Jean is an accomplished singer, guitar player, and sometime songwriter. She has been performing since the age of 12, in all settings, ranging from concert halls to bars to churches to festivals. Her family relocated to Charleston, West Virginia from New Jersey when she was 7, and as many times as she has tried to leave, something keeps pulling her back. Jean and her family live in Princeton, West Virginia. Her essay explores her experience moving to West Virginia from New Jersey during her early years, and the exceptional “magic” she encountered at a place called Carbide Camp.
Editor’s note: I am grateful to Jean for revealing the secret world of Carbide Camp. I was puzzled my entire youth about what Carbide Camp actually was, though I did know that a select number of my friends attended and it seemed to be just as described here, a magical place young people would cling to all year in great anticipation of entering its gates again in the summer. Any place that can retrieve you as vividly as it does Jean at the end of this essay is someplace special!
Carbide Camp was Magic
My parents are from the Northeast. Dad was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and Mom was born in Bound Brook, New Jersey. Both graduated from Bound Brook High School, and Dad went to Kings College while Mom started working for Union Carbide as a secretary. After Dad finished school, they married and settled in Middlesex, New Jersey. Dad eventually started working for Union Carbide in Bound Brook.
Union Carbide was a huge chemical company with a long history in the Charleston, West Virginia, area. It was bought by Dow Chemical Company in 2001. Union Carbide is probably most famous for the Bhopal Disaster, which happened in Bhopal, India, in 1984. A storage tank vent malfunctioned and spread poison gas into the atmosphere – over half a million people were injured and more than 4,000 died as a result of exposure to the gas. The same chemical was produced at the plant in Institute, West Virginia, about 9 miles from Charleston.
The area along the Kanawha River in the greater Charleston area was called The Chemical Valley. When I was young, I remember DuPont, Monsanto, and the Union Carbide operating chemical plants, all in the Kanawha Valley. I’m sure there were more, but the names escape me.
When I was 7 years old, Dad had the opportunity to transfer to Charleston. He was supposed to be there for several years and move on to “bigger & better things.” I was in second grade, my sister in Kindergarten. I remember how sad I was to leave my very best friend, Jennifer Johnson. We swore to write and to visit, but we never did.
Our extended family was appalled by the idea that we were moving to Appalachia. “I’ve heard that they don’t have electricity there.” “You’re going to have to use an outhouse. They don’t have indoor plumbing.” We had cassette tapes of all of us, singing along in the most exaggerated HeeHaw accents, to “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain.” There were lots of “Yee-HAWs” on those tapes. I even remember references to “black-eyed peas and chitlins.” I’m sure my uncles had no idea what that even was, but they associated it with the South, and West Virginia was SOUTHERN to them.
As far as they were concerned, we were moving to a backward wasteland. As a second grader, that changed how I felt about moving. From that time on, whenever I was asked about college or where I wanted to live when I grew up, my answer was always, “Anywhere but West Virginia.”
We moved to Charleston in January. Coming from New Jersey, I was overwhelmed by the land. Jersey was FLAT. These were MOUNTAINS in Charleston. My house was on a mountain. We had to go over the mountain to get anywhere. My new friends told me that these were most definitely NOT mountains, but mere hills. I didn’t believe them.
Carbide Camp mess hall, aka "The Castle"
The highlight of the year was Carbide Camp. Union Carbide had camps for their employees’ children on Blue Creek in Clay County, near Clendenin. Camp Carlisle was for the girls and Camp Camelot was for the boys.
It always seemed to me that most Carbiders were transplanted from the Northeast –Bound Brook and Danbury, Connecticut, places that my dad traveled regularly. We came together for a two-week session each summer, and it was magic. As a kid who relocated to West Virginia at the age of seven, with parents whose idea of camping was a weekend at a Holiday Inn, these were exotic weeks, filled with music, friends, and fun.
We’d start talking about it in the spring. “Which session did you sign up for?” “Can you change it? I’m going 2nd session & I really wanted us to go together this year!” “Will you be old enough this time to do the horseback overnights?” “Did you get a new trunk? Sorry I fell through the top last year.” “I wonder if Merge-Cindy-Karen-Sam will be my counselor this year?”
Then came the planning. The clothing with name tags meticulously sewn in each piece; the bandanas for your head (to keep the ticks off); one pair of jeans for horseback riding; flip-flops and sneakers (called “tennis shoes” in West Virginia), and rain ponchos and swimsuits and towels and shampoo and underwear and on and on and on.
When your trunk would just close, you knew you were ready.
We would meet in the parking lot of the Tech Center, a great, sprawling piece of property where most of our parents’ offices were located. Parents and kids who were going and kids who weren’t going and kids who had already been but wanted to say goodbye to their friends all gathered. There was always crying. Kids crying from fear if it was their first year and frustration if their siblings got to go and they didn’t, always last minute dashes to the bathroom, and slightly controlled chaos abounded. Parents yelling out the ever-embarassing, “Don’t forget to change your underwear!” “Brush your teeth!” “Use the bug spray!” “Don’t forget to write!”
We were transported by old school buses, at least that’s how I remember it. One bus was loaded with luggage. Kids were loaded onto other buses and away we went. The buses would take us as far as they could. We walked the last bit. I remember it seemed like forever that we walked, with more than 200 campers and teenagers and adults, walking a dirt and rock road, jumping in puddles if it had just rained, sometimes walking in the rain. We sang songs (I’m Carlise born & Carlisle bred, and when I die I’ll be *clap* Carlisle dead!), introduced ourselves to new kids, cheered up the scared and the homesick, talked about archery and riflery and horseback riding and lanyards and skinny dipping and overnight trips and Vespers and campfires. We fanned the flames of boy-girl competition and romance on those long walks to the camps. We would pass the boys’ camp – Camelot – and they would go get settled. We girls would continue past the pool and on to our place –Carlisle.
That walk marked the true beginning of Carbide Camp. We left the world behind and we were on our way to our own private place in the woods. We revisited old friendships and started new ones. We were an exclusive club, and you had to be connected to Union Carbide to join. We were special because we got to be there.
Two weeks later (for most of us, anyway; some were lucky and got to stay for more than one session), after retracing the long walk back to the main road, singing songs and fanning those romances and competitions again, we were delivered back to the parking lot at the Tech Center. Our parents were happy to see us and we were genuinely happy to see them! We were truly and utterly exhausted. We said our sad, dramatic goodbyes to friends who we would not see until the next summer, and shared a deeper connection with those that we would see in the neighborhood and at school in the fall. We exchanged phone numbers and addresses and promised to write and call and stay in touch, and most of the time we did.
We left with a sense of accomplishment as well. We performed in talent shows and skits. We tried new things and tested our limits. We earned riflery and archery awards. I made it to Jr. Marksman with the rifles (22s), and was the second highest score in Archery. I got the Silver Arrow award that year, and I recently came across that arrow at my parents’ house.
Holding that arrow in hand, I was there: At the archery range, bow in hand, targets tacked onto hay bales. I am wearing red denim bell bottoms with a button fly, a “Sweet Honesty” t-shirt, a pair of red Chucks on my feet, and a red bandana on my head. My hair hangs almost to my waist. I can smell the horse corral behind me. The sun beats down on me as I set the notch into the bow string.
I am powerful.
I lift the bow and take aim, drawing the string back and back – breathe-hold-release – bull’s eye.
All these years later, Carbide Camp is still magic.