Memories of an old Camp Fire Girl

- by Alice Marie Beard

For me, Camp Fire began early in second grade on a day after school when along with about fifty other little eight-year-old girls I hurried to the school cafeteria to get a form to sign up to become a Blue Bird in the Camp Fire Girls program in my hometown in Indiana. The few women who had volunteered to be Blue Bird leaders were surprised at the great number of little girls ready to ask, "May I be a Blue Bird too, please?" The women suddenly realized there would have to be more groups than they had first planned, and they divided us up based on where we lived. Because I lived two streets from Mrs. Wilson, she became my Blue Bird leader.

The first day I met Virginia Wilson, my face was swollen badly from poison ivy; one eye was swollen shut, and my mouth and one cheek were contorted. I looked like a child born with a facial deformity. Mrs. Wilson walked up to what she saw as a deformed child that day and made it a special point to talk with me and to let me know I'd be welcome in her group of Blue Birds. That day, Mrs. Wilson saw a kindred spirit in me: She was born with a "port wine" birthmark on her face, and she no doubt had known the feel of being teased by kids because of it. After she learned my problem had been poison ivy, she taught me what poison ivy looked like and reminded me at every chance to steer clear: "Leaves of three, let it be."

Once a week for two years Mrs. Wilson welcomed me and about fifteen other little girls into her home as we became Blue Birds, and as we began forming friendships, some friendships that survive even as we are officially middle-aged, and moms, and grandmoms. We learned the Blue Bird Wish which we sang as we stood in Mrs. Wilson's basement, holding hands in a circle, sometimes swinging our hands back and forth: "To have fun. To learn to make beautiful things. To remember to finish what I begin. To learn to keep my temper in. And to learn about nature and living outdoors. To have adventures with all sorts of things. To make friends."

The wish has changed a bit since I learned it in the 1950s, but those were the words every Blue Bird leader was teaching in 1958. These days, it's called the "Camp Fire Wish." Camp Fire National seems to forever be "tweaking" things just a bit, but the meaning remains the same.

What did Regina and Vicki and Gail and Lois and Marsha and Donna and the rest of us girls do? We made angel cookies from slice and bake cookie dough; it was the late 1950s, and I'd never seen "slice and bake" cookie dough, and I'd never seen cookies that were little angels sprinkled with the glitter of colored sugar. We made "mitts" for our dads. I can't recall if the hand mitts were for soap and showers or for the backyard grill, but I do remember tracing my father's hand to measure it. We glued bits and pieces of "pretty things" onto cheap earring backs and made Mother's Day gifts for mothers who smiled and wore the ugly little things to PTA meetings and to church. We made "Blue Bird pouches" out of light blue felt which we embroidered with just a bit of dark blue thread to define the wing and the eye. We decorated cigar boxes with shells and glitter and "stuff." We had a Christmas party with other Blue Bird groups and exchanged gifts; I got a "book" of Lifesaver candy, and some smiles from new friends in other Blue Bird groups. We went to a doll hospital and saw an enchanted lady mend broken dollies. We went to the Salvation Army where each of us selected a doll to clean up and make clothes for, and we took the dolls back to the Salvation Army for resale. Yes, the moms did the sewing on this project, but it was done with enough "direction" from the daughters that we could each say, "This is the doll my mom and I dressed up." Many of the moms made clothes to dress the dolls like little Camp Fire Blue Birds. We took a ride on a train. We visited the city jail.

What Mrs. Wilson was doing, without saying what she was doing, was helping to form a network within one community, a network of young girls, a network of mothers, a network of families. What Mrs. Wilson did was help to turn a collection of people who chanced to live near each other into a community.

Then came the day when a few of us "older Blue Birds" were ready to "fly up" to be Camp Fire Girls. I was sad to say good-bye to my Blue Bird friends, but chance had me just a little older than some of the group. After the "fly up," Mrs. Wilson came over to me privately and said, "I know the leader of the Camp Fire group you'll be part of, Alice. She is a nice woman. You will like the girls." I wanted to cry and say, "Can't I be a Blue Bird forever? I just got my new skirt." But time stands still for no one, not even for a Blue Bird in a new skirt. I was ten, and it was time to become a "real Camp Fire Girl."

