An Empty Campground

An Empty Campground

When I was a director, I inspected the Jr Camp cabins to make sure that the trash was removed, lights and fans were off, and everything was in good condition. I freely admit this is an emotional time for me as I truly love the Alabama Junior Camp experience and an empty campsite is the final confirmation that camp, for the year, is over. As the cabin head, I pause to look at the now empty beds and say a prayer for the young men and my fellow counselors and specific struggles or needs they have. These are some observations from many years ago when our camp was at Children’s Harbor but reflects my sentiments each year..

As I close each cabin I can still see the campers and counselors whose presence fills this place. I see the bunks I occupied during various camps and remember scenes of those days. I look around and see the young boys and girls who have now become young men and ladies and am so very proud of them. In Lookout Inn, I visit the space of my first counselor bunk and the place I slept the year I had the whole cabin to myself. I see places throughout the campground where during summer and winter I was blessed to talk, pray, cry, and laugh with people who are so dear to me. I feel blessed to have such good friends and experiences. Yes George Bailey, I’ve had a wonderful life.

The sun glistens on the empty pool where we played dunk the counselor (adding zombie rules) and other fun games. Even on that bright morning I could still see the shadows of a couple standing in the middle of a dark calm pool where souls were won for Christ. I can see myself walking out with a new young brother or sister in Christ, singing a song of celebration to this wonderful event and praying in a circle of love and strength for their lifelong journey.

Even during Winter Camp and the cold wind is blowing off the lake, I can still see the young people in line for the galley, swinging in the playground, on the volleyball and basketball courts, or talking in the amphitheater as I walk around the deserted campground. I do a quick mental calculation to see how long I must wait until they will return to this special place.

I stand on the empty dock where the boys and I enjoyed midnight swims. The canoes are resting on their racks from a busy week. I visit the places on the lake where souls were joined to Christ or where I had uplifting conversations with special people. It is not the place, you see, it is the people I can connect to these places. When I come back to the places I feel their presence but it is bittersweet because I am here and they are not.

Precious young people, the traces you leave on our hearts and lives bring us joy and peace. We cry when we know you are in sorrow and want to help you through your difficult times. We rejoice at your achievements and your courage to do the right thing. We recognize the sacred gift of taking us into your heart and allowing us to be part of your world.

Loving counselors and staff, there are few like you in the world who can bring love, compassion, wisdom, and genuine playfulness with such apparent ease. We share a special bond because we share special goals and have worked together for such a wonderful purpose. Your friendship makes me a wealthy man.

Why does my heart ache when camp is over? I have spent a week with some of the best people on God’s earth (young and old) enjoying fun activities and life changing moments immersed in the love and knowledge of God. Cynics snidely chide, “camp is not reality.” If that claim is true I would like to change my reality, please. It is reality – do not let anyone tell you otherwise – though it’s life is so very brief. The “very good” creation was spoiled by evil but the fellowship and love of godly people supporting each other, in whatever setting, is a taste of what we lost and what shall be reclaimed on the last day.

As I stand in Mariner’s Hall, now empty, my memory refills the room. I hear “Good Morning Campers” from my lovely wife’s voice and their enthusiastic reply. I hear society chants and squeals of joy. I hear you sing “Light the Fire” and tears fill my eyes. Then I hear only silence broken by the waves crashing on the lake outside. “Next year,” I pray, “God, please let me come back next year.”

How the Minor League Revived My Love for Baseball

How the Minor League Revived My Love for Baseball

The unthinkable happened. I turned my back on baseball.

I never played baseball. Spending every afternoon and Saturday at the local park playing organized ball had no appeal. I was, however, a devoted Dodger fan, collecting baseball cards and watching games while doing homework. I even learned to hate the Yankees who spoiled so many of our championship dreams. On a trip to California in 1985, I  finally watched a game in Dodger Stadium while eating a Dodger dog,

My youthful idealism was spoiled and my faith in the game lost. Rumors of performance enhancing drugs circulated but it seemed few cared if it brought viewers. Through the 80’s and 90’s, animosity between owners and players flared up into occasional player strikes or threats of lockouts. Soon the commissioner, players, owners and congress were arguing and accusing. Like a kid who leaves home to escape fighting parents, I just walked away from the game.

