Duane Helweg 2017-05-19 15:46:06
Summer Camp: Scared, Tearful and Then … It was July 1, 1956, my 10th birthday. I was not enjoying my birthday. In fact, I felt sick to my stomach. That day I was headed to a Lions summer camp for disabled children in Texas. The camp was 200 miles from home, and I had never been on my own before. When I was in first grade I had spent three weeks in the hospital. Polio was the culprit. I had to wear a brace on my right arm to keep it in the socket. No longer could I “dogpile” with the guys or jump rope with the girls. Classmates teased me. Duane Helweg in 1958 I was terribly self-conscious about my skinny, frail right arm with a protruding bone. A good athlete, I thought about playing basketball or running track but knew the skimpy uniforms would show too much of my arm. No matter what I did my disability seemed to sabotage me. I played the French horn at school but was mortified when a classmate shouted out, “Look! He’s playing with one arm.” At the camp one of the staff, a guy named Hoppy, quickly sidled up to me and helped me feel comfortable. At supper that first night I was asked to stand in the crowded cafeteria and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Except for the embarrassment, I liked the feeling it gave me. The next two weeks were busily spent doing arts and crafts, cleaning a cabin, camping out, playing miniature golf and swimming. When the swim instructor ordered me, “Take your feet off the bottom,” well, I did because Mom was not there to rescue me. I enjoyed myself so much that when the second Friday arrived I didn’t want the camp to end. On our last night together we gathered outdoors for the awards ceremony. We were given T-shirts with the Lions Camp emblem and neckerchiefs stamped with all the activities in which we participated. The counselors said that the neckerchief represented an award for each of us. But that didn’t relieve my desire to win one of the special awards to be presented that night. I spotted my parents and older sister in the crowd. A bonfire was lit up front. It was about dusk in the Texas Hill Country, a beautiful setting. I sat near the center aisle, beside Hoppy, and could see everything great from there. One award after another was presented, and my name was not called. My head began to sink; I didn’t want anyone to see tears that were beginning to well up in my eyes. Finally, they were down to the last and highest award: Best Camper. They called the girl’s name first. Then they called the boy’s name. In the quiet of the moment, with embers of the dying fire crackling and crickets chirping in the night, I thought I heard my name called. It couldn’t be! Suddenly, guys around me were cheering and slapping me on the back. Hoppy pushed me to go up front. I was in a daze. They handed me the award and had me turn and face the audience. There was just enough light from the fire that I could see my parents and sister, clapping and smiling. How proud I felt. It’s just a small trophy, made of a wood base, topped by a gold tent and tree, with an inscription plate on the front. It sits on a shelf collecting dust. But it reminds me of the first time in my life that I realized that I was worth something, that I could be a success, that I was a winner, regardless of how I saw myself. My experiences at that camp laid the foundation for completing college, marrying and raising a family and my career working for the state of Arizona and as a writer. Until escalating health problems related to my polio, I even served for a while as a Lion. Helweg, 71, lives in San Angelo, Texas.
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