Hazy, Hot and Humid
Happy, and not-so-happy, campers share summer memories
Just as we were planning a summertime feature based on Laurie Kahn's collective memoir, Sleepaway, Disney CEO Michael Eisner published his recollections in Camp. That just confirmed what Kahn claims, and what we had verified through informal conversations around the office: Everyone seems to have a camp story. Here, then, are some of ours. We hope they'll resonate, and maybe inspire you to relive your own.
For five summers beginning at age 7, I attended Camp Mar-Lin, a now-defunct sleepaway camp in Windsor, Connecticut. One of the summer's high points was the Olympic Games, a weeklong competition that pitted the athleticism and enthusiasm of four "countries" against one another. For seven days, we swore our undying allegiance to some country none of us had ever heard of -- Ceylon, Fiji, Trinidad or Zaire -- and wouldn't allow our flags to so much as touch the ground lest we'd suffer a national disgrace or unspecified curse.
Among the most exciting Olympic events was "Rope Burn." Held in a dirt parking lot shortly after nightfall, the game involved everyone at camp. Each country was given two ropes strung between two poles. The thinner rope was hung three or four feet off the ground and the second, thicker rope was suspended 12 to 15 feet in the air. The object: Build a bonfire beneath the ropes. Whichever country burned through both ropes first won.
Easier said than done. The higher rope had been soaked overnight in soapy water, so a tall, steady blaze was required to sever it. For several hours (or so it seemed) minions of wood gatherers ventured deep into the forest, searching for downed limbs, while the rest of the team either stoked the fire or cheered from the sidelines.
As the night wore on, the chants grew louder and more fevered, as the tops of the flames began licking the higher ropes. The rules prohibited leaning anything against the ropes themselves, so a winning fire had to be both hot and well constructed. A fire that seemed to be ahead one moment might suddenly collapse onto itself, eliciting a collective groan from its builders and cheers from the competing teams.
Rope Burn still feels like a primeval memory for me: several hundred people gathered in a clearing late at night, shouting their lungs out for a fire to reach the sky. In today's litigious society, it's impossible to imagine any camp allowing young campers to wander unescorted through dark, poison-ivy-infested woods in search of kindling, let alone build four bonfires without a fire truck and ambulance parked nearby.
But Rope Burn wasn't only a competition. After the first two teams had completed their tasks, all four teams pooled their firewood and helped burn through the remaining ropes. In the end, it was all about cooperation and teamwork. In the morning everyone was hoarse and spent from all the shouting.
I spent every July from 1967 to 1969 at Eagle Island in the Adirondacks. The camp served the Girl Scouts of Essex County, New Jersey, and most of the campers were whites from affluent suburbs, like me. But my first year, when I was 10, my unit also included handful of African-American girls who kept mostly to themselves.
Word quietly spread that these kids were on scholarship -- which seemed to explain their bedding. While the rest of us snuggled into flannel-lined sleeping bags and cheerful linens from home, these girls all made up their cots with the same thin, gray blankets: government-issue, I assumed. The scholarship girls also stood out in other ways. After our initial swimming tests, they all placed in Red Caps, which meant they didn't know how to swim.
They did know some things I didn't, though. After lights-out, the two scholarship girls in my five-person tent told dirty jokes -- the first I'd ever heard. When they quipped about a lady letting a man put his "thing" in her "crack" and then having a baby, I laughed as loud as everyone else. But I basically had no clue. The only "crack" I could imagine was between the butt cheeks. I spent months afterwards wondering why moms-to-be didn't poop their offspring into the toilet.
The reality of the scholarship girls' lives came home to me towards the end of the session. It was barbeque night, and newspapers had been spread on the dining-hall tables to catch the mess. Most of us simply ate our food, but something on a page caught the attention of one of the scholarship girls. It was a photograph of downtown buildings engulfed in flame. While we'd been whining about the iciness of Saranac Lake and giggling about sex, Newark's Central Ward had been engulfed in five days of deadly riots. My tent-mate stared at the picture in disbelief. "That's the street where I live," she said.
When I was 10 or 11 and living in New Jersey, my parents shipped me off to Pine Island Camp, somewhere in the middle of Maine. Our regular sleeping quarters were on a large, platform tent. But on the next-to-last night of the session, we took down the tents and slept under the stars. And I do mean stars. Did I mention that I was a Jersey boy? Out in the middle of Maine? I'd never seen anything like it. The experience was awesome in the truest sense of the word -- more powerful than any in my experience, before or since.
That night under the stars inspired me to pick up some books on astronomy later in my life. I learned a lot of interesting stuff about red giants, black holes and white dwarfs. But in the end, that information wasn't nearly as compelling as what happened at camp, when I simply looked up and let in the mystery.
