Summer memories: Helicopters over Waldemar

Camp Waldemar | Mary Lee writes
When I was twelve, my grandfather’s cousin Jesse and her husband, who was always referred to as Mr. Ragsdale, made a wintertime visit to Jonesboro. They owned and operated a jewelry store in Smithville, Texas, and had become involved with Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas, by selling medals and mementos to the camp.

Camp Waldemar was founded in 1926 and is still in operation. Located in the Hill Country on the Guadalupe River, it is an amazing place. At the time I attended, it was owned and operated by a devoted woman named Doris Johnson, a legend in girls’ summer camps. The chefs were named U.S. and Lucille. They were an African-American couple, and so creative that their menu would be competitive with today’s most popular restaurants.

Cousin Jesse had visited often during my childhood and was the one person who seemed to keenly sense the loneliness and unhappiness that I felt. She dared to express her concern to my parents and suggested a summer term at Waldemar. At that time, the camp offered two six-week terms during the summer, and parents were only allowed one visit during the session – Field Day, which was scheduled half-way through the term.

I was “accepted” by a little nudging, as most of the girls from Arkansas were second-generation campers. Several of the parents knew each other socially and were from Little Rock.

The day before I was to leave for Texas, my parents drove to Little Rock where we spent the night. The next morning, we went to the train station where I boarded a train for the first time, beginning my Texas adventure. Talk about lonely – it felt as if everyone else had a best friend, with lots of hugging and squealing, and some tears from me.

We arrived in San Antonio the next morning, where we were met by a bus with other campers and driven on a tour around the city. Lunch was in a big dining room at the old St. Anthony Hotel. Then we boarded the bus once more to go to Hunt. The girls sang all the way, camp songs and other songs I’d never heard. Such excitement, and I just wished to be a little more part of it instead of an onlooker.

When we arrived at camp, we were assigned to our cabins, eight in each. The shower and toilets were located down the hill. Such lack of privacy for an only child who had never been away from home!

In about a week, I was making friends and adjusting to the schedules. I loved riflery and horseback riding. The counsellors were wonderful. I was finding a real talent for archery. Swimming in the river was new to me and challenging. I was beginning to feel free and happy with new experiences. Movie nights were great fun, and chapel by the river was inspirational. There were three tribes at camp to help the competitive spirit, and I was a Tejas. Once a week we climbed the hill to a campfire with only our “tribe,” singing our spirit songs and planning strategy. All good healthy fun.

And then, on a weekday afternoon, I was called to the office. When I arrived there from class (terrified, as you were only interrupted for an emergency) there stood my mother and father. I was dumbfounded. They had arrived there, disobeying the “no visitors” rule, and my mother told me that my father had come home from the Post Office with a letter from me and said he couldn’t stand it any longer, that they had to go to Texas.

To make it even more confusing, my grandparents, Mary Emma and Eugene Barton, had accompanied them. They had rooms about two miles from camp and told me they would be there until camp was over. That was another month.

They were the original helicopter parents and grandparents. They came uninvited to every happening at camp, they came to movie nights, they climbed Tejas hill, though Mother would get short of breath and have to sit on a stump part way up. In so many words, they took away my freedom and my independence. I do not know how they got by with this, and there is no telling what they told the director to be allowed to intrude in this way. I could not leave the boundaries of the camp, so I didn’t even see their lodging until camp was over.

I would be riding on a trail, loving the countryside from my horse, and one of the girls would ask the counselor, “Who is that man filming us?” It was creepy to them. When I think of horseback rides, I see a movie camera. I tried barrel racing – and there was the camera once more. Rifle range, there was the camera. I felt trapped in the middle of a wonderland.

We occasionally had barbecue served on long tables outside. My grandparents loved those meals, and there were hurt feelings if I indicated I would sit with my friends.

All of this attention and questions from the girls about my family made me feel different and that I could never be just one of the girls. I didn’t do my best at any of the sports I loved for fear of being criticized. My father always had a suggestion for improvement, and I longed to be applauded by him one time. I just existed as a camper.

The last day, we drove to the motel and then on to San Antonio for a few days. Neither of my grandparents were in good health, and I barely remember that part of the summer. My cocker spaniel, Rusty, was at home to greet me, and that was the happiest day for me. My father had left him running loose outside, and our cook, Spot, came each day for over a month to feed him. When I left for camp, there had been four adults promising to take care of him. Bless my Rusty’s heart, he was a survivor also.

Deep in the heart of Texas

Deep in the heart of Texas