Saturday, June 06, 2009

Cattown goes to Tennessee

Over Memorial Day weekend I took a trip back in time to a place I never thought I’d see again: a magical place where, long, ago, beginning at age ten, I spent four incredible, formative summers. The place is a girls’ camp in the gently rolling countryside of middle Tennessee, nestled between green wooded hills and a swiftly flowing river. Every summer the owners of a riding stable in New Orleans would load up the horses and go to the relatively cooler Tennessee hills for two months, and the little girls who loved the horses (for example, me!) would follow. Although I wouldn’t have used those words at the time, the place was – and still is – a spiritual home for me. I wept when I drove through the stone gates and found the place pretty much as I had left it in 1965: the cabins, the stable, the tennis courts, the gathering places. I walked into the dining hall for supper and asked, "Does everybody cry when they come back here?"

Not everything is the same. In 1969 the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the river and created a reservoir that is used today for hydroelectric power but is best known as a recreational lake. Sections of the hillsides had to be removed and some of the camp buildings were taken down; the places where they stood are under water today. The lake has been there for forty years now, but to my child’s eyes it just isn’t right not to have the river any more. But the camp survived, and I marvel at the dedication of a passionate band of women who love this place, by whose efforts it is still here. The original owners and founders have passed away, but a new generation has been working hard to restore the property and operate it as a camp once again.

The camp dates from the early 1920s. One of the traditions was (and still is) for campers to write their names on the cabin rafters, usually in white shoe polish. The cabin where I first stayed as a child had dates beside the campers’ names going back to the 1930s. The cabin is still there today. Incredible.

In 1962 or 1963 I wrote this article for the camp literary magazine:

Woodslore and Cricket have been very busy lately, with snakes. It’s a - ugh! a very nice setup. Cricket kills ’em and Woodslore identifies ’em. We all admit Cricket is very brave.

As an example, let’s take the case of the snake by Double-Up. Early one morning, soon after the bell had rung, we heard shouts of "Go get Cricket!" Getting Cricket could only mean one thing – a snake. In p.j.’s we went flying to Double-Up. There he was, a brownish snake, and there was Cricket with her hammer. The rest is almost too gross to mention. Cricket kills ’em and Woodslore identifies ’em. We like the setup, but I doubt if Cricket does.

On Friday evening, the first adventure of our reunion weekend was the snake in the bathroom on the lower level of our cabin. A group of our intrepid alumnae campers determined that the little brown snake, approximately 18 inches long, which was curled up between a screen and a wooden support and had a lump of a meal slowly passing through its body, was probably poisonous (wedge-shaped head) and likely a copperhead. So they decided they had to kill it. The idea of finding this snake coiled around a toilet on one of those two a.m. forays was not very appealing, so whether it was poisonous or not, the snake had to go, permanently. Someone ran to the barn and got a shovel and a hoe. Someone else procured a hammer. When I realized that they planned to squoosh it between the screen and the wooden support, I excused myself and went upstairs. I could hear screams, some that were wordless and some that sounded like "It’s still alive! Get it!" There was a crash and the tinkling of glass, not once but twice. The first casualty of the encounter with the snake was the mirror on the bathroom wall. (About half of it survived. During the course of the weekend, I was able to set my makeup on the water heater and apply it by the remains of the mirror.)

That night, as I looked at these women in their forties and fifties eagerly gathered just outside the bathroom, developing a plan of action to deal with the snake, I saw them as girls again, the campers of long ago, fourteen or fifteen years old, brave, independent, far more mature than many of their non-camper peers, faced with a critical situation and dealing with it fearlessly. Just for a few days, we were all girls again, living in the cabins, swimming in the lake, playing basketball and tennis, and hiking the trails across the hills. Only the SUVs parked outside the cabins gave us away as grown women with adult lives and careers and spouses and children.

Over the course of the weekend, I was able to help get a bird out of the cabin (living in a old house where birds occasionally fall down the chimney – to the delight of cats – has made me somewhat of an expert on getting them out). I was the first to spot the bat in the stairwell leading down to the bathroom, and I helped persuade the others not to kill it (bats eat mosquitoes, and they’re not likely to fly around as long as you leave the light on). Some of us spotted a creature, not far from the little stream, that was probably a beaver. On a just-before-dawn walk Saturday morning, I thought I saw a skunk ambling down the path to the barn and decided to give it a wide berth. Just before dawn, everything appears to be black and white. As it grew light, I discovered I had actually seen the fluffy-tailed orange barn cat. Thank goodness.

Disclaimer: the folks who put on the camping program for the children each year pointed out that we were the first humans on the property since last year, and the wild creatures had had the run of the place in the absence of people. So, yes, we first-comers were likely to see a few of them around. Yes, I agree, by the time all those squealing young girls arrive later in the summer, bustling about and making noise, the wild things will retreat far back into the woods.

And then, later on Saturday morning, as I was in the dining hall, I saw a face I hadn’t seen in more than forty years but who looked to my eyes like the woman in her twenties I had known so long ago: Cricket Crockett, our head counselor, the woman I had written about in the camp literary magazine. Killer of snakes, defender of children, brave, strong, role model Cricket. She is just as ramrod-straight, thin and athletic as ever. At least in my eyes.

