Are your Girl Scout cookies all gone? Mine are too, and I could just kick myself for not ordering more of the Girl Scout S’More cookies! Both the Little Brownie and ABC Bakers varieties were delish. Now we must wait until Fall to find out if we can order more during the next cookie sales season. While you’re waiting, please revisit my post about Girl Scout cookie flavored ice cream and other tempting food products on your grocer’s shelves. And speaking of s’mores, check out this Thin Mint Memories bonus chapter called “S’more Samoas” that is about my long-ago adventures as a Girl Scout camp counselor. Enjoy!
As my mother drove her old Lincoln Continental into the parking lot, I looked around and wondered what I had gotten myself into. She maneuvered the boxy car into a graveled parking space and I turned around to look at my friend Gail, who was sitting in the back seat of our car. She seemed to be looking for answers herself as she peered out of the window to take in her surroundings. After a three-hour drive from Washington, DC, to Mount Solon, Virginia, we had arrived at our destination¾the middle of nowhere.
I was twenty and Gail was just a few weeks shy of twenty-two when we arrived at camp in the summer of 1975. What had we been thinking when we made the decision to spend our summers so far from home? Then I remembered how the previous winter, in the midst of a freezing rain storm, we’d come up with the idea of returning to nature and getting away from our usual routine of college, shopping, and trying to find love in too many of the wrong places. Wouldn’t it be great to go back to Girl Scout camp, we asked ourselves. Life is so simple at camp. No guys, no drama. Gail and I had been counselors-in-training together back in high school, and although neither of us were nature girls, we’d enjoyed the time that we’d spent in the great out-of-doors. Excited about the possibilities, we filled in our applications and we were thrilled to be chosen to work as counselors at our first choice, Camp May Flather, which is located in the George Washington National Forest in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia.
Now that summer had come and we had arrived at the camp, that February ice storm when we’d romanticized the possibilities of a summer in the woods seemed long ago. Resigned to our situation, we pushed open the car doors and unfolded our bodies to stretch and take in the sights. An umbrella of lush trees overhung the parking lot and an old wooden Camp May Flather sign resting next to a rough brown fence welcomed us to our home for the next ten weeks.
“Does it look the way you remembered it?” my mother asked.
“Not really. I remember it being bigger. And not so rustic.” I grabbed my duffel bag and the three of us walked down the trail toward the center of the camp. All of the camp buildings looked like large log cabins. In front of the Trading Post, a lady sat behind a table checking in new arrivals. Gail and I got in the line. When it was my turn, the lady introduced herself as Misty, the camp director. She was a round-faced woman with softly curled short white hair and a warm smile.
“Shelley, you’re in Sherando,” she informed me, “with the youngest campers, the Brownies.” That was the group of camper that I’d requested, so I was happy with my placement. She gave me a map and told me that I could move my things to my unit whenever I was ready.
When it was Gail’s turn, Misty told my friend that she was assigned to a unit called Windy Hill where she’d be overseeing Junior girl scouts. My first time at May Flather, the summer between my sixth and seventh grade year, I had been also placed in Windy Hill. I remember my eleven-year-old self waiting in the heat as our bags were moved from the buses we’d arrived on and dumped at the bottom of a winding narrow asphalt road. I grabbed my suitcase, a heavy “indestructible” American Tourister bag, and fell in line with the rest of the campers. We followed the Windy Hill counselors as we marched up the hill toward the unit. My suitcase seemed to weigh more with every step. Sweating and wheezing, I fell further toward the back of the group as we made slow progress toward Windy Hill. Finally, when I was convinced that I would surely die on the journey up, we got to the top. I had to sit down on the suitcase’s hard shell before I made my way to my tent. With that memory in mind, I was glad it was Gail who would have to make the daily climbs to Windy Hill and not me.
There were six residential units at Camp May Flather—Sherando, Spotwood, Frontier, Windy Hill, Sinewa, and Shawnee. Girls had to be at least seven to attend Girl Scout resident camps and many of them are away from home for the first time. The youngest girls were assigned to my unit, Sherando. Eight and nine-year-olds were put into the next unit over, Spotswood. Up the road from the dining hall was Frontier, whose campers were between ten and eleven. Windy Hill, Gail’s unit, hosted the early adolescents—her campers were twelve and thirteen. Sinewa and Shawnee were the units that furthest away from the center of the camp. They were located across the Little River, which ran through center of Camp May Flather. Sinewa’s campers were usually thirteen and fourteen and the oldest campers and the counselors-in-training were assigned to Shawnee. There were exceptions in each unit where campers were younger or older than the rest of the group. Some girls were more or less mature than others their age and others were highly experienced in camping. Misty and her administrative staff had made an effort to place each camper where they would be most comfortable.
