One of the best summers I have had in memory is when I was 15 and worked as a fry cook at McDonald’s in St. Albert. I had been in the Air Cadets for three years and had qualified to go to a special survival school on Namao Air Base for three weeks, being the first reserve candidate to be called if anyone cancelled or dropped out. Unfortunately (depending how you look at it) I never got called. As a consolation prize for not getting my scholarship to go to the camp, I was given a spot in an Alberta Government Youth Leadership camp in a Provincial Park, and I almost didn’t even go.
I remember from the first time I got there I was determined to make a joke out of the whole camp, but the staff showed endless patience to me. The first night I was there I went out prowling around and stole sandwiches from the cafeteria. When we were being processed to enter the camp, they asked me to sign my name on a camp register. I put down the signature “Richard M. Nixon” which made them have to re-do their entire list.
It was funny that I was in a situation like this where my hardened teenage drill sergeant bravado was tolerated, appreciated in some ways, and worn down by the kindness of the camp instructors and some of the friends I made there. I ended up having a blast that summer. We did some very fun activities like canoeing and hiking, engaged in rock face climbing, and went through all kinds of leadership training classes.
One of the big events I remember was first laying eyes on a girl there around my age who was very pretty. I noticed her right away but didn’t have the courage to talk to her. My group and her group were occupying two floors of the main building in the collection of cabins and lodges the camp had at it’s disposal. The people on the top floor were told they were playing a game to get the most trading cards, and a few guys really went ape trying to go around getting the most of what they felt proved they were better than anyone. I don’t know if it was shyness, or just disinterest, but I didn’t bother trying to get any cards. Halfway through the exercise, we were sent downstairs and half the people came up from downstairs where a different game was being played.
The game downstairs, though no one was told, was more of one to make people feel welcome and comfortable. It was funny to see guys from my group running around trying to get cards off people who just wanted to ask how they were doing and talk about their families, and weren’t even given any cards or instructions. I stood in the middle of the room, neither being welcomed nor trying to get anything. Then that girl, the pretty one, came up to me and put her arm around me and talked in a sweet and friendly manner. I joked with her, and later became friends with her. I will never forget these two guys who really wanted to win the card game part of things. After realizing what had happened, they looked like they had been hit with a ton of bricks. The game for them was a valuable life lesson, and for me it was a turning point.
After the camp was over I called up that girl and went on a couple of dates with her, but it never worked out and I was pretty bummed out for a long time. But that little bit of kindness, for whatever reason it had been given, possibly sparked off what was to be the end of my childhood and the beginning of days of maturity and the realization that I needed to be cared about like anyone else. I was to face some pretty hard times in the years ahead, but knowing that I was just as much a human being as anyone and deserved to live happy and free like anyone got me through a lot of rough spots. When I got home from that camp I turned in my Air Cadet uniform and set my sights on my grades and focusing my time with friends who didn’t want to egg me on to pull stunts, or get into fights, or any of that macho Air Cadet BS.
Leif lives in McCauley.