By Brad Dement (victim)
One of the joys of my youth was spending a month or more every summer at Camp Ben. I shared this summer ritual with a handful of cousins and a number of our family elders. We were fortunate these aunts/uncles/grandparents were willing to assume the minimal, but necessary, oversight duties for us year after year. I will be forever grateful to them. I am sure there was more involved, but from our perspective they were there to a) make sure we didn’t starve, and b) to call an ambulance if the need arose. From a young age, we enjoyed a marvelous feeling independence and self-reliance while at camp.
If you haven’t been to camp (Reunion) before, let me explain. The word “camp” is a bit misleading and may not convey an accurate picture.
The traditional Dement campsite is set under the shade of towering old growth pecan trees on the southeast side of the “flats” at Camp Ben McCullough. When I was young, we set up a huge musty green Korean era MASH tent to shelter our main social area. Under it we crowded eight or ten badly warped card tables, and thirty or so one-of-a-kind folding lawn chairs, each one with its own marks-a-lot monogram identifying its owner. Old woven grass rugs were nailed directly into the ground to help keep the dust down. Assorted box fans were carefully positioned to keep the air moving on hot days, and to keep it sporting for the flies. A string of naked yellow bug lights were suspended overhead, and gave everyone an oriental tan at night. I remember thinking that most of our elders looked better under those bug lights than in the cruel light of day.
We had a cook tent along side the main tent. It housed the basic food preparation necessities: Two 50s vintage refrigerators, two galvanized metal dishwashing stands, a propane fired gas range, and a ten-foot food prep/serving table. A crude wooden rack supported old metal signs that served as shelving for stacks of mismatched dinner plates and jelly-jar stemware. We even had a chilled water coke machine and water fountain.
Of course, each family would set up their own sleeping/dressing tent. Innovation was the key. Tent tie-down ropes would double as clotheslines. An old mirror tied to a tree trunk became a shaving stand. You get the idea.
Fortunately, we had a good starting point for our camp construction. Like all great civilizations, we built on the foundations left by our ancestors. In some prior camping epoch, our spot had undergone several major improvement projects. The slope down from the main tent had numerous cut and fill terraces installed for individual family tents. There was a septic tank buried under one of the terraces for our own private privy. A set of massive stone steps helped people get to and from this facility. The privy was a source of real pride at camp, but we were told not to talk about it to outsiders – didn’t want to seem too uppity. We were truly indebted to the those cousin-conscripts who preceded us. They had obviously suffered under a much harsher and capital-intensive regime of camp elders. (I hereby encourage them to write their own accounts.)
The important point in sharing all this is to show that a great deal of effort went into setting up the Dement Camp. There were two reasons for setting up such an elaborate facility. It served as base for the weeklong Camp Ben Confederate “Reunion”, as well as the one-day Dement family reunion, usually held on the first Sunday. (Both now in existence for over 100 years.) Those days, family reunion attracted one to two hundred people for bar-b-q and visiting. The more comfortable camp could be made to look, more families might be enticed to come and camp themselves. Setting up camp would take a good-sized crew of conscripts at least two days. After Reunion, it took one long hard day to break down. More about that later.
We would always set up camp several weeks in advance of Reunion. This served a couple of purposes. Several of the aforementioned elders enjoyed extending their time at camp. It also made certain that other family camps coming to the Confederate Reunion couldn’t encroach on our prime camping spot.
For us cousins, the day-to-day camping experience changed dramatically over the course of our month long (sometimes longer) stay. During the quiet weeks prior to Reunion, we were pretty much on our own as far as kid companionship. My cousins and I would spend our “free-time” swimming, exploring, skipping rocks, building dams in the creek, etc. Since all of our time was free time, we did those things a lot. During Reunion week, we were joined by more cousins, as well as our regular group of Reunion acquaintances. Our daytime activities didn’t change except for the size and make up of our crowd. Nighttime was another story. We’d get all slicked-up for the carnival and country dance-under-the-stars. I never took a pole, but I’ll bet Camp Ben was where most cousins got their first dance, their first “real” kiss, and maybe their first sip of beer. It sounds like a cross between Mayberry and Huck Fin when you describe it this way. The fact is, it was all that . . . and more.
