Thursday, January 22, 2015

A to Z: Honorable Mention for C...Camp Donegal

Part 1

Growing up, October was probably the most exciting time of year. So many things happened during that month: soccer season, the NFL, the World Series, Halloween (my dad would zig-zag us all throughout Paradise in our costumes) and of course it was the beginning of autumn, the most beautiful season of the year. But I looked forward to one particular event more than anything else all year - other than Christmas morning - and that was Camp Donegal.

Our church, Leacock Presbyterian, reserved the campgrounds for a weekend each October. My brother and cousins would plan the week before during the Crop Walk of what to bring (i.e. baseball cards, candy etc.). When that weekend finally arrived, Friday at school was an eternity. My dad always wanted to be early to wherever he was going and Donegal retreat weekend was no different. I remember arriving, hoping to be the first ones, and being greeted by the monstrous trees that decorated the entire property. Fall in those woods was breathtaking. One hundred twenty-eight acres of forests, streams, paths that led to different adventures, ball fields with fireflies dotting the darkness for a visionary dessert when the day was over.

After walking into the lodge and smelling that old familiar smell and hearing the crackling of the fire, Dad would drive us down the stony path to our assigned cabins. We would unload, unpack and spread out our sleeping bags on the beds we chose. Then wait for our friends to arrive - including girls! As darkness set in quite early during those autumn days, I remember seeing the row of headlights pulling in one after another. Think the end of Field of Dreams. I would anxiously await the arrival of my cousin, now best friend, Dustin. One year he brought his Star Wars stuff. I don't think we spent a minute playing with them, but...he brought his Star Wars stuff!

The weekend would be filled with many fun activities such as: sports of all kinds (ping-pong tournaments were huge), Bingo, ghost walks, trading baseball cards, skits, four-square, hayrides, costume contests and of course bonfires. My dad would help construct them and they would last for hours. They would start at dusk and by the time it was set ablaze, night had blanketed us. I remember walking down and seeing the silhouette of my dad standing near the flames. We sang songs accompanied by a pair of acoustic guitars played by Uncles Wayne and Lee. Magic Penny was a popular one along with Apples and Bananas where we would vary up the vowels each time through. For some reason I would always request z. Yes, I realize this is not a vowel, but you have to admit, it's kind of fun to sing about zapples and zazannzees...? Ummm, not sure exactly. No wonder they frowned upon my request. It Only Takes a Spark was always a favorite as well.

I remember one year...actually, it was 1986 (how can I forget?), the year the Mets beat the Red Sox in the World Series. My dad had packed his nine-inch B&W TV so we could watch the game. I'm not sure how much of it I watched, but I remember distinctly walking into the lodge and seeing the game on. The surrounding tables were filled with grownups playing cards and drinking coffee. "How boring!" I thought. "And gross!"

On Sundays -several hours before everybody headed home - everyone would hike to the Susquehanna River. Although bittersweet because it signified the end of our weekend, it was an amazing walk. I can still hear the rustling of the leaves and the running water of the adjacent stream. Once we reached the big waterfall we often times would rock hop (much to my grandfather's warnings of danger) the rest of the way to the enormous rock that overlooked the majestic river.

Arriving home one year, we found our yard decorated with over one hundred rolls of toilet paper! It's an image you can't even try to erase from your memory. Needless to say, my mom was livid.

Part 2

Donegal wasn't only in my life one weekend during October. I would frequent the camp and that river many times in my youth during summer camp, church retreats, softball tournaments and when I worked there for a few summers. It was also where I spent time before and after my trip to Africa to help seclude ourselves while readapting to America.

After my dad died, my younger brother and I spent time on that rock trying to come to grips on our new reality of not having a father. It served just the right dosage of serenity whenever it was needed...whenever the outside world was too much to handle. One time a dear friend of mine, whom I haven't spoken to in nearly ten years, rock hopped out in the river, while the bright sun embraced our youthful conversations and secrets and inhibitions were left to the whispering breeze. With the forest walls neighboring the stretch of river, you could yell at the world and never hear it yell back.

I once tried carpentry. It was a miserable failure. But it led to one of the greatest periods in my life. After quitting - probably moments before I was fired - I happened to find myself once again at Camp Donegal. I felt its outstretched arms welcoming me home much like a thousand Giving Trees. Although I didn't ask as many things as the boy in that story did, I did, however ask it to keep making me feel at home - away from the world I was having difficulty dealing with. 

I met some wonderful friends while serving there as the maintenance man which was probably the greatest job ever. I would say they were friends for life, but I fear somewhere along the way I rubbed some people the wrong way. Some have denied/ignored my friend requests, but maybe life got in the way. A lot of times during those days of youth, your current stomping grounds are merely stepping stones leading you to bigger and better things. The people that are key components of who we are and who we will become are simply seasons in our life...landmarks that we admire from a distance.

It wasn't the easiest of times for me. I suppose it never is for a teenager. With my dad being sick and wrestling with what I wanted and who I wanted and to what extent (Friend? Girlfriend?) all played a toll...a heavy toll...on my heart and my thinking which was always an enigma in and of itself. But just like the cabin in the meadow, Donegal was a launching pad to who I have become. The life lessons - the mistakes, failures and the achievements - were numerous and I'm grateful for my time spent there. Grateful for the tremendous group of friends - although I do have some apologies to make.

I long for my return to that campground. To admire the changes. To inhale what has remained the same. To remember those that I have loved and lost.

To my friends from long ago...Hosta la Vista (yes, I intended to spell Hosta like the plant).

More pictures to come.

Other Honorable Mentions for C:

Christmas: My favorite holiday although I find it difficult sometimes to capture the spirit of the season like I did when I was younger.

Cross/Church/Christianity: I am a Jesus Freak and proud of it!

Can’t Take it With You: This was the only play I participated in during my high school years and I had a blast! My acting left something to be desired, but what a great time!

Childhood: Mixed feelings about this topic.

Campfires: Gotta love these! Great conversations, deep thoughts, s'mores and banana boats!

College: Met some great friends, but that's about it.

Creation ’89: Brand new shoes didn't look so new after this. It was a mudfest. I didn't return until '96.

Charles Barkley: One of the greatest of all-time. So fun to watch. Not the best choices, but entertaining nonetheless. One of the reasons I always wore 34. He and Bo Jackson.


Scott Young said...

Well done" what stroll down memory lane.
Scott Young

Ryan S. Graybill said...

Thank you, Scott! Hope all is well.