After taking the first load of belongings to our units, Gail and I went back to my mother’s car to finish getting the rest of our things. We gave each other a hand with the large and unwieldy items. We each took an end of my old pink footlocker as we lugged it to my unit. Inside of it were stacks of shorts, pants, T-shirts, blouses, and underwear—enough to last for several weeks—because there were no laundry facilities on the campgrounds. The closest Laundromat was in Harrisonburg, Virginia, about fifteen miles from the camp, which was almost a half-hour drive. To make me feel more at home in the woods, I also brought along some of my favorite possessions¾my teddy bear, a colorful blanket, and a battery operated lamp so I could read when after sundown. On my final trip from the car to Sherando, I clumsily carried two bed pillows and a cardboard box that held fourteen books.
“Are you going to be okay?” my mother asked as she put on her sunglasses in preparation to leave.
“I’ll be fine. Just send me a cake with a file in it.”
My mother smiled as she got into the car. I reluctantly kissed her goodbye and watched her drive off, back to civilization. Then I went back to Sherando to settle in for the next ten weeks. In this unit, we lived in cabins known as glen shelters. Like the platform tents found in most of the other units, these shelters had sturdy raised wooden floors, but they also had four foot wooden walls on each side of the structure and wooden roofs. Golden canvas flaps hung from the roof on each side of the cabin. The flaps could be rolled up to let in the daylight or rolled down and tied to the wooden walls for privacy or to keep out rain.
Inside the shelter were five military-style cots, topped with tick mattresses. Beside each bed was a simple wood nightstand. I chose the bed closest to the center of the cabin. I made up my bed and arranged my things so that I would feel more at home. Once I was satisfied with everything, I lay down on the cot and was surprised to find that the mattress was actually fairly comfortable.
It was a sunny day and with the cabin flaps raised, I could see almost the entire unit from my bed. Next to the counselors’ cabin, there were five vacant cabins arranged in a semi-circle that awaited the campers who were due to arrive the next week. Straight ahead was the troop house, a small wooden building that we used for rainy day and nighttime activities. In the middle of the unit was a camp circle—half logs, flat side down, arranged in a large circle with a campfire pit in the center. About fifty feet behind our cabin was a set of four latrines, a gentle name for the outhouses. A nearby washing station featured four metal sinks set in a wooden base with faucets that produced cold and colder running rusty water.
I sat up as I heard someone coming up the cabin’s creaky stairs. A young woman with freckles and long brown hair asked if she had found the Sherando counselor cabin. I jumped off of my bed and went over to greet her.
“Hi, I’m Kathy,” she said as she made her way into the cabin. “My camp name is Skipper.”
“Hi Skipper. I’m Shelley,” I responded. “My camp name is Calypso.”
It’s Girl Scout camp tradition for all counselors to choose special names to go by for the summer. Counselors keep their given name a secret, à la Rumpelstiltskin, and throughout the two-week session, campers try to guess their real name. I chose the name Calypso after reading The Odyssey. Calypso, the daughter of Atlas, detained the main character of the story, Odysseus, with seven years of sexual imprisonment. I thought the name was melodious and I also found it was amusing and ironic to name myself after a sex goddess while working as a Girl Scout counselor. As much as I liked the name, Calypso had really been my second choice for a camp name. My original choice, Circe, is also from The Odyssey. I think that my fondness for Circe was based on my disillusion with men at the time—she was a sorceress who was known for her power to change men into pigs. I decided against using Circe as my camp name because I was worried that the campers wouldn’t know how to pronounce it, so I settled on Calypso and that was the name by which I was known that summer.
Gail chose the name Fly for her camp name. Fly can mean hip or cool, but I worried that people would think that she was naming herself after an insect—and an annoying one at that. But since she liked the name, she became Fly and I kept my opinion of her summer moniker to myself.
The afternoon brought the rest of unit staff to Sherando. I’ve forgotten most of their real names because they were never used. Onboard we had Vee, the unit leader; Roo and Skipper, both counselors; and me, the assistant unit leader. Vee, like Gail and me, was an African American woman who attended Howard University, and Skipper and Roo were both young white women, straight out of Maryland and Virginia high schools.
