Today I got a message from my friend Nelson Townsend, asking if I remember experiencing a global dinner at camp. We chatted about it, and we both agreed that the experience loomed large in our memories.
Oddly enough, neither of us can remember if the other was there.* We went to the same camp, and Nelson is only one year younger than I, so it's entirely possible that we were at the same camp, experiencing the same dinner, though our memories don't quite match up.** So we decided to write about it independently (though we've sort of all ready ruined the independence by chatting about it).
Nelson's version is here. It honestly sounds like we went to completely different events. Reading his version strikes no bells with me, other than the general setup. And I definitely don't remember the ending. Anyway, take a look at his first, or after mine. Whichever works for you.
The SetupAt dinner one evening, three or four days into the camp, all of the campers and counselors were randomly assigned to tables in the dinning hall, as opposed to sitting wherever we liked.***
At some point we were told that the meal would be a model for how the world eats, with the people there proportionally representing people around the world. I felt like this was a shocking reveal, as though we had no idea it was happening until we were in the middle of it. Entirely possible, but it's equally possible that we were told beforehand, and it didn't register with me.
As soon as we sat down some differences were apparent. Most of the tables weren't even set: in the middle of the tables were paper plates, plastic spoons and disposable cups, and one bottle of water. A couple of tables were set with regular plates, metal forks and spoons, and pitchers of water, with napkins at each place. But one table had a table cloth, and flowers in the middle. Maybe candles. There were no plates, but the silverware was shiny, and the drink glasses were crystal. There was a string quartet in tuxedos playing dinner music for that table.****
The MealWhen we sat down, the fanciest table was served immediately, while the rest of us waited. Their food was brought out in courses, on someone's special occasion china. Plates that are so nice they make the food taste better, rather than the shatter-resistant plastic camp plates at the other two tables, the kind where you swear you can taste every meal that has ever been served on them. At the fancy table, waiters (maybe the director in a tux?) brought food to each person with a bow and a cheerful "bon appetit!" They were offered a selection of beverages, including the colas and such that you weren't allowed to drink with meals at camp.
The food itself was the stuff you dream of while you're at camp: steak, shrimp, baked potato with toppings, green salad, hot dinner rolls with soft butter. Some kind of vegetables that are left begging for attention next to that chunk of cow meat, but undoubtedly deserve to be the godparents of your future children. The Good Stuff.
The rest of us watched as they ate. Stomachs rumbling, anger building.
Then the two regular tables had their food served home style: It was brought out and placed in the middle of the table; they served themselves, and helped each other. The food was simple, but plentiful. Spaghetti, maybe. A meal that would be a solid B+ or A- at camp. And they didn't have to wait too long.
As the rest of us watched, with nothing on our paper plates but the smells from the tables of privilege, we talked. We talked about the unfairness of it. We talked about how at least people in poor countries don't have to watch rich people eat. (Now there's an embarrassing memory.) We talked about how hungry we were.
Then our food came, and it got worse. In some Hunger Banquets, the poor are served a small portion of beans and rice with a cup of dirty water. Dirty enough to be annoying and taste bad, but not so dirty as to give dysentery. We each got a scoop of beans and rice and a cup of clean water, so we were fortunate. It was not enough to satisfy our hunger, by any stretch of the imagination, but none of us were going to be sickened or die from one night of hunger.
You wouldn't have thought so if you had heard us talk, though. Listening to us would give you the impression that the Geneva Convention had been flagrantly violated, and that certain parents would be demanding refunds for camp this year.
As it turns out, our parents had already been notified. In fact, they had signed permission slips for this specific dinner. After all, you don't want to find out that a camper is diabetic the hard way. But at the time, all we knew was that this just wasn't fair. In fact, it was terribly unfair. And to be perfectly frank, it may have even been bullshit.
The meal did not devolve into complete chaos, but there was some interesting behavior. What I remember most was the beggars and the thieves. There weren't very many of either, but their behavior stood out in a huge room full of mostly compliant teenagers.
