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The marrying kind

Young camp counselors are husbands and fathers in training

Issue: "Dating and courtship confusion," June 4, 2011

Alpine Camp for Boys sits atop Lookout Mountain, about an hour south of Chattanooga, Tenn., just outside of the little hamlet of Mentone, Ala. Its brown wooden cabins near expanses of grass nestle among huge gray boulders, mossy undergrowth, and sequoia-like tulip poplars. The adjacent Little River provides the deep, guttural background sounds of cascading water on rock.

Campers spend two weeks or a month playing four-square, riding horses, competing in sports, and ensuring that the age-old rituals of campfires, s'mores, capture the flag, and "slaughter ball" pass honorably to the next generation. Rain or shine, the fragrances of deep-fried okra, yeast rolls, chicken pie, and cherry cobbler seem as natural as honeysuckle and hydrangea.

Camps, though, require camp counselors, and their recruitment may seem like a mystery. Why would an Ole Miss fraternity guy majoring in accounting and minoring in intramural sports and sorority socials choose to spend three months in a ventilated wooden box with six or seven sixth-graders? Why would a Vanderbilt pre-med major teach rock-climbing or canoeing or even crafts instead of interning at the medical center of his choice? And why would guys at the top of their class do this for minimal pay, knowing that it will require maximum output?

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One answer is that they are young and naïve. But there is more.

In recent years my specific privilege has been to arrive at Alpine in late May to assist with the training of 80 college guys for the toughest (and best) job they have yet to encounter. It took me years to figure out what was running through their brains. Here's what I found: These guys had traveled cross-country and up Highway 117 to spend the summer in a nearly all-male environment only to test positive for the age-old syndrome called "girl on the brain." And not just that: These guys had marriage on their minds.

One summer, a couple of days into staff training, after a morning Bible study and before a day of team-building on the ropes course, a small group of counselors approached me and said, "We want to get together and talk 'women.'"

"Uhm, I think I understand your meaning," I said, "but tell me more."

They did: "We just need to talk about girls-about dating and marriage, and how the two are related." "Yeah, and what it means to really love someone and how you go about telling her." "And how you figure out if she is the right one, and what do you do if you knew she was the right one and she crushed your heart?" "Or, what if she is your best friend? How do you broach the subject without destroying the friendship?" "And how do our parents factor into all of this?"

These questions led to what is now an annual tradition, a night of staff training dedicated not to talking about what to do when a camper wets his bed, or when two campers have a pillow-fight during cabin clean-up, or about how to properly paddle a funyak. One night during the first week we all discuss the unseen force behind so much of life-love.

Yes: These college guys, cool guys, smart guys, Christian guys, want to serve as counselors at a summer camp because deep down they think this will help them become men, and in turn this will help them become fathers, good fathers. They feel that this seemingly overwhelming desire to meet girls, to get to know them, to "date" and yes, to marry, has some hope to it, some real purpose. They think marriage might be do-able, that it could be good even amidst a relationally chaotic culture.

Encouraging and challenging: In a world where commitment of all kinds is at a minimum, where co-ed cohabitation is no longer a topic of careful consideration as much as an assumption based on pragmatic and primal desires, these young adults are attempting at least to count the costs of intimacy and commitment. It makes me pause to think, "What might each of my own children have on his or her mind? How might we create a family environment where my wife and I understand not just our thoughts about each child, but their thoughts about themselves and about life? How might we carve out a "night," right in the midst of life, to talk about what they really fear and hope and desire?

-William Boyd is a pastor and father of four children


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