I went to summer camp exactly twice. Once was the summer before sixth grade – a disaster for many reasons – and the next summer before seventh. As a bookish kid, I’d read all sorts of charming novels about summer camp. The point was to go, get fresh air, talk about boys, learn to shoot arrows with bows, and make lifelong friendships with girls who would later be in your wedding and then send you Christmas cards from the Hamptons. Or something. My favorite movie from ages eight until about…last week….was The Parent Trap which largely features summer camp as a pivotal plot point. How disappointing to find that summer camp is not really like that.
The first summer I went to a YMCA-run and sponsored week-long camp. There were three other girls from my school there, though none were in my cabin. Probably a good thing. Fifth grade was a bad year for me, so that summer I was still reeling from round after round of the mean-girl offensive. That’s another blog post entirely, so stay tuned. My counselor was a college girl whose trunk was plastered with bumper stickers like Virginia is for Lovers and Wall Drug. There were six girls, I think, including a girl from Pennsylvania. I couldn’t fathom why you’d send your kid to Kentucky from Pennsylvania, although she did claim her father was a doctor and she had nine horses. Another girl from from Ohio and she had the weirdest voice. She sounded like a mouse that had inhaled helium talking through a straw. Another girl claimed to have ridden horses her whole life so she and the Nine Horse Girl circled each other warily like cowboys with trigger fingers, waiting to shoot holes in the other’s riding ability.
I was a very shy kid. I remember spending a lot of time by myself or just barely hanging on to the fringe of a group, and that carried on at camp. I had signed up for swimming, horseback riding, and some other activity which I have since forgotten. Being at least proficient in activities kept me from any sort of related teasing which was a relief. I also spent a lot of time wanting to blend in to the trees. Swimming was a gimme. I’d been on the swim team at home for years. I just wanted to get in the water. Horseback riding – de rigeur for girls of a certain age. I don’t know what it is about girls and horses. Husband has asked me about this and I just don’t know. Why do girls all have a horse phase?
We sang some songs, and the food was crummy. We slid down a mudslide. There were afternoon rest periods. I found an enormous grey moth in the bathroom one night went I crept out to go tinkle. I felt bad for it. If the other girls had seen it they would probably have insisted on its immediate squishing via the counselor’s boyfriend’s shoe. I tried not to disturb it and hoped it would be gone by morning – it was.
I came home from camp that year with a pair of shorts ruined from the mudslide, and I’d picked up the Squeaky Mouse’s speech pattern. It drove my mother nuts. “QUIT TALKING THROUGH YOUR NOSE,” she snapped. I have always picked up the speech patterns of the people I’m around. I’m an excellent mimic and impersonator and clearly missed my calling on a stage somewhere imitating famous people. It took my mother four months to break me completely of this nasally whine I’d come home with.
The next year I ended up at Girl Scout camp. That erased much of the stress that boys at camp induced. There were a few male counselor-types around to do canoeing and the like. I don’t really remember my counselors from that year. I remember being the best swimmer, allowed with a select few to swim outside of The Crib, a wooden structure intended to babysit the girls whose parents hadn’t thrown them in the water before they could walk. I remember the tents on wooden platforms and the night that, in an effort to “hide” with my bunkmates to scare a group of girls walking by, I managed to roll off my bunk and land on the hard wooden platform before rolling out into the woods. Ouch. My suspicions about what, exactly, a dildo is were confirmed, but only because some other girl asked out loud.
The camp songs were better here, as were the s’mores. I still remember many of the songs including one about sharks and one about an aunt who brings myriad strange things back from her world travels. I also made a friend I’ve mentioned here before, J. J and I were BFFs, and it’s a long story but we lost touch and I heard years later from a girl I met in college who knew J from their hometown. She said J had been in a car accident and very badly and permanently injured.
I can’t remember which camp this happened in: I managed to sit on my glasses and break off both of the side pieces. I remedied this by making stand-in side pieces from twists of purple and white wire from the arts and crafts cabin. Everyone thought this was remarkably clever. I wrote my mom a letter describing the misfortune of my spectacles, including an illustration. I wish she still had that letter.
I have some books that were my grandmother’s. They’re about the Camp Fire girls, which was an old school New England pre-cursor to what we know as Girl Scouts. The girls all had Native American(ish) names like Sahwah the Sunfish who like to swim. The girls in the books learned how to chop down trees and pitch lean-tos. They actually cooked over open campfires! They had a camp theme song. I wanted my camp experience to be more like those – character- and friendship-building experiences I’d carry forever. Instead, I ruined a pair of shorts, a pair of glasses, and all my romantic illusions about summer sleepaway camp.