Camp Onaway. Just typing those two words stirs memories in my soul from six magical weeks of my childhood, spent one week at a time each summer from 1985-1990. Those of us who were fortunate enough to go to camp as a kid know exactly what I mean. For me, it was Camp Onaway, a camp in central Wisconsin on an island in the beautiful Chain of Lakes near Waupaca. Yes, an island! The entire island is owned by the Boys and Girls Brigade, a youth organization in Neenah, Wisconsin (my hometown), that runs a program during the school year for youth in grades 6-12. Onaway is the location of their week-long summer camps, alternating weeks of boys and girls camps, as well as some leadership and family camps.
My first week there was in 1985, just after finishing 6th grade. I don’t remember a lot about the specifics of the camp now, 30 years later, other than that I had a lot of fun playing games, swimming, wrestling with fellow campers and leaders on the rough raft (think “King of the Hill”, but on a raft in the water), canoeing, singing, Chapel and campfires. And morning dip, cross country race, tribal competitions, skits and watermelon feed. Okay, I guess I remember more than I thought. But, what really stands out in my mind is the memory of the leaders at Onaway. A bunch of men who willingly gave up a week of their summer to spend it with someone else’s kids, away from the comforts of their own homes and families. Probably spending a week of their own hard-earned vacation time in the process. As a young camper, I loved being around these guys each summer. For one week, those guys were my family. It wasn’t until years later that I began to comprehend the sacrifice and dedication that these men made each summer to be at camp.
After finishing high school I wasn’t able to attend camp as an adult leader since I moved away to attend college and ended up getting married and starting my own family. I did, however, get an opportunity in 2006 and 2007 to return for a few days as a leader. Despite not seeing many of those men for the better part of 15 years I was welcomed with open arms and hearty hugs. There was no judgement about why I hadn’t been back sooner; just joy that I was back. There were lots of new faces among the leaders there but there were plenty of guys who had been so integral to my development as a young man. Men who I thought of as family despite not knowing them personally outside of camp or even seeing them much since 1990.
I woke up this morning to read the news that one of my favorite leaders, Chrome, had passed away last night. It turns out that he actually had a real name, but I knew him as Chrome. To be honest, I didn’t know that much about him outside of camp. I did know his real name and I did see him a few times outside of camp when I was still living in Wisconsin.
But Chrome was the epitome of camp to me. I funny guy with a heart as big as the ocean. I remember when I returned to Onaway after my 15 year absence Chrome was one of the first to see me and he came running to greet me with the biggest, most heartfelt hug. And he’s not a big guy. He literally grabbed my cheeks with his hands and held my face, telling me, “Carl, it’s so good to see you again, young man. Welcome back.” I’ve been crying on and off all morning since learning of his passing, just thinking of the good memories I have because of men like him. The last time I saw him was in 2011, at camp the summer before we moved west to Washington.
It’s extra special for me this week to know that my third daughter is at Girls Camp 2 at Onaway this very week, making her own magical memories. My older two daughters have also been to Onaway in previous years. I know that my son, who will be in sixth grade in the fall, is already thinking about going there next summer. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to join him as a leader. That’s the thing about camp. Once you go, you always want to go back, even just for a moment. One of the best parts of each day at camp is the daily chapel. While Onaway is a Christian organization it’s not a “church” camp.
Chapel is more of a time for reflection with a very short talk given by one or more leaders. It’s often in the early evening as the sun filters through the tall pine trees, giving all in attendance the opportunity to think about their day. Chrome was kind of famous for giving his “sands of Onaway” talk each year at chapel when I was a kid. It’s the notion that no matter where you go, the memories of Onaway will be with you. Thank you, Chrome, for your years of service to countless young men like me. Without him and the many men and women like him, Camp Onaway wouldn’t be as special.