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Camp Chaparral

Summer camp a forgiving place to grow

I guess that having a baby has made me old, or at least old-fashioned, because I find myself wondering how my daughter will be safe growing up in today’s world, with its Internet, violence on TV, youngsters wearing less and less, and other equally disturbing trends. But I’m certain my parents wondered the same thing about me. Luckily, they sent me to camp.

Camp Chaparral in Christine, Texas, to be exact. It was a small camp that taught horseback riding and Christian values in the midst of the brush country of South Texas. Near Jourdanton, Christine was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town back then, with only a few buildings standing near the turnoff to the camp.

I spent three summers there when I was a preteen—not full summers, just a couple of weeks each time—but those weeks hold so many memories that they’ve elongated to fill those hot Texas summers. There are fun memories, of course, of riding the cloverleaf of a barrel race or learning to crochet, but also memories that still make me wince with the ignorant poignancy that is the hallmark of that age.

When I was 12, one of my cabin mates was a Houstonian, a sophisticated girl with large blue eyes and tumbling blonde hair. Although I was from San Antonio myself, I felt inferior to her and her big-city ways. For instance, she shaved her legs and wore makeup. Oh, how I wanted to also, though my mother had clearly established that there would be no leg-shaving or makeup-wearing prior to my turning 13.

By the middle of my stay, I could no longer stand the feel of my fuzzy legs. I knew that I simply must shave them, or I’d just die. Having such strong emotions about it, I considered, probably meant that I was old enough to shave them, no matter what my mother thought. And so, emboldened by my sense of righteousness for my cause—and the giddy thrill of a few weeks “sans parent”—I decided to go to the camp store and purchase a razor to use myself.

Betty Seifert, co-owner of the camp with her husband, Cotton, was working the counter, where you could also buy ice cream bars, suntan lotion, combs and other notions. I asked her for a razor, please, with all the chutzpah I could muster. She replied, “Should we call your mother and see if that’s all right with her?” Hot shame crept up my neck, into my cheeks and over my forehead. I left without another word.

To my surprise, Betty didn’t tell my mother, nor did she treat me any differently afterward. I’m sure to her it was no big deal—she dealt with loads of preteens every summer and knew exactly how to let one know when she’d reached the edge of her boundaries.

But for me, it was pivotal. I realized that even at camp, far from home, I would not be allowed to run headlong into maturity. That these things take time, that infinite tiny calculations are needed to determine when I would be ready for the next step, and that I wasn’t in charge of all of those. Someone was always going to be there to gently guide me toward the right path, and that person would usually be … an adult.

Camp Chaparral was like any other summer camp. We had hayrides and sing-alongs around the campfire. We swam, rode horses and whispered from bunk to bunk after lights-out. And just like other kids, my time at camp was a crucible each summer, learning to make my way in the world without my parents along for every step. I even had my first “boyfriend” at camp (well, we held hands).

As a grown-up—and parent—myself now, what I appreciate most about camp is that it was a forgiving place to make mistakes. I wouldn’t see those people again until next summer, with a whole year in between to grow.

Camp Chaparral, served by Karnes Electric Cooperative, no longer operates as a summer camp.

Shannon Oelrich is the food editor for Texas Co-op Power.