That night over a chicken dinner in the dinning hall, we met the rest of the staff who had imaginative camp names like Cricket, Little Bird, Phlox, Cedar, Lady Bug, and Mike Stump. For dessert that night we had Girl Scout cookies, a treat that was familiar to most of the counselors. The other counselors dove face first into boxes of Thin Mints, shortbread Trefoils, and peanut butter sandwich cookies. On that momentous occasion, I was introduced to a new variety of cookie that would become my summer favorite. The last time I’d eaten Girl Scout cookies was before my troop folded when I was in the eleventh grade, long before Samoas existed. At Camp May Flather, Samoas became my new love. I didn’t know how yet, but I began hatching a plan that would allow me to spend quality time with my new obsession.
We spent the next week getting ready for the campers. Vee, Skipper, Roo, and I planned short hikes, theme days, and cookouts so that the girls would have a chance to learn new skills and improve on ones they already had. We stocked the unit snack can with penny candy for treats and rewards for good behavior. We also made a Kaper Chart. Kapers is the Girl Scout term for chores. In the middle of our Kaper Chart was a colored circle that moved, which we labeled with the cabin numbers, and on an outer circle was a list of daily tasks. Sherando Kapers included gathering wood for campfires, sweeping out the troop house, and everyone’s favorite, cleaning the latrines.
Vee was a studio art major and she used her talents to make attractive signs to decorate the unit. However, our new unit leader had never been a scout, so the rest of us taught her about the Girl Scout ways. Both Roo and Skipper were lifelong scouts, so they were put in charge of planning nature hikes and other activities that took advantage of their scouting skills.
When the campers arrived, we were ready. Standing in our camp uniforms¾white blouses with sliding cord ties, forest green cotton shorts, dark green socks with colorful fringe garters call flashes—the counselors welcomed our first session charges. As the similarly uniformed girls got off the busses, Misty directed them to the staging areas for their assigned unit.
After they were all sorted out, we had twenty-five seven-year-old campers in our line, ready to move to Sherando. Vee lead the line and I stayed in the back with the stragglers, not unlike my first time at camp. When we got to the unit, we called roll and gave each girl her cabin assignment. Several sets of close friends had come to camp together and they were excited to be rooming with their buddies. Some girls were outgoing and making friends fast. Others were shy and standing to the side. One by one, they went over to the cabins and we gave them a few minutes to get acclimated and acquainted with their cabin mates.
About a half-hour later, we brought the group back to the camp circle and had them sit down. Vee and I took turns explaining the basic camp rules. For the first day we didn’t plan a lot of activities because we wanted to take the time to get to know the campers. So, we started things off by playing an icebreaker game.
“We’re going to play telephone. Who knows how to play that game?” I asked. Several hands went up. “For those of you who don’t know, here’s how you play. I’m going to whisper something to the girl next to me. Then she’s going to whisper it to the girl next to her and she’ll tell the one next to her and it’ll keep getting passed around until the message gets back to me. Then I’m going to tell you what I said and the message that I heard after it goes around the circle. Okay?”
They all nodded. I whispered, “Welcome to Camp May Flather,” to the girl sitting on my right. She whispered the message to the girl sitting next her and on it went. Sometimes the girl hearing the message looked a little puzzled, but she did her part by passing it along. As the chain was completed, the camper on my left whispered something to me that was very different from my original message. I chuckled and told the group the message I’d started the game with. Then I told them what I’d heard at the end of the chain: “Hot dogs are good with mustard.” The girls all laughed. We were off to a good start.
By the dinnertime, some of the girls had organized their cabins, most had gotten acclimated, and all of them were hungry. It was a short walk to the dinning hall and by the time we arrived, each girl had chosen a buddy to sit with. The dinning hall was a long building with identical dinning rooms on the left and right wings. As each pair of buddies entered the hall, they were sent alternately to the left or right dining room in a effort to mix the girls up–¾this gave girls from different units the chance to get to know one another.
Large square wooden tables for eight lined the dinning room walls. Beneath the tables were four benches for two. Every table had a counselor at the helm and a “food runner” who got the meal from the kitchen. Once the girls became familiar with the staff, it was not unusual for them to vie to sit with a favorite counselor.
Once everyone had claimed a spot at a table, it was time for grace. Grace is always sung at Girl Scout Camp. Everyone remained standing while everyone sang a short prayer like Johnny Appleseed:
The Lord is good to me.
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need
The sun, the rain and the apple seed
The Lord is good to me.
