A Camp Story

Camp just wasn’t the same this year. The sight of my mom pulling out of the Camp Angel parking lot still burns deep within my memory; my head on a swivel as the tires squeaked increasingly more softly as the Ford four door disappeared upon the horizon.

Not long after her presence turned to memory the camp counselors spoke to me. Not in person and not over loud speaker, but rather their words were etched across the sky in Arial 5000 point.

“Campers,” it read, “Camp will NOT be held at Camp Angel this year. Please put the address written in the sky into your GPS and follow it to the new camp destination.”

The message vanished like it was shaken like an Etch A Sketch and the hidden knobs must have twisted to reveal the address:

Punya & Kristen
Educ 817
Msu, Edu

What the heck kind of address is that?” I thought. Shaking my head, I punished my phone’s keyboard with my thumbs to make it realize my intentions. As I clicked enter the winds blew fiercely, knocking me off my feet. As my elbow skidded across the pavement I felt the distinctive cool burn of my flesh betraying me. It would be a sign of things to come.

I looked up from the ground and my eyes met a train. I was astonished because I had not heard a sound, but there it was. It was jet black in color with a red number, 55, tattooed across the locomotive’s broad side. A door opened on the third car from the front. A ladder spilt out from the void this created and a man called to me from the shadow of the interior.

He barked, “ALLLLLLL AAAABOOOOOAAAAARRRRDDD, LAST TRAIN OF THE NIGHT!” I shuffled to my feet and dragged my belongings toward the shadow man. When I got to the door, I shouted up to the shadow. “Where ya headin?” I asked. He said, “The destination is in the journey, hold on for the ride.”

That shouldn’t have gotten me on that train, but there was literally nothing and no one left at camp. So reluctantly, I climbed up the steps and felt my way around the inside. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness the interior details started to take shape. A playground and swings, a ropes course, and a lake! An entire lake was inside this train, I kid you not! Although this appeared like the journey to camp, in actuality camp had subverted the ride.

This was my first venture beyond the Angel fences. I had grown so accustom to its familiar surroundings with its green lawn boarder and the nestled thread meeting rooms. I had always bemoaned its shortcomings in years past but now I longed for its shallow waters again. The new camp was excitingly new and overwhelming at the same time. Posters were everywhere, expounding the virtues of design. Enigmatic in quality; I could sense their importance but couldn’t grasp the why nor the how. I felt bombarded. I would have to rethink everything I had ever known camp to be.

The camp grounds were littered with campers already. I recognized some familiar faces and I was excited that there were strange ones as well. Perhaps the greatest joy of camp is meeting new people. Two counselors appeared like stealthy hunters from the bush. No one quite knew who they were or where they came from. They marched into camp with a banner in hand, each grasping the fabric in hand at the two upper corners. The base color was white with a perfect yellow circle plopped in the middle. Adorning the circle was black script that was painted in quick rigid strokes, forming the letters ‘PK’.

They spoke in one voice like visitors from another planet and it was often difficult to distinguish the source of each voice. “Those are your quarters,” they said in unison as they pointed to a cabin on the horizon, “Please claim a bunk and stow away your belongings. Your first task of the day is a poem of sorts, 55 words… no more, no less. Make it a story and you will be sharing it at dinner tonight!”

We scurried up to the cabin in a race for the best bunk and because of the urgency a few stumbles occurred; sending many Jacks and Jills tumbling down to the base of the hill. Those of us who avoided the missteps and bumps charged through the door. I took two giant steps and a dive into the bottom bunk on the far wall opposite the door. Bunk beds are strange inventions, conserving space like stacked tupperware in a cupboard. On the top it’s too hot and I fear for my safety because I toss and turn all through the night. If I don’t actually fall, I still dream of falling, so I spend the night restless awake from the fear. I find it odd that the only users of bunk beds are prisoners and children. I wonder what this says of how adults think of us? Shaking this thought out of my mind, I exhaled loudly and proudly. I kicked my feet up and rested my hands behind my head. Here the comfort of the bottom bunk lulled me into unwilling slumber. Little did I know, this was the last moment of relaxation I would be enjoying this week.

