When one spends nine hours in a car, you have a lot of time to think, contemplate and remember. Driving back from Ocean Isle, North Carolina, as Kathryn and Cole were sleeping I had time to myself, to reflect and remember the many times in the past when I had visited the ocean with family and friends. As I was driving down interstate 40 I couldn’t help but to recall one of my favorite trips. The year I took 16 girl scouts on a “camping” trip to Ocean Isle. We shared a fantastic week at the beach, but I believe most of the fun for me was gearing up and preparing for our beach week.
I still remember the phone call, summer of 1995. My daughter's old Girl Scout leader had retired, they needed someone new to take over the troop. Margaret was convinced I was the perfect candidate, the kids loved me, I had a great imagination and was extremely responsible. I was flattered by her invitation but I reminded her that I don’t camp. Over the years if she had recalled, I had volunteered at bake sales, dances, slumber parties everything but the yearly camping trip. I had done my camping duty when I was younger, now I preferred my accommodations to have running water and electricity. Margaret informed me the yearly camping trip didn’t have to be a “roughing” it through the wilderness trip. As long as the kids and their parents agreed, the Girl Scout Counsel approved the trip, I could take the girls camping anywhere. That was definitely a challenge I could not pass by. I told Margaret I needed to talk it over with my daughter, make sure she was fine with me being the leader of her troop. That evening after dinner I sat Kathryn down and asked her how she felt about me possibly becoming her Girl Scout leader. She was definitely my child, she had no problem with the idea as long as I didn’t embarrass her. Then after a long pause she added, “I guess there will be no camping trip this year?” I assured her there would be some kind of “camping” trip. I was going to work on something special. Something they would always remember.
The next week I went to meet with Margaret to pick up my leader handbook. Learn all the ins and outs, dos and don’ts for a Girl Scout leader. I went home that night and with my highlighter marked all the important regulations that I was going to need to address for the “camping” trip I had in mind. I also went through my daughter’s handbook and marked the badges I wanted to work on during the year. I had three weeks to prepare for our first juniors meeting. I had a plan, I needed to show the parents we were going to address major badges during the year, and as a reward for such great service and hard work at the end of the year we would take a trip they would remember fondly for the rest of their life. Hopefully the girls would chose a one week stay at the beach. I looked through rental books, found two perfect houses, one was ocean front, the other across the street. I came up with a week itinerary complete with jeep tours, day at Myrtle Beach including a lunch at the Hard Rock, water park, “sea shell” hunting and other goodies. I estimated a budget and cost. It was then that I decided I needed the perfect Assistant leader, a person who thought like I did. So I called a good friend of mine Cindy Pulls. I filled her in on my agenda/thoughts and she agreed to help. She like me realized that if we did a good job, this would be a year the kids would never forget. She was also like me, she did not like to "rough it" either.
The day finally arrived for our first troop meeting, the room in the basement of St. Joseph’s Church was filled with excited parents and girls. I outlined our theme for the year, democracy/government and how to become a more responsible citizen/person. I reviewed the badges we would be working on, guest speakers, volunteer work and goals for the year. I was a bit nervous when I approached the last item on my agenda for the meeting, the yearly camping trip. Before I brought up my idea I asked my parents keeping it in the context of a democracy, the kids had two choices for their annual camping trip. I had already agreed with myself that I would honor the kids wishes which ever trip they choose. I asked the parents if they could do the same, they all agreed. I then presented my two “camping” trip ideas. The first, we could go to Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland, we would stay at the youth campgrounds complete with outhouses and group showers. Hopefully the weather would be beautiful, it wouldn’t rain or be too cold. OR we could rent two beach houses down at Ocean Isle, North Carolina. We could enjoy a week of fun, sun and sand. If it rained there was plenty of other options, Hard Rock Café, shopping, movies. I put the two choices up for a vote. Not surprisingly, the vote was unanimous, all the girls wanted to go to the beach. I then handed out my budget, how much it would cost each girl to spend a week at the beach. The parents were surprised to discover the cost for the week was only $231.00 per girl, or $33.00 a day. This did not include any souvenirs the girls might want to purchase. We recommended that each girl have at least seventy five dollars spending money, just in case. I reminded all the parents at that price, it was a bargain vacation!! The one problem I had not counted on, how many parents wanted to volunteer to go on this “camping” trip.