I went to camp in 1986 and 1987, and both times I almost drowned. The two weeks I spent at Camp Sequoia when I was 11 were actually fun -- until the last day, when I went tubing with a couple male counselors and my new 11-year-old "boyfriend." They were towing me on an innertube behind a motorboat. I was a shorthaired, athletic tomboy, and had just won a prize for taking apart a BB gun and putting it back together faster than anyone at camp. But I thought I should act "girly" for the guys in the boat. I decided to fall off the innertube.
Only I couldn't just fall off, I had to show off; I dove through the center, while the boat was still moving. Naturally, I got stuck. My legs shot into the air. I kicked frantically. I was helpless, pinned by the rushing water. I couldn't breathe. It seemed like forever before they stopped dragging me. I came up for air and saw the guys laughing hysterically. It was the most humiliating moment of my life.
The next summer my parents sent my sister and me to Camp Shamrock, which was run by the East Detroit Parks and Rec department. The other campers there already knew each other from other summers or public school. My sister and I went to Catholic school in another town and didn't know anyone.
I realized that it would be a miserable week even before we'd left the Rec Center parking lot. One of the girls got on the bus, looked at me, and announced, "This is the girls' bus. The boys' bus is over there."
Later that week, that same girl and two of her friends approached me at the edge of the swimming area. Two of them dove under and pulled me down before I could suck in a good breath. The bus girl found my head with her hands and held me under. I thrashed around desperately until they got tired of their game and let me go.
They were so mean. I think maybe that bus girl had figured out I had a crush on her.
The only time I went to co-ed camp, I was 10, too young to appreciate midnight bunk sneak-outs and sexual tension. My attention was focused on the social pecking order among girls my age, which was as mysterious to me as the hierarchy of some remote Amazon tribe. Social prestige at my Upstate New York liberal Presbyterian camp appeared to me to be based on two factors: how many pieces of lanyard jewelry one could make for oneself and one's friends, and how many songs one could sing from the movie Grease.
I hadn't seen Grease, because my mom's friend had told her it was about "hoodlums." When a bunkmate rose from her sleeping bag and wailed, " I got chills, they're vibah-ratin'" into an imaginary microphone while writhing in a creepy, prepubescent imitation of Olivia Newton John's sexiness, I wondered if she might be a little crazy.
Lanyards were almost as perplexing. Before coming to camp, I had never heard the word or seen one of these flexible plastic cords in Day-Glo colors -- and I've rarely seen or heard of them since. But at my camp, lanyards were it. You bought your single strings of color at the camp store, where they hung enticingly beside the candy bars. Then you wove them into necklaces, belts and friendship bracelets, using knotting and braiding techniques that seemed as complex to me as computer-system architecture. Over, under, over, around, under . . . watching the colors flash in some experienced girl's hands, I quickly lost track. I did learn enough of the secret science to produce a couple of bracelets with lumps in the wrong places. But who wanted to wear plastic jewelry, anyway?
I wonder if some of my more popular campmates still have their raspberry, tangerine and turquoise bracelets stashed away in a drawer somewhere, reminding them of the days when John Travolta defined cool.
When I was 9 and 10, I went to Tibetan Buddhist military camp. My parents have been practicing Tibetan Buddhism since I was born, and my family had actually lived for a while at the meditation center where the camp was held. Camp was a blast. I even enjoyed wearing khaki or olive-green fatigues and secondhand combat boots -- bought in the smallest women's size at the Barre Army-Navy surplus store. Besides ordinary camp stuff like swimming, card games and overcoming fear of outhouses, the daily routine included pre-meal meditation practice and mornings full of marching drills.
The camp's mission was to cultivate compassion and "enlightened warriorship," but the real focus of the week was to get good at playing Capture-the-Flag in the woods, as preparation for one final, daylong game pitting kids against counselors. This was the day we all looked forward to, thrilled at the idea of 10-to-16-year-olds using sheer stealth and wit to overcome adults twice our age who would never dream of "letting" us win.
Other kids rejoiced in battle strategy, but as a shy girl my favorite part was learning to sneak behind "enemy" lines as a spy. I learned how to walk soundlessly through the woods -- much easier at age 9 than I find it now -- and how to help disguise a troupe with available natural materials. It was exciting to disappear in a clearing, a few kids tucked under a fallen log, sunk into leaf-covered hollows, and ensconced in trees, ready for an ambush. When "the enemy" showed up, we'd pop out to pelt them with flour bags, which marked them as prisoners, out of the game. The whole thing reminded me of Peter Pan's band of Lost Boys.
Believe it or not, the uniforms and drill practice were empowering, and actually lots of fun. After morning reveille, which was usually a boombox blasting the Ghostbusters theme song ("Who ya gonna call?"), a flag-raising ceremony and morning meditation mellowed out the macho-ness. On the surface, the guard members who helped run Sun Camp may have seemed militaristic, but the organization's motto was -- and remains -- "Victory Over War." Amen.