Summer camp memories – Part two

Kids of Courage campers boarding the bus to camp. (Kids of Courage photo)

As camp kicks off for another summer, I have been sharing some golden memories that I found online. But one person’s gold may not be quite as shiny for her bunkmate, as we hear from some reluctant campers.

 I had to go to summer camp. I had no choice. I was the owners’ kid.” Something tells me that Jon Marcus didn’t view summer camp as his Valhalla or his halcyon days. Because Maine’s Camp Manitou was the family business, summer wasn’t time away from home for Jon. “I left the camp the first chance I got.”

And then something changed for him. But it wasn’t until Jon and many former campers returned for the Manitou’s 50th summer. “I was the last to share my thoughts that night beside the fire. Almost all of these people knew me, and had since I’d been born. They were family. I realized I was among friends who would cheer me on no matter what. They remembered my ambivalence about growing up as the owners’ kid.

“I re-introduced myself anyway. I’d been at camp forever, I said, to laughter. Then I paused for effect. After all, I’d learned my comic timing here, at camp. It was only one of the things, it turned out, that I’d picked up in that place. Including on that night, beneath the stars.”

As she sent her son off to camp, Drew Himmelstein felt a common tie with her son, Nate. Both she and Nate were reluctant campers. She remembers the homesickness and the tears but she hopes it turns out better for her son. When she dropped him off, it was seeing the counsellors that brought back better memories. “They walk along wooded dirt paths with cozy mugs of coffee in their hands, offering lazy smiles and a relaxed ‘good morning’ to everyone they pass. … They’re unselfconscious and easy with each other; at the end of the day, they line up and massage each other’s shoulders.”

Himmelstein continues, “and the important thing is not that Nate will like being a camper someday, but that one day, inevitably, he’ll be like one of those counsellors. He’ll be a teenager and a young adult; he’ll have the confidence to wear threadbare clothes and participate in group shoulder massages. It’s both incredibly cheesy and incredibly important. He’ll grow up and the world will be his.”

I wonder how they felt in the Hammerman home when they got they this letter from Joshua. “Dear Folks, I REALLY am sad now. I need more food because I haven’t had anything to eat. My swimming teacher is making me jump into the water but I don’t want