Note: If you have not read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I recommend it. The book came out in 2009 and the movie comes out August 10-12. The main character Skeeter opens a world for the ladies of The Help so that they can tell their story through a New York publishing house. Through her, their spirits thrive outside their town. I love the book for how I can relate to Skeeter. For me, it was Uncle Jack who served as my Skeeter, a connection to a world view outside of our small town where we lived. He gave me assurance I could thrive in a space outside the status quo. In all fairness to my small town, it had a lot to offer and I thrived. However, it was Uncle Jack who saw the “spark to keep the fire burning” (from the song “Pass It On” one of my favorite camp songs) and to him, I am so grateful. I have changed names, events, and places, but the following story is based on a vivid childhood experience.
I wrote this last year about a month after “Camp in the Hill Country.” Again, I want to repost just because I want to continue the theme of outdoor education and it’s very important impact.
One small town in the South is such a well kept secret. It was the place of my idyllic childhood from ages eight to thirteen. I walked to school. I got
to go to the school library on Friday afternoons and check out a chapter book that I devoured before the end of the weekend. We attended the First Presbyterian church. I took piano lessons. I swam during the summers at the community pool. I took tennis lessons. We lived in a four bedroom, two bath home that sat next to some woods where all the kids in the neighborhood played. I was a Camp Fire Girl and my mother was the leader. The schools were wonderful and I loved my teachers. Our small town even had a symphony. My mother bought tickets on occasion and would take me. We attended ballets and also, there was the Floral Festival. Annually, I gaped at the beautiful floats bedecked in flowers and stood in awe of the current Floral Queen and her princess court that celebrated the beautiful flowers of our small town.
Our small town was also, a place of very conservative politics. Conservative churches and civic leaders included members of a right wing political group. The milkman who was a frequent visitor to our house would come in through the back door bringing milk to our refrigerator for our family of six. He would engage my mother in friendly conversation. And, he brought something else besides milk. He brought enthusiastic updates on the activities of this group. She listened with interest, but I even knew as a child that this was something my parents would not join. Membership in our community was wide. My parents’ friends included families employed by the company that brought us to our small town. They were not members either.
Another family friend was Uncle Jack. He was not a company co-worker of my dad. He was not a sibling of my father or mother, but he had an engaging personality and handsome appearance standing tall with white hair. He was from an Eastern school and authored textbooks on Outdoor Education while at the university where he taught before coming to our small town. He and his wife invited our family out to the country to their home. It was a very small frame house that accommodated Uncle Jack, Pat, his wife and their sons. I understand now that he was an important educator for the schools of our small town, but as a child I only knew he was a good friend of my parents. I loved visiting them and all children called him Uncle Jack. In the small living room of the frame house, we listened to recordings of the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Chad Mitchell Trio. They sang smart lyrics with upbeat social messages.
Aside from this slightly political lesson, and more importantly, I learned about the Great Outdoors. During Uncle Jack’s tenure, elementary classrooms visited “the farm.” Third and fourth graders attended this field trip for a day. Fifth graders went for two days spending the night in cabins. And, sixth graders went for a week.
During the sixth grade I went there to spend a week. Pat took us to the hen house to gather eggs in the mornings. She encouraged us to just slip our hands under the warm bellies of these hens to retrieve an egg. The warmth of their feathers felt good those fall mornings. Pat instructed us on building check dams to fortify some areas around the lake that were eroding. She led us on nature walks.
One morning she stopped us as we hiked a trail and announced. “Everyone be quiet. I am about to show you something you will probably never ever see again in your life.”
What could it be?
“I am going to show you a lizard shedding his skin.” She was right. That is the only time I have ever witnessed such an event. Since that day, I have marveled at Pat’s eye to notice such a rare occurrence to the human eye. Of course, lizards shed routinely, but for us to witness it and even capture it with our Brownie cameras was rare.
The week was paradise for us. No books, no homework, no playground cliques. We went to the post office to collect letters from home and purchase
snacks. We had chores that had to be completed. We made our beds willingly. We picked up clothes, swept the floors even under the beds, and put away toiletries willingly so that we could vie for the chance to be the cleanest cabin. We set the table and cleared the dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We sang songs at our tables after dinner. Those songs still resonate and bring warm memories.
At the end of the week we observed the closing of our time together with a small ceremony around the fireplace at the lodge. Uncle Jack told us about the importance of preserving our environment and not being wasteful. He told us a story about a family looking for a Christmas tree. They were undecided about which of two trees would look best in their house. So, they decided to take both of them to place one and discard the other. The insightful answer he gave us is obvious, but I am so grateful Uncle Jack was the one who instructed us and explained this to us.
At the conclusion of his talk he announced that one of us was chosen to leave our mark in the main lodge. By the fireplace were branding irons with the distinct brand of various elementary schools. In the rafters of the great cabin lodge hung huge pieces of lumber that bore the distinct branded traces of each elementary school in the district representing each weekly visit. My school had its own unique brand. We had voted the previous night before going to bed for the student who would have the honor of burning our brand on a piece of lumber. I could hardly believe it when Uncle Jack announced that this student was me! I remember I had voted for my best friend. It never occurred to me it could be me. (My parents had never sponsored a Floral Queen or Princess and had never joined the right wing group.) Together, Uncle Jack and I, placed the brand on the board and with his strength leaned in to leave our class mark.
I am so grateful for this wonderful man’s influence. Even at 11 I felt the pressure of small town politics that had the possibility of excluding me. With his strength I felt included.