That’s me at far right outside “Moon” cabin in Gitchee Gumey five years before this story.

What is Yacht Rock?

“Sailing, takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be.
Just a dream and the wind to carry me, soon I will be free…”

For me Camp Awana (a pneumonic for “A Workman Approved Is Not Ashamed” derived from 2 Timothy 2:15) wasn’t just a bucolic acreage on a lake in Fredonia, Wisconsin. It was a place I loved going summer after summer for two, and then later four weeks. Hills, woods, creeks, ball fields, tennis courts, sail boats, canoes, tetherball, archery golf, box hockey and horseshoes. Long, rolling stretches of grass that would wet with dew each evening. Campfires by the lake. Roasted corn. Singing. Chocolate milk at bedtime.

Each year I’d design a pinewood derby and take the top prize. One year, toward the end of my years as a camper, I came in as runner-up for “all-around camper,” which meant that not only did I complete all the tasks necessary for “all-around Bible,” but I also earned points by winning tournaments in swimming, diving, tennis, ping pong and the like. Later it was discovered that I had actually won but due to a mathematical error I was not given the award on the final night of camp. Instead, it went to a kid in the adjoining cabin.

They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
 

Camp provided a welcome respite from the dysfunction in my childhood home—a place where I could grow, and grow-up, independently, away from the strident message of “not good enough.” In a way each year I’d start fresh with kids who didn’t know anything about me – about how I felt awkward and different.

All day long, I’m wearing a mask of false bravado
Trying to keep up a smile that hides a tear
But as the sun goes down, I get that empty feeling again

I realized lately that my fondest childhood and coming-of-age memories are from my time at Camp Awana starting from when I was seven years old and ending with two summers as a teenage “boy worker” – with the exception of one summer when I wound up in a cabin filled with bullies. Later, in the summer of 1982, as a college student, I mentored seven of my own campers as a cabin leader and waterfront director.

After eleven years, I was too old to be a camper, so in the summer of 1979 between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I returned to Camp Awana as a “boy worker.” I was in Osage cabin that summer. Osage was in a hilltop “lodge” (a collection of cabins) called “White Feather.” Camp Awana had a native American theme – back then we’d just say “Indian.” Unlike the other lodges that had six or eight cabins, White Feather only had three. This is where the boy-workers stayed – eight of us to a cabin. Made to resemble log cabins, the cabins were constructed with rounded wood siding that was stained dark brown. The corners had screened windows covered by a wood flap. Outside the cabins was a small latrine that had an outdoor, long metal trough with several spigots. A yellow light bulb meant to keep the bugs away hung above and the screen door could be heard slamming from any part of White Feather.

I don’t remember all my cabin mates’ names that summer, but the important ones for this story are my brother Chris, Bret Wilkinson, Mike Lederer, and Mike and his younger brother Mitch Muckerheide. It was popular in that time to refer to boys by their last name. I remember two more this way, Higgins and Rizoff. The vast majority of campers and workers were from the Chicago area as Camp was owned by a church located there. Most came and went on yellow school busses inscribed with the church’s name “North Side Gospel Center.” I lived only 30 minutes from camp in the northern suburbs of Milwaukee.

That July and August corresponded with the Perseids meteor shower. The Perseids are caused by Earth passing through debris — bits of ice and rock — left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. The Perseids peak each year in August when Earth passes through the densest and dustiest area of the galaxy. On a warm night several of us threw our sleeping bags on the roof of the cabin, tucked ourselves in, laid back and counted dozens, if not hundreds of shooting stars.

“There’s a warm wind blowing the stars around, and I’d really love to see you tonight.”

Boy workers, unlike campers, had no particular time for “lights out,” and could move around the vast grounds freely or even leave to go to a neighboring town such as West Bend or Port Washington – the kind of freedom that even in my late teens was not afforded me at home or at the Florida condominium where we spent holidays. There, the watchful and disapproving eyes of my parents, guided by some distortion of scripture, prevented me from courtship and other adolescent and boyish interests. Worse, was the draconian boarding school I was sent to for high school called Maranatha. They seemed determined to quash any individuality right out of you.

We’ll send him to school
It’ll teach him how to fight
To be nobody’s fool
Oh, oh what a lonely boy
Oh what a lonely boy

One night, early in the first two-week session of boys camp I went to the mess hall where leaders and workers would sometimes casually gather to have some “bug juice” and cookies or to chit-chat before turning in for the night. Duties came early for the workers, especially those that worked in the kitchen. I did not. I did odd jobs around the grounds such as building a rack for canoes or giving the aging cabins a coat of creosote stain.

The mess hall was a long building with a commercial kitchen that produced meals for everyone at camp. These meals were far better than I got at home. You could smell the invisible muse – the beautiful aromas of fried chicken with mashed potatoes, roast beef with carrots, pancakes with maple syrup – real country meals that we ate family style. A fieldstone fireplace rose to meet the high, arched roof on the opposite side where the camp director would make announcements and lead us in prayer before every savored meal. The entire room was filled with square tables and benches that had been painted orange.

As I entered, I noticed a young girl-worker that I had been admiring from afar. She was petit with blonde bangs. Her thin lips would curl adorably when she smiled. She smelled wonderful. Dawne Boblett motioned for me to come sit at her table where she was working on a find-a-word puzzle. She asked me to help her and pushed out one side of her bench. As we found and circled words – “Romans,” “Salvation,” “Ephesians,” I could sense her moving ever closer. Her leg wrapped around mine under the table and I felt my body tingle and mind soar.

It was getting late, so we left the Mess Hall together and I walked her back across the dewy grass to the girl workers’ cabin as the light from the singular floodlight atop the Mess Hall near the flagpole faded to damp, coaly black. I felt her soft hand slip into mine and my first true romance began at that moment.

Friday night, it was late, I was walking you home
We got down to the gate and I was dreaming of the night
Would it turn out right…

As we approached the girl workers’ cabin Dawne turned and gently wrapped her arms around my neck. It’s true, I guess, that girls mature faster than boys. Somewhere within me was an instinct to embrace her around the waist. She drew me in and kissed me deep. I walked up the White Feather hill to my cabin, but I could have just as well flown. I tucked into my sleeping bag and turned on my little boom box…

Now I believe there has been a change in me
I believe that it was meant to be
Can’t you see I believe in you and me

The next day Chris noticed the spring in my step. “What’s going on with you?” He asked.

When they insist on knowing my bliss
I tell them this
When they want to know what the reason is
I only smile when I lie, then I tell them why
(Because your kiss) your kiss is on my list

At this age I believed happiness lay in the arms of someone else, not my own; That a hole within me required filling from another. This was a pattern, romantically repeated, that I did not break until I was well into my forties.

It happens all the time
This crazy love of mine
Wraps around my heart
Refusing to unwind
Ooh-ooh, crazy love, ah

One night after all our duties were complete, Dawne and I were walking hand-in-hand along one of the gravel roads at camp – the one that cut through Gitchee Gumee, a lodge of cabins along the lakefront below White Feather. Just past Gitchee was the canteen, the oldest building on the camp grounds. It used to be a tavern, but now it was where campers secured sweet treats in the afternoon. Outside stood a glowing “pop” machine. Chicagoans called “soda” “pop”. These machines dispensed 16 oz bottles that you would return to a wooden crate when done. Fail to do that, or drink your pop outside of the “pop zone,” and you might wind up in camp court – sentenced to buy someone a pop.

A car drove up from behind, illuminating us and creating long shadows on the gravel road. This was very unusual, as cars almost never traversed these paths. My heart sunk when Howard Duncan, the camp director stepped out. I was certain we were in trouble. My mother used to follow me in her car when she thought I was doing something she disapproved of. She showed up once at the house of a girl I liked in fifth grade, Susan Carroll, where we had put together a touch football game, and forced me to leave in front of the other kids. Co-ed fraternization was off the table for me as a child.

Howard approached us. “While you’re walking around could you please go watch over Shawandassee?” he said gently. “Their cabin leaders are in a prayer meeting and we need someone to watch the kids.” No reprimand? No lecture on the prohibition of “he-ing and she-ing?” No thinly-veiled threats?

Dawne and I walked the long road through the dark woods while crickets and frogs composed a symphony just for us. We cuddled into the corner benches of the Shawandassee Bible house, leaving the lights off. Each lodge had a Bible house where campers would gather for an hour each day to learn the teachings of scripture. As we listened to the sounds of the woods, a soft rain began to fall, kissing the still waters of the lake beyond the reeds and cattails. The air was lazy and sweet on that perfect summer night as it combed the leaves of the tall cedar trees along the southern shore of Lake Awana.

Summer breeze makes me feel fine
Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind

One night late in that first two-week session, long after all of us were tucked into our bunks in Osage cabin, I heard through my open window flaps on the small shoulders of a cooling summer breeze something surprising. An animal? No, animals? It was the soft, low giggle of young girls. Our door creaked open and in came a handful of girl workers. See, I wasn’t the only one having a summer romance. I was in the back right, lower bunk. From there I could hear the soft whispers but see only silhouettes surreptitiously move about. This was unprecedented. Janice visited Mitch in his bunk. There were several others. One came and whispered “Dawne is coming…” to me. But as it turned out Dawne was already there. She was “visiting” Bret Wilkinson in the upper front left bunk. She eventually came to mine and some minor, unexpected assignation occurred. It became obvious, however, the next day when Dawne strolled in with Bret that a love triangle was rather obviously in place. I simply stormed out of the cabin.

Someone, someone’s done you wrong
You thought that your love was strong
Now you  feel like such a fool

What was that feeling? In the realm where love briefly flourished, lies a garden now consumed. So… this is heartbreak.

And you said you was never intending
To break up our scene in this way
But there ain’t any use in pretending
It could happen to us any day
How long has this been going on?
How long has this been going on?

When the first two-week session of boys camp ends, the campers board buses and head back to the Chicago area at 10:00 am. The workers are given the day off. Mike Muckerheide was a handsome, blond champion wrestler with a chiseled body. He had brought a bench press and weights to camp and set them up in the middle of our cabin. Unlike most there, Mike was not from Chicago but rather nearby West Bend. While the same age, he somehow seemed older and more worldly – the popular kid at a public high school. One time he burst into the cabin with a ¼ barrel. It was A&W root beer!

Mike had purchased a great American muscle car – a Challenger or maybe a Camaro. I tried to be cool by driving it. I had a very new driver’s license. I pushed it a bit too hard on a corner Dukes of Hazzard style and wound up doing a half donut over some grass for which I was thoroughly scolded by the camp groundskeeper, Mark VanNatta. News of my misadventure spread among the workers. I felt like an idiot.

Mike also had access to a blue van. I don’t recall if this was his van or maybe it belonged to camp. He disappeared for a short while that day off and returned in the late afternoon. He gathered up some of us workers and I was lucky to be included after the infamous car incident that made headlines in the earliest social media, gossip.

Baby’s into runnin’ round
Hangin’ with the crowd
Putting your business in the street
Talkin’ out loud

We all drove out along Seven Bridges Road, which still had a couple covered bridges. Mike pulled the van into a nondescript gravel lot. He climbed in back with the rest of us and revealed his prize. A 12-pack of Red White and Blue brand beer!

I had never to this point in my life tasted a beer, or any alcohol for that matter. He passed them around. Only one person declined, my brother Chris. Strong decision, Chris. I popped the ice cold can and raised it to my lips with great anticipation of what I thought would be a refreshing and delicious drink. If not, why do so many people drink it? Instead, I tasted what was the most God-awful concoction on earth. It tasted like dirty socks and acrid metal. I choked the rest down though. I didn’t want to appear to be un-cool. Being un-cool at that age is tantamount to a death sentence.

The camp had a fleet of simple, single sail boats. I had learned how to sail quite a few years before and among other things gave sailing lessons at camp. I loved sailing, especially at our home in Florida where I could take to the ocean and go up or down the coast. Part of my routine at night was to go to the lakefront while the campers were busy with their evening activities such as a game of “capture the flag.” I tidied up, hung up stray life preservers and raked the sand beach. I decided a little sail wouldn’t hurt anyone, despite being against the rules. I put out in one of those little blue boats propelled by a gentle, warm wind. The sunset gave way to a sky filled with shades of purple and orange. The moon was early and bright.

It’s kind of a special feeling
When you’re out on the sea alone
Staring at the full moon like a lover

A few nights into the second two-week period of boys camp I was in the room below handicraft patching a dent in one of those sailboats. I heard the shuffling of little feet outside. In walked Dawne wearing a red windbreaker. Words were exchanged. Kisses too. We were a couple again.

Fool if you think it’s over
‘Cause you said goodbye
Fool if you think it’s over
I’ll tell you why
New born eyes always cry with pain
At the first look at the mornin’ sun
Fool if you think it’s over
It’s just begun

Our romance continued for the remainder of the month, seemingly unmolested by that marauder Bret. Knowing glances across a crowded mess hall at meals. Sunsets on a bench overlooking the waterfront, where I spent most of my time as a worker. A getaway to a roller rink on the camp bus with the other workers. Smooth music played as we circled the wooden floor, me holding her now familiar, small hand.

Well, make a wish, baby
And I will make it come true
Make a list baby, of the things I’ll do for you
Ain’t no risk in lettin’ my love rain down on you
So we can wash away the past so that we may start anew

As August shyly crept in and cicadas sang their droning song, that final day of camp arrived. I stayed with Dawne as long as I could on the patio of the “Pueblo,” the area of the mess hall reserved for adult staff and visitors. Dawne’s ride, her older brother, also an alumni of Camp arrived and after one last, long hug I watched as their car disappeared over the hill of camp’s entrance road leaving a trail of dust behind it. I spent an hour or so walking around the now abandoned camp grounds. Only echoes remained. Then finally, reluctantly I got in my own car and drove home. Our brief Camelot in rural Wisconsin ended.

A week or so later I was laying in my bed in my bedroom, and I started to cry. My mother came in and in an uncharacteristically gentle moment she asked me what was wrong. I told her I did not want to go back to Maranatha. I tried to explain why I hated it there. She listened briefly and then said, “I’m not sure if there’s time to get you into public school, but we can check.” Somewhere in my soliloquy that followed though I made a crucial mistake and mentioned Dawne. “THAT’S what this is about?!” “A girl?!!” “You’ll be going back to Maranatha!” And she stormed out.

But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, oh, responsible, practical…

Oh, won’t you sign up your name? We’d like to feel you’re acceptable
Respectable, oh, presentable…a vegetable!

It wasn’t about a girl. Once I had those glimmers of normalcy gathered at camp, I didn’t want to return to misfit island. Here was a place that was also Christian, but a world apart from Maranatha’s oppressiveness.

In the last days before school began, I received a letter in the mail. It was a small card from Dawne indicating that I’d be invited to work at Labor Day Camp, the last summer camp activity at Camp Awana when families would gather at the camp for two days and nights. I must have read that letter a thousand times and until the flood at my house 15 years ago, I still had it.

I was already back at Maranatha but I did come home for weekends. I didn’t wind up working Labor Day Camp, I don’t remember why, but I did drive up to camp to spend a few hours with Dawne over that weekend. I saw her one last time when I drove down to the North Side Gospel Center for the “Awana Olympics.” It was then it became clear that we made sense at camp, but we were ultimately from two very different worlds. And so, our romance became the thing of Kodachrome.

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see
Tryin’ hard to recreate
What had yet to be created once in her life
She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale

Not too many years later I got a call to my law office. It was Howard Duncan. The unthinkable had happened at Camp Awana. A cabin leader had sexually assaulted several boys and the camp faced lawsuits that could very well significantly exceed their insurance coverage. I happily agreed to represent the camp pro bono. I met with Howard many times to prepare. We fervently prayed at a coffee shop near the Illinois/Wisconsin border for God to spare Camp Awana and it’s valuable work. He did.

Howard told me that day that Dawne had married my cabin mate Mike Lederer and the two had a child. Shortly after the child’s birth though Mike fell asleep at the wheel and drove head on into a bridge embankment ending his young life and widowing Dawne. A handful of years after that, in the early days of social media, I heard that Bret Wilkinson had also died tragically in a construction accident.

Now I know my life has given me more than memories
Day by day, we can see
In every moment there’s a reason to carry on

A few months ago Camp Awana, after more than 70 years and under new ownership, changed its name to “The Woods.” The White Feather cabins have been destroyed.

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back. We travel to ourselves when we go to a place where we have covered a stretch of our life, even if only in memory.

In a way my relationship with Dawne was a microcosmic archetype for many that followed. But a bit of “playing the field” at a summer camp in your teens is certainly misdemeanor compared to doing it when married. But that’s another story I suppose.

I’m writing this little essay from a tour bus that I share with my bandmates in The Docksiders, a tribute show to the music now referred to as “Yacht Rock.” Back then it was just the popular soft rock music that played on the radio and from a one-speaker cassette player I would furtively bring to camp. Each night when we take the stage in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Tampa, Florida; Denver, Colorado or Las Vegas where we now play in residency, I see in the faces of the audience the nostalgic joy I feel myself. I see their summer of Dawne Boblett.

Light of the world, shine on me
Love is the answer
Shine on us all, set us free
Love is the answer

 

Boy and girl workers from around that year. Mike Muckerheide is seen at far right. Mike Lederer is third from left, shirtless (as he always seemed to be).

Howard Duncan at far right with his wife Linda and the Bishops.

At far right, Bret Wilkinson
Second from right, Mike Lederer
In the back with her arms around the group, Carol Leipzig
And in the overalls, Dawne Boblett