Gimp, Guns, & Mumbly Peg

Remembering summer camp in Virginia.

You can find a reference to just about anything today on the internet, but there’s no mention of Camp Manakin. This day camp was a significant part of my summers in the ’60s, and I can’t be alone in wondering where its memories are captured—other than in my own head.

Daily now, I drive to work from Richmond to Goochland County and pass a sign for “Manakin.” Immediately, an old camp song springs to mind: “M-A-N-A-K-I-N, that’s the way you spell Manakin!” Momentarily, I am transported to a time when I learned so much in such a short space of time, and it began each day with a towel roll.

Every summer for four weeks from age five to eight, I knelt on the floor of my bedroom and placed a bathing suit and pocket knife at the end of a large towel, folded the two long sides over each other, and then rolled the lump into a tight bundle that would hold together for a long time. 

Long enough to stay tucked under my arm as I boarded the yellow bus marked “CAMP MANAKIN.” 

Long enough to ride at my side 30 miles with 30 other kids from Richmond to rural Goochland. 

Long enough to tolerate my scrunching it under my head as a pillow or sitting on it to absorb the bumpy ride. 

We’d jostle along without air-conditioning or adult supervision, without plastic water bottles—or anything to drink for that matter—without handheld devices to keep boredom at bay. 

An hour later, we’d file off the bus and into a rustic land of plenty where, as the camp song says, our spirits would soar as we enjoyed archery, crafts, riding, swimming, rowing, and shooting a gun. Oh, and mumbly peg.

Yes, at a young age, I learned a number of things at camp, including how to whip out and toss a knife—how to flip it from my fingertip, fling it into the air to make a double flip, and roll it off the top of my head just so, all with the intention of having it land cleanly and upright in the sand near my feet.  

I learned to make lanyards from colorful strips of plastic we all called “gimp.” I learned how to saddle a horse. To shoulder a rifle and stare down its barrel to a target 30 yards away. To right an overturned canoe.

I happily ate fried bologna—and everybody else’s at my lunch table, too, thereby preserving my membership in the Clean Plate Club. We made fluffernutters—peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches—and collected State Fair coupons out of the bottom of Nolde’s Bakery bread bags. 

The chlorine in the camp pool was so intense that my blond hair turned a slimy, shimmery green every summer. I wore this mantle with pride, earning the nickname “Lime Sherbet.”

By age nine, I’d outgrown Camp Manakin and moved on to overnight camps, first to Camp Lachlan in Rockbridge Baths, then to Camp Sequoya near Abingdon. As an adult, I revisited the joys of camp by spending family weeks each summer at Camp Allegheny and Camp Greenbrier.

Throughout my life, I’ve built on what I learned in those early years, becoming increasingly confident and adept—technical skills like cooking over a campfire or swimming in the deep end. Life skills like cheering on a teammate or negotiating a tiebreaker. 

And practical skills, like packing lightly and carrying a pocket knife wherever I go. And when I need nothing but a bathing suit, I’ll kneel on the floor and roll it up in a towel, as if I were once again heading to Camp Manakin. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

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