After grace, the loud scrape of benches echoed through the dinning hall as campers and counselors sat down to eat. The dinning hall became a lively setting as the runners rushed to get the meat, vegetables, and bread and the campers gulped down glasses of bug juice (watered down Kool Aid) and chattered about the day’s experiences. The food was surprisingly good for a mass-produced meal, due to talent and efforts of Laura, Ruby, the Soda Pop—the kitchen staff who came back year after year to prepare food for the scouts. The meal always ended with some kind of dessert, usually chocolate or vanilla layer cake, cubes of Jell-O with whipped cream, or Girl Scout cookies. I looked forward to the days we had cookies so I could get my hands on some more Samoas.
After dinner, campers had a chance to run around or talk outside of the dinning hall. Once we were ready to go back to the units, we gathered the campers by calling out our unit cheer that we had taught them before dinner. As girls had been the tradition since before my time as a camper, it became a contest after each meal to see which unit could say their cheer the loudest and with the most zeal. We called out:
“Icky sticky stanamo, I know Geronimo, Idy bidy bosco.
Ick-anon no-anon, Come on Sherando!”
Once we started the cheer, the Sherando girls came running and they began yelling it over and over. At the same time the Spotswood, Frontier, Windy Hill, Sinewa, and Shawnee counselors and campers began shouting their cheer. The battle of the unit cheers went on for almost five minutes. I pitied the poor raccoons and other creatures in the surrounding woods whose repose was disrupted by this commotion¾camp spirit was in the air!
That night, the Sherando group sat around the campfire and sang some familiar camp songs and learned some new ones. Around nine o’clock, we joined hands and sang Taps and then the counselors dismissed the girls and sent them off to get ready for bed. Most of the campers were city girls who had never experienced the total darkness of being out in the woods. They waved around their flashlights as they stumbled to the latrines and back. Finally, they were all settled in their cabins and the Sherando counselors went around to say goodnight. Going from cabin to cabin, we sang a lullaby and told them it was time to turn off all flashlights. We retired to our cabin and watched as flashlights went off and on for the next twenty minutes.
“Flashlights off, ladies,” Vee called out in the direction of the cabins. For about a minute, the flashlights stayed off. Then one by one, each cabin had a strobe light effect as the girls started to click their flashlights on and off. After several more warnings, we yelled in unison “FLASHLIGHTS OFF!” Our reprimand had the desired affect. When we checked the cabins a few minutes later, all of the campers had fallen asleep. The first day of camp was over.
The next two weeks went by quickly for me. I enjoyed teaching and playing with the campers and answering all of their questions.
“Calypso, what kind of plant is that?”
“Calypso, why is the water so rusty?”
“Calypso, who was May Flather?”
“Calypso, what’s your real name?”
Each day brought a new adventure as we hiked up White Horse Mountain to watch the sunrise or rode bikes to see the Natural Chimneys a couple of miles from the campgrounds.
Through my counseling experiences, I learned more each day about child development. While working in Sherando, I learned that some seven-year-olds are extremely capable while others can barely do anything for themselves. Near the end of the session, the girls planned and executed a dinner cookout. From start to finish—making the fire, cooking and serving the meal, and cleaning dishes and pots—this activity took the campers much longer to complete than we had anticipated. The Sherando counselors later referred to this event as the “Twenty-Four-Hour Cookout,” because it took until the next day for the girls to wash the last grimy pot. The menu had been fairly simple. For dinner we had chili-dogs, beans, and salad. The meal ended with s’mores—toasted marshmallows with chunks of Hershey bars sandwiched between graham crackers. This prolonged event taught our counseling staff a valuable lesson. We learned how to pace the girls, so subsequent cookouts moved along more efficiently.
The best part of the evening was helping the girls make s’mores. Each girl found a long green stick onto which they skewered a marshmallow. I like my marshmallows toasted golden brown, which requires an even hand and placing the marshmallow just close enough to the fire, but not too close. However, some people, especially those in a hurry, like the blackened marshmallow version that comes from allowing the white puffy candy to catch on fire. Either way, s’mores were a popular choice for all. For me, they were almost as good as Samoas—almost.
The days passed quickly and when the time came for the girls to get on the buses to go home, I started to tear up. As the busses pulled off, my girls cried, waved, and yelled frantically from the bus window
“I’ll write to you, Calypso!”
I followed behind the bus wiping away my own tears. With the girls gone, the entire camp was too quiet. As I went back to my cabin, I wondered if I would become as attached to the next session’s campers.
The next morning marked the beginning of the second session. Once more back in our camp uniforms, we met the next batch of campers and started all over again. Vee, Skipper, Roo, and I had become a well-oiled machine. We knew who did what, when, so the first day went smoothly, as did the rest of the session.
