Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota

My First Camp Experience

My First Camp Experience

On the eastern side of Sioux Falls, just blocks from where I currently live, sits Leif Ericson day camp. Nestled next to the Sioux River on the south side of 26th street, it stretches for nearly a mile through a wooded area but it’s only a couple hundred yards wide.

This camp, named after the famed Nordic explorer, is run by the YMCA. It boasts of being the largest day camp in the United States located within a city. I’m not sure how long it has held this honor and suspect that it inherited the title after land values in other urban cities rose to the level where their camps found it equitable to sell their land and relocate to a more suburban environment.

The camp was founded in 1966. At the time it was built, the location was on the east edge of town with very little development completed further to the east and south. 26th street itself had recently been extended over interstate 229 via a bridge, where previously it had terminated at Frederick Drive. In fact, interstate 229 had only been in existence four years prior, being completed in 1962.

Myself, having moved to Sioux Falls in 1971 at the age of two, I obviously didn't know of the camp before this time. I remember seeing the camp as a young child when we drove by. It was hard to miss, as alongside the road was a huge tower with the camp's name on top. The tower must've roughly been 60 feet high, and about 20 feet up was a platform with a ladder suspended from one side on which children could use to ascend and descend. It looked like a magical place, based on that tower alone.

Towards the end of my kindergarten year (I almost wrote "my first year of kindergarten" which would have been misleading as, to the surprise of my detractors, I managed to successfully complete kindergarten with a single attempt) I remember a spokesperson from the YMCA coming to my class and talking about the camp. He handed out brochures for Leif Ericson to take home to our parents, which had the necessary information needed to sign us up for a two-week long summer session.

Leif Ericson Day Camp.

Hearing about all the exciting things that were offered at Leif Ericson like BB guns, archery, horseback riding and crafts, I naturally wanted to attend. I brought the brochure home to my parents and pleaded with them to let me go. I suspect the only thing I had to mention was "two weeks during the summer" and they agreed, knowing that keeping me occupied for two full weeks was worth any expense.

Speaking of expense, I really don't know how much the camp fees cost. This would have been the summer of 1975, during which time my father was unemployed and was working part-time at about three different jobs to make ends meet. I know we didn't have much money available, so the cost couldn't have been too significant. A few years ago I asked my dad if he remembers how much camp registration was, and he didn’t. However, he did agree with me that it couldn't have been too expensive; otherwise he wouldn't have been able to afford to send me.

Fast forward to current times, I've investigated what it would cost to send my son to Leif Ericson and the price has risen dramatically. Currently it is nearly $300 for a two-week day camp session. Figuring 5% annual inflation, that meant that the camp registration in 1975 would have been in the $50 range. It was probably less than that considering our financial situation and that I was able to attend.

So, my parents signed me up. My first year of school ended and summer arrived. Early in the summer, camp started.

I seem to remember the Sunday evening before the first day of camp, there was an orientation session with the first-year parents to explain how everything would work. The camp would send buses out in the morning, and each bus would stop at certain schools at designated times to pick up the campers. The buses would bring the kids to camp, where the campers would spend the day. Lunch was provided at the camp. At the end of the day the campers would climb back into the buses which would then take them to the YMCA downtown for an hour of swimming in the pool. Once swimming was over, the buses would return the campers to the school at which they were picked up.

The biggest thing I remember about this orientation session was that as soon as I arrived, the parents sat down with the camp staff and we kids could play for a while. The very first thing every camper did was run to the tower by the entrance and scurry up the ladder to the platform 20 feet in the air. We were like a bunch of ants climbing up a peonie bush.

Apparently, even just nine years after the structure was built it was deemed unsafe for kids to play upon. As soon as the camp staff noticed we were all up on the platform, they came and made us come down. I was filled with disappointment as I learned that the object that initially drew me to the camp had been declared off-limits. Those precious few minutes on that first orientation night was the only time I was ever on the tower, even though I wound up attending the camp for four years.

Today, the tower still exists although the platform has been removed. What remains is a triangular sign poking up from among the trees.

The entrance to Leif Ericson Day Camp.

