When Peggy M showed up at the same camp for handicapped children that I had regularly attended for many years, she triggered a dynamic with in me that allowed for the learning of some fundamental life lessons. The setting was an unforgettably beautiful summer in the Catoctin Mountains sometime in the mid 1960’s and “Handicapped” was the nomenclature of the day.
I myself was a very young girl and qualified to attend this camp because I was born missing the lower portion of my right arm and hand. I was otherwise healthy and well, very active, was curious and had an inquiring kind of personality.
Peggy was approximately my age, about 9 or 10. To me she was the picture of perfection. She was thin but not skinny, had a clear and pink complexion, blue eyes and strawberry blond curls that she wore in pigtails that I thought were adorable. She looked like the illustrations of some of the perfect little girls I had read about in storybooks.
I’m not sure exactly what qualified Peggy to attend a camp for handicapped children, but she wore a lower leg brace that was attached to her shoe and extended up to her knee. Otherwise she seemed healthy and well and she too was very active.
Peggy’s demeanor was also notable. She was quite outspoken and put herself on equal footing with any adult who crossed her. She challenged anything she found to be limiting and was not at all concerned with consequences. After watching her interactions for several days I decided that she was who I should be emulating. While her impish nature seemed a little dangerous, I liked the appearance of power she seemed to have in her standing up for her antics.
In one of the more questionable acts of my young summer camp experience, I joined Peggy in a staged pee-pee rebellion. Without a doubt my judgement failed me on this one but I do have to say that learning occurred and I came out of the whole thing all the wiser.
Here is what happened: The daily routine at camp required all campers to return to their cabins after lunch for a compulsory quiet time in the bunk. Everyone routinely filed out of the dining hall after lunch, stopped by the latrine to answer natures call and then headed to bed for about an hour and a half. The rules were that you didn’t get up during this time or bother the counselors or anyone else until the bell rang signaling the end of rest hour.
I myself actually liked this quiet time. I didn’t usually sleep but I did love to look out of the cabin window over my bed and watch the way the tree branches swayed in the breeze and how the sun made leafy shadows on my cabin walls and floor. I tuned into and was mesmerized by the sound of the leaves as they rustled in the passing breeze. These were some of my most peaceful moments where I felt like all was right with the world. I contemplated nature and gained perspective on my day.
Peggy, in the bunk across from me was having a different experience. She saw absolutely no reason for any rules associated with rest hour and was determined to make her perspective known. She had been, for several days, trying to create distractions during rest hour and pestered the counselors with a litany of reasons why she had to get up and stir around.
On the afternoon when my own judgement began to fall into question, Peggy called out from her bed telling the counselor on duty that she was getting up. The counselor told her to stay in her bed and for Peggy this meant Mount A Challenge. She began moaning and rocking back and forth on the edge of her bunk and suddenly a flood of pee burst forth from her shorts! It ran down her legs, over the front of her wooden bunk and puddled on the floor. It seemed that a dam inside of her broke and the River Jordan was flowing!
I was struck with what an outlier Peggy was and I told her this after the hub-bub was over and she was clean and dry. We conspired together that afternoon and resolved to repeat the act as a duo the very next day. Peggy advised me to drink a lot at lunch and then to skip going to the latrine. I did this and we were in cahoots!
Just as the peace of rest hour was settling in, Peggy went into action and I followed. We both sat on the edge of our bunks and let the River Jordan flow! For a brief moment I felt the excitement of nonconformity. In the very next instant I saw that on a perfect sunny summer day, marked by the leafy shadows that I loved, I was sitting on the edge of my bunk, peeing all over myself and mistaking it for freedom.
In the next few moments I came to terms with the fact that my favorite shorts were full of pee and so were my socks. On top of that I had disappointed my counselors in a serious way and they made me scrub the cabin floor and my whole area with disinfectant and Lysol. I took it to heart when one of my favorite counselors said we were acting like a couple of zoo animals. Then she wrote something on her clipboard.
I stopped copying Peggy’s daring acts and my admiration for her in general faded. She continued her outrageous behavior but she did it alone and she didn’t last much longer at camp. One day on a nature hike the ranger pointed out a rare flower growing among the native fauna and flora. Upon hearing this Peggy shot out of the group, ran to the flower, ripped it out of the ground and threw it.
Her final act, the one that banished her from camp, happened one day when a counselor pointed out to us a patch of poison ivy. Later when a group of campers walked by the spot, Peggy jumped into the middle of the patch, grabbed a handful of leaves and rubbed them all over herself, everywhere she could reach. As she rubbed the leaves on her bare skin, she simultaneously danced and chanted in a very prayerful voice “give me poison iiiivey!”
That was the last day that I ever saw Peggy. I heard that her prayers were answered since she did indeed break out with a very bad case of poison ivy. I carried on with my summer camp experience without my bunkmate and without the influence of her outrageous acts.
I turned the whole experience over in my mind for some time. I was disappointed and even confused that the perfection of Peggy’s outward appearance belied the recklessness of her inner workings. While outwardly she looked like my idea of an angel, inwardly she was anything but. She was disruptive and destructive and would draw in anyone who would follow. While I would continue to work on this particular dynamic for years to come, I began to see that my ideas of outward beauty and freedom of expression were not necessarily the winning formula I thought they were.
I also have to say that I didn’t feel very good about upsetting my counselors. While I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, I knew on an experiential level that the way of life at this camp was exceptional. It was a summer camp for “handicapped” children. Everywhere the campers gathered there where canes and braces, crutches and even wheelchairs but first and foremost there were human beings.
Looking back, I can see that this summer camp was operated and staffed by some of the kindest most well intentioned people that I would ever meet. All of the activities were geared for the adventure and enjoyment of the people who attended. Any assistance that was needed for full camper participation was absolutely provided and it was always in the background. Campers could count on almost invisible support in their chosen activities. The grownups who provided this were thoughtful people who always seemed to lead with capable hearts.
In the world outside of this camp, the atmosphere was not necessarily the same. Often while people were making the effort to accept and include “handicapped” people, it was cloaked in a kind of “propping up” and the inauthenticity was limiting. Going to this summer camp year after year was a refreshing break from that mix.
In the days after Peggy’s departure I reestablished my relationship with my counselors. I am grateful that they were there to hold a standard. They didn’t give me a “free pass” out of some kind of misguided kindness because of my arm. As they required a more elevated behavior from me and made me clean up after myself, I could see that I had gained very little from my exploit. Thankfully my counselors required more than that from me and in my own place of truth, it was a fit!