Every counselor got a twelve-hour break each week. While the limited breaks didn’t allow us to go far from the camp, it did allow for well-appreciated and well-deserved rest and relaxation. Counselors with cars or with friends who had cars could go to Harrisonburg to do laundry. The biggest treat was for staff members to go out on a forty-eight-hour leave, but that was only allowed once during the summer.
“Don’t take your long leave too early¾you’ll need it around the middle of the third session,” warned the counselors with years of experience. Around the fourth week of camp, I began dreaming of the day that I could sleep in my soft bed at home for just one night.
The staff break room was inside the Trading Post building. In the corner was an antiquated TV that only picked up one or two stations at certain times of the day. I hadn’t realized how much I was going to miss watching television when I decided to spend my summer as a counselor. On my break days, I was desperate to watch any show. I discovered that if I held the rabbit-ear antenna in the right position, the snowy picture became almost visible. For a few minutes, I felt like I was back in the real world.
Counselors had few opportunities to make or receive phone calls while camp was in session. Besides an occasional letter, our only connection to the outside world was a heavy black dial phone in Misty’s office. I was able to make a short call every other week or so, but I missed hearing the latest gossip from my friends at home.
The second session came to an end and this time when the busses pulled off, with girls crying and promising to write, and I followed the bus waving and blowing kisses to the departing campers. The quiet of the empty camp didn’t affect me that time. I needed the solitude to reflect and renew myself for the next day’s incoming group of campers.
Third session began just as the other two had started. We met the girls. We got them settled in. We taught them songs. We went on outings—more trips back to White Horse Mountain and the Natural Chimneys. I was scheduled to go home on my 48-hour leave so I was excited and more energetic. When Friday came, I waved goodbye to the campers and my fellow counselors and headed home as a passenger in fellow counselor Hank’s Ford convertible.
Hank dropped me off at a shopping center near her home and my mother came to pick me up. As we pulled up in front of our house, I felt a wave of appreciation go through me. I’d lived in that house since I was five, but it took being away from home for six weeks for me to realize how much I valued living there. That night sleeping in my bed was every bit as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. Saturday morning, I took the bus to Georgetown. I must have looked like a tourist because I kept looking left and right at all of the city sights. I went into Roy Rogers and had a cheeseburger. I never thought I would miss small things like being able to order anything I wanted from a fast food restaurant. Too soon, it was time to go back to camp. My mother took me back to the spot where Hank was waiting. I got into the Ford and Hank and I headed back to Mount Solon and our waiting campers. When we got back, I was happy to see everyone, but I was glad I only had another four weeks before my trip home would be for good.
The last week of the third session, I came up with an idea that met with the enthusiastic approval of my fellow Sherando counselors.
“Let’s order a box of Girl Scout cookies for each of us the next time we get snacks for the unit,” I suggested.
Finally, I was going to get my fill of Samoas. We each ordered a box of our favorite cookies and stored them in the unit snack can. That afternoon, during the campers’ afternoon quiet time, we rolled down the cabin flaps and broke out the cookies. The first Samoa that I ate was as good as I thought it would be. The second, third, fourth, and fifth cookies were all equally as delicious. After I had eaten about ten, my stomach started to gurgle in protest. By the time I had eaten a dozen Samoas, they had lost their appeal. I closed the box and put it away. That quickly, I was cured of my Samoa obsession. I didn’t even look at another box of Samoas for at least five years.
The third session ended and the fourth session began. Rewind and press play. The busses arrived, we got the campers to their cabins, we sang songs and went on trips—each session’s memories began to blur with those previous. When the last day came of the last session, I ran behind the bus laughing and waving farewell to the crying campers.
Our last week at camp, the staff took inventory of the bikes, pup tents, compasses, and craft supplies and packed up for the season. We also had time to enjoy each other’s company, something we couldn’t afford to do while we had campers to tend to. Our farewell dinner was held at a local restaurant, where we toasted the summer as a success, exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and promised to keep in touch. At evening’s end, Misty lead the staff in a rousing version of the camp song:
Cheer Camp May Flather’s name
Lift up your voices
Shout so each distant mountain echoes rejoices
Clear as the skies above
Keep her traditions
Live that our camp may ever acclaim her proud, fair name.
The next morning, Gail’s mother came to pick us up.
“How was it?” she asked as we loaded our duffel bags and other possessions into her car. “Do you think you’ll come back next year?”
Gail and I looked at each and smiled.
“Not a chance,” we said in unison.