Friday, August 26, 2011

"Gotta Make It, Gotta Make It, Gotta Make It."

My sister and I disagree on the year that my mother went back to work; she believes it was when I went into second grade, I thought it was when I went to kindergarten. What I do remember is how her taking a full-time job affected summer time.

I have a few memories of my mother as a stay at home mom, but most of them are blurry: sitting in the kitchen with Mrs. Wing, a neighbor, and drinking coffee late in the afternoon, hanging clothes on the clothesline, or listening to the radio in the kitchen as she cut up potatoes or made other preparations for dinner.

When she went back to work, my parents conspired and made no fail plans to ensure that their four children were not unsupervised -- we were not latch key children {totally unheard of}, and they would never pawn us off on a neighbor; for one or two of those summers, my Aunt Lois stayed with us and helped.

My parents were big proponents of productivity and did not advocate in any way, shape, or form the idea of hanging out or lying around with nothing constructive to do. Also fearing that if we were left to our own resources, we would fight, burn down the house, or commit felonies, my parents constructed, designed, and occupied our summers with a combination of any or all of the following:

Vacation Bible School
YMCA camp
Summer school.

Yep, mother and daddy enrolled us in free activities or ones in which you had to pay minimally to be a part of ---- and what that price was, I can’t remember.

Of those three activities that occupied our summers for five or six years [until we were old enough for summer work], I remember the YMCA day camp as if it were yesterday.

Located in west Atlanta at the Southwest Family YMCA on Campbellton Road, the trip to camp took us close to an hour. We caught one city bus and then had to transfer to another. How I envied the fellow campers whose parents drove them to camp and deposited them at the front door like precious cargo. My parents used our one car to get themselves to work -- there was no time in the morning to drive us in the opposite direction to camp.

These other children were not children that we went to school with, but a hodgepodge of kids from all around south east and south west Atlanta. Occasionally, we'd run across a church friend or school friend, but most of the other YMCAers were strangers.

My siblings and I had to get up at the crack of dawn, pack our swimsuits and towels and probably lunch, and then trudge the ½ mile to the city bus stop to catch the bus that would take us to camp. Along the way on the bus with it stopping and starting as it loaded and unloaded passengers, we longingly looked out the bus windows at the world [I remember that we passed a Shoney’s and I would stare at the Big Boy statue outside the restaurant -- that term restaurant used loosely] and wished that we were still sleeping, not attending a lame camp where we made macramé pot holders, competed in serious badminton or dodge ball games, and learned to literally sink or swim at a nearby pool.

I know that on that city bus ride we sat rows apart and tried to ignore one another, but we were perfectly aware of what the other was doing. We liked to pull the bus bell cord that would ding to let the bus driver know that the next stop was ours, and we eyeballed each other from wherever we sat and tried to best one another as who got to pull it. If that wasn’t enough of a competition, then we would jump to the aisle and race one another to see who got off the bus first -- the back door being ideal in some unwritten rule of "cool" bus riding. I was the youngest, and therefore, the slowest in the latter, but I could anticipate the appropriate time to pull the bus bell cord.


bus bell cord


We were highly competitive as siblings, and our contest to beat one another out carried over to every aspect of our existence.

Led by one somber “in charge of it all” adult and many questionable teenage counselors, the YMCA day camp placed us in groups according to age. In those groups, where we had been given lame names to identify us with our counselor, perhaps associated with birds or flowers or maybe even Indians, we took nature walks into woods [totally not deep woods] that bordered the back of the YMCA property, learned camp songs that we sung sometimes rather half-heartedly and at other times loudly just to get on each others‘ nerves, and constructed throw away crafts that we brought home, ultimately damaged on the bus ride or that gathered dust in some remote dark place in our childhood rooms. Occasionally, we presented our mother with our crafts -- some lop-sided clay ash tray or crookedly glued Popsicle stick picture frame made with our less than artistic hands.

Camp lasted all day -- from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon. After a long day of manufactured fun, we would load ourselves back on the city bus, laden with a camp hangover, and make the seemingly long commute home where we dragged ourselves up the hill from the bus stop.

BTW: It wouldn’t be a good childhood story without the "walking up the hill" stories.


All aspects of that day camp were organized, but my favorite memories of camp are the trips to John A. White pool, which we made twice a week on a camp bus. The pool, located several miles away and at the top of a hill, was a major haul for the coughing, hacking, slow moving, rickety bus that took us from the YMCA camp and dumped us at the pool in order to be instructed in basic swimming. Driven by some underpaid, frazzled adult, the bus strained its way to the top of the hill in front of the pool, as we rowdy, over-excited to be going to the pool campers chanted at the top of our lungs over and over increasing in quickness and volume till we got to the top: “Gotta make it. Gotta make it. Gotta make it. Gotta make it.”

It was on those bus rides to and from the pool that I learned -- “ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.”

The idea of a bunch of elementary aged children singing that bar song still cracks me up.

As we climbed that hill on the bus was the only time as campers that we jointly bonded together in the spirit of conquest. The rest of the time grade levels and groups tended to pit themselves against one another in some kind of battle to out do the other: the competition intuitive and the score kept somewhere in our heads. The youngest kids couldn’t wait to be old enough to give their enemies a real defeat.

The trips to the pool took every enrolled child and their counselor for an afternoon of swimming lessons and free play. There at the pool we began our basic lessons categorized as “Minnows,” and as the swimming instructors led us gradually through the lessons, we learned to hold our breath, tread water, swim with our eyes open, do a mean breaststroke, and dive. Those who excelled at these skills moved through the program and could eventually swim well enough to be deemed a “Shark.”

When we had free time, we sat on the bottom of the pool, dove for pennies, did handstands, and played a pool game called Sharks and Minnows as well as Marco Polo. We were indefatigable in this, and when the whistle blew to pull us out of the pool and back on the bus, we groaned, and some of the more rebellious kids defiantly took one more dive.

This was the days before sun screen, and our red sun-burned faces and shoulders worn with a badge of honor. The best sunburns were the ones, when pressed, left a white fingerprint.
Aunt Eleanor, brother Hunter, Uncle BW, Aunt Nancy, and brother Ken in his Southwest YMCA t-shirt

I don’t remember how many years we attended YMCA day camp, but long enough to be good swimmers, but at some point, my older brother Hunter and sister Margaret moved on to summer school or part time jobs, and just my closet brother in age, Kenneth, and I would ride the bus to Campbellton Road and enroll in yet another year of crafts and songs and nature walks, of riding the camp bus up the hill and looking forward to screaming “gotta make it, gotta make it, gotta make it” till we were hoarse, and of course, the familiar ride past the Shoney’s big boy statue.

YMCA camp took up a few weeks of the summer, but the other weeks, my parents filled for us with Vacation Bible Schools that we attended at every church, regardless of denomination, in geographical compatibility to our home, but that, folks, is for another blog.



  1. you are such an encouragement to me, friend. do you know this? love to you.

  2. I love this blog! It made me remember my days of summer camp and learning to swim at the local pool by being shoved in by the swim teacher. Yes, shoved in, only to come up sputtering and crying. Would that happen today?

    Anyway, my kid got put in YMCA camp a few years back and it was his favorite. Around here, it's also the most expensive and the day trips include such things as water slides, Science World and a day at the local overnight campground. Good times.

  3. From my brother Ken about this blog:


    LOVE IT.