What I Learned at Summer Camp: Old-Fashioned Ballads Are Powerful Stuff

August 12, 2015 | By | Comments (0)

This three part series features the reflections of three Southern writers on trail rides, campfires, confidence, nostalgia, and slow dancing for the first time. Photographs were taken at Falling Creek Camp and Camp Glen Arden in North Carolina and Camp McDowell in Alabama.

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There was always music at Camp Thunderbird on the shores of Lake Wylie in South Carolina, where my younger brother and I were campers in the early 1990s. Reveille in the morning. Taps in the evening. And always on the last night of each session, a coed dance. Alternative music at that time had suddenly found itself in the mainstream, and songs like R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” allowed the dances to devolve into mysterious slam sessions. As the strobe lights flashed, sweaty teens hurled themselves toward one another like so many protons and neutrons.

But the dances always ended with classic ballads. With the windows of the darkened, no air-conditioned hall flung wide and warm breezes rolling off the lake, we slow danced to songs like “Unchained Melody” and “Stand by Me,” girls’ hands on boys’ shoulders and boys’ hands on girls’ waists. It was the closest most of us boys had ever been to a female who wasn’t our mother or grandmother. And while that closeness and darkness and warm breeze kindled a feeling that we probably didn’t understand, I recognize it now as an awareness that the evening would soon become nostalgia for a lost time. The lifting of canoes onto shore. The shuttering of the dance halls’ windows against the humid night. Voices rising from the darkness, calling out our good-byes to one another as we returned to our cabins with the knowledge that summer was over and that tomorrow’s reveille would be our last.

Wiley Cash is the New York Times best- selling author of A Land More Kind than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife and daughter.


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