After my family had returned from Hawaii in 1976, and my father had been accepted back on the Lutheran clergy roster, he’d gotten a job at a Bible camp outside of Story City, Iowa. We were only there three years before he was asked to step down, but it had been a fun place to be a kid, right on the cusp of adolescence.
There were campers all summer long. The counselors were mostly college kids. There was a swimming pool and rec center, with foosball, air hockey, and pool tables, a snack stand that I worked at, a river, a pond, a lagoon, canoes, kayaks, paddle boats, air rifles, bow and arrows, even a horse stable. We were neither in town, nor were we on a farm. We’d always lived in a world of our own.
The plan was to head straight to Riverside Bible Camp first thing in the morning. I broke camp before sunrise and got on the road, taking the 29 to the 80 east. It took three and a half hours to get there.
The first thing I saw pulling into Story City was the grain elevator that I’d climbed to the top of with some friends in junior high. Beyond that was the water tower. It was another town so small that many of the stores on Main Street had gone out of business, outflanked by larger retailers and online shopping. I passed the high school and swimming pool, then tracked down the elementary school where John and I had been enrolled. Our brother Luke had still been too young for school, and sister, Grace, wouldn’t be born until the next year.
It is just a few miles from the town to the camp. I drove by the house we used to live in and past the new swimming pool. The camp had originally been built on the flood plain of the South Skunk River, which used to flood on an annual basis. Much of it, had been rebuilt on a higher bluff, leaving some of the old buildings to rot. Things looked in rough shape. I parked in front of the old cafeteria, which looked deserted, and crossed the footbridge over to the basketball court. The river was just a muddy trickle. The pond on the other side had evaporated. No more paddleboats.
Crossing back over, I walked up to the iconic Chapel, the image of which serves as part of the camp logo. Beside it was the good old hill, with the firepit for late night worship sessions. It was hard to tell if the chapel was still in use or not. I looked through the windows, remembering church services, concerts, and talent shows. So far, I hadn’t seen one single person on the campgrounds.
What I’d been calling meditation on this trip had largely just been struggling to sit still and stay in the moment. If I couldn’t sit still, I called it a walking meditation, and since I rarely managed to stay in the moment, a lot of times it was just walking and thinking. To be back at the Bible Camp, seemed like a good occasion to do some kind of reflection, maybe offer up one of the prayers I’d rehearsed in my life and actually try to mean it. I sat on a bench out front of the chapel, and thought about my father, the pastor, up there at the pulpit, directing things through thick and thin. One time a few of the campers had egged my youngest brother into booing him.
A cold wind immediately blew in my face. There’d been so many storms in Iowa, intense thunder and lightning storms, great tornadoes that upended the camp and sent canoes flying through the air, blizzards so thick in the winter, you couldn’t see the road ahead of you. The leaves were changing all around me. They rustled across the empty volleyball court. There were now soccer nets. They hadn’t been there before. A ridge ran through the playground, some construction project that had left a scar. There was the old slide. Once during a tornado, I’d seen it flapping in the wind.
Not far off, I could hear the sound of cars on the 35 south. I closed my eyes and saw the movement of sunlight and leaves. There used to be tractor tires at the foot of the hill. We’d push them up to the top, get inside, and then roll ourselves down, end over end, a thrill that couldn’t even be matched by an amusement park ride. The danger was real. It wouldn’t have been hard to get knocked out cold. The tires were gone now. Too much liability, I imagine. Everything is too much liability now. You can’t even hurt someone’s feelings without getting sued.
Back in the time, before drugs and alcohol, right around the time that rock and roll entered the picture, all our thrills came from playing rough and getting hurt. Turning the air rifles on each other. Jumping our bikes into a ditch, solely for the crash. Up on the top of the grain elevator, dancing near the edge. Oh my God. That makes me dizzy just to think about. Climbing in the tractor tire, saying you were ready, then starting to roll. In the world we were living in, it was one of the few things that made sense. You knew why you were being tossed around and knew that it would stop. When you got out and staggered to your feet, you belonged to the clan, those who were willing to take a risk and roll the dice.
One day the Skunk River flooded so bad, that we had to get up in the middle of the night and sandbag all night long. I went down and saw a few bloated dead pigs, bobbing down the river like driftwood. Now there wasn’t enough water in the river to call it a river. I got up and walked towards the car. Next stop, Kansas City.