Like a lukewarm parent taking the kids to church because they need religion, I took my young children to see the Birmingham Barons at the Hoover Met. I explained the game to my son and enjoyed the family memories, but I didn’t feel that old passion. Was it betrayal? The loss of innocence? Was it just a childish fad?

Regions Field rose in the heart of Birmingham but a couple of seasons passed I attended a game, invited by our bank to their corporate box. Last season, my wife and I had free tickets and sat along left field in the cool April evening. Something stirred. I noticed something I’d missed for a long time.

There is a magic to minor league ball. Our team, the Birmingham Barons, are low on the Chicago White Sox farm system. Championships, which the Barons have won, are not the goal; it is player development. We are a stepping stone to the “bigs” or a trip down for those needing help. When you sense your place in the world, and are content with it, your perspective changes. Players, coaches, and fans are competitive. We want to win. It’s part of the game. But in the minor leagues, winning must yield to the greater good.

Barons_edited2Here the love of the game is on display in its purity. Young men hope to be hero for a night until they are called up to the majors. Neighborhood kids take the field with the players before the game. Autographs are freely given. Players joke with fans over the fence on a cool humid night as the smell of hot dogs and popcorn waft along a gentle breeze. The crack of a bat breaks monotony of the traffic humming downtown.

I came back often, sometimes alone when my family had other plans, and felt both ten year-old excitement and fifty year-old contentment. I would listen to the sonorous Curt Bloom bringing the game to life on the radio on nights when I could not attend. The game at all levels, from the minor league parks to major league palaces, and its rich history again stirred my heart.

Few American institutions can escape blind competition and monetary temptation. Owners and players can allow business to intrude on the game but cynicism can blind fans to baseball’s existential joy. I’d love the Barons to win games and hang championship pennants, but my greater love is a grandstand filled with laughing families, old men keeping box scores, and kids with gloves hoping for a foul ball enjoying this one night. I accepted professional baseball with its weaknesses. I could see its beauty in imperfection that I missed with youthful idealistic eyes. I even loathed the Yankees again.

The last night of the closing series, as the crowds filtered out of the stadium, I lingered then slowly walked to the third base gate. I paused before exiting, turning back for one last look at the lush green outfield framed with city lights. Baseball was as beautiful as I’d always remembered. Though I would miss her over the winter, in the spring I would return. I had come home.

The Last Bike Ride of Summer

Nature and childrenWhen I was growing up, school started on a normal schedule. School ended in May and didn’t resume until the Tuesday after Labor Day. Labor Day was the last day of summer. Now the scientist and weatherman will tell you that summer doesn’t end until late September, but when the school-bell rang that Tuesday morning, as a kid, you knew summer was over. It was always hard looking out the window that first week of school at the bright sun in the trees knowing that you should still be having adventures. During winter, when the leaves were off the trees, the sun hidden behind an endless gray sky, and bitter cold surrounding you, school could almost be a relief. But those first weeks of school extinguished freedom in the sun.

That last Monday, Labor Day, was the last day of freedom for a young man. The day before I entered high school was a particularly warm and humid day. Such days are not uncommon in the South when the heavy air seems to weigh you down in midday and the lazy song of the grasshoppers drone on your tired ears. My prize possession was an off-road bike. On its knobby wheels and spring shock absorbing frame, I would ride through the neighborhood and woods that surrounded it with my friends. We would make trails through the woods from road’s end that took nearly a summer to construct. My older sisters and their friends built the first trails that we took a duty to maintain, not out of tribute to them but for our own enjoyment.