It seemed like a mere moment, that I was awoken by the repeated clang of the dinner bell. I sprang to my feet as adrenaline shot through my body. I had slept away 55 words it had seemed. I reached for my bag, peeled back the zipper, and thrust my whole arm inside it. I felt around inside for the tools to complete my assignment. My arm swam around a baseball mitt, a pack of chewing gum, and the biggest ball of lint that I’ve ever encountered! A bag with compartments would come in handy, I thought, so I could organize this mess of belongings a bit better. Eventually, at the bottom of the bag I felt the glossy cardboard cover and the cool metal binding of my spiral notebook. While removing it from my bag I noticed that a pencil was jammed in the spiral binding. “Score!” I yelped, as I removed the pencil from the notebook in a sword in the stone like fashion. I wonder, did they design the spiral with storage in mind or was it a serendipitous discovery by some brave student in a math class somewhere?

Now the question was, what should I write? Should I write to inform, entertain, or some combination of both? My purpose, I felt, should be to connect to everyday experiences. Surely other campers share parts of my personal story. Yet to tell something that has already been told would be pointless and boring. This narrowed my focus even more. The genre of writing would be ‘slice of life’ in nature, something that many readers will see in themselves. However, despite the commonality being instantly noticeable it is only noticed by the reader when they read my 55 words.

Why do I always make things difficult on myself? Already short on time and on words to be used, how would I figure out what to do for such narrowly constrained topic? I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone and asked Google for help. “55 word stories,” I submitted my query and all sorts of stuff popped up. I clicked on the first link which was a Wikipedia page by the name of ’55 Fiction’ which basically described my assignment. I was shocked to find out that a man named Steve Moss is credited with it’s creation back in 1987. Clicking on his name, I was led to the Steve Moss domain on Wikipedia. His middle name was Donnellan (What a name!) and he was a founder of the San Luis Obispo New Times. I use the past-tense word ‘was’ because Steve Moss died in 2005, he was 56. The article said he died from complications of epilepsy, I didn’t know what that was so I clicked on the word. The Epilepsy Wikipedia page taught me that a person with epilepsy experiences reoccurring seizures. I bet Steve Moss died while having a seizure.

This new knowledge was great, but it didn’t help me with my assignment… or did it? I couldn’t possibly write 55 words about Steve Moss, I doubt it would be relatable to the average user. His creativity and mortality could be relatable subjects, but how could I turn these themes into a story? I started to reflect on how I just learned what I learned; Wikipedia was no new adventure. I cracked open my notebook and put pencil to paper, self reflection took the form of a story:

Wikipedia is my guilty pleasure. I use it and abuse it. Rarely, if ever, do I finish an article in it’s entirety. Rather I click so many links that my purpose reroutes entirely. I sink into my rabbit hole of fragmented information download, and only poke my head up if the TV returns from commercial.

I was thinking of my latest actions in addition to how I’ve slipped into Wikipedia comas in the past; subverting television commercials with the serendipitous absorption of loosely connected information. When I was done writing I counted the words, they reached 55, perfect. I glanced at the clock and I was five minutes late. I raced down the hill to share what I had wrote in hopes someone would find it interesting.

We sat around a big circular table where everyone could see one another. On each of the chairs was a tablet computer; each with a camper’s first name illuminated on the screen. Clearly this meant that there was assigned seating so I searched to find my spot. When I found my name illuminated in lights I reached out to touch the device. I gave it a pull and heard the rip of the velcro that was tethering it to the chair. The screen went black and I saw my reflection; smiling I took my seat.

Once all of us were seated the tablets illuminated once again in unison with a video message from PK: “Share your designs,” they said, “and provide the artists with feedback on what you liked and tell them why their work met your interest.” Then the screens went black again.

