By Bill Clark
As I write at this time in my life, I find I am trying to remember and understand the people, places, and events in my past. Now I want to put some closure on the recollections about my years at Camp Ondessonk.
I spent seven summers at the youth camp just thirty-five miles from my family home in Metropolis. Illinois. Looking back from the vantage point of middle age (whatever that is!), I can see that the camp world was artificial. The day to day life of the camp centered around activities that were not essential for the young campers’ well being. I know that the young men and women that never took the Split Rock Hike and never squeezed their bodies through a narrow crevasse between two rocks, still turned out quite well in the adult life in which they find themselves. Yet there was a mystique for me about the life at Camp Ondessonk. The boys and girls that made it through the “Little Split Rock” perhaps felt better about themselves for that accomplishment. I know that I felt better about myself because of my Camp Ondessonk experience.
When I was ordained to the priesthood, one of the choices I had to make was what kind of a holy card I would have printed up as a memento of my Ordination and First Mass. One of the cards I chose was a panoramic view of the rocks and mountains. I have a feeling of awe even to this day when I see the miles and miles of forest trees and hills stretching as far as the eye can see. The Shawnee Forest is close to my hometown and close to the camp. There is not a time that I travel to my home without thinking of the camp. To have spent so much of my life as a young man helping to hew a camp out of wilderness rock and then to have helped many campers to walk the trails and enjoy nature’s beauty has etched those memories permanently into my mind.
Besides the special affection I have for nature’s majesty, I have wrested some other gems from the Ondessonk days.
I am not afraid of thunderstorms. I have experienced the violence of storms in the forest. In the seven years I spent at camp I was a unit leader for three or four years. Every Wednesday evening the cooks had a night off. The campers went unit by unit to a camping spot some distance from the main part of camp. One particular night our unit was camping above Phantom Canyon. Now very few Wednesday nights ever saw rain. This Wednesday night was the exception. We had cooked our meals of hamburger, potato, onion on the coals of our campfire. We sang our songs, made our plans for the rest of week, and listened to the ever faithful ghost story. Then it was time to bed down in our sleeping bags on the ground under the stars. The stars were soon to disappear. A storm brewed up some time after mid-night. We fortunately saw it coming. We did not have to wake up but one or two of the campers. The storm had everyone’s attention. After a brief discussion we decided to take refuge under the Phantom Canyon overhang. The other counselors and I helped the campers to climb down the steep path to the bottom of the canyon. Another unit camping in the canyon was already under the overhang. We did not have a lot of space. We were dry. The storm raged for several hours. Torrents of rain poured over the cliff. Stream beds normally bone dry in July became rivers. We stayed safe and dry despite the deluge of water and violent winds. We even slept for a few hours once the storm subsided as we lay on the bumpy ground under the cliff. At first crack of dawn campers and counselors walked tiredly Indian file down the moist trail back to our unit. We were so tired that when a copperhead snake that had come out to soak up the early morning sun right in the middle of our path was coiled to defend his territory, we just let him be and gave him a wide berth. We continued our journey back to camp. Once I experienced the vulnerability to the element of a summer storm out in the wilds, the thunder and lightning outside while I am inside my home hold no foreboding for me.
The camp experience gave me an appreciation for my physical body. I probably was in the best physical shape of my life from age nineteen to twenty-four. There was no fat on my bones. As a camp counselor and even before camp opened while we were building. I walked everywhere. In the morning we walked from the farmhouse to the camp. We walked to the units where we were working. The terrain of the camp was hilly. I built leg muscles just moving about in the main area of camp. Imagine all the oxygen produced by the trees in the Shawnee Forest. I drank in a portion of that for seven summers. When camp opened, I hiked with the campers. I swam with the campers, and mostly I walked all over the camp.
At camp I learned not to drink the creek water. Before camp opened that first year we had no water at the camp. We drank well water at the farmhouse and creek water that flowed in a stream that was in the middle of camp. I recall on a Sunday walking the trails of camp with my youngest brother, Vince who was ten or eleven. We were thirsty. I showed him how to look for a flowing part of the creek and we both had a drink. Unknown to each other both of us got very sick that evening. The creek water had gotten contaminated,
I still enjoy looking out over the large expanses of forests and hills. One of the joys that I have in going home to Metropolis, Illinois, is that the last thirty-five miles goes through terrain that is part of the Shawnee Forest. There is not a time that I see the vistas of trees and rolling hills that I don’t think of Camp Ondessonk and my seven summers in youth.
Recent legal events of the past few years have tainted the name of Camp Ondessonk for some. I wish I could ease the pain of the young people, now adults who suffered during their camping experience because they trusted an adult. I must admit that I grew up in a time that was more trusting and certainly more naive.
Soldiers say, “There is no atheist in a foxhole”. My brother, Vince, when he was an apprentice painter in E. St. Louis-Belleville area, said. “There is no atheist on a water tower”?, I say, “There is no atheist in the back of a pick-up truck driving to the farmhouse from Camp Ondessonk in 1959 in the late evening”. Away from any artificial lights except our vehicle’s headlights, I recall looking up and seeing the myriad collection of night stars in the summer sky. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”, said the poet Hopkins. Truly the evening sky was full of the power and majesty, and beauty of God. I felt humble as I gazed on the heavenly fixtures we call stars. I felt insignificant and small in relationship to the vast universe created by my God.
I am amazed at what I can remember of my Ondessonk days so many years ago. Some of the events come rolling into my mind like a movie right down to the dust on the road and the haze over the hills and trees. Those seven summers will always be special to me–those summers I spent getting in touch with the forest of Southern Illinois–those summers testing the limits of my physical body–those summers so full of memories. Thus I end the Ondessonk Tales…