Guardian Angels at Snail Lake

(Scroll down to read the Ghost Story.)

In fairness to all, I must explain how the precarious circumstances described in the previous story came about. From 1942 through 1945 I worked on and off for the St. Paul Union Gospel Mission, owner of Snail Lake Camp. Through the school year I directed the Arthur H. Savage Boys Club in the downtown Mission building.  Summers, I filled various roles at the Mission and camp.

Each summer the camp held three six-day sessions: one for our downtown club; one for the Ober Boys Club, serving mostly Black kids; one for the Mission girls club. A camp week cost fifty cents—if you could afford it. Attendance was fair, though declining.

In 1944 legendary Mission superintendent Peter MacFarlane decided to merge the boys’ weeks, a nod to the growing demand for racial integration. Attendance dropped dramatically. Mac assumed blending the camps had caused the decline. He called me into his office for a lecture on the Christian imperative for integration. But I felt race was not the problem. We served an ethnic mix at the downtown club. I believed neighborhood tensions caused the low attendance Ober Club kids and downtown kids did not along.

To strengthen my point, I bet Mac $50 I could fill the camp if our club had its own week. He would not hear of a bet, but he gave me the green light and promised a generous bonus if I filled the camp. With the club was closed for the summer, hustling campers was a challenge. But finding staff was a far greater challenge. Camper registrations began to pile up but I failed to nail down one staff person.

With time running out, I turned to our club basketball team: teens long on athletic skill but short on spiritual interest. Four boys agreed to come as counselors.  I had no time to train them, nor could I keep track of camper registrations.  On camp day, 83 boys stood in line at the Mission, awaiting a cursory physical.

Mac dropped around. Pleased to see the crowd, he asked if I had everything in order. I assured him I did. When you’re 21, you feel invincible. He did not know the staff situation. Following the physicals, we bused the kids to camp.

Supper was noisy chaos and the first chapel brought trouble. My counselors failed to show. I found them at the waterfront smoking. They declared they would not be attending chapels. Tense negotiations got nowhere, so I told the boys to pack their gear. Bill drove them home.

Bedtime foretokened deeper trouble as several older campers showed signs of rebellion. It came to a head in the morning.

The only way I could manage that many campers was to form them into squads,  line them up military-like, count heads, and give instructions. I told the squad members to look after one another–wishful thinking. Then the rebels began to smart off. I told any camper who was not happy to step forward. Calling my bluff, about 25 did. Bill bused them home. That left me with 54 kids (one camper later ran off—I wasn’t even sure of his name).

Cooking took all Bill’s time, leaving me to be counselor, teacher, lifeguard, nurse, craft instructor, referee, and everything else. And I was hurting with an ear infection and fever. No wonder I saw a ghost.

I was totally irresponsible to allow the week to happen, but the Lord looks after fools. He must have commissioned a legion of angels to look after us. We had no major mishap, though I pulled one scared boy from deep water.


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