Thursday, June 24, 2010


Now that my son is out of school for the summer, my mind naturally turns to one thing: camp. When I think of camp, it is a swirling sensory experience: it smells like bug spray, mildew-y bathrooms and plastic bottles of hyper-sweet juice drink. It looks like daddy longlegs and idolized teenaged counselors wearing terry cloth sweatbands. It sounds like garbled, buzzing announcements over the loudspeakers, singing the disturbingly violent Little Bunny FooFoo complete with hand gestures en mass, mosquitoes everywhere. It tastes like airy vanilla-fudge swirl ice milk in the little plastic cartons with the tabs that lifted up, crispy-skinned toasted marshmallows with gooey insides. It feels like pointy plants brushing against your leg that may or may not be poison ivy, terry cloth (the fabric of my youth), Band-Aids on my elbows and knees.

When I was growing up, like many North Americans, I experienced both day camp and overnight camp. Both were pretty much Machiavellian affairs, especially as soon as the thrill of weaving misshapen pot-holders and Ojo de Dios with sticks and yarn wore off and we grew bored, then started setting our sights on each other. There was always someone who would hyperventilate at the sight of any sort of winged creature, someone who would glumly hand the counselor a note from her mother that she was not allowed to swim until a full hour after lunch, someone who melted into a heap of human heat-stroke as soon as she stepped off the bus, someone who permanently had zinc oxide affixed to her nose. There were top tier campers, too, of course, the ones who bronzed rather than burned, who would optimistically spring from the tire swings over the lake with the gangly athletic grace they took as a birthright while the rest of us only knew painful belly flops. The mass of the us were sandwiched between these bookends, relatively content for the most part. Within the micro-climate that was camp, though, things could turn on a dime and an unfortunate camper who sat in the wrong "permanently saved" bus seat or who was identified as the source of the "weird smell" could find herself sitting at the picnic table with the bug-phobic, overprotected, heat-addled outer edge. That was an omnipresent threat in the Lord of the Flies environment that was summer camp. Anything goes and anything went.

Despite this, I look back with fondness, perhaps born more of nostalgia than of genuinely good feelings. At the first camp I went to, I was on the Yellow Triangle bus that picked me up on the end of Romona Road. The bus driver looked like a migraine in human form, her patience already ripped to shreds at 8:30 in the morning by thirty or so squealing, singing campers. Every day after camp, we elbowed and jostled one another to find that correct color and shape combination lest we be whisked off to the hinterlands and a bus lot where we'd almost certainly starve to death overnight. There was also the seat wrangling: who sat with whom, who got the window seat, who had to sit in the back of the bus with the seat with the rusty coil poking up. Camp was a lot to negotiate with just the politics around the bus ride. The Yellow Triangle bus was a little universe unto itself where I learned about negotiation, alliances, hierarchies. It is not surprising that as camp is part of the American experience, so, too, is reality television. One important life lesson that day camp helped to instill in me: if you don't like what you see around you, create a new reality altogether. Plugging into something else is always an option. I sat wherever I wanted.

If the bus was a human behavioral petrie dish on wheels, the actual campgrounds were the laboratory where it all played out. That first day of camp, the impossibly huge mass of us was divvied up among roaming counselors with clipboards. We wanted the pretty one, the athletic one with the pom-pom socks, the one who seemed the most like our fantasy babysitter. We crossed our collective fingers that the one with the thick glasses, flushed cheeks and Ace bandage around her knee would not call our names because then it was over: all her charges were dweebs by association. The truth was that even if you were assigned to the pretty, cool counselor, you were still subject to the vagaries of intense social maneuvering. I was content to fly under the radar with my ragtag mix of Wilmette school district friends: smily Laura with the corkscrew curls, Fee with the goofy-serious mien, skinny Annie, always ready to belt out a show tune whether the timing was appropriate or not. My friends made camp bearable and even fun, which leads to another important life lesson I took away from camp: I never did make a really great pot holder, but I did learn that quality wins over quantity every time.

At day camp, we had treacherous relay races against other groups, we played catch the flag, we wore broken safety vests while canoeing in the lake, we checked each other for ticks with nervous hearts, and we took occasional field trips to fetid, unpleasant and crowded places that escape my memory except for those few details. Lunch was brown-bagged, soggy and with stink lines emanating. Still, the Yellow Triangle bus returned me home at 3:00 or so and I was no worse for the wear. The next day I was fresh and recharged, waiting with my mom at the end of the block for the Yellow Triangle bus with the poor, migraine-y driver again.