We had a good time talking that day, as she told me of her life and shared photos of her family. She talked to the current generation of leaders of the camp and shared her management style in working with the counselors and planning camp events – a side of her I had not been privy to as a young camper. She spoke of her fierce, passionate love for the children she had been given charge of, and she told me a story of how she had protected them one night from a creature much more dangerous than a snake. All I will say is, do not mess with a direct descendant of Davy Crockett! She really does know how to use that shotgun and won’t hesitate to do so if necessary!

By the end of the weekend, I had a new appreciation for the influence my years at camp had on me later in life. I give thanks for brave, strong women role models, and particularly the ones I came to know at camp so long ago. My fellow campers grew up to be strong women themselves. I am glad a group of them had the determination to start up the camp again after the previous generations of owners had passed on.

Young girls today still need brave, strong role models. I marvel that the camp roster will be full this summer, in a season of economic difficulties. I also marvel that in an age where children are surrounded by electronic gadgets and creature comforts, there are still those who are eager to live in a rustic setting in the Tennessee hills with no air conditioning, television, or Internet – and thrive!

Friday, June 05, 2009

A day of grace moments

Some days are tough, and yesterday was one of them. Tip, the alpha male of my cat family and boss cat of the house, had come to the end of his earthly journey, and I was going to take him to the vet to be put to sleep. It all started when Tip developed a rare cancer at the site of a vaccination injection, a grape-sized tumor that was removed 23 months ago. The information I found from the American Veterinary Medical Association suggested the survival rate after surgery was 2 to 24 months, so Tip did very well in that regard. He actually had a long remission where he seemed in normal health. Late in February of this year he developed a cancer in his jaw that at first looked like an infected tooth. He had surgery to remove the cancer on March 17 and seemed to do well with that, too. But I returned from a trip over Memorial Day weekend to find him looking awful. His sides were caved in and his pink nose was very pale. It turned out he was dehydrated and severely anemic. Numerous tests ruled out infectious diseases. The doctor believed he had some sort of bone marrow disease, some sort of myeloma. Tip had the distinction of being the first cat I have ever owned to have a blood transfusion. But none of this helped. I brought him home from the hospital for a few days so he could spend his last days in as normal a setting as possible: days out on the screened porch watching the neighborhood go by, surrounded by the other cats.

But then he started vomiting. He lost everything he had eaten for the last several days. I knew this was the end. So I made plans to bring him to the vet Thursday morning.

I woke early that morning to the sound of thunder. An ominous line of dark gray clouds was rising over my neighbor's house across the street. I hurried to get Tip in off the porch, where he had spent the night, and into a cat carrier inside.

I went into the kitchen to try to catch a weather report on TV. It was 6:45. As I sat at the kitchen table, there was a sudden, tremendous crash and I knew instantly that the house had been hit by lightning. At the same moment, the fire alarm went off upstairs. My greatest fear about this hundred-year-old house I live in is a fire caused by a lightning strike. The beautiful old sturdy cypress timbers with which this house was built are as dry as hundred-year-old wood can be. I've seen a couple of houses in the neighborhood burn, and they will go up in a matter of minutes.

I called the alarm company and they called the fire department. I scrambled to get dressed and catch all the cats and put them in their cat carriers. When there is a fire alarm going off and the cats are terrified of the cat carriers under normal circumstances, this is a little bit like trying to drain the Mississippi River with a teaspoon. I was thinking grimly that if the house burned down, the only cat I might save would be the one already in a carrier, the one I was going to bring to the vet this morning to have put to sleep. But I managed to catch all but one of the cats and get them downstairs before the firemen arrived.

The firemen were great. They went upstairs and went up into the attic to see if it was on fire. (The only time I smelled smoke was when they passed me in the hall. Their yellow slickers were reeking of smoke. These guys had seen a lot of fires.) No fire. They checked twice.

God bless the man whose hat said "Captain." He, the tech support guy from the alarm company (on my cell phone, because the fire alarm had the land line tied up), and I had a heck of a time trying to get the fire alarm to shut up. When we finally did, the silence was truly wonderful.

All the firemen found was a ridge tile on one of the dormers that was out of place. So perhaps the lightning hit the dormer or the nearby chimney. They told me to get a roofer to fix it, which I can do fairly easily. Later in the day, I walked around the block to try to see the roof from all angles, and I can't even find a scorch mark. This is truly one of those "grace of God" moments.

When the firemen left, I looked at the clock. It was 7:17 a.m. The whole episode had lasted about half an hour. It was one of the longest half hours of my life.

A few hours later, I brought Tip to the vet. It was hard, and I cried a lot. I had had Tip for 13 years. He did have a happy life, and I'm glad his days of suffering were few. That, too, was a moment of grace.

The last time I lost a cat was in 1996, during the Atlanta Summer Olympics. A lot has changed in those years. Pet cremations are not uncommon today. So I will be able to bring Tip's remains home in a few days. I have such a sense of peace about this that I have never had before.

This morning the neighborhood is very quiet except for the birds. A cool front has come in and it's about 70 degrees on the porch, which is really rare for this time of year in New Orleans. I am hoping for a better day today.