The next morning, I awoke, dressed and ate breakfast in preparation for the first day of camp. The bus was to pick me up at my school, Lowell Elementary, around 8:30. Camp started at 9:00. I walked the seven blocks to the school and found a couple of other kids from other grades also waiting for the bus. I don't recall there being anyone else from my class at school who was attending camp. This however, might just be the result of 35 years passing between that day and the time of this writing.

I think back to how my parents just sent me out the door in the morning, expecting a recently-turned six-year-old to find his way to the school and get on the right bus. They wouldn't see me again for at least eight hours, during which they would have no idea if I even made it to the camp. There were no cell phones, no webcams or anything of the sort that would allow a parent to verify that the child made it to the bus pick-up, let alone camp itself.

Times certainly have changed. At the time of this writing, my son has just turned seven which would make him one year older than I was when I started going to Leif Ericson. I can't imagine sending him out the door in the morning and expecting him to find his way to a bus stop on his own, then wondering all day if he made it or not. Yet, this was commonplace when I was a child. What my parents did was no different from what all the other parents were doing.

I'm not saying that what my parents did was right or wrong compared to what we do now. I'm just noting how different things have become in such a short amount of time. We often hear about how we're forcing children to grow up much faster these days. Yet I don’t know anyone who would give their six-year-old child the seemingly grown-up responsibility to walk seven blocks to get on a bus, without some verification process in place to quickly ensure that the child did indeed arrive at the intended location. So, are we forcing our children to grow up faster, or are we just rearranging the areas in which they are expected to mature?

In any event, on this first day I climbed on the camp bus without getting abducted or mistakenly winding up in Toledo. I had never been on a school bus before this day. I walked to school every day, being that I only lived seven blocks away. I had ridden a Greyhound bus with my mother when we moved from St. Paul, but I didn't remember much about that trip other than looking out the window and seeing my dad wave goodbye to me as we went down the road.

The bus ride turned out to be one of the highlights of the day. It was so much fun riding in a vehicle that large, especially considering my relatively small size for the time. I quickly discovered that choosing a seat directly over the rear wheels made for a much bumpier ride, which at that stage in my life was something in which I was interested. We bounced from school to school picking up more and more kids, until at last we reached the camp.

A bus similar to the one in which we rode to camp.

Our daily routine generally consisted of a morning session where everyone in the camp would gather and sing songs, and any special announcements for the day were made. I think we sang the same songs all four years. The most memorable one I remember was, "Dust On My Saddle" which I was later to discover was a Seals and Crofts song. I would have preferred "Summer Breeze."

After the opening gathering we would break up into our smaller groups in which we would experience the day's activities. Each counselor would holler the name of his group, and all group members would scurry over to join.

The first small group session of each camp year we would meet with the counselor and select a name for the group. I can only remember that one year our group name was "tigers." The only thing I know about my group names from the other years is that they were equally lame. I wanted something six-year-old cool, like "scorpions", "barbarians" or maybe even "the impalers." No such luck.

Once assembled in our groups, we would proceed to the morning's activities. They would vary from day to day, and occasionally repeat. We would march through the wooded area until we came to the spot to which that activity was assigned.

A few times I remember going out on the Sioux River in rowboats. Adults would be assigned to help with the boats, lest one float downstream and wind up in another state. Invariably the routine would be: a camper would take a turn at the oar and after floundering for three or four minutes, the adult would then take over and row the boat back near the shore where the boat was launched. Then it would be the next camper's turn and the process would repeat.

Rowboats on the Sioux River.

The camp had a small replica of a pirate ship built on which the campers could play. Of course, it wasn't sitting in the water, it was beached about 50 feet from the river's edge. That didn't seem to bother us as we had a ball playing on and around it. It had a makeshift crow's nest that was only big enough to hold one person at a time. As I recall, it turned into a really weird game of "king of the mountain" to see who got to play in the crow's nest. I remember the ship being on the verge of falling apart when I was a camper, and my brother states that it was still there years later when he went to Leif Ericson.

Horseback riding was a popular activity. The horse stables were on the far end of the camp, which meant a mile walk through the woods to reach them. We would receive a little bit of instruction on how to ride the horse, and then get a chance to take a short ride around the stable area. I can only imagine that the horses they used were one trot short of the glue factory, to ensure they were too tired to bolt when faced with the abuse that a bunch of grade school boys can dish out.

