GETTING THE CALL
In my younger years I used to spend my summers at summer camp along with my two brothers. Each year at the beginning of July our mother used to pack us up and deliver us for a two-month sojourn at Camp Cedar Pines in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains. The camp had been started a number of years earlier as a YMCA camp. The camp director had bought it and operated it as a private camp for boys and girls. Geographically, it was located in north central Pennsylvania about forty miles northwest of the city of Williamsport that later became the home of Little League.
The facility was situated on the bank of a river called Pine Creek whose source waters were about fifty miles to the northwest. The river wound through the mountains past the town of Wellsboro, about 30 miles up river from the camp, and then through a deep gorge called Pine Creek Gorge which local residents referred to as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. Just below the camp a dam had been built across the river providing a large swimming area complete with a tower, docks and a float.
Campers, most of whom went for the full two months, number between 100 and 120. Activities were typical for a summer camp, including such things as baseball, basketball, tennis, archery, horseback riding, swimming, boating, handicrafts, hiking and backpacking for overnight hikes.
About three quarters of a mile upstream was the village of Cedar Run, population about 400, whose principal activities centered around the Cedar Run Inn with about 20 guest rooms and a General Store. Camp counselors had one night off each week and usually walked into the village and hung out at the General Store sipping soft drinks and eating pretzels or ice cream. About halfway between the village and the camp was a little white Church, non- denominational, which most of the village's churchgoers attended. The congregation couldn't afford a full-time pastor and so an unaffiliated minister from Williamsport made the trip each week to conduct Sunday services. Occasionally a
traveling entertainer with a musical saw or musical drinking glasses
would entertain, projecting really great sounds as he played the old familiar hymns. The favorite hymn of the Church was "The Church in the Wildwood" which was a standby in the Church program every Sunday. Over the years those of us who kept going back had become well acquainted with many of the village's residents. Every Sunday all the campers and counselors would dress in their Sunday best and walk to Church where we would be joined by about a hundred of the villagers for the Sunday service.
When I became a senior in High School I also became a counselor at camp where I was in charge of a cabin of six to eight of the youngest campers, ranging in age from six to ten. During my college years I continued to spend my summers as a counselor. Camp always started on the first Saturday in July. In the season between my Sophomore and Junior years, after we arrived at camp, the camp director called all the counselors together and told us that the people in town had notified him that there would be no minister that summer and had asked if the camp counselors would conduct church services. The head counselor of the boy's camp, who happened to be my older brother, immediately took charge to help solve the problem. He made up slips of paper on which were written each of the parts of the service and each counselor, man and woman, was asked to draw one from a basket. By the time he got around to me there was only one piece of paper left and I took it. It said "Sermon".
I had from about 3:00 Saturday afternoon till 10:30 Sunday morning to prepare something to say. I was all of nineteen years old and had just completed an elective course in Public Speaking. For final exams the professor had assigned us subjects -all very abstract and esoteric. Mine was, "The Youth Is The Architect Of His Own Fate." How appropriate for a hundred and twenty young campers! So I decided to give my final exam speech. I didn't have my notes but I remembered most of what I had said and made a new set of notes. One of the most important things was the admonishment of my professor to, "Create visual images with words to hold your audience."
The camp director told us that Mrs. Wilson, the Church organist, would be practicing Saturday afternoon and that if any of us wanted to discuss anything with her, we could walk to Church and talk to her. I
walked to Church with several of the women counselors who wanted to discuss the music program with Mrs. Wilson. I told her about my problem and after a few logistical comments, she said, "Norman, you know these are wonderful people. But as far as Church is concerned they are not interested in hearing about Heaven or Hell. They are interested in the here and the now. We don't care if it's biblical or philosophical or social or political, as long as It's upbeat. Other than that I can’t offer any suggestion."
I replied, “That’s plenty. Many thanks!”
Came Sunday morning. The women counselors had worked with Mrs. Wilson and had a good music program planned. I sat down front. After the opening hymn, "The Church In the Wildwood", one of the women counselors delivered an opening prayer, then another hymn, then a scripture reading about Noah and the Ark, and then I was on stage with an audience of about two hundred worshippers. This was the first practical application of my public speaking course. Of course I was nervous, but so was the whole congregation. I stayed with my subject; "The Youth is the Architect of his Own Fate". I did remember to create visual images right at the beginning. I have never forgotten my opening lines "Have you ever seen a log raft bobbing about on rough water? It dips and sways back and forth with the current and the wind, and eventually sinks waterlogged to the bottom. Now compare that with a sleek powerboat cutting through the choppy waves, with its prow rising and falling and trailing a whitewater wake. It is going somewhere. It can be compared with anyone of us here today. It has an engine for a heart and a rudder for a mind, steering it to its goals or destination."
The rest of the message, which took about twenty minutes, was almost by rote. I talked about Lincoln studying by the light.of the fireplace, Franklin reading during his lunch hour as an apprentice to his brother's print shop, and Benjamin Disraeli writing a novel about a commoner becoming prime minister of England and then living out his novel. The congregation, who at first seemed a little uptight, appeared to be getting more relaxed and this had a salutary effect on me. I finished with a quote from Thoreau, "I can think of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor."
After I finished we sang another hymn, one of the other men did the benediction, and the service was over. But nobody moved. Mrs. Wilson leaned over to me and whispered that I was supposed to go to the back of the sanctuary and greet the parishioners as they left. Dutifully, I did as she suggested and nervously noted that everyone was smiling as they left.
We marched back to camp and had our traditional Sunday mid-day meal that we called dinner. As we left the dining hall, I noticed that a station wagon had pulled up with some of the townspeople whom I recognized. The camp director went over to greet them. There appeared to be a very animated conversation. I said to myself, "Oh boy, what bonehead thing did I do?"
He suddenly called me and beckoned me to join them. He said with a straight face, "Norman, the congregation would like you to be their minister this summer. What do you say?"
I was dumfounded and in shock. I responded, "Look, I have no experience in this. I basically used a talk I gave for my final exam. I have no reference material. I have eight young boys to look after. Believe me, the next one won't be as good as this one was today ." The camp director said that he would arrange for my charges to be looked after when I was unavailable.
The townspeople were unimpressed by my other arguments and sweetened the pot by offering me the weekly collection plate. They even had today's offering in a paper bag that they gave me because they said I had earned it. They said I could get the Sunday lesson each week from the Thursday Williamsport papers and base my sermon on that. I turned to the camp director and questioned him with my eyes. He seemed very pleased and said, "I think it's great! After you get Thursday's paper, you'll have a couple of days to get ready.” Mrs. Wilson said that she would help as much as she could and she had an Encyclopedia and an Almanac that I could use as needed.”
I allowed them to talk me into doing it. In retrospect I jokingly told myself that this must be what “Getting the Call” meant. I must say that
it was a highly emotional and enlightening experience for me and at the end of the summer I was asked to agree to do it again the following year. So someone must have liked it. I was even asked to visit 93 year old Ben Gamble who was feeling "poorly". I wasn't sure what I would talk about but I needn't have worried because I had trouble getting a word in edgewise.
I believe that this entire experience was an important element in my future career. The experience of communicating to a large group with important messages; separating the relevant from the irrelevant; and leading logically to a reasonable conclusion - all were important attributes in the Corporate world. And it all happened by chance. It was my picking up that last little piece of paper out of a hat. Or was it Chance? I wonder if my brother set me up.
* * *