of them. The two weeks I would spend at Brownie Camp would cut down their babysitting needs in half; the other two weeks I would spend with my grandmother.
I didn’t mind the idea, initially, of going to Brownie Camp. I read the pamphlet over and over, making certain that I was utterly prepared for this grand adventure. “Camp Misty Lake offers 2-week programs for girls. Campers can enjoy canoeing, swimming, fishing, hiking, nature study, outdoor cooking, crafts, adventure and more!” I read every word of the literature. I liked the idea of on-site Naturalists, who would teach us “nature lore.” I was especially intrigued by the “midnight kidnapping adventures” to which they alluded. But far better than the promised activities, I would be attending camp with my very best friend in the entire world, Sheila.
I read carefully the insert which listed “items your child should pack.” It was an extremely long list, and I wanted to make sure I followed the recommendations exactly. Rain Slicker (1) Pairs of socks (10) Tennis Shoes (2) Flashlight (1) Sleeping Bag (1) Bathing Suit (2) Brownie Issue shorts (2) Brownie Issue t-shirts (5) It also stated that every article of clothing must have the child’s name sewn into the item.
“Mom, I have to have my name sewn into EVERYTHING,” I told her.
“Even the socks?” she asked, as she started up the sewing machine with a loud whir.
“Yes, even the socks. Look, it says it right here.”
I wouldn’t leave any stone unturned. This was to be the first time I would go away without my parents, and I had to be prepared.
When the day to leave for camp finally came, I’d been staying with my grandmother for a week. My parents were off in Europe, and I was standing nervously at my grandmother’s door, surrounded by an enormous pile of camping gear and luggage. “We’re going to be late!” I screamed at my grandmother who took forever getting ready that morning, carefully applying her lipstick and adding lotion to her legs.
Finally I was driven to the Bus Stop. I couldn’t jump out of the car fast enough; there was at least fifty children already lined up against the backdrop of the huge Greyhound Bus. I saw my friend Sheila in line, and frantically waved. “I’m holding your place!” she shouted back, and when I reached her we fell into each other’s arms breathlessly. The excitement was palpable.
I’d never been on a real bus before; only school busses. With its plush grey interior; reclining seats and a bathroom in the rear, it seemed to me to be the epitome of luxury. It was a long ride; I had no idea where we were going; but I felt that we were going far, far away. The ride was great fun; we sang song after song, and Sheila and I giggled until we would fall into the aisle in hysterics. I felt very grown up.
When we arrived at Camp Misty Lake, my eyes grew as wide as saucers. There were at least a thousand other children there, all arriving in a long line of busses which wound like snakes toward the reception area. I had never seen so many children in one place in all of my life. There were suitcases and sleeping bags and screaming little girls as far as my eyes could see.
Eventually we all gathered in the reception area, and a friendly man dressed entirely in brown khaki greeted us with a Megaphone. “Greetings BROWNIES!” he called out. The children cheered in response, which made the man smile. “Behind me is a large table containing the names of every child here, in alphabetical order. Your job is to find your name on that table, and when you do you will find that they are all color coded, and that will tell you which camp you’ve been assigned to. There are 40 Brownies in each camp.”
Sheila and I ran off to find our name tags, and to find out the name of our individual camp. We knew we’d be in the same one, as my mother called before going to Europe and pre-arranged it. But when we found our name tags, to our extreme chagrin, they were different colors.
Sheila and I marched up to the nice man in the brown clothes, and told him that there had been a horrible mistake. “We were supposed to be put together in the same camp,” I explained patiently. “Yet we have different colored name tags.”
“Yes, I see that,” the man said beaming. “Well, what is our Brownie Motto? Girls? Let’s say it together. Make new friends. But keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” Neither Sheila nor I chanted the motto with him. “So Brownie Camp is an excellent opportunity for you girls to make NEW friends. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
I wanted to slap the smug look off his face. “My Mom called ahead,” I explained. “And she wrote a request that we put together.”
“I’m sure she did, Sweetie. But that isn’t Brownie Policy. Now run along and stand with your individual groups. You can visit with each other during meal time, at the Grand Mess Hall.”
I was crushed. Two weeks of camp without Sheila seemed like an eternity. But as instructed, I gathered my gear and followed my group to our individual camp. I was somewhat intrigued by the smattering of white canvas tents I found there; peeking out from behind trees and bushes, encircling a large campfire in the middle. I liked the campfire; it was surrounded by rows of logs that had been carved into benches.