Horseback riding at Leif Ericson.

By far the most popular activities were archery and BB guns. I can't imagine they do either of these activities any longer. When I told my son that they let us shoot guns at camp, he stared at me in wide-eyed disbelief. I don't think the schools even allow making pretend guns with your finger anymore.

We were instructed in safety and proper shooting methods. Generally, the campers were more successful with shooting the BB gun rifles, as grade-schoolers don't have the arm strength necessary to pull back on the bow to send the arrow to the target. We had a blast shooting targets attached to hay bales, and I don't remember a single kid shooting his eye out.

At lunch time, we would return to the main area and get into lines. Lunch consisted of a choice of sandwich (bologna, cheese or both bologna and cheese,) an apple and a carton of milk. Most days I would choose bologna as at that stage in my life I didn't really like cheese (oh how times have changed,) but there was one day I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try the bologna and cheese sandwich. I didn't care for it but choked it down because I knew if I threw it away my mother would somehow find out that I wasted food. I believe my four years at Leif Ericson resulted in my hatred of bologna. I can't stand it to this day.

I don't think the camp had any means of refrigeration, which meant in the summer heat my lunch was usually quite warm. Our milk was always on the edge of going bad, resulting in the whole camp reeking of sour milk a half hour after lunch as the stench of the multitude of half-finished cartons collectively wisped upward. Smell is an interesting memory trigger, and even as an adult when I smell bad milk my brain goes back to Leif Ericson camp.

After lunch we had some free time which was probably more of a break for the counselors than we campers. Many kids would play on the playground equipment or try and catch crawdads down at the river bank. I spent most of my free time up at the sandbox, as it wasn't one of the more popular areas and I often had it to myself. I've never been overly social and even as a child was often content spending time alone.

A mystery that intrigues me to this day happened at this sandbox. It was a particularly hot afternoon and like many boys during this time period, I removed my shirt. I notice kids no longer go shirtless during the summer, at least not to the extent we did when I was young. Anyway, I had my shirt off and was enjoying the cool of the shade under which the sand pile was located. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to bury my shirt.

So, I dug a hole into which my shirt was placed. The sand was piled on top and the area smoothed out. After accomplishing this task, I proceeded to dig the shirt back up. Only it wasn't there. I swear I dug up the whole sandbox that afternoon and never did find my shirt. Not only did I have to explain to every counselor why I wasn't wearing a shirt, when I got home that evening I had to explain to my mother how I had lost my shirt. It goes without saying that she wasn't happy and instructed me to find that shirt because somebody was bound to dig it up when playing in the sandbox. It never did resurface. To this day I have no idea where that shirt went.

In the afternoon we would usually have an arts and crafts time. My favorite activity was building boats out of Popsicle sticks, which we would then race down the river. Of course, once you launch your boat and watch it sail away, you then realize that it's not coming back. All that hard work during craft time was for naught.

Building boats out of popsicle sticks.

Camp was held Monday through Friday for two weeks. On the second Thursday, the campers all came back after supper with their parents for "Family Night." Campers could show their parents around the camp and there was a short presentation where we sang our songs for the parents (more "Dust On My Saddle") and camp awards were presented.

The camp awards were for the campers who had attended three or more years. At the end of their third year, a camper was presented with an "ole horn." The ole horn (pronounced oh-lee, not the Spanish oh-lay) was a polished steer horn that had a mouthpiece fitted at one end. By pursing your lips and blowing, using the same technique as a trumpet player, one could produce a sound from the horn. It didn't sound like a trumpet though. It was an annoyingly loud single-pitched noise. We boys loved them.

Blowing ole horns.

After my third year I received my ole horn. It hung in my closet for many years, then disappeared for decades. Years later when we were settling my parent’s estate I found it packed away in a box of old toys. My son commandeered it and it now remains in his possession.

I do remember that one day I put my nose in the large end of the ole horn and took a whiff. Wow, that was one of the most putrid smells I've ever had the displeasure of experiencing. It was like the odor of packing plant espresso.