After a brief moment of silence and a few awkward glances, we began to read our works out loud so that all could hear. I was surprised the variety of stories that could be told in 55 words. I was also surprised at how my words were interpreted by others. They added layers of meaning that I had not even thought of, deepening my words without making revision. In fact, I think I may like their meanings better than my own.

The screens of the tablets lit up again, with the PK logo prominently displayed. As the logo faded to black, scrolling text reminiscent of Star Wars took its place:

“You were expecting to attend camp and this most likely is not what you expected. It looks like a camp and acts like a camp but it’s not quite a camp because things are peculiar. Is it something familiar that’s strange or something strange that’s familiar? I guess the answer to that is half-way up to you.”

When the message stopped scrolling we all looked beyond one another; like eight year old computers still processing the message. I didn’t grasp it then, I don’t know if I fully do now, but there’s a lot of truth in the balance of strange and familiar. Too much strange could cause someone to be frightened or angry. Too much familiarity and that same person could be bored… or maybe it’s comfort. What was strange yesterday is familiar today and it seems impossible to gauge the human reaction to any given stimulus. Yet there exists things that are popular, which means the process isn’t completely random. Somewhere in the balance of these two opposites is enjoyment, engagement, and interest. To get the most out of this week, I would need to hit this moving target.

In the midst of the silence came the wisp of an arrow. It sailed over our heads and bore itself deep into a tree on the edge of the shadows behind us. The thud and vibration shook us from collective contemplation. It was clear we were under attack! I rushed to the forest out of instinct; the undergrowth cut through my shins as I raced through it. I ran so fast that all I could hear was the rhythmic thump of my feet and my heart beat in my ears. About a half mile into my workout, something stuck up from the forest floor and tripped me at the ankle. I assume it was a log or a rock but to this moment I remain unsure. My stumble was perfectly placed at the top of a hill and it started my journey to the bottom of it. Along the way down I bumped my head and blacked out from the impact.

When I awoke, the sun was intruding upon the forest through the tiny cracks in the canopy. I wonder, if there were no trees would we understand the concept of shade? Did the sun’s heat itself inspire the creation of umbrellas and other UV safe havens, or were these things modeled after the natural design of the tree? Thinking a bit more I realized it is not just the energy blocking ability of trees that we have copied, it is their energy harnessing functionality as well. Photosynthesis in trees and other vegetation takes in the sun’s energy to sustain life. Solar panels harness energy too in much the same way, converting the sun’s rays to electricity to power homes and businesses. Now I’ve even been hearing that engineers are developing new solar panel designs that more closely resemble the look of a tree. The logic in this is that many small flexible panels that resemble the leaves of a tree, versus the big traditional slabs, can harness the power of the wind in addition to solar energy. This got me thinking is the tree nature’s only inspiration to biomimetics? If not, what other designs has nature inspired?

For one, we wouldn’t have velcro if it wasn’t for the annoyance of the cocklebur latching on to a Swiss Engineer’s clothing after a hike. Amazing how one man’s annoyance can be another man’s patent idea! Similarly fisherman nets are seemingly inspired by the spider’s web; both used to trap prey. Would we have suction cups if it were not for amphibians or the octopus? Surely synthetic recreations of their anatomies make it easier to replace large panes of glass, climb tall buildings, or at least affix my soap rack to the wall of my shower. Speedo has designed a swim suit that is engineered to mimic the skin of a shark which allows water to pass over the animal’s body with very little drag.

As I lay there on the forest floor, with a debilitating headache to rival or surpass any other I have ever had, I continued to contemplate. What is the role of originality in the design of things we use on a daily basis? Is it creating something entirely new, inspired by nothing before it? Or is originality also employing a combination of old things to accomplish something new? So much has been inspired by nature yet still more innovation is borne from human innovation that is re-imagined and repurposed. The world is a remix. Most all the components are known commodities at this point, how it impacts our lives all depends on how we fit these components together.

