Camp 1969

Camp Spill-A-Little was where I learned to rumble with diabetes. Campers like me were eight years old. You were allowed to go to camp until you were sixteen. All of us had Type 1 Diabetes.  Our parents sent us to the Mohican Valley to learn to manage injections, food plans and exercise with other diabetic children.  Camp brought life lessons transferring the management of Type 1 Diabetes from parental control to me one year at a time. It was a place of empowerment where campers faced fears and found community. Camp Spill-A-Little was where I turned my dis-ease into personal power. 

            Mom and Dad herded the family into the car to accompany me to camp Spill-A-Little (as in spill–a-little-sugar-in your urine).  My sister Maryellen was sad. Watering puppy dog eyes stared, arms holding Winnie the Pooh, her fingers rubbing his red worn shirt. “Stop looking at me.” I sniped.

            “I want to go with you,” she pleaded. 

             “You can’t you’re too little.” 

            “I’m not little.  I’m big.”          

Maryellen placed her fingers on my forearm and pinched hard with her fingernails. “Ouch!” I pulled my arm away rubbing a small welt. 

            “I give you a shot,” her payback for being called small. She knew I got shots and sometimes they hurt. She lashed out against a big sister who won all the fights.  

             The “Twins” joined the road trip too. They were trouble in small doses, perpetually dirty boys and exactly one year and twelve days younger than Maryellen. Sniping and snarling we piled into the back of the sedan for a three-hour journey up 3C Highway to camp. The cows sweeping by the window looked my way. They had no idea how anxiety, cold sweat and fear grabbed my stomach with each curve in the road. A week at “Diabetes Camp,” needles, tests and no mom.  

We passed vacationing families wearing floppy hats and sunglasses in cars loaded with suitcases and bicycles. Maryellen pulled the edges of her mouth with her fingers and stuck her tongue out at a boy in the back seat of a passing station wagon. She screamed and ducked as a boy made a face back and spitting on the window when he saw me. I’m going to camp. What if they forget to pick me up?I won’t have to deal with my brothers and sister for a week.No diabetic place is fun.Excitement and fear wrestled in the back seat of my mind. The three-hour journey took forever.

Falling asleep, I imagined being kidnapped without insulin. Lying lifeless in a dingy backroom, curtains drawn blocking the light. I imagined how a diabetic coma might feel. Could my parents raise the ransom in time? I awoke to the sound of crunching gravel and grinding tires pulling onto the highway. A sign marked CAMP as we turned onto the gravel road. My nightmare now realized as the truck drove away with a suitcase dangling from the rear. Survival would be up to me. 

             Camp Spill-A-Little broke through the trees at the end of the gravel road. Children were throwing lawn darts called Jarts at plastic circles in a field. Boys and girls scattered as the Jart arched through the air homing into the area of small children. The kids were fast, no blood, a good sign.  We met Reverend Elliot in the grass parking lot beyond the Jart field. Reverend Elliot’s warm smile welcomed me to this diabetic adventure and put my fears of abduction and abandonment to rest. 

Charlie and Chuck were hippies working at summer camp for gas money for their Volkswagen bus. Charlie had curly hair and was just taller than me.  I imagined her as singer in Godspel, an album my friends competitively lip synced. Chuck, Charlies husband was short too, red hair covered his body.  He laughed easily and his eyes twinkled like Santa Claus. 

“How old are you?” Chuck asked as he whittled a stick and handed it to a twin. 

“I’m eight and a half,” I said shyly. 

“Eight and a half, that’s beautiful. How old were you when you got diabetes?


“Wow, you arebeautiful, I didn’t get the Big D until I was thirteen.”

“Do you have to take shots?”

“Twice a day.” 

Chuck took shots too! I didn’t know adults took shots. I thought you outgrew diabetes. I thought you’d be cured by the time you were old. People could live a long time taking shots. He was really old, maybe twenty-six. 

Dr. Hamwi was the camp doctor. Which was hard to tell because he wore shorts a fishing hat and no stethoscope. I’d never seen a doctor without pants. Never. He looked weird. His smile came with a wink not the scowl doctors had when they looked at your records. He likes kids. Relief eased my stomach. Camp might be all right.

 In Cabin One Mom and I laid my paisley sleeping bag on the bottom bunk by the door while Dad and the sibs went to the pool. Sixteen campers were assigned to Cabin One. Two rustic rooms separated by a bathroom with rows and rows of small grey plastic cases on a shelf. This camp was different than any place I had ever slept before. It didn’t feel scary or smell weird like other diabetes places. After stashing my camp gear Mom and I went to the swimming pool to join the rest of the families. Four o’clock came and visitors were asked to leave.  

“Bye, Maureen. We’ll be back in a week.” Mom kissed me and turned quickly toward the car. Dad gave a big wet kiss.  I wiped the spit from my cheek as my family drove away.