The 4th of July at the camp I attended as a kid always meant a Pioneer Meet. Nowadays, in my classroom, I hear from kids who go to sleepaway camp that they call them “color wars.” I wonder if some camps are thinking of rebranding that event. I never thought of the Pioneer Meet as a war, though it involved competition, for sure.
Three events from those days stand out in my mind. The first was the human pyramid. I loved that event. Nowadays, I would say the reason was that it was a team event that involved kids of all sizes. We had teams of six kids, and they had to race in sync to a line about 30 yards away. Then, the three largest kids threw themselves on their knees in a tight line, side by side. Once they were firmly planted (in about half a second), the next two, medium-sized kids put their knees on the backs of those three large kids. The lucky middle guy got two knees on his back. It was okay. He was big and sturdy. Finally, the lightest kid, timing things just right, planted one foot on Lucky Man’s backside, and then his knees on the backs of the middle row. Once in place on top of the pyramid, Little Guy took his bandanna out of his mouth and waved it frantically in the air for the judges to see before, inevitably, the pyramid collapsed, again, mostly onto the back of Lucky Man.
I loved the teamwork. I loved the practice as we learned to run in formation. I loved the strategy,like the locked arms of the bottom row and the small gap left for the top guy’s first footstep. I loved the timing and the coordination. I loved the sense that every size mattered. I also have to admit that I loved that for the first two years of my camp life, I was the lucky little guy who got to climb the human mountain, wave the bandana (usually a great photo op), and then fall on top of the pile of people. I realize now, that I wasn’t really the hero of that event. I stood on the top, triumphant, because the bigger and the stronger supported me.
The second event I loved also combined teamwork and a remote possibility of glory. We called it the Pony Express, though there were no horses involved (or it would definitely not have been my favorite). It was essentially a long baton relay race that started at the girl’s camp about two miles down the road. We had 8 kids on a team, four from the junior section and four from the senior section. Spaced evenly over the trails and dirt roads that connected the camps, each kid waited his turn to carry the mail (baton). Each kid shared a piece of the responsibility. The last leg was usually run by one of the oldest kids in camp, who, if his team happened to be leading, got to race that last stretch of dirt road and glide through the toilet paper finish line with the whole rest of the camp cheering (well, at least half of them).
But the best event in my mind was the one that finished the whole competition. It involved every kid in camp, and it actually had some functional significance. All of the cabins at our camp were made from that seemingly unlimited Adirondack resource, the pine tree. The cabins were beautifully simple and sturdy, but we also knew that no cabin in the camp was a match for a sudden fire. In those remote parts, fire departments probably wouldn’t reach you in time. The camp had to have its own way of extinguishing a fire. The lake provided a large amount of water, but it wasn’t so easy to bring the lake to the flames. So, everyone needed to know how to transform 100 individuals into a giant human conveyor belt. This was known as the Bucket Brigade. For the Pioneer Meet, we turned it into a competition, but always, Pete, the head of our camp, told us why we practiced it, and he reminded us that it symbolized something bigger, an act of community, one that involved every individual working as part of a group, chipping in to save the lodge, to save something we all loved.
Our camp’s main lodge stood toward the top of a fairly long and steep hill. Divided into two teams, we spread out along the two main trails that led up from the lake. Each team had fifteen fire buckets laid out on the dock and one person who served as the dipper. That person stood waist deep in the swim section of the lake. On the word “Fire!” he filled the first bucket and handed it up to the next person in line. Then each person on the team had to pass that bucket, quickly, but carefully, up the long line toward the top of the hill. The buckets were heavy on the way up the hill. The younger kids could barely carry the bucket, much less keep it from spilling. The first bucket was followed by a second, and a third, and so on. As each bucket got to the top of the hill, a counselor had to determine that it was at least ¾ full before the lucky captain, standing on a ladder, got to hurl the water onto the roof of the lodge. After that splash, the empty bucket made a return trip to the lake, touching each camper on the way down. We had to finish two cycles of fifteen. If a bucket spilled, that meant another one needed to make the journey to replace it.
I have no real memories of who won these competitions from year to year. I know it mattered in the moment. What stood out to me, and what has stuck in my memory, was the sense of a motley group of kids who, only a few days into the summer, transformed into a machine, a bucket-hefting, muscle-straining, teammate-cheering water-moving, fire-dousing, lodge-saving machine. There was no individual glory, but we had glorious spirit.
I was thinking about that spirit on this 4th of July, the first summer in 100 years that my beloved old camp stood silent, its grand old lodge, empty. I found myself wishing our country of rugged individuals and pioneers could figure out a way to run in sync, kneel for each other, carry the baton, share the load, and work as one, all for that greater good. There’s glory in that.