It’s also demanded a bevy of camp songs. Conveniently, I have quite the collection. And I have one woman to thank for my repertoire.
Her name is Sally Williams.
If I close my eyes, I am instantly transported to a blisteringly hot Texas summer night. It’s overnight camp at the Christian Community of God’s Delight. I’m dressed in a shorts romper made from yellow terrycloth material. My white tube socks are pulled up to my knees, tinted a greenish hue from the powdered sulfur treatment that is supposed to ward off chiggers. I’m sunburned and sporting an unfortunate bowl haircut which frames a mouth missing several teeth. The early 1980s weren’t great to me.
I’m sitting on a log next to my best friend, Chrissy. The entire camp is gathered in a horseshoe around a teepee-shaped bonfire which fills the air with smoke and flame. Intense heat emanates in almost visible waves from the red-hot logs. And Sally Williams is leading us in camp songs as the sun fades behind the horizon.
Her range is astounding, the variety quite choice. She has a seemingly endless playlist of nonsensical songs with unusual hand motions and gestures. Everyone is having a blast as the night grows dark and the crickets begin their nightly chorus. To finish off the evening, Sally pulls out a camp favorite: “Oom, Plucka Plucka”, a lovely ditty about premeditated murder and the eternal consequences of unrequited love. Perfect selection for a children’s Bible camp.
Anyways, Sally has thrown herself into the song. With gusto. When she hits the line “sizzle and fry”, she bends her arms and legs at unnatural angles. Her entire face contorts into amazing shapes. Her eyeballs roll in opposite directions. With balletic grace she dances the phrase “flip flop she flied” on tiptoes. On the last verse she wags her finger with moral certitude as she tells us to “never tell lies”.
It’s a performance for the ages.
If you are smiling as you read this, or perhaps singing along, you are one of the lucky ones. Count yourself among the blessed if you know exactly what I am talking about. Even more so if you were present that night.
I remember sitting there completely mesmerized, singing at the top of my lungs. And I thought: this woman has it. Like, it’s a super power, to sing camp songs like this. It may be the first time that I set a personal goal in my life: if I could sing camp songs like Sally Williams one day, I will know that I have arrived.
Fast forward 40+ years. And I did arrive. In the blood draw lab at the children’s hospital. With my special needs child and her congenital heart condition. 9 tests are necessary for her pending open heart surgery. And we need some blood. Quite a bit actually.
I’m kneeling on a chair, holding Becky down and trying to distract her from the alcohol swabs and needles. Two phlebotomists are bending over the table, shoulder-to-shoulder in their aptly-hued red scrubs. They are sweating bullets, trying to recall the “Difficult Stick” section of their training. I’m inches from Becky’s face, singing camp songs, My song of choice is The Titanic. And I’m singing the chorus an octave above Becky’s cries:
Oh it was sad, so sad,
It was sad, so sad
It was sad when the great ship went down to the bottom of the sea
Husbands lost their wives, little children lost their lives….
One of the phlebotomists shoots me a look over her shoulder: “The singing is great. But do you have anything a bit more chipper?”
A smile grows across my face and my inner camp child arrives. Suddenly, I’m 8 years old again. I summon my best Sally Williams impersonation and say, “Sure, ladies. Take your pick. Do you want a song about a prune, a lollipop, or a merry-go-round?” They choose the lollipop.
Oh I’d rather suck on a lemon drop
Than to try my luck with a lollipop.
And I start ripping off song after song. Before we’re finished, I’d been through my top ten. I’d sung about an Austrian yodeling, the certain demise of Little Bunny Fru-Fru, and a fountain flowing deep and wide. We’d visited a little cabin in the woods and learned that Alice the Camel is actually a horse. Boom-boom, boom-boom.
During our last day in the hospital, the tech was having some trouble imaging Becky’s heart. Becky was having none of it and she clearly wanted to be left alone. But the Pulmonary Hypertension Team needed a solid measure of the pressures in her pulmonary artery before we could leave. I knew just what to do.
I scooped Becky out of the crib and held her still. And I began singing. A little song called Mountain Dew. Not the soft drink. We’re talking about moonshine.
They call it that good ol’ mountain dew, dew, dew
And them that refuse it are few. Mighty few!
Well, I’ll shut up my mug, if you’ll fill up my jug
With that good ol’ mountain dew.
We had a good laugh at this bizarre camp song. The tech reminisced about a bottle of moonshine that her Dad has kept on his mantle for 27 years. I tell her that I learned the song as a kid but had no idea I was singing about grain alcohol. I don’t remember if I learned it at the Bible camp with Sally Williams or at Camp Juliette Low in Georgia. Regardless of its provenance, the song did the trick, distracting Becky long enough for the completion of the echo.
The lyrics to camp songs don’t always make much sense. Some are rather dark and foreboding, not unlike fairy tales of old. But the tunes are catchy and time flies by as you sing along. I’ve sung these songs to my kids on airplanes, waiting for train gates to open, and in traffic jams in the big city. Planes, trains, and automobiles. Greta and Angela once called from Notre Dame to ask me to sing them the Prune song. Somehow it came up in conversation at the dining hall and they couldn’t remember the words.
I’ve had these wonderful camp songs floating through my head for over 40 years. With Becky’s arrival they’ve made quite a comeback, being sung in the NICU, the children’s blood draw lab, and the PCICU. I’ve entertained nurses, techs, and maintenance staff. Most importantly, I’ve amused Becky and hopefully diffused some of the pain on her difficult journey. The songs have never failed me.
And I have Sally Williams to thank for that.