I was assigned a tent, and one of my new roommates asked if she could lay her sleeping bag down next to mine. I nodded sadly. That’s where Sheila should have been, I thought to myself. “Hi,” said the girl breathlessly. “See this ring I’m wearing? It’s a poison ring. And it’s filled with poison. The little needle in the middle is how I can stab people. If I stab you with it in the middle of the night, you’ll die right away and no one will ever know it was me who killed you.”
I ignored the strange girl and set up my sleeping area. I began to feel scared, and terribly homesick. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it; we were being called to the campfire for our first meeting.
The girls all gathered, and the Naturalists assigned to our camp introduced themselves. They were explaining that our first activity was called, “Tippy Too Canoe,” and we were all going on a race in the river; and the team that tipped their canoe the least times would win a special prize. They began handing out large orange life vests to each girl.
When they reached me, I held out my hand expectantly, but the Naturalist stared a little too long at my name tag. “Cathy, I’m afraid you won’t be canoeing today,” he told me. I was utterly perplexed and asked why. “Your grandmother didn’t give you permission, that’s why,” he said.
“My grandmother signed all the permission slips. I made sure she did. I know she did,” I said, my voice rising in a panic.
“Yes, she signed the permission slips. But she specifically denied permission for what she called dangerous activities. You are not allowed to canoe, swim, or hike. But you are allowed to do crafts, and that sort of thing.”
What? It was like I was having a nightmare, and I couldn’t wake up. How could my grandmother do this to me? “Can we call her? I’ll explain it to her. She didn’t understand. I’ll make sure she gives me permission.”
“I’m afraid not, we have already spoken with her, and she was quite adamant. She said you like to write poetry, is that true? I see you only have one badge on your sash, and that’s for Creative Writing. We’ll find you a nice quiet place where you can make poems today?” I considered for a moment becoming a Guerilla Terrorist Brownie; a midnight marauder who would overturn tents, frighten other children, and wreak havoc on their spurious little organization. But instead I was led dutifully to the Crafts Room.
My days at camp were mostly spent alone, or locked into a room with children who had physical disabilities. I wrote long anguished prose about my incarceration in this saccharine drenched penitentiary; I wrote of my suffering, my syrupy imprisonment, and my phony captors. I denounced the Brownies; I used words that I had heard my father utter during one of his political rants; words and phrases like “Fascist” and “Police State.” My captors were Pigs.
My only happiness was the three meals a day in the Grand Mess Hall in the middle of camp. There I would meet Sheila, and we’d laugh so hard we often forgot to eat our meal. Sheila was enduring her own brand of torture; her camp mate, for instance, had urinated on her pillow purposely. Our situation had turned dire. We had found ourselves in a Concentration Camp, and our only hope was to escape. We had decided to make a plan; and we agreed we would sneak out of our individual camps at midnight and meet deep in the woods to devise our strategy.
But we didn’t get that far. We were suddenly surrounded by two Nazi Guards who asked us sternly to follow them. The Third Reich had arrived. We were both led outside of the Grand Mess Hall, with the two SS men behind us. I imagined a machine gun aimed at the small of my back; and I knew the drill well. They would lull us into some false sense of security, and then put a bullet through our heads. I could smell the stench of death and hopelessness everywhere. I could hardly swallow.
Once outside, the sentinel informed us that Sheila and I would no longer be able to sit together at meal time; adding that our meal-time laughter and secret conversations had begun to disturb the other Brownies. It was Genocide.
They reminded us that the idea of Brownie Camp was to make new friends; and they uttered these words with their Stepford Wife smiles as they threw me back into permanent isolation. I was an inmate with new found hatred in my heart.
On my last day of camp I marched myself into the office of the Camp Leader, and threw a poem I had penned on her desk. It was entitled, “Brownies are Fascist Pigs.” The Leader read over my poem, and promptly expelled me permanently from the Brownie Organization on the spot. It was D-Day at last. And I was free.
My mother never argued to have me re-instated.
I never became a Girl Scout.
I learned that day that the Pen was indeed mightier than the Sword. And I vowed that day to make writing work for me, forevermore. I know that if I don’t, I’ll never really be free.