Just as television, books and movies had planted romantic notions about high school and breasts and Jesus in my head, summer camp was a glamorized unattainable fantasy. But it was not my destiny to don terry cloth shorts and frolic around the great outdoors with people who were not part of my normal world. I would not spend balmy summer evenings underneath the stars, roasting marshmallows and singing campfire songs. Instead of bunking with strangers in the woods, my youthful summers were a little different.
My earliest summers were spent with my mother’s mother. I hesitate to call her “grand.” She was rarely without a frosty can of PBR in her hand, with a paper towel beer cozy because that’s how classy she was. Oh, and her pet name for me was “the little retarded one.” My days with her were spent in her seniors residence, sitting with other little old ladies and making crepe paper flowers. In the three years I visited the old folks’ home, I never saw any other children. Most likely because they were away at sleep away camp.
I spent a couple of summers in my default after school hang out—the snack bar of the Montgomery County Court House, where I alternated between reading Lewis Grizzard books and fielding questions about how I liked school, who my sister was dating and whether I was enjoying my summer. Occasionally my mother enlisted me to “help” her with her work, which mostly meant copying information from the microfiche and then looking up the parents of my classmates. I was the only nine-year-old who knew about second mortgages and tax liens. Also, I was probably the only nine-year-old reading Lewis Grizzard.
When we could afford it, I would participate in daytime summer activities. One year I was fortunate enough to indulge my creative side by taking dance lessons and a ceramics class. I squished myself into a brightly coloured leotard and learned routines to popular 1980s hits on the even days and painted tacky knickknacks on the odd days. Then I went to day camp, which compressed all the popular summer camp activities into eight hours a day. While I was involved in these programs, I actually spent time with people my age. To a normal child, it might have been a relief to hang out with youths and indulge in youth culture. I came into it after spending years in the company of the elderly and was unaccustomed to a summer day that didn’t smell like death, Vaporub and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The trouble with any “camp” is that it implies that copious amounts of time be spent outdoors. After age seven, I wasn’t encouraged to be outdoors ever. Even without my allergies, interacting with nature doesn’t rank high on my list of interests. I like looking at photographs of nature. I hope that nature can hang on for a few dozen more years. But nature and I won’t be playing a round of Boggle anytime soon. My idea of “roughing it” is staying at a bed and breakfast without internet access. Sleep away camp would’ve meant spending time in the wilderness and out of the jurisdiction of my mother. My mother and I have always had differing opinions on how far away I should be from her. She’s been on the losing end ever since I outgrew the papoose. Anyway, overnight camp was never a possibility.
Those of us who attended day camp managed to accomplish most of the things kids do in overnight camp. There were brief summer crushes. The pudgy girl with the pink glasses and black elastic sports strap was ridiculed and pushed down on the playground. Unlikely friendships were forged. The pudgy girl was ridiculed in the pool for wearing inflatable floaties on her ankles. Lessons were learned about sex and gender. The pudgy girl avoided ridicule on the swing set and made up parody songs that could be viewed as morbid foreshadowing. All achieved with minimal adult supervision. At the end of the day we went home to air conditioning and television.
Do I imagine sleep away camp would have been a better experience? Given my track record with insensitive bastard children at school and day camps, it would’ve been absolute misery and I’d have called my mother to retrieve me from the hell in time for Saturday morning cartoons. After I hit puberty, my mother left me at home with cable television and Cheetos and I was content to live vicariously through Hayley Mills times two and the Camp Anawanna kids.
I think summer camp provides an opportunity to reinvent yourself, a chance to try out new fashions and affectations without interference by those who’ve known you since diapers. The closest I got to reinvention was when I tried on my grandmother’s wig and tried to learn the harmonica. Maybe if I’d gone away to camp, I would’ve found my life-long BFF, mismatched bunk mates turned bosom friends. Or, perhaps while on a nature hike, I could’ve found Jesus skinny dipping and teaching bears about love and kindness. Oh, the failures that could have been avoided! Okay, so I can’t join in when people share anecdotes about camp practical jokes or sing campfire songs. But if you want to go swinging and reminisce about microfiche and crepe paper, give me a call.
All that said, if there was an adult summer camp for people who are inept at dealing with woodsy environs, I might consider attending. They have wi-fi, right?