Before I continue with the rest of my beach story, the continued comedy that can only be described as “only Denise” I should point out the other projects, lecturers we hosted during the year. I had a police officer talk to the girls about safety. How to protect themselves. How making smart choices can save your life, safety in numbers, what to do if they saw someone being abducted, what to do if they were abducted. We had a small class on self defense. At Christmas the troop went Christmas Caroling in the senior citizens development. A few girls and I went to a retirement home to visit with cookies and cards.. When the Girl Scouts had a food drive, our troop collected the most donations. In the spring I had a Holocaust survivor speak to the girls. The next several meetings were discussions on how to stand up for what is right, how people out of fear allowed the holocaust to happen. Cindy and I tried to stress the importance of personal responsibility, how it is our duty to not allow anything like that to happen again. A Vietnam veteran came and spoke to the girls about patriotism and the sacrifices the military makes everyday for our freedom. Throughout the year, I tried hard to find a good balance for the girls, a true learning experience in perfect symmetry with fun projects. No one quit so I must have done something correct?
I had eight months to organize our trip to the ocean. I made my way through all the rules and regulations, the forms I needed to complete, to have the trip sanctioned by the Girl Scouts of America. I was very well aware that the troop needed the sanctioning to allow us to hold fundraisers through out the year to cover the cost, more importantly to have their insurance cover our trip. I submitted my proposal, cost and safety plan. Ten days later I received tentative approval, one hurdle down several more to go.
Over the course of the next few months, I can honestly say I don’t think the Girl Scouts of America were quite prepared for me and all my “gray” area exceptions. I knew I had to have everything sanctioned or our trip would not be covered by their insurance or the girls would not enjoy it as much. I started first with their requirement that whenever the troop traveled together on an excursion they must all be wearing the same “identifiable” girl scout t-shirt. When you are at the beach, shopping center, just about anywhere in public, between the ages of 11-13 the last thing you want to be seen in is a girl scout t-shirt. I petitioned the counsel to allow me to have the girls where matching bright color easily identifiable t-shirts. I reasoned, the standard girl scout t-shirts were white and grey, two colors that would easily blend into a crowd. Since we would be traveling in well populated sights I needed something I could find quickly and easily. Bright colors were a much safer option. Three weeks later I received a letter stating that an exception was granted. A personal note was written on the paper by the local administrator, she simply wrote, “That was brilliant. Have fun.” With my exception in hand I went online to Hot Potatoes and purchased fun beach stamps and bright color fabric paint. A week later the girls were told to bring a white t-shirt to the next meeting. The girls had a blast creating their own beach themed t-shirts with stamps. No two shirts looked alike, but when they all had them on, you could tell we were a group! They fit the Girl Scout standard, they were "easily identifiable."
Next up on the exception list, bathing caps. According to girl scout regulations when swimming each girl must wear a color coded bathing cap. The color of the bathing cap would correspond to their swimming ability. In 1996, no one wore bathing caps anymore, especially at the beach! The Girl Scout reasoning for the swim caps, the leaders and chaperones would be able to tell who should be allowed to swim in the deep end and who should only be allowed to swim in the shallow end of the pool. The Girl Scouts mistake, not defining how many levels of swimmers are allowed. Once again I submitted my request for an exception, this time my argument was that we had 4 levels of swimmers in our troop. I searched in vain, but I was only able to locate two different colors of bathing caps. For safety reasons I was not comfortable combining moderate swimmers with novice swimmers. I requested that we be allowed to make brightly colored hair scunchies for the kids to wear when they swam. The colors would allow us to find them easily in the water or on the beach, at the same time the colors would help us keep them in “swimming groups”. I also pointed out at the beach there is not shallow or deep end. No one would be allowed to go in water deeper than their waist. A deep end was defined by the Girl Scouts as five feet and over. Additionally we would be with them at all times. I included a sample scunchie. A little over two weeks later I received permission to use scunchies instead of bathing caps. This time the local administrator wrote on the approval sheet, “You are good, next”. On a side note, all the girls in my troop could swim, very well in fact. Each girl had to do a test to see how long they could tread water. (the average was five minutes twenty seconds) As a group, the bottom girl was within a minute of top girl. Since the girl scouts did not define how to break up the levels of swimming it was up to me.
