SUMMER CAMP

Adults are often teary-eyed remembering the joys of their childhood summer camps.  They recall campfires and marshmallows, frogging and fishing, crafts and friends.  The singing, the swimming, the painting and ashtray-making all float out of the mists of memory to rekindle pleasure.  They were young and carefree, happy as though those days would last forever.  I was an exception.

To me, Sesame Day Camp represented unmitigated tedium and stress.  There were long waits in gnat-infested grass for mere seconds on the noisy and smoky go-carts.  There was pointless shooting of BB guns and arrows.  There were fruitless swim lessons and long rides to and from camp in counselors’ cars where I was subjected to the moronic music choices of my fellow travelers.  Or, if the radio was not sufficient torture, they sang about beer bottles on the wall.

All I wanted to do in the summer was play ball.  Not tether-ball or the special version of volleyball for the physically delayed called newcomb (one tries to catch the ball and throw it back instead of hitting it).  I wanted to play baseball.  And I wanted to do it with others who were passionate about the sport and capable of performing above a minimum level of skill.  At Sesame, we never played baseball.

One legacy from my time at day camp sets me apart from most of society.   Apparently, despite a level of coordination that was admired in athletics, I missed the developmental milestone that would have rendered me able to tie my shoes prior to camp.  Thus, I was subjected to remedial instruction; I still remember a large, wooden practice shoe.   The method they finally taught me involved double-looping, a technique I have never shaken.   Whenever someone notices how I tie my shoes they shake their head in disbelief.

Another memory from Sesame Day Camp was “bug” juice.  If it was not made with bugs, why did they call it that?  Although I recall heat and humidity worthy of the tropics, I never overcame my literal interpretation to partake in the thrice-daily refreshment ritual.   My fellow campers liked me best when I gave away my drinks.

While one could have the impression from the foregoing that I was a forlorn camper, there were actually several co-sufferers worse off than I.  One was a sickly slip of a boy who everyone called “Powerhouse.”  Teased mercilessly, he sniffed and sniveled and carried himself as though he were invertebrate.  He was even miserable during crafts hour, when I would have expected him to thrive.  He probably ended up as a body-builder.

Another victim of juvenile insensitivity was an overweight boy named Tom Divver.  “Moon River” was a popular song at the time and everyone serenaded him “Tom Divver, wider than a mile, his clothes are out of style….”  No one ever thought of a second line, so they just repeated that over and over and over.

Singing was somehow important at Sesame.  The counselors taught us a ditty that I still remember.  On reflection, nearly five decades later, I think the words were intended to be: “Hi-yike-e-yike-us, nobody’s like us, we are the boys of Sesame!”  But we all sang:  “Hi-yike-e-yike-us, nobody likes us….”  I’m still not sure.

My camping career ended when I was about ten, after three summers of abject complaining finally wore down my mother.  I was allowed to stay at home and throw a ball incessantly against a wall and was infinitely happier.  I was confident the camping experience was put to rest forever.  Twenty years later, however, I married into a family that believed firmly in the value of summer camps.  In spite of my scoffing or, perhaps, because of it, my oldest daughter adored summer camp and upgraded from local day camp to six weeks of stunningly expensive overnight camp, as soon as possible.

“Isn’t it muddy and buggy?” I would ask.

“We have so much fun,” Kelly would reply, not actually answering the question.

“Isn’t the food awful?” I would ask.

“I love my counselors,” she would reply.

It was as though we were speaking different languages or acting in a modernist play by Samuel Beckett.

My second daughter, Sarah, was more reticent and attended local day camps for several summers, with minimal enthusiasm.  She was not fond of mucking horse stalls and eating hot dogs for every other meal.  She was not hankering to stay up all night giggling with bunkmates.  Still, when she was ten, encouraged by her sister and mother, she signed up for a summer of overnight camp where Kelly had graduated to being a senior counselor.

Bearing in mind Sarah’s need for sleep and her love of comfortable circumstances, I fretted:    “Are you sure she’s up for this?”

“She will be fine,” said my wife.

“What if she hates living in a cabin?  What if the girls are not nice?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, Kelly will be there,” she said.

I tried to contain my skepticism and I waved good-bye with a fake smile when my wife drove off to deliver the girls to the camp only slightly less distant than Siberia.  The campers were not allowed to call home during the first three weeks and that made me uncomfortable.  I wanted Sarah to have a good time but I still harbored a strong aversion to summer camp.  Imagine my cognitive dissonance several days later when the camp director called my wife to say Sarah was “having a hard time.”

“I’ll go get her,” I volunteered immediately.

“She will be fine,” said my wife.  “It is important for her to work through this.”

“Did you remind the guy to let her have access to Kelly?” I asked.

“Of course, and I’m sure that will calm her down.  She just has to get used to it.”

Several days later, the first letter arrived from Sarah.  In block letters, she wrote:  “This place is awful.  I can’t sleep.  There are mice in the walls, and spider webs.  I want to come home.”

“I will go get her,” I offered again.

“The letter was written five days ago.  By now, I’m sure she is adjusting.  We will see her at parent visitation after the first three weeks.  I have no doubt it will be okay,” said my wife.

The next day, the phone rang again and the caller i.d. indicated it was the camp.  I raced to the phone.  It was Kelly, calling from the director’s office.

“Sarah’s driving me nuts,” said Kelly.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“She only wants to hang by my side.  And I have forty other girls to take care of.”

“Can’t the director help out?” I asked.

“They’ve tried,” said Kelly, sounding more discouraged than I had ever heard her.

“Is there any hope?” I asked, trying to sound sincerely hopeful.

“Doesn’t look like it,” said Kelly.  “She’s miserable.  I think you will have to take her home at visitation day.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to sound disheartened, while squelching the urge to pump my fist.  “I’ll tell mom.”

A week later, on the long ride to visitation my wife was hopeful Sarah would change her mind.  Her optimism was dashed, however, when we arrived, to find Sarah happily greeting us in the parking lot with her bags packed.

“Don’t you want to show us your bunk?” asked my wife.

“No,” said Sarah.

“Are there any friends you need to say ‘good-bye’ to?” I asked.

“Did it already,” said Sarah.  “Let’s go.”

“We want to spend some time with Kelly,” said my wife.

“Okay,” said Sarah, impatiently.

We found Kelly after a few minutes.   She was “in her element,” happily and effectively handling the needs of her forty other campers and their parents.  We gave her some favorite candy and fresh T-shirts and hurriedly said “good-bye.”  Kelly hugged Sarah tightly, but her relief to see her sister go was clear.

I tried, but probably failed, to tamp down my smugness on the ride home.   We were both relieved to have Sarah happy again.  We agreed it would not make sense to argue our views on summer camp again.  We concluded, finally:  “Different strokes for different folks.”

Advertisements