Cottage Cheese and Jesus

Gloria got excited by cottage cheese. She’d go into absolutely spasms of ecstasy over green beans, and tapioca pudding sent her eyelids fluttering in wild flights of delight. When she’d stand up at morning devotions and announce the camp lunch menu for the day it seemed like a sort of gastronomic Second Coming.

Church camp, circa 1959, Wheaton Illinois, sponsored by the Rural Bible

Crusade, a mainly Baptist organization intent on bringing the scriptures to the youth of the rural farmland and I was one of them. If you memorized a hundred verses you got a bookmark, 200 got you your own personal Bible with the words of Christ in red ink, and 500 verses bought you a week at church camp. I bit. I memorized. I went.

Gloria was our camp social director who had earned her well-toned muscles as a cheerleader at some Arkansas college. Most cheerleaders grow up and become accountants or physical therapists. Gloria stayed a cheerleader. She could make an hour spent making leather bookmarks sound like a trip to Disneyland. “Hey boys and girls! Is this a great day or what? And do you know why? Because God made it and God doesn’t make mistakes!” God had obviously never bumped into my bunkmate Skip. Skip was a Presbyterian whose parents had sent him to this bastion of Baptistery for his rehabilitation. They sent him for therapy but he came for one thing: the girls.

So the battle lines between Gloria and Skip were drawn clearly on the first day of camp when he asked her why the girls weren’t allowed to wear two-piece swimming suits. She directed him to the book of Deuteronomy. I’m not sure why because he never got there and so he couldn’t tell me which wrath of God would result in gazing too long at adolescent female tan lines. Skip would do hilarious imitations of Gloria after lights out each night. “Hey boys and girls! Are we ready to study the book of Exodus where Charlton Heston where he leads 2,000 Hollywood extras across the Arizona desert? And say . . . what about that wonderful bread pudding we had for supper? Was that just absolutely yummy or what?” Then Skip would stick socks inside the chest of his tee-shirt and jump up and down singing, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!” By the time he’d stopped jumping his joy had slipped and fallen out onto the floor.

Gloria wasn’t the only eccentric Pentecostal on staff at RBC Wheaton. The camp director was Uncle Ernie, a short little Italian dynamo who was everybody’s and nobody’s uncle. This little spitfire of a preacher was of the fire and brimstone school of salvation and each night we came to the altar for only one reason: God was going to pour burning coals into the underwear of anyone who stayed in his seat. Uncle Ernie didn’t mince words, you complied or you died. Although it may sound a bit drastic now, that sort of black and white thinking clarified things in a ten-year-old’s mind. Baptists believe once saved always saved but I was Presbyterian and wasn’t taking any chances.

The third member of our adult staff was Miss Beer, an elderly lady with a soft voice and an unfortunate last name for a Baptist Bible School teacher. Miss Beer would sit our group in a circle on the grass of the Redemption Softball Field, and quietly explain such weighty matters as the atonement for sin, the purpose of grace, and why boys who look at girls wearing two piece swim suits will suffer the seven plagues of Egypt. She’d been at this long enough that she knew better than to ask for questions at the end of each lesson.

The only other adult I can remember at RBC Camp was Sister Neil, the nun. I never thought to ask at the time since at age ten I assumed that nuns could belong to any denomination, but now I’m confused at why a Catholic nun was chosen as head cook at a Baptist church camp. Was she doing penance? Maybe she knew the secret to serving cottage cheese seven different ways to complete the week of camp. I wish I had asked her at the time but I was afraid to speak to her, not knowing whether Catholics spoke English.

It’s camp time again and all over the nation the various church groups are gearing up for another season of hotdogs, mosquitos, campfires, sunburns and adolescent hormones. These camps rely heavily on prayer and if you need a specific focus for your supplications, pray for the staff. Chances are good that they’ll be facing little campers like me.

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