I remember a particular bike ride.  I stopped to look around being hit with the knowledge that I had school tomorrow and this would be my last midday midweek ride for a long time. I felt as if something were being taken from me. Like a man who knows that he is about to be sent off to a far country for work or war and wants to savor the feeling and sense of the place. I wanted to remember the sun on my face and the smell of cut grass. I wanted to remember the freedom before I assumed my seat and read, wrote, and did what society deemed a young boy should do.

Although I could ride my bike on the weekend when chores were done and homework finished, it was more of a reward than the everyday pleasure of summer. Realizing this was the last day of summer I rode as if I was recording the feeling and sights around me. Leaving the pavement I descended into the woods on the trail leading to the old logging road. I didn’t fear wild animals, which mostly consisted of squirrels, rabbits, and rarely a snake. Although one time I was sure that I saw a black panther across the logging road as I came near the end of the trail one day. His eyes caught mine and he stopped in mid-stride. I froze in place as well. My mind was racing, Did panthers come this far north into Alabama? Were my eyes deceiving me? Could it be a dog. Yet it seemed like I heard a low purring growl like the tigers on the nature documentaries and at the zoo. It was a low guttural droning sound. But he must have been as alarmed and frightened by me as I was of him, because I turned to dart back down the trail hoping to outrun him, and he darted back down the way he came just as quickly. As time passed I considered it was an overactive imagination, bad vision, or truly a scared panther but it didn’t stop me from going into the woods. Though I did scan a little farther up the trail when I traveled in the future.

The woods surrounding our neighborhood were a youth explorers delight. A the edge of the neighborhood behind ours was an old dirt logging road carving through the woods to the power lines. From there you could go down a trail to the right and catch tiny fish in a small stream. The stream was narrow but deep and cut along the bottom of the hill. Walking down to the left you came to Five Mile Creek. It was a mostly shallow stream, several feet in most places, but there were a few places large enough to wade in on a hot summer day. There was one place, under a tree overhanging the creek where you could catch some small bream. One summer some of the boys and I were able to catch fish on bare hooks. As soon as they hit the water the small fish would bite the hook. Occasionally you would catch some worth eating but most of the fish were too small to fool with.

On this day I rode back to the edge of the woods and down to Five Mile Creek. There was a road along side of it, rarely used because it was blocked near the main road, though older kids going drinking in the woods or hunters would occasionally drive through. I rode along the road occasionally stopping a places that I spent during the summer. I climbed upon “Big Rock”, an imposing bolder that sat at the edge of the creek where we would climb and sit or lay in the sun talking about nothing.

I had to push or carry my bike up the walking trail that went from the back of our neighborhood to the creek. It came up behind someone’s house who didn’t know or care about the kids who would emerge from the woods to return to the neighborhood. We never were destructive so if they did see us, they knew we meant no harm. Having said the summer places good-bye, I rode leisurely through the neighborhood just enjoying the last hours of freedom before school the next day.

I didn’t know at the time that it was almost like a final tribute to the places of youth. When you start high school and begin to put off childish things, the bike rides and lazy summer days do not seem so important. We got cable so I was watching MTV and other programs that caught my interest. My friends were older too and cared little for games of our youth. The bike might come out occasionally but it was to get to a friend’s house quicker or to visit someone farther away. The bike became transportation, not a source of adventure. And when I got a car, the bike became a dust collector and was eventually given to some other kid or left by the donation box at the Goodwill or King’s Ranch.

I wonder if some sense of this drove me to explore my childhood haunts that day. Did my “self” from the future get a message to me to visit and savor these places? Did I get a message that I needed to say good-bye? Is that why I see myself sitting on my bike from outside, because I was able to reach across the past and tell him to seize the day?

I’ve sat in boring meetings in a conference room on summer days, my mind drifting. Looking out the window as the project manager and others droned on I saw the bright sun in the trees and wished to have a bicycle and ride across the neighborhood one more time. Not riding as a middle-aged man huffing and puffing up the hill but as fresh young man, ready to enter his teenage years, laughing with his friends and feeling the sun on his face.