With day one (and a flip-flop frog murder) behind me, days two through five unrolled at much the same pace at Wiregrass Christian Youth Camp – breakfast, chapel, arts/crafts, lunch, rest time, swimming, shower time, evening meal, more chapel and then lights out. The highlight of the day, for me, fell somewhere after rest time and before dinner. The canteen was actually a small hut with one wall and a partial roof with a counter that wrapped around from side to side. On the counter were boxes and plastic bins filled with treats sent directly from heaven down to Coffee County, Alabama.

All day I would bolster myself through long minutes sitting in a pool of my own sweat in the chapel trying to focus on Joseph and his evil brothers and the tossing and turning, anything but restful, rest time where the air seemed to hang over the entire cabin like a drooping mosquito net and through shower time where I lingered in the toilet area because absolutely nothing in the world could entice me to chance another frog encounter in the shower. Wasn’t a dip in the chlorine water of the pool close enough to a bath anyway?

Finally, canteen would be declared open, and we would pour down the hill in droves, mouths watering for the bounty that awaited us. Giant Pixy Stix, M&M’s, Snickers bars, Rice Krispy treats, Bottle Caps, Now and Laters, Razzles, Pop Rocks and Orange Crush sodas. There were bottles of root beer as well, and I remember the first time I tried one. The name alone was a bit confusing to me because we had spent the better part of the week being told that alcohol was an absolute sin and was best avoided at all costs. Yet, right here in front of God and everybody in Coffee County, sat dozens of cold cans of soda that proclaimed itself to be at the very least beer-like. Feeling brave, I opened one and took a long swallow. The taste reminded me of dirty socks with a hint of old-fashion medicine. “No wonder alcohol is a sin,” I thought. “Only the devil himself would come up with such a combination.”

I drank at least a dozen of those devil concoctions that week. I liked living on the edge.

Toward the end of the week, we were told that there would be a Sadie Hawkins night the following evening. It was explained to us girls that we would be choosing from the boy campers our companions for dinner and the skit night that followed.

The counselors watched us all expectantly as they dropped this bombshell. I’m not sure what reaction they were expecting, but let’s just say the news landed like a lead balloon.

We all looked at each other with so many questions in our eyes. Choose a boy?? Companion for dinner? Who on earth is Sadie Hawkins?

We were assured that this would be “so much fun” and then sent to bed to ponder the fate that awaited us. “Lights out” was called; Lori did her nightly dance with the falling bugs on her bed; and the whispers began. “Do we have to choose a boy?” “Does this mean he’s our boyfriend?”

I lay in my bunk taking a mental survey of the boys at camp. To be honest, they were more a side note than something I’d paid close attention to. Boys were gross. They smelled funny. And they were always burping and poking bugs with sticks and racing each other all over the place. Overall, they were obnoxious but unavoidable – mosquitoes but with gangly legs and body odor.

I had, however, noticed a boy about my age who was smaller than the rest. He had dark wavy hair and a nice smile. If I had been pressed to admit it, I would have said he was cute. But when my mind tried to paint a picture of me choosing him and being “companions,” all I could see was me dressing him up and combing his hair, generally just petting him like the monkey I so longed for to dress up and play with and call my own.

Just before sleep, another face came to mind. There was a certain counselor – Lance was his name. He had blond hair that looked just like one of the teen idols in my Tiger Beat magazine. His deep tan and white teeth made him look like he belonged on a surf board in California. He wore cowboy boots and made them look more city than country. He could sing with a deep baritone that made chill bumps climb my arms. And I knew that he would be the only boy I could choose with any honesty.

And so we lined up the next evening, all whispers and nervous giggles. The boys walked slowly onto the field opposite the females. And we stood and stared at each other. Silence fell. No one knew what to say or do. A counselor stepped forward and cleared her throat. “Go ahead, girls. Don’t be shy. Just walk up to the boy you choose and introduce yourself.”

I scanned the row of boys, searching for counselor Lance. He was nowhere to be seen. One brave girl stepped forward and made her choice. Girl after girl followed suit. To say it was an awkward few minutes doesn’t come close to telling you the depth of every single camper’s discomfort. This was not “so much fun” as we had been promised. This was one of those coming of age moments where you realize that grown-ups have amnesia when it comes to being a kid. They have no idea what constitutes fun.

When it became clear that I would be the last girl to choose a boy if I didn’t make my feet move forward, I crossed the field and found the small boy with the dark hair and nice smile. He seemed even less enthused than I was, but took my hand and accepted his fate. If I couldn’t pick counselor Lance to sit with me at dinner and watch the talent show, at least I could close my eyes and pretend I truly did have a pet monkey.

I don’t remember the dinner that last night or even much of the talent show I participated in. I do remember, however, that my “date” wore a powder blue suit and brought me a flower he had picked behind the canteen. My little girl heart flushed at the sight of that flower in his hand. It was the first moment I entertained the idea that boys weren’t completely gross after all.

Camp ended as it always did, and parents drove back to The Pavilion to load us all up and drive us home. All the girls hugged. The boys threw rocks at each other. It was very emotional. And then I found myself in the way back of the station wagon, waiting to pass the Boll Weevil statue, feeling exhausted and missing my friends already. But there was also confusion around the edges of my thoughts. I’d heard that week for the thousandth time the evils of alcohol but had indulged in root beer wondering which of those conflicting flavors was the actual beer. I’d huddled under a beach towel bigger than the bunk I slept on, keeping myself covered and isolated from male eyes, but then had turned around and been told to pick one of them for my very own. Last but not least, there was the whole counselor Lance vs boy/monkey date. I liked them both and didn’t know yet how to sort that out.

If I could go back to that car ride home from camp and tell myself a few things, it would be this:

There are always going to be both sides of any choice, and it will never get any easier, but maybe this will help:

Choose the dark, wavy-haired guys.

Root beer isn’t alcoholic … actual beer tastes even worse.

And forget about wanting a pet monkey … it won’t go well. 

Happy summer, everyone!