The last hurdle with the girl scouts was their policy on swimming. Understandable they had a rule that did not allow the girls to swim in any areas where there was not a life guard present. Ocean Isle Beach has no life guards. I had planned a swimming day at North Myrtle Beach, where the city supplied life guards. I understood the rule, but at the same time I wanted the girls to be able to enjoy the beach where we were staying. We had planned another swimming day, a trip to the water park. Keeping in mine that there were no lifeguards in Ocean Isle, I wrote a letter asking the counsel to please define swimming. Would seashell hunting be qualified as swimming or an outdoor activity? I stated that as part of a “learning” experience I had planned an afternoon of seashell hunting where the girls would collect seashells and learn about the ocean. The best area on the island for shell hunting did not have lifeguards available. A few days later I received a letter stating that swimming and sea shell hunting were two different activities. Only if the girls were swimming/diving would there be a requirement for a life guard. I took due note of swimming and diving. The local administrator once again left me a hand written message, this time it read, "Can I go on your trip?"
I need to add, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression. I was not trying to “break” the rules, put the girls in any kind of danger. Every chaperone, including myself could swim and would be willing to die trying to save one of our girls if need be. Their safety was my number one concern. At the same time I did not want any rigid unreasonable rules to stop them from having a fun time or make them embarrassed to be on a girl scout trip. I wanted my girls to have a trip that when they looked back on when they were older, they smiled.
As the trip got closer Cindy and I prepared the rules and regulations for each girl and her parents to sign. My rules of conduct were strict and no exceptions would be made. If a child broke a rule, their parents would be required to meet me at the Virginia/North Carolina border to pick them up. I informed my kids, break my rules and fifteen minutes later you will find yourself in my car heading home, the time of day or night does not matter. I remember as I said this Christina, who was I believe 12 at the time, added, “She means it folks” from the back of the room.
The last problem to overcome was the rental policy in Ocean Isle Beach. Before I placed a deposit on the houses I called the realtor, told her I noticed their no group policy. I asked, since I was coming down with my daughter, a friend of mine and her daughter was it allowed for the girls to bring “friends” with them. Her answer, of course it was, friends are always allowed. I asked her name, wrote it down, said thank you very much and hung up. Yes we were a Girl Scout troop but I was Kathryn’s mother and the girls were all her friends. So technically we were not breaking any rules.
The day finally arrived, all the paperwork, exceptions, everything had been handled in the appropriate manner. We arrived in Ocean Isle a little after 4. I went into the realtor's office to pick up the keys. As I was signing all the paper work, Mindy came running in the door and asked to use the bathroom. Mindy’s parents, as well as herself, were all born in Guam. While she was in the bathroom, the realtor very sweetly said to me, “You are aware that we do not rent to groups” Without hesitation I answered, “ Do you have a problem with my daughter? Do you not believe in inter-racial marriages?” I could tell she was embarrassed, she didn't say another word. I did not lie to her, I never said Mindy was my daughter, I just asked if she had a problem with my daughter. She just assumed by the nature of my questions that Mindy was my child and her father was my husband. You know what they say about assumptions.