At the end of Family Night, the parents went home, and the campers were allowed to stay overnight. We brought sleeping bags and made camp fires. There were no tents, so we just slept on the ground. I remember waking up in the mornings tired, cold and hungry. I don't remember if breakfast wasn't served or I just didn’t like what they offered (I'm leaning toward the former). We would then load up the buses for the last time and go home.

By far, the highlight of each camping day was the end when we would go swimming at the YMCA. A load of sweaty grade school boys would pile onto a bus without air conditioning and ride across town where we could jump into a cool pool. It was heaven.

The Sioux Falls YMCA building.

Except on my first day. On my very first day of my first year of camp, the swimming time is etched into my mind as one of the most horrific memories of my young life.

We arrived at the Y and were shown which way to go to find the locker room where we could change into our swimsuits. I had never been inside the YMCA before, which was this huge old building. From the combination of being six years old, having gone through the stress of my first camp experience and then being marched off a bus into this maze of a structure, I felt like a new fish walking into stir.

I remember lots of confusion as I followed the line of boys into the locker room. There was an older white-haired man working the desk outside the locker room who was barking instructions at us when we walked by. He didn't seem nice at all, and the yelling scared me.

I was trying to remember all the instructions we had been given, but I had the typical attention span of a boy my age and frankly didn't hear or understand all of them. I somehow found a locker and proceeded to change into my swimsuit. I walked into the shower area and rinsed off as I had been told. I must have taken too long to do all of this, as when I walked back into the main locker area I realized that all the other boys had left for the pool. I wasn't sure how to get there.

I timidly walked out to the man at the front desk and asked where all the other boys went. Apparently upset that I hadn't listened to instructions the first time, he barked out directions in an even gruffer manner than the first time. This scared me even further, which caused me to not hear what he had said for a second time.

I nervously retreated into the locker room. Upon exploring, I found a door in the back that led to a short hallway. I walked down the hallway and opened the door. This was a stairway, with stairs going up and down, as well as another door straight ahead.

Not sure which way to go, I seemed to recall hearing the word "down" in the instructions. I went down the dark stairway and peered through the vertical slot window at the bottom. There was a pool full of boys playing and yelling, but I didn't recognize any of them. Nobody was wearing the clothes they had on earlier in the day, and I didn't know anyone at this camp well enough to recognize them by their wet heads.

I could feel panic start to set in. I wasn't about to jump in this pool and then find out I was in the wrong spot. So before I made a mistake I decided to check out my other options. Going back up the flight of stairs to where I originally entered the stairway, I gambled and opened the door straight ahead. I found myself staring at a large pool full of adults. I felt like they were all staring right back at me. This certainly wasn't the right place.

My third option was to go up. I climbed up one flight of stairs and found another door. This door didn't have a window, so I just had to open it. When I did, I was suddenly greeted with ten large guys running straight at me. The door opened directly under a hoop on a basketball court. The sudden squeaking of shoes as the players changed directions as they reached the end of the court startled me, and I let the door slam shut and started to cry as I stood alone in the stairway.

After a minute of my mind racing, my heart beating as fast as human physiology will allow and my emotions spilling out, I calmed down a bit and started to logically process the situation. I realized that this stairway only had four doors: the one through which I initially entered, and the three I had tried. I knew the basketball court wasn't the right option. Neither was the pool full of adults. Therefore, I reasoned, the pool full of boys at the bottom of the stairs must be the right one.

The pool in the basement of the Sioux Falls YMCA.

I went back down the stairs to the bottom door and peered through again. This time I was able to see my counselor standing on the side of the pool, and I knew that this was the right choice. Relieved, I opened the door, ran the ten or so feet to the edge of the pool and jumped in.

Unfortunately, in my haste I hadn't accounted for the depth of the pool. I had yet to learn to swim, and while the pool depth was probably no more than 36", it was deep enough that I couldn’t stand and comfortably keep my head above water to breathe.

My panic, which hadn't yet fully subsided after getting lost, fully resumed with a vengeance. I somehow made my way over to the edge of the pool where I could cling for dear life. My mind was racing. It hadn't occurred to me that the other side of the pool was shallower, and I couldn't fathom coming to a pool every day in which I could only cling to the side. Once again, I found myself choking back tears.

