'The lake is quiet now. The woods are still. Embers . . .'
Have you ever noticed how many summer camps try to copy the outdoor life style of the pioneers? Cabins are often rustic, even primitive. Wilderness hikes , Indian ceremonies, and canoe trips abound.
These activities may only be superficial attempts to keep the children busy. But they can be designed to enrich each camper's appreciation of pioneer character - to hint (however faintly) at the rugged toil, common sense, straight dealing, and innocent humor that were needed by our forefathers (and mothers) as they pushed back the American frontier.
Imagine your own child at such a camp, attending a council fire ceremony for the first time.
The lake is quiet now. The woods are still. On the shore the log-cabin-style fire sends tongues of twisting flame 12 feet high. Embers snap in the golden heat while tiny spark-bursts arch upward and fade away.
What is your youngster seeing in this crackling blaze? Not Superman or Space Invaders, but the faces of yesterday - Indians and explorers and frontiersmen.
When gathered around a council fire under a blanket of stars, children return to a time when hard work was respected, honesty highly prized, and honor more valuable than gold.
Some campers remember these moments for a lifetime, but when the fire dies down, the character-building program at summer camp should not be allowed to disappear with the smoke.
At the camp I attended in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, character building was an integral part of each day's program. Campers were encouraged to climb three ladders of success by earning activity skill awards, service awards, and the coveted honor banner. These were presented at a gala banquet on the last night of the season.
Activity awards included certificates and badges recognizing skills acquired in swimming, boating, archery, riflery, and other activities. (Many camps offer these prizes.)
Service awards were given to campers who had volunteered often for weekly jobs on the campus. Little campers had little jobs, such as watering plants, emptying trash cans, or walking Boots, the camp dog. For older children the responsibility was greater - setting tables in the dining hall, helping wash dishes or rebuilding a broken fence that edged the road.
Each assignment had to be done well and without complaint to earn recognition. Competition among cabins was stiff to see who could volunteer most often for the hardest jobs!
But the honor banner was different. It was awarded to campers who had learned to do service projects in secret, with no promise of recognition. A camper with an honor banner hanging on his bunk had spent several summers proving his willingness to serve unselfishly and was unquestionably loyal to the highest standards of integrity. Nearly every camper dreamed of the day when his ''good deeds done in secret'' would be recognized with an honor banner, but until then, he just kept doing them.
Skills, service, and honor - these three important ladders to good character were joined at the top by an ultimate prize, a small beanie known simply as the gold cap.
Worn only on ceremonial occasions, this cap set its owner apart as an example for others to follow. Younger campers not only respected the ''gold-cappers,'' they loved them. A gold cap winner was always your friend, always willing to help, always ready to care. There were only a few gold caps in sight on banquet night, and it was always the final presentation of the evening.
Many letters from surprised parents proved that a system like this works. ''You just can't imagine how Billy has changed since he came home from camp,'' they wrote. ''He makes his own bed every morning, helps around the house, and never asks for a reward!''
These letters made us smile. We knew from experience that Billy probably wouldn't go on making his bed indefinitely, but we also knew that he would never forget the deeper lessons of honor and service he had learned since sitting at his first council fire. And when he grew up and was tempted to do something just a little bit wrong, he'd remember the summer night when he won his gold cap, and do right.