The backdrop for all these wholesome activities, and the real subject of this story, was the relentless trail of pranks and practical jokes we practiced on each other and anyone in striking distance. Whether our penchant for pranks was due to nature or nurture, I don’t know. All I know is that Reunion seemed to bring out the worst in us. Inspiration was all around. All our lives, we had listened to family stories that described in delicious detail the playful/sinister side our esteemed elders. We heard how they had schemed and plotted to “get” each other. We would cackle at each repeated telling as though it were the first. To be clear, these pranks were never ugly or mean spirited. On the contrary, there was an undeniable subtext of love and affection in all these stories. However, it was equally clear that pranks were high sport in our family.
With so much free time on our hands, we embraced this sport with vigor. No amount of planning or effort was too much trouble for the perfect prank. And in our young minds, they were all perfect pranks. Often as not, our elders were willing co-conspirators if there was any kind of role for them to play. Of course we had our collection of “regular” gags. Short sheet a cousin’s cot. Dunk a cousin in the spring. Sneak a cousin’s cot out to the flats before dawn (sleeping cousin enclosed). Dip a sleeping cousin’s hand in warm water, etc. Rest assured, homage was paid to each of these rites and rituals every year. As we “matured”, however, we sought to raise our standards. We wanted to refine our pranks to be more creative, more subtle.
As one might expect, the peak for all this mischievous activity was the last night of Reunion. After that, there would be no time for revenge or retribution. The next day everyone would be fully engrossed in breaking down our elaborate camping village, and then leave for home. This also meant that on the last night you were free to pull out all the stops, show no mercy. The problem was, everyone else was thinking the same thing so you had to watch your backside. Pride, Honor, and even Legend were all at stake. If you could defend yourself the last night, you’d get away clean. This was important stuff. Well, it was important to us anyway. Needless to say, it was also quite exhausting.
Knowing this, it may be easier to appreciate the sense of relief ,and elation, I felt when I awoke after one such “last night”. I was still exhausted, and had managed to sleep a little late. I could hear people moving around. Through squinting eyes I could see the family had already started breaking camp. What I didn’t notice, however, was the one item they had all taken down first – the mirrors.
As I gradually came out of my sleepy fog, it hit me. Allllrrrigghhttttt! No one got me last night. My bed was dry, and I wasn’t waking up in the flats. Breaking camp was going to be a long and miserable day, but I was getting away clean. No humiliation here! Alllrrrigggghtttt! Cooool
We had time for a quick cinnamon role, and then got to work breaking camp. Later, we scarfed down a peanut butter-n-jelly lunch, and then got back to work. By mid afternoon we were all very tired and very smelly, but we were done. We hugged. We said our good-bys. We headed for home.
It felt good to finally get home. But I was sad at the same time. I wouldn’t see the cousins and family until next summer. I missed them already. Maybe I was growing up. I was still feeling the warmth that comes from being part of such a neat family. It was a good feeling. I thought about the day I just had. I remembered that even with all the hard work, and with everyone so tired, they were still so nice . . . to me in particular. I paused, and thought about that for a moment. That didn’t feel right . . . . . . .. . No, it didn’t feel right at all. Then it hit me.
Standing naked in the bathroom, waiting for the shower water to warm, I understood everything. There in the mirror was a true rube. All over my nose, my cheeks, my forehead. Marks-A-Lot art had been lavished all over my face. I looked like a clown! I had been HAD and didn’t even know it. I was furious. Boy, when I get my hands on them, and I had a pretty good idea who . . . . . Wait a second. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t going to get anybody. They were now all well out of range. I got even madder. The anger lasted only a minute or two. Then I started to laugh. An embarrassed laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
To this day, I still don’t know who did it. In a sense, I guess they all did. Anyone could have made a comment. Anyone could have given me a funny look. Instead, my loving family simply took down all the mirrors, and quietly went about the weary business of breaking camp.