Overnight camp was a more challenging, complicated affair as it coincided with junior high and the terrain that came with it. I went to two overnight camps. The first one was called Camp Watervliet, and it featured horseback riding in a verdant Michigan setting. We didn't realize that we'd be woken by a very energetic, bugle-toting counselor playing a mean-spirited Reveille right outside our musty cabins at six in the morning. We groaned like the teenagers we were transitioning into and thumped out of our bunk beds, heads in our hands to brush and saddle the horses. Bleary-eyed at dawn, I never did learn how to properly saddle a horse. The first week or two, those of us from the North Shore of Chicago wrote heart-wrenching letters to our mothers like we were saucer-eyed Amnesty International poster children: do have any idea what they do to us here?!

Once the shock of the rude awakening wore off a bit, Camp Watervliet settled into a nice place to be. There were horses to ride, guitars to strum, arrows to aim at an archery board affixed to a tree. We had a canteen set up twice a week that our parents dutifully sent us money to strip bare, full of the Hostess and Lay products we were suffering shaking withdrawal from since we left home. There was an annual play that we performed for a neighboring camp: the first year, it was The Hobbit, and we had to audition and everything. I was shocked when I was originally cast as Bilbo Baggins but I gave up the role to a blonde alpha girl named from Florida who reeeeally wanted the role. I took on the part of Gollum instead, a much juicier role actually, and I properly chewed up the scenery with my interpretation of his uniquely tortured psyche. After two summers there, I jumped ship to Camp Chi, a Jewish overnight camp in Wisconsin, and my days at the relative simplicity of of Camp Watervliet took on a halcyon glow: Camp Chi was a hard-core, raging pheromone seventh grade torture camp set in the woods. We didn't need a homicidal psychopath like Jason: we had other campers.

For one thing, for the first time in my life, I was now going to a co-ed camp. While just the year before at Camp Watervliet some girls brought stuffed animals and cried from homesickness, the girls here were wearing lip gloss and mascara, big combs in their back pockets, Ralph Lauren polo shirts tucked into their shorts. For another thing, there was a small but dedicated army of mean girls from a different school district who made it their business to torment who wasn't from theirs and I only had one other friend there so my alliance was pretty puny. To compound everything, this was the summer my body decided to start menstruating, perhaps spurred on by the close quarters in my cabin. So I had to buy "time of the month products" at the canteen, which meant that the goings-on with my uterus was soon public knowledge even though I carried my products back to the cabin in a brown paper bag like I had just bought a Hustler or something. The mean girls had spies everywhere, of course. They probably had the staple of daddy longlegs working for them.

These same girls tormented their European counselor so viciously that she flew back to Norway after a week. They were grounded for any number of infractions, so after they drew all over their cabin with markers, they went wilding: rampaging through the kitchen, letting the horses loose, running like tortured POW escapees into town when they were the ones who's been actually holding the camp hostage. Sadly, they weren't all sent home. Sadly, their parents were even called. The camp management collectively shrugged their shoulders and some guy with a Jewfro who perpetually wore tennis shorts made an executive decision to give them more freedom. Their reign of terror continued: we would continue to wake every morning to find they'd tossed our training bras up a tree and scrawled threats and insults on our cabin door in black Magic Marker. God, they were evil. Imagine the worst of junior high without disciplinary measures, grades or even the ability to go home at the end of the day. That was Camp Chi in a nutshell. Oh, and throw some mosquitoes and bloodthirsty ticks into the mix. Needless to say, I ran off the bus when we finally returned home and if memory serves, I actually kissed the parking lot pavement. I don't think I was ever so happy to see my family.

So it is with all this baggage in mind that I still decided to send my son to day camp for four hours twice a week. It's managed by clean-scrubbed young college students and it all seems pretty innocuous so far. It looks to be causing a minimum of psychological damage. At the very least, well, I know he'll survive. I did.


  1. Ah, for the days of bug spray and campfire talent shows! I believe that 4-H camp was my first exposure to cornflakes. Also, now that I'm supposedly an adult, I realize that "Little Bunny Foo Foo" is a really messed-up song. I mean, damn. The poor field mice.

    Entirely unrelated to camp, but I developed a new appreciation for Gollum when I tried to wean myself off anti-depressants.

  2. I shamelessly borrowed from your post on umami in my blog.

  3. Poor Gollum! Poor field mice! Sheesh already...

    Go for it, Vanilla Rose!


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