Judge Thomas Cullen writes about Camp River's Bend in Bath County
Recently, I went back to summer camp.
Nestled against the Allegheny Mountains of Bath County, along the banks of the Cowpasture River, Camp River’s Bend (or “CRB”) offers young boys three (or, for the hardier, six) weeks in a bucolic setting and the opportunity to enrich their lives.
Although CRB was officially established in 2015, its roots trace back to 1928, when Malcolm U. Pitt, then a young teacher and coach, founded Camp Virginia, an all-boys summer camp on the Calfpasture River in Rockbridge County, near Goshen. “Coach Pitt,” as he was affectionately known, later became a legendary athletic director at the University of Richmond, and the Spiders’ baseball field is still named in his honor.
Coach’s son, Malcolm U. Pitt Jr., or, more familiarly, “Buck Pitt,” a standout three-sport athlete at the University of Richmond (one of the last), a decorated naval officer in World War II, and an administrator in the Richmond public schools and, later, at Collegiate School, eventually succeeded his father as camp director.
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I attended Camp Virginia for many years under Buck’s tutelage — both as young camper and counselor. The lessons I learned at camp over those summers left an indelible mark on my young psyche. We were drilled in the importance of overcoming obstacles (e.g., homesickness), facing our fears, treating others with kindness, being good sports — i.e., never boasting in victory or sulking in defeat — and expressing our gratitude (and meaning it). Like many of my “CV” cohorts, I still strive to live up to Buck’s expectations.
Several years after Buck’s death in 2008, CV officially closed its gates. Distraught by this development, a large group of loyal alumni banded together to found CRB. Although a break-even financial proposition in a good year, these alumni were determined to carry on CV’s vital legacy of developing character in young boys. (I was among these early founders, but I no longer have an ownership interest.)
As the father of a current CRB camper, I eagerly accepted a recent invitation to spend several days at camp, exchanging my judicial garb and air conditioning for a standard-issue counselor’s jersey and box fan and gladly disabling my iPhone.
Although CRB offers a more modern — and, in some respects, a kinder and gentler — version of my camp experience, much remains the same.
The camp day still begins with early-morning reveille, the ringing of a cast-iron bell, and the reluctant march of somnolent boys in their bathing suits to the river for morning dips. (At CV, we undertook the same morning ritual, minus the bathing suits.) Refreshed and now fully awake, campers then assemble for morning retreat, to pay their respects to the flag. As at CV, where every Fourth of July we honored former campers and counselors who had given their lives in service to their country, patriotism remains a bedrock virtue.
Upon entering the mess hall for breakfast, we remain standing while a counselor leads us in singing an old Baptist hymn. Then Matthew Richardson, an educator and coach who now serves as camp director, reads the morning devotional. Although CRB is not affiliated with any church or religious organization and takes an ecumenical approach to matters of faith, quiet worship and personal reflection are mainstays.
And many of these morning devotionals are the same as they were 35 (or nearly 100) years ago. My favorite emphasizes the importance of true friendship through the story of a young soldier during World War I who crosses the trenches into no man’s land to rescue a wounded comrade. When the brave young soldier reaches his gravely wounded friend, the injured boy remarks, “I knew you would come.” As it did when I was a 10-year-old camper, the story leaves a lump in my throat.
Following breakfast, the boys return to their cabins for morning inspection. They diligently (in most cases) make their beds, organize the belongings in their footlockers, hang up wet clothes, and sweep the sand out of their cabins. Many new campers (and some counselors) dread inspection, but most begrudgingly accede to its modest rigors and come to appreciate the importance of tidiness in their personal affairs — at least while they’re at camp.
With the morning drudgery behind them, campers rush off to daily activities. CRB offers many of the athletic pursuits of my youth — horseback riding, baseball, basketball, riflery, archery, swimming, and outdoor skills. These activities — even riding — are not optional, and new campers quickly learn to suppress their fears and embrace new challenges.
The competition in these activities, while respectful, is fierce, as campers strive for success on the field and merit badges on the range. Top performers are recognized at the end of each session. Consistent effort and participation are valued, but camp is very much a meritocracy and winning first place is still celebrated. Those campers who fall short of earning the highest marks — which I did consistently — learn to take joy in their friends’ accomplishments and strive to improve the following summer.
At the end of the day, weary campers return to their cabins for evening devotionals. The counselors read from “A Paratrooper’s Faith,” a compilation of Bible verses, famous quotations and inspirational poems, illustrating the selected passage with a personal anecdote of a challenge faced and overcome. Invariably, these sessions conclude by asking each boy to recall something that another camper did nice for him that day, reinforcing, yet again, the importance of kindness and service.
With the onset of darkness, the final bell rings. We lie quietly in our bunks awaiting the plaintive bugling of Taps followed by an operatic rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, which is piped over the loudspeakers. As the final verse echoes off nearby Hope Rock, camp boys — young and older alike — quietly express thanks for this special place and all it has meant to them.
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Thomas Cullen is a United States district judge of the United States District Court for the Western District... More by Thomas CullenDon't miss out on all the politics west of the Richmond