We arrived at our houses. We sat the girls down, reminded everyone of the rules. Gave each girl a job to do to get the houses in order. We also went over the schedule for the next day. We were to set everything up (kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms) tonight, order pizza , watch a movie, go to bed. Sunday’s alarm would be set for 8:00 a.m., we would all have breakfast then head to the grocery store. At one am that night my house was still wide awake and giggling. I walked across the street to Cindy’s house and discovered the girls in their house were also wide awake. So I made the executive decision, Food Lion was open 24 hours, we would go grocery shopping now. We told everyone to get dressed and we headed out to the grocery store. When we arrived at the store I looked at my watch it was a little after two. We divided the girls into 4 groups, each group was given a grocery list. They were instructed to find the best value. At that time of night, only one door was open at the store, Kim stayed at the front to make sure no one tried to leave. There was one poor cashier working at the time, 16 giggling girls tend to liven a very dead store up very quickly. Instead of reading the signs at the end of the aisles to find out where certain foods were, many of the girls would run up to the cashier and ask her where the items on their list could be found. I think we may have given the cashier a headache. The kids were having fun, she was being paid, so no harm in my book. I was standing in the back of the grocery store next to the bacon/ lunch meat area when this older woman was being escorted by 4 of my girls to me. As they approached I heard them say, "That is Miss Denise, our leader." My first thought was oh no I am going to be driving some kids home tonight. It was just the opposite. The woman thought it was just great I was taking them grocery shopping in the middle of the night. The girls were having a blast and she wanted to shake my hand. I learned a valuable lesson, in the middle of the night, teenage girls can find the best bargains. They actually divided price, weight and numbers to see what item had the best value for the dollar. I had estimated our groceries would total a little over three hundred dollars. With coupons, their best bargain shopping, the total was less than two hundred dollars.
The next afternoon as low tide was coming in, my Uncle Chuck arrived to take the girls sea shell hunting. Uncle Chuck had retired to live on Ocean Isle full time several years prior. He knew all the prime locations to find the most seashells. More importantly Uncle Chuck knew all the sandbars, drop off points, crevices and gullies in the ocean. All the girls were lined up, instructed to not stray away from the group, follow Uncle Chuck’s lead. All the chaperones were evenly spaced between the girls. Since I had been on the island and knew the sandbars as well, I brought up the rear. I reminded everyone we were not swimming, we were sea shell hunting so no diving in the water or chasing waves. As we were wading through thigh high water Natasha asked me, “Miss Denise what is the difference between seashell hunting and swimming. They are both done in the ocean.” I smiled and said, “It’s simple Tasha, as long as you can walk and there is no diving or swimming, then we are seashell hunting. And that my dear we are allowed to do without a lifeguard” She smiled then answered, ”Okay that makes sense.” After several successful hours of seashell hunting, as the tide started to change, everyone headed back to shore with their many treasures in tow. They had bags full of sand dollars, whelk shells, scallops, olives, moon snails, a couple conch shells and Mindy even found a starfish. (after everyone took a look, the starfish was gently put back on the bottom of the ocean.) When we arrived back at the beach in front of our house, all the girls bid Uncle Chuck goodbye. In unison they very loudly said, “Thank you Uncle Chuck”. As he was heading down the beach to his house a woman stopped him and asked, “Are they all really your nieces?” Uncle Chuck replied, “Yes they are! Wait until next week when my nephews arrive!” The wit and humor is definitely a family trait.
The rest of the week was filled with much adventure and fun. The girls toured a haunted grave yard, took an alligator jeep tour, spent the day at a water park, invaded Broadway at the Beach and Hard Rock Café. The kids had a blast swimming in the water at North Myrtle Beach. (They all wore their color coded scunchies.) Took a couple midnight walks on the beach with flashlights. Celebrated mid week with a BBQ. A BBQ which I am proud to say, I did not burn anything or catch anything on fire. (I am not grill savvy) On Friday we even invaded Crackel Barrel with the left over money the girls saved from shopping. The girls bought me a hot fudge sundae and sang Happy Birthday to me. To this day it is still one of my favorite birthday memories. I am happy to say we only had two small "incidents" while at the beach. Molly our fair skin redhead, forgot her sunscreen and did not bother to tell anyone. Within an hour on the first day her skin matched her hair color. Luckily we noticed before she was too burned. Heavy duty sunscreen and a long sleeve t-shirt solved all future problems. Christina our one child with braces had a wire break. That is when I discovered how hard it is to find a working orthodontist in a resort town at night. Through all the side trips, tours and detours we never lost a child. (my biggest fear). Nor did I ever wish to lose one. The girls were complimented on their brightly stamped wild t-shirts and their polite nature. I was extremely proud of them. The main goal was accomplished, everyone had a safe and fun trip.
Saturday morning, as we were packing up the vans to head home, Michelle, Mindy and several of the girls came up to me and said, “Miss Denise we want to let you know, we like your camping trips best. Can we do this again next year?”