A dinner to remember…

Two nights ago, Dave Knoepfle arrived at camp. 

Dave was a college friend of mine that I coaxed into coming to work at Nebagamon in 1987. (I know…you are all stunned that someone as young as me could have been in college in 1987. I don’t like to brag, but many of you may not be aware of the fact that I was a child prodigy…matriculating to college at the age of two.) Dave fell in love with all things Nebagamon and worked here for the next 12 consecutive summers. Virtually every winter, I get an email from Dave telling me that he is desperate to find a way to get back to camp that summer. That as much as he loves his other life, he yearns to get back to the Northwoods. This summer, to celebrate his 60th birthday, he finally figured it out!  Dave will be working as one of our drivers for the rest of the session. Like so many before him, Dave figured out a way to get back up to camp. He found the excuse to drink a few more sips of the bug juice…

Dave arrived during dinner yesterday and immediately made a bee-line for the Rec Hall to join us, and promptly posted up in a corner of the room to soak it all in.

There is something timeless about that building. When you take a look around the Rec Hall, you are flooded with the history of the place. The walls are literally covered with plaques and awards dating back to the 1930s. The campers (when they are not singing or engaged with a cabin mate or counselor) can often be seen just staring up at the walls and soaking it all in. If you ask any kid about the Survival Big Trip, they can tell you about the weather on the trip, the camper illnesses on the trip, and how far they traveled on that trip…in 1964. Many kids can tell you several winners of the Broken Racket Award, or who were the Captains in sailing for the past few decades. They know the names of many of the second generation campers, and virtually all of the third generation campers. That is what you do in the Rec Hall during the calm moments.  You look around…you soak it in…you get a real sense of the history of the place. I love watching them stare up at the walls. Perhaps the coolest part of that enjoyment comes from remembering when I was a boy doing the exact same thing…marveling at the amazing heroes that must have conquered all odds on that Survival Big Trip, looking longingly at the Broken Racket Award, and wondering if I would ever have a place in that Rec Hall. And then I remembered the half a century of campers that had preceded me in that Rec Hall…staring at the same walls…and daydreaming about those that had come before them…and how they would fit in. (For the record, despite my 39 years at Nebagamon, my name appears on a grand total of ZERO plaques! Woe is me!!!)

Without a doubt, the Rec Hall is as much of a shrine at camp as any of our most vaunted and spiritual places. Certainly, the Council Fire Ring, the Chuck Hirsh Shrine, and Lorber Point get a lot of press as those places. They are where we are at our spiritual best at camp. But the Rec Hall is the practical place where it all happens and it creates some of our most indelible memories.

Oh, and one other thing about that building, it is a seriously crazy place. It’s a building of incredible volume, table pounding, raucous singing, and…well…an entire boys’ camp…you get the idea! Without a doubt there are times when, as a camp director, I realize that my feeling that this is a group that we are in control of, is simply an illusion. I am certainly aware of the fact that at certain moments, all it would take would be for one kid to stand up on top of his table and yell “Let’s get ‘em!” and all would be lost. The entire staff and I would have our regime toppled, the administration replaced, and the statue of Paul Bunyan pulled down, Baghdad style, and it would be replaced with the effigy of a really dirty kid stomping on a KP tag. (And to think you thought no decent camp director would ever be uncouth enough to work an Iraq war joke into one of his updates!) The tenuous grip of control that we have over the group would be gone, and we would be begging to hold the conch shell just to get a word in from then on! (Look at that…geopolitics and fine literature all in one update…impressive, huh?)  But it never happens.  The illusion of our complete control remains intact, and the Rec Hall remains, as ever, that incredible hub of camp energy and spirit. It is the place where so many of our camp memories are created…and, without a doubt, the place where we are all the loudest that we will ever be allowed to be!

Saturday night in the Rec Hall was one of those nights…a night when I would have been tempted to just sit back and enjoy the kid show. I do so love that kid show every meal. But the better show on Saturday night was watching Dave. And he really wasn’t doing anything at all.  He just stood there silently…in the corner…with the most satisfied, exhilarated, excited, interested, amused, and emotional look on his face that one could ever possibly imagine. It is the very same look that I have seen come across the faces of dozens of alumni making their way back to camp and into that Rec Hall, after spending time away over the years. Home.

All is well in the North Woods…