by Steve Purdum on July 02
I’m old enough to remember when the 4th of July was just a day, albeit a “Super Day” at Camp Mishawaka replete with pie eating contests, watermelon races, a BBQ and dance, as well as a parade and time for a bit of reflection on the meaning of Independence Day in America. All of that still happens in the bubble of summer that Camp Mishawaka is. But in the world around us, and the environs of Lake Pokegama, the 4th has become a week-long cacophony of fireworks and wake board boats, a marketer’s dream of compliant consumers, and just plain sensory overload. Amidst all the commotion, the reason for the celebration can be forgotten.
I recognize that this “rant” runs the risk of sounding like it came from a grumpy old man who hasn’t accepted that things change. I’d like to think that, rather than rewinding the calendar to some mythical simpler time (that didn’t exist), we still have an opportunity for the fun, fireworks, and food while pausing to reflect on the importance of the day.
For 2 or 3 generations of Mishawakans, one of the more memorable events of the day included the parade and flagpole ceremony. Uncle Charlie Westgate and his drum and bugle core, George Turmail’s counselor chorus, George Lottes in pioneer regalia discharging his musket and the ever-enthusiastic Nick Larsen’s charge to the assembled campers. The 9-year-old me remembers being incredibly bored by this ritual. I mean, “Can’t we just get on with it?” But nearly 50 years later, this is what I remember, not who won the pie eating contest any particular year.
Each year Nick shared his father’s (Skipper Larsen) immigrant story. He came from Denmark as a young man with nothing but the proverbial clothes on his back and a dream. I forget exactly how he came to be at Mishawaka- a network referral that pre-dated LinkedIn or Indeed- but I remember how important Camp became to him, and his family. I was born in the USA and have only had 3 addresses in the last 5 decades, and still today I marvel at the idea of picking up stakes and traversing the Ocean to pursue unknown opportunities in a new land. Nick took the time each 4th to remind fidgeting campers about the idea of America and its power to inspire.
Today we find ourselves in a different and dissonant situation. The idea of America has become as bifurcated and divided as many can recall. The open arms and opportunity that Skipper found at the turn of the last century still exists, but they’re harder to find. For some, the idea of America has shrunk to preserving and protecting the idea of America for the few, right along with limiting access, acceptance, and opportunity. I am not so naïve to think the solution is simple, but I am hopeful enough to believe that a simple ceremony at Camp can reframe the conversation and invite a better way to think about the idea of America.
This 4th of July, campers and staff from 35 states and 9 countries will pause to celebrate America’s Independence Day- several of whom hale from the country we fought a bloody war against to gain that independence. In no small way, Camp reflects the American Dream at its finest- equal opportunity for all, acceptance for who one is (or aspires to be) and strikes the delicate balance between individual wants and communal needs.
Uncle Charlie would often ask British counselors (rhetorically) if they had a 4th of July in England. All but the sharpest would answer “No”, to which Charlie would reply, “Well what comes between the 3rd and the 5th? The 4th of July comes just once a summer at Camp, for all of us, but the idea of America comes every day at Camp Mishawaka even without the fireworks, food, and falderal.