Suddenly, the extremes of this emotional rollercoaster started to make it known physically. I wasn't feeling well, and my intestines were churning. I needed to get to the restroom, and I needed to get there now.

I climbed out of the pool and ran into the stairway. Bolting up the stairs and through the doors leading back, I found myself in the girl's locker room. Thankfully I quickly realized my error before I witnessed anything incriminating and evacuated back to the hallway, but this didn’t do much to calm my frenzied state.

This time, I went through the right door and ran into the boy's locker room. Unfortunately, my blunder had cost me precious seconds, and I was quickly losing the intestinal battle.

As I searched for the toilet, my colon exploded. Sensing the impending situation, I had begun the process of pulling my swimsuit down. Unfortunately, I hadn't started the process soon enough and a large quantity of the excrement was deposited inside my swimsuit. Also unfortunately, the flow of the eruption wasn't subsiding, and even though I had now in futility gotten my suit out of the way I was still ten feet from the toilet.

As I ran, I left a trail of feces through the locker room. I made it into the stall and as I turned to sit on the stool, I made a final deposit right on the seat a split second before I proceeded to sit on it.

As I sat and allowed the remainder of the waste to be deposited in its proper place, I looked out through the door-less stall at the path of destruction I had left: a trail of poop through the locker room, a soiled swimsuit hanging from my ankles, and a dirty backside where I had sat in my own filth. This was more than my six-year-old mind could handle, and I broke into tears once again.

As I sat there crying, wondering how I was going to get out of this situation, I heard the boys entering the locker room. Swim time was over and everyone had returned to dry off and change their clothes before the buses took them home. It was bad enough that I was in this predicament. Now everyone at camp was going to know about it.

It was immediately apparent to the other boys that something was wrong. As the boys walked by there were the occasional giggles, snickers and pointing, but to my surprise most of them saw the horror of my situation, realized it could have easily been them and quietly looked away. One boy slowly approached me and offered to help.

I don't know his name; however, I can clearly remember his face. He had red hair and freckles. I bet I could pick him out of a line-up to this day. He came up to me and asked if I was OK. I didn't respond. I think I was in shock from the whole situation.

Not knowing what else to do, the boy went out to the front desk and got the gruff old man. I could hear the man coming, and my heart sank further. It was bad enough to be in this situation, but now I additionally had to deal with this guy I didn't like and who scared me. Not that I'm sure I had any fear left in me. It had been drained from my body along with the entire contents of my lower tract.

As the man came around the corner, his demeanor changed abruptly. I must have looked pathetic, as he suddenly got very quiet. I'm guessing that when the gruff old man walked into the toilet area, he suddenly saw a memory; a recollection of some point in time when he had been scared and helpless himself. He kneeled down, gave me a faint smile and told me it was OK and that things like this happen to everyone. Something in his voice and the way he was talking gave me the first glimmer of hope I'd had in about an hour. Through my tears I did my best to apologize for the mess I had made.

He got some wet towels and cleaning supplies and proceeded to clean me up along with the mess I had made. He scraped my swimsuit clean the best he could, then sealed it in a plastic bag for me to take home. I quietly thanked him and proceeded to get dressed as he mopped the floor.

Word must've gotten out that I was running behind (no pun intended,) as my bus was still waiting for me as I left the Y. I got on in silence and rode back to the school. From there, I walked home, never saying a word to anyone.

Once I got home, I gave my mom a much-abbreviated version of what happened and gave her the swimsuit to be washed. I then proceeded to never mention this incident to anyone again. At least until today, thirty-five years later when for some reason I felt compelled to write about it.

I can't think of anything more demeaning than cleaning up someone else's feces. The old man at the desk could have easily (and rightfully) reacted in a much different manner. Yet he didn't. He chose to humble himself and help out someone who was in need. Of all the things I learned at Leif Ericson day camp, this was the one that affected me most dramatically.

I don't remember ever seeing that man again at the Y although I’m sure I did. Thankfully the remaining swim sessions at camp went much smoother than the first, and I didn't require his assistance. I'm sure he's thankful as well.

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This page last updated on 07/11/2018