Air-Conditioned Senior Summer Camp

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Photos by Faith Tyldsley

Bengt Wennberg and Patty Kovaleski playing ladderball.

When was the last time you went to camp?

If you are of a certain age, it was more than a half century ago. My memories are of Camp Sakejawea, a Girl Scout Camp in upstate New York where we slept in log cabins, swam in a lake, ate meals on trestle tables in a cavernous knotty-pine hall, and raised and lowered the flag each day. And yes, there were campfires with s’mores, crafts involving lanyards, macrame and shells, and a skit night.

One day this past May my friend Patty asked, “Would you like to go to camp?” She was a new friend and I fleetingly questioned our compatibility. Wanting to be open-minded, I checked out Camp CONNRI in Ashford. According to the information from Granby’s Senior Center, the four-day experience would include all the iconic camp activities. Upon reflection, it sounded like a do-able adventure, though I wondered about the food, who my fellow campers would be, and whether a summer heat wave might make the experience intolerable. In the end, the clincher was the mention of air-conditioned accommodations. 

A 45-minute drive led to 28 Happy Hill Lane, Ashford, where the Salvation Army has offered camping adventures to both children and adults since the 1970s. Stone pillars marked the beginning of a gradually descending curved drive. Before us lay a picture-postcard view of various sized buildings, sports fields, tents, docks and roped-off swimming areas. It was an idyllic camp scene: 272 acres of heavily wooded hills overlooking a 50-acre lake. Under the guidance of Major Constance J. Higgins, “Major Connie” for short, we and 29 other campers spent four days with freedom to choose from a smorgasbord of tried-and-true camp activities. We shared a room much like those in any standard hotel chain: two beds, ample bathroom, and a large dresser. And yes, an air-conditioner.

The Salvation Army (established in 1865 by William Booth in England) is known principally for its red kettles at Christmas time and its used clothing and furniture thrift stores. What is not always known is that the Salvation Army is a church, a denomination with a strong emphasis on social service. Churches are called corps and there are nearly 14,000 congregations world-wide. Church members are either soldiers or adherents. Soldiers accept the strict discipline of the denomination, are eligible to wear the uniform and can hold office. Adherents choose the Salvation Army as their church home but opt out of the more stringent requirements of soldiership, those being restraint from the use of alcohol, tobacco, non-medical use of addictive drugs as well as abstinence from gambling, pornography and the occult.

Fifteen of our group were part of a Salvation Army program which aids seniors who may be unable to access such an experience on their own. Due to varying life challenges, these seniors may live in sheltered environments. Adult camp is offered for six weekly sessions, and many of the participants we met return each summer to enjoy this retreat into the countryside. Several other campers identified as soldiers spoke openly about their spiritual beliefs.   

Patty Kovaleski gets her heart’s desire: a s’more.

Upon arrival, each camper received a small booklet which laid out daily activities by the hour. Campfire was the first night’s activity and the one that Patty had most anticipated because she loves s’mores. Each morning was a “stretch/walk”, led by Major Connie, followed by flag-raising. Devotions followed breakfast. Bocce ball, corn hole, ladder ball and shuffleboard were always available right outside our building.  A DJ led a very lively dance party the next night. (Patty and I opted out to play Canasta instead.) A pontoon boat ride on the lake, crafts, and auction (participants were asked to bring an item, proceeds to go to supporting camp activities) followed on the third day. 

Food was served cafeteria style in a large dining hall with many tables of varying sizes.  Early on, Patty had recognized Ginger Wennberg, a woman she knew from the Senior Center in Granby. We ate many of our meals with Ginger and her husband, Bengt. He was very athletic and beat Patty and me at Bocce, and then trounced us at Ladder Ball as well. Ginger was recovering from knee surgery and had brought needlework but never did get to it: “…too relaxed to do anything,” she murmured at lunch one day. 

The last night was the talent show, which clearly vied with the dance party as the campers’ favorite event. Five minutes was allotted for performances, but enthusiasm was such that several acts had to be curtailed. Major Connie utilized an effective (but kindly) method to terminate acts; she set her stopwatch for five minutes and would simply start clapping as time ran out. The audience joined in the clapping, effectively bringing that act to a close. Patty recited a love poem she had written to her husband and I read a chapter from the children’s book I am writing. One gentleman spoke on The Wonderful World of Birds, focusing on crows and eagles in engrossing detail; another camper’s topic was America, Now and Forever. Both speakers’ discourses were curtailed by the clapping technique. 

One stand-up comedian presented a hilarious routine imitating George Carlin’s famous riffs on the English language and its idiosyncrasies “What does it mean to preboard? Do you get on before you get on?”Another sang several Judy Collins’ songs a cappella. The show concluded with a sing-along from the Salvation Army Songbook, closing with Amazing Grace.

It has been said, “You can’t go back.”  Yet Patty and I did return to a time reminiscent of childhood days of toasted-marshmallow and lakeside glory — and, oh yes, there was air-conditioning.