Mrs. B., August 2000Thus, Phyllis Blankenhorn became my Camp Fire leader. A Hoosier woman with a ready smile who had left nursing school just a few courses short of a degree, this mom-of-four worked full time in the maternity department at a nearby hospital, helping women deliver their babies. The 1960s were just starting, and working moms in Indiana were rare. Mrs. B was better educated than most of the moms in the neighborhood and, unlike most moms, she had a career. How she managed four children, a job, a husband, and eight or ten growing girls coming into her home every week, I shall never know, but she stayed with us as our Camp Fire leader from fourth thru eighth grades.

Sometimes we met in Mrs. B's living room, sometimes at her dining table, sometimes in her basement. Always we were welcomed. We made tray favors for folks in nursing homes and bird feeders for the birds that stayed with us thru our snowy winters. We had Halloween parties. We wandered thru the neighborhood on "penny hikes." We made bees wax candles for Christmas, decorating them with glitter. We made paraffin stoves with tuna cans, melted wax, and corrugated cardboard, and we made hobo stoves from No. 10 cans. With a paraffin stove under my hobo stove, I could cook a breakfast of bacon and eggs while toasting bread on a stick held over the campfire. We spent weekends at Camp Kiloqua, all of us girls sleeping on bunk beds in one big dormitory-style room, sharing one small bathroom, sometimes sharing toothbrushes. We learned how to cook almost anything by wrapping it in aluminum foil and throwing it into the campfire. We would make dessert apples by coring apples and stuffing the centers with marshmallows, brown sugar, raisins, and coconut; we'd wrap the whole in a few sheets of foil and set it over the coals. We each created a "Camp Fire name" and a "symbolgram." Mrs. B helped me decide my Camp Fire name: Ma-ha-we. For me, it meant that I liked to plant things and watch them grow. We sold Brach's bridge mix chocolate candy, and the neighborhood supported us so well that nearly every house had a sticker on the door saying, "I have bought my Camp Fire Girls candy for 19--," and the years were filled in: 58, 59, 60, 61, 62. Many in the neighborhood left the stickers on year after year, showing support. We held bake sales at the local grocery store. We dressed in our red, white, and blue uniforms and joined other Camp Fire Girls from throughout the city marching in the annual Memorial Day parade in our home town. One year I got a nose bleed during the parade; my solution was to pinch my nose just as Mrs. B had taught us and to keep walking with the Camp Fire Girls because no respectable Camp Fire Girl would be stopped by a nose bled. We toured a local green house and were given small plants; mine lived several years and grew to be eight-feet tall. We learned songs like "Got a Little Old Pile of Tin," and "Stuck My Head in a Little Skunk Hole," and the ever infamous "Nothing" song. We divided into groups and had "dinner parties" for each other, with a volunteer mom showing us the "proper" way to cook and serve to guests. In that little neighborhood of mainly factory workers was one woman living a life such that she had to know how to entertain: The Philadelphia-born wife of a University of Notre Dame professor. This lady was married to a personal friend of Father Theodore Hesburgh. Mrs. Kane taught me that, while one might braise vegetables in butter for flavoring, one poured the butter off before serving. As the daughter of a farmer's daughter, I scratched my head on that one: "Wow! I thought the object of the meal was to have as much butter and calories as possible. You're sure it's okay to waste that butter?" As Mrs. Kane explained, "You're not wasting it. The butter did it's job. Now you're done with it." We were a group saddened together when we learned that Mrs. Kane would have to have an eye removed because of a disease, and we were all the more saddened to learn that she had but a few years left. Mrs. Kane had been a Camp Fire leader also.

Thirty-six years after Mrs. B. was my Camp Fire leader, I was visiting in my home town, and I stopped in to see her. She looked as spry as ever; her smile was as ready as always, and she again welcomed me into her home. She asked for news of Donna and Gail and Lois and Patty and others, and she passed on news of Judy and Beverly and others. Once upon a time, we had been a group, and the bonds that had been formed among Mrs. B's Camp Fire Girls were strong enough that they survive even as we approach our 50th birthdays and even as we all live in different states. In my many years, there have been many smiles that have grown out of my running to the school cafeteria that day in second grade and asking, "May I be a Blue Bird too, please?"

Mahawe's Memory Book
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Dr. Charles A. Eastman: Ohiyesa|
Camp Fire symbolgrams| |CF in children's fiction|
emblems| |honor beads| |friendship sticks|
cookie recipes| |old memories| |CF 4-260|

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