I rolled myself over on to my stomach and crawled to the nearest tree. Weak from the fall, I used the tree to help me to stand. Still very much cloudy of mind, I slowly looked around to assess my situation. The hill from which I fell the night before was directly in front of me, which now that I see it in daylight was really a cliff. It was a wall of rock that rose about 20 feet high. I really wonder how I even survived. From behind me I heard the sound of running water, splashing its way down stream.

I ventured down to the river and knelt down facing it. I cupped the cool clear liquid into my palms, splashing it on my face. Refreshing my spirits, I turned my thoughts toward last night’s events. I needed to venture back up the cliff to see what was going on back at the camp. Who shot the arrow and where were all of the campers?

Just at this moment another arrow whizzed by my face, lodging itself by a stone in the stream. I rolled to my feet and slid myself behind the nearest bolder that could shield my whole frame. Peeking around the side of the rock I looked up in the direction that the arrow had sailed from. I caught glimpse of the archer on top of the cliff but couldn’t make out his or her face because it was concealed by a mask in the style of the Japanese Shogunate. All I knew was that it was an arrow assassin! Before the assassin turned and vanished amongst the trees, I caught a glimpse of a shoulder patch that looked familiar. A perfect yellow circle with the letters ‘PK’ brushed in the middle!

Why would the counselors attack their own campers? Surely there must be some explanation. Yet the reality now is that I couldn’t return to camp unless I was willing to take part in a fight. I started walking away from the cliff and beyond the refreshing stream, ducking behind every tree on the way. If the arrow assassin’s first attack at the camp didn’t leave me paranoid, I certainly was now after round two.

After about an hour of walking I caught the faint stench of smoke from the west. I turned my eyes upward and sure enough, a steady column of grey smoke was rising above the treetops in the distance. I approached the location of the smoke slowly because I no longer knew who I could trust. As I got closer I could see that by the fire there had been a shelter built. On the fire, there was a spit constructed from sticks that fell from nearby trees. On the spit was what appeared to be a large bird, a pheasant perhaps? It really didn’t matter what it once was because it was dinner now and my stomach started pulling me towards it.

As I vacated my cover to satisfy my salvation, someone shouted, “Hey!” from inside the shelter. Three bodies emerged withCheshire Cat grins, I thought I was surely done for. In each of their hands they carried makeshift wooden spears. As they approached, I looked closer at their faces and I realized that they were familiar. Their large grins had no malice, they were genuine smiles because these three were fellow displaced campers!

“Hello there,” they said, “you look so very weary. Please won’t you stay? We’ve plenty to eat and we would love to share in your company!”

For sure I agreed to their request. I was starving for food and it comforted me to be with friends once again. We devoured the bird and drank plenty of cold water as we laid around the campfire half lucid. I shared my experience from earlier that day. How the arrow assassin either was, or was working for, the camp counselors.

“That’s a bunch of non-sense,” one of the campers said to me. “Yeah, for real it must be your imagination,” said another. The last camper to speak stood up and said in a deep voice, “I think I can explain it.” He took a deep breath and continued his lecture. My mind started to replay the events as he said:

“There was no arrow assassin. Not at the camp and not in the forest. Its presence in your mind represents the stress of expectations to complete your design. It only bares the councilors’ logo because subconsciously you misplace the blame upon them. High expectations and required form can make the task difficult, but it alone cannot kill creativity. Keep your work thoughtful and strive to be accessible within the structure provided. Yet, never forget the artist has license to sometimes neglect the audience’s wants, to give them what they need.”

The dinner bell clang and it startled me awake. I was back in that bottom bunk in the cabin at campgrounds. In fact, I had never left this bed. It seemed all that had happened was just a dream.

I calmly rose from the bed, grabbed a pencil and paper from my book bag, and once again began writing my 55 words. This time, for the first time:

The designer works diligently in his workshop. He’s had his core idea for months. Yet he carefully crafts his design, keeping in mind his students’ response. He’s half artist and half engineer, creatively structuring thought. His best work is appreciated by going unnoticed, allowing thoughts to flow without obstruction. Makes learning fun because it is.

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