Candles afloat tonight

WHAT'S that old wooden thing?'' folks sometimes inquire, as they notice the family treasures displayed on our mantel each Christmas. A water-stained slice of birchwood with a rusty nail through its middle seems so alien next to the bronze candlesticks and crisp green holly. But its band of dry peeling bark, blanched with the passage of years, circled the seasons of my childhood -- joining winter to summer in a tale that begs to be told. It begins on banquet night at Camp Elektor in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Wedged closely between neighboring resorts and cottages, Elektor was never like those ``outward bound'' camps whose children climb jagged cliffs and raft through wild white water. Instead, it was an ``inward bound'' camp -- training the character of boys and girls through quieter lessons in skill, service, and honor. Elektor, which is the Greek word for ``beaming sun,'' distilled the essence of high adventure and blended

it gently with the greenness of youth for 34 cameo summers.

Banquet night -- the final night of camp -- was always shrouded in secrecy. Five days in advance, counselors closed the recreation hall. Paper covered the windows, and only a select few could enter. Campers were mystified, but nobody would talk, while load after load of pine boughs and oak branches was dragged inside. Not far away, senior campers were busy slicing the long straight trunk of a felled birch tree like a loaf of French bread. When the magic night finally arrived, freshly scrubbed camp ers who lined up to enter the ``banquet hall'' could hardly believe their eyes.

Inside, the familiar old building was transformed into a forest glen. Walls covered with oak and fir boughs supported a ceiling of blue and gold crepe paper woven tightly through a grid of chicken wire and lighted from above. Long tables spread with food formed a giant ``E,'' and beside each plate lay a slice of birchwood bearing a camper's name, with a nail through the center which held a short, sturdy candle. It was a sight not soon forgotten.

Junior counselors dressed in white served each child a delicious turkey dinner. After the dessert dishes were cleared and sunset glowed through lakeside windows, the founder of the camp, ``Aunt Maude,'' gave her farewell remarks.

``Always remember the meaning of Elektor,'' she encouraged us. ``Go home tomorrow and let your light shine like the sun.''

Her message varied little from year to year, but we always felt inspired. And then came the long-awaited signal:

``And now, boys and girls, please light your candles.''

Single-file we walked the silent trail from the banquet hall to the lake, shielding our tiny flames from the gentle evening breeze. At the very end of the pier, we knelt down and floated our candles on the water, carefully nudging them away from the dock. Then we joined hands in a traditional friendship circle to sing, ``Candles afloat tonight, out on the lake, symbols of love sincere, burning long and bright and clear. . . .'' Our melody drifted slowly from shore to shore, while

the hundred tiny candles bobbed in the ebony water on a blanket of reflected starlight. When the bugle slowly sounded taps, our summer was over, and another chapter of childhood had closed forever.

Those slabs of birch usually drifted ashore during the night, and in the morning, we all searched together until everyone found his piece. We took them home; saved them until Christmas -- and then put a new candle on the old nail. In its glimmer we could always sense the tanned and friendly faces of summer, reminding us of canoe trips and overnight hikes, council fires and Indian ceremonies. We could even hear Aunt Maude's parting admonition, ``Go home tomorrow and let your light shine like the sun.''

But the slice of birchwood was much more than a link to remembered yesterdays. It also pointed ahead, promising that eventually the snow would melt, barren trees would blossom, and camp would open again. Thanks to the secret sacrifices of loving parents and friends, I was able to float a dozen candles on those sparkling waters of childhood -- 12 summers of memories that glow as brightly today as the new candle mounted bravely on my old slice of birch.

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