The beggars met with no success. I believe the response was one that most of us use to justify not giving to beggars: I don't have enough to share with all of the poor people, so I'm not going to share with you.
The thieves got a piece of bread or two before they were shut down by the world police. I think they got away with what they got by being sneaky, but once they were caught it didn't happen again.
The AftermathI am sure that we had discussions about it afterwards. Those discussions undoubtedly included the rational for leaving the coin-op soft drinks machine unplugged that night. I am sure we were told that hunger can be a tool to build spiritual endurance, and that people around the world and throughout time have fasted in order to draw closer to God, or nirvana, or whatever supreme being they consider to be supremest. But what I remember was feeling cheated, knowing that a few of my fellow campers were going to bed full. And not just full, but happily stuffed, with awesome tastiness. While my belly was growling and it was possible that I wouldn't survive until breakfast. And that I was definitely not alone in this feeling.
SPOILER ALERT: I did survive until breakfast, as did the other campers.
I am guessing that at the time the counselors thought that the meal was only partially successful: a few campers participated in the discussion in meaningful ways, but a large group, maybe a majority, found that it left a bad taste in their mouths, the beans and rice being very bland, as well as not filling. Leaving us with a lack of satisfaction only secondary to that left by a poorly executed metaphor in a second-rate blog.
But I remember the larger lesson of the Hunger Banquet clearly, even after thirty years, even though the details have mostly escaped me. This is exceptional to me.
I am not good with memories. I am absolutely awful with names and details. As I wrote earlier, church camp was a big part of my life, but my collection of solid, meaningful memories from that time fits into a very small corner of my mind: farewell circles in the sun, snuffing back tears as we say goodbye to people who have loomed so large in our lives for such a short time. Moments of worship that were heartbreaking, and moments that were transcendent. A montage of campfires that includes singing, laughing, stories, and what seemed to be a talent for choosing a place to sit that was constantly shrouded in smoke. The gum tree outside the dining hall, where people would stick their gum before going in to eat, which was maybe not as disgusting as you are imagining, unless you happened to lean on it while trying to be nonchalant 15-year-old (not that this is necessarily the voice of experience*****).
However, there are some memories that refuse to just sit on a shelf, waiting to be looked at. Some memories explode into the room of your mind, coating the walls with their essence, and changing the way everything looks. The Hunger Banquet was one of these memories. Still is. Though the details have faded, my world view has never been the same.
I understood, in a way I never had before, that the world was not fair. And I benefited from that unfairness. I don't know if this specific event was in mind when I decided to join the Peace Corps, but that decision came less than eight years later.
I still tell people that there were two reasons I joined the Peace Corps: one reason is that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. This is the one that makes people smile. The other reason is that I felt like I had been born into a fortunate time and place, and I needed to do something to repay a portion of what I had been given. Even if the facts of the Hunger Banquet didn't come to mind, the shading it imparted on my view of the world had not faded. Maybe that is why I joined the Peace Corps, and later moved to Korea, and met Horyon, and...
I how others have experience Hunger Banquets. Just the time I've spent writing about it makes me want to put one together for my friends and neighbors. Maybe some day.
In the mean time, enjoy your food, and don't forget that you are more fortunate than you realize.
*Not really that odd. It was before we had really met at K.U., and church camp was pretty big, with maybe 100 kids. We only figured out that connection later, never having been friends at camp.
**Memory is a funny thing. This meal, though it had a big impact on my worldview, took place around 1987, maybe 1988, so about 30 years ago. My memories of the specifics are hazy, and I am drawing on some internet resources to fill in plausible gaps. But this is more memoir than history. If anyone reading this was actually there, I'm happy to hear your impressions, even if they differ from mine. I'm also curious to hear about your similar experiences if you weren't at this one. Feel free to comment below.
***This is a perfect example of memory gap. We may have had free seating at that camp, but I've been to many camps in which small groups sat together. So I'm really just guessing here, but I don't want to clutter the narrative with this second guessing.
****This is a perfect example of a detail I just made up out of thin air, to accentuate the differences between the groups.