Somewhere in the middle of George Washington National Forest, on the 11th morning of their collective discomfort, the 19 girls of the Spotswood unit at Girl Scout Camp May Flather were gripped by a fierce nostalgia.
"Television," sighed Kendra Velonis, 12.
"McDonald's," said Susan Cordaro, 11.
"Flush toilets," said a third.
Seditious thoughts, and familiar. Fourteen years before, I, too, had been deposited with a new flannel sleeping bag in these same woods, three bus hours from the Washington suburbs, civilization as I knew it. It looked the same.
Cold taps, latrines, mosquitoes--present and accounted for. Food so bland that something called a banana boat--a melted mess of banana, chocolate, marshmallow and cinammon encased in foil and roasted on coals, a combination unthinkable in civilian life--still tastes good. Off! bug repellant is still the cologne of choice. Radios verboten. No television either. In the sleeping bag by dark, up by seven. Scrub the latrines.
It was all coming back to me. How had my parents talked me into it?
And why were so many little girls still signing up? Was it parental instransigence? Ignorance? Masochism?
Of course not. They come, by the hundreds, for fun. And they get it despite, or perhaps because of, dishwashing, trash sweeping and other daily chores. They confess to enjoyment only on the last day of camp, when they weep at the thought of departure.
Let other camps boast of Jacuzzis for junior and computer classes for the clever, Girl Scout camp--at least here at May Flather--remains no frills and proud of it. Back to basics. You and your flashlight against the night.
This time around I was assigned the Strawberry Cottage in Spotswood unit, one of five similar encampments. Sun splintered the treetops high above; the air was cool and sweet. Farthest from the counselors' cabin and stumbling distance from the latrines, my cabin had tree trunks for beams and roll-up canvas walls. It also had the virtue of being empty. Even the wasps' nests had been abandoned.
"It leaks," a little girl explained cheerfully as I moved in. "We were in there in the beginning but it leaked all over our sleeping bags."
May Flather, named for the Virginia matron who gave the funds for its cavernous stone lodge, was founded in 1930 in the belief that all girls will thrive on two weeks of mountain air and responsibility. A faded photograph of Flather herself, in full scout regalia, still gazes over the dining hall.
The hot showers are new. The camp's once all-white, suburban ranks have expanded; corn rows and Farrah Fawcett tresses alternate in the dining hall. Campers wash their own dishes, but there is a machine that sterilizes the dishes afterward. "You don't send your daughter to camp to do dishes," said Linda Abbott, camp administrator.
And specialization has come to Girl Scouts. There are camp units for cheerleading, mountaineering, photography, even aerobics. "Specialty units are the future," said Mary Ellen Frank, camp director. "Our society is such that kids get involved in one thing."
The regimen has been relaxed. Chores, or capers as they are known here, may now be delayed until early afternoon.
Even in the brave new forest, however, Girl Scout camp is Girl Scout camp, and so must answer to a higher authority. The Girl Scout Laws have been rewritten to soften once teutonic verses about obeying orders. But "to protect and improve the world around me. . . to show respect for myself and for others. To be honest, to be fair, to help where I am needed" are still the credo.
"The old ways are good ways," said Frank, who camped here as a child years before. "Camp should bring them back to what's important. Getting along with each other and helping each other."
It is up to the counselors to wake their charges, and at Spotswood reveille is bawled every morning at about 7 by one of their three counselors, known to campers as Sterling, Angel and Squid. They, in turn, refer to their charges as ladies. As in, "Ladies, I said get up!" By 7:15 most mornings at Spotswood, a crescendo of yelps signaled that Kendra Velonis, 12, had begun combing her hair.
Hair and what to wear: after mail and meals they were the subjects most avidly discussed. Camp chic has changed in 14 years. The Spotswood 19 brought matching velour warm-up suits, petal-pink windbreakers and designer sneakers. Amy Kreps, 10, of Reston, packed a butane-powered camper hair-curling wand. "To curl my bangs," she explained. Most girls had combs or brushes peeking out of their back pockets. Some brought makeup and nail polish. They knew a lot about diets. "I was on the Scarsdale diet," 11-year-old Heather Smith said as she scrubbed a pot after cookout during the second week of camp.
"They are more pampered," said director Frank, who has a Girl Scout troop, and a sixth grade class to teach back in Prince George's County. "They've grown up with more modern conveniences, there are more microwaves, momma does more for them."
For some of the Bloomingdales' generation, May Flather is the first, and perhaps the last time they will be encouraged to turn their backs on a world that tells them to look like Brooke Shields and instead be bold, be loud, be grubby.
However briefly. "My mom said to me that you don't have to look nice at camp, because no one's there to admire you," said Marie Guilbeau, 11, of Wheaton.
All paths at camp lead to the dining hall, and by 7:25 a.m. Spotswood's campers are on their way, marching two-by-two in buddy formation to face whatever the cook has prepared. Marching and shouting. Campers make noise wherever they go. A few summers ago two counselors, ROTC veterans, introduced military marching songs that have become part of camp life: My old lady's 91! She does push ups just for fun! My old lady's 92! She does push ups better than you!
"I never understand what they're saying up there at the front," said pint-size Shanona McKay, bringing up the rear as the chorus launched into a another ditty.
Flag ceremony is at 7:30. Breakfast at 7:45. Seven girls and one counselor to a table. The counselors spend 9 weeks and 6 days, in varying humor, at camp each summer. By mid-August all humor about the cooks' abilities has vanished.
"Now girls," a waterfront counselor named Podunk told her table one morning in ominous tones that halted milk cartons in mid-air. "I like you all very much. But if you say anything negative about this breakfast you are coming down to the pool and scrub canoes." Everyone agreed that the oatmeal was particularly tasty that morning.
Meals are taken en masse. Sometimes it is like eating in a beer hall. At quieter times it is like dining with a tableful of Emily Posts. "Are you flying?" demanded one counselor to a girl at her table with arms akimbo in an attempt to engage a slab of turkey roll.
"The counselor starts the food around," a small, bespectacled face said as I reached for the rice one evening. "Elbows off the table," she said later as the dishes were being cleared.
Camp turns children into celebrities; i.e., people who expect mail but rarely answer it. "Don't worry if you do not hear from you daughter for several days," a pamphlet counsels parents. "Occasionally. . . a child is so busy having a good time that she forgets to write." Parents are told to write. "Even if you don't have much to say, be positive and keep it cheerful. (If a pet dog misses his owner and won't eat, don't say so.)"
Mail is distributed by counselors after lunch, by which time campers have sung more songs, tromped up to their cabins and settled in for an hour of what used to be known as rest, but what is now called "Me Time." Some girls get letters every day, and some don't.
"If I get some mail it will be a miracle," said Keesha Brown, 10, of Washington. "My momma works at night and she sleeps during the day."
"I've gotten 11 or 12 letters," said Erica Gardner, 10, of Springfield. "I get most from my Mom and Dad, some from my sister and one from my cat."
In two weeks most campers at May Flather manage one "wilderness overnight," (Spotswood bivouacked on a stone camper court in the national forest), a few cookouts, a nine-mile bicycle ride, swimming, hiking and fire-making. "Some of them come and do things they've never done before," said Frank.
And in between doing the never-done-before, there is the undesirable: latrine-scrubbing, tent-sweeping, campfire-cleaning. "It's work, it doesn't hurt them," said Frank. "It gives them a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of responsibility. If I took my class out here for two weeks, boy would you see a difference in the way they treat each other."
Two days before departure, many Spotswood girls had their bags packed, but the seeds of nostalgia were sprouting. By Friday they were walking around arm in arm, and their already-superhuman appetite for the song "Leaving on a Jet Plane" was growing. They cried when they burned their ceremonial "wish log."
Groaning and complaining had ceased. Complain about chores? Bad food? Us? They cried for their new friends, they cried for their new selves. "See, at home not very many people like me, but here, a lot of people did," sobbed Michelle Guilbeau, clinging to her buddy Amy Kreps.
Shellicia Bell, 11, of Washington was dry-eyed. "I only cry when I get in trouble," she said.
And everyone at camp does a little of that. At 11 p.m., the last night in camp, I was reading by failing flashlight when the cabin's canvas wall parted. A light shone in my face. "Lights out!" thundered an unfamiliar male voice. Someone from the kitchen staff. My sleeping bag felt large. I was 11 again. "What?" I peeped.
"Turn that light out!" the voice boomed. I squinted into the light.
"You know the rules: Lights out!"
It wasn't such a great book, anyway.