The rain had not yet started when I descended the stairs to the first floor and let the dog outside. Now it patters on the wood of the deck and the dog has retreated inside her house. She will not be persuaded to venture up to the kitchen to come inside. I am left to be amused and watch the rain from the front door, stretching my tired limbs, shaking my head at the feelings coursing through me. Another day, another chance to wonder: Is this medicine working? If so, then why do I still feel so sick?
I see the American flag on my house and smile, suddenly, without inhibition. A light shines on this flag -- a floodlight that we included in the new porch design both to light the steps and to allow us to fly the flag without interruption. For the same reason, we replace our flag nearly every year, most recently in 2013 with a quality, sewn all-weather flag. Many have doubted my patriotism: I have never served, I do not advocate war, I question the way our country has been managed. But drive past my home and you will see that I proudly display our nation's most visible and beloved symbol.
Standing here reminds me of a rainy day nearly fifty years ago -- forty-seven? -- when I spent the summer at Camp Fire Girls camp on a "poor girl's scholarship". As the memory floats to the surface, I give myself to it.
Among our troop were twins, Barbara and Bonnie Cross, whose mother led us. Barbara and Bonnie looked alike but in reality, could have been strangers. Bonnie leaned toward more typically feminine deportment while Barbara played sports and had strong, sturdy limbs. I liked Bonnie but I admired Barbara the most. I yearned for her approval and attention.
A group of us occupied a rustic portion of the camp, sleeping not in cabins but in three-sided bays with crude roofs and a canvas flap for rain protection. Iron bunks, three sets to a structure, and thin mattresses contributed to the military feel of the place. This group consisted mostly of experienced campers, twelve years old or so, and we did not have to participate in the daily ritual of the place. We hiked, boated, swam, and learned about survival.
Though I fit the age, I had only been to camp once before that summer and did not fit the profile of an experienced attendee. I struggled to keep pace. Barb Cross thrived on the rigors of this schedule. But with my clumsy legs and pale skin, I caught poison ivy, grew blisters, and lay in bed each night aching in every muscle.
Towards the end of the week, our troop would be leading a hike through "unmapped land". No one told us what we would find. We would be following markers through brambles, over boulders, with only a rudimentary path beneath our feet. Barb Cross could not contain her excitement nor I my dread.
We stood in the rain one day for the process of grouping ourselves in pairs for the next day's hike. I looked and felt miserable as the others jostled together, laughing about the rain's causing their hair to frizz, guessing whether we'd hike if the rain did not stop, pairing off while I stood forlornly by myself. No one wanted me, not even a pretty girl from Springfield with whom I had become friends. But Barb Cross stepped forward to choose me and then she did an even more unthinkable act: She volunteered the two of us to rise at dawn, go to the place where the trail-blazing would occur, and use our compasses and a map of the area to mark the trail that the others would later follow.
I lay awake that night until no sound drifted to me from others sleeping in adjacent bunks. I could not imagine why Barbara chose me except from pity. I would slow her progress; I would fall; I would doom our task and cause her to be humiliated in front of the several participating troops and the camp leaders. I fell asleep with silent tears streaming down my cheeks, their saltiness stinging my chapped lips.
I slid out of the building in the morning, dressed in slacks and the only shoes I owned. I had tied my braid with a Camp Fire Girls kerchief and stashed a few supplies in a small pack. I pulled aside the canvas and peered out: the rain had gone, leaving behind cool sweet air and a gentle freshness. I stepped down, steadying myself on the unpaved bare ground.
Barbara waited for me, a stout backpack beside her, in which she had stowed the red flags that she and I would tie on branches to guide the others who came later. She carried an ax. I shuddered when I saw it. But I forced myself to remain composed as we moved toward the road.
Barbara had the map provided by the counselors. She took us across a clearing and into the woods, where we found an initial, large red flag which told us where to start the trail. Then Barbara moved past it, wielding the little hatchet at the spindly new growth of trees. I followed her, tying red cloth to the young trees every few feet, dodging to avoid being slapped by the branches whipped away by Barbara's strong arms.
After we had gone a hundred feet, Barbara stopped and looked back at the narrow clearing that her efforts had created. Fire rose in her eyes as she surveyed the path down which the other girls in the group would come. They would not have to do much to navigate the way; she had done more than the leaders expected. She glanced at me and grinned; then resumed her forward trek. The sun crept higher. Sweat rose on my forehead but I kept going.
I fell a few times. Barbara immediately dropped her pack and came back to me, gently lifting me from the floor of the woods and brushing debris from my back. Each time, she stayed until I found my footing again, then moved away, retrieved her backpack and ax, and started forward again. She moved farther ahead of me as I tired, but we both kept going, Barbara working the compass and the map, me just following Barb, tying red strips of fabric every four or five feet, feeling the burn in my chest.
I don't know how far our efforts took us, but suddenly, we broke through the forest to another clearing. This one stood on the edge of a lovely ravine. We crossed the clearing and looked down. What we beheld could not be called a canyon but it certainly took our breath away as surely as the deepest gorge. Barbara let out a grand laugh and threw her arms around me. "We did it!" she cried. "We made it! We did it! You and me! Not those other girls! You and me!" We fell on the ground, laughing, congratulating each other, even though in my heart, I knew that but for Barbara, I would have failed and turned away in desolation.
Later that day, we followed the rest of the girls as they made their way through the forest using our red flags as guides. They widened the path, cleared the brush created by their efforts, trampled down undergrowth so that eventually, even the youngest campers could walk that way. When the group of us broke through the woods to the clearing by the ravine, we discovered that a picnic had been laid, with portable tables, coolers, chairs, and food. Our troop leaders awaited us.
But Barbara and I walked past the impromptu party to stand together on the edge of the ravine, looking down at the rocks, the straggly trees, and the floor of the ravine with its small stream and untamed growth. We did not speak. The sun shone full upon us. I felt a sense of peace flow through me. I don't know if Barbara shared that sensation but a few minutes later, she touched my arm. I looked at her. A smile rose on her face and I felt my own face relax beneath her gaze. And then, still without speaking, we turned away, and went to join the others.
That evening, Barbara and I paired again for the nightly flag-lowering ceremony. She worked the ropes with her strong arms, to slowly lower the flag from its pole in the center of the camp while Taps sounded throughout the camp. I stood beside the pole, gathering the end of the flag. She took the opposite end as it came down, and gently unhooked the flag. She walked away, stretching the flag straight, then methodically moved towards me, carefully holding the flag taut so it would not touch the ground. Barbara folded the flag in the manner that our leaders had taught us, moving closer and closer to where I stood, until the last fold. She neatly tucked the end to keep the flag in form until it would be hung at Reveille the next morning. Then she held the flag reverently in her extended arms, again, as we had been taught. We walked towards the main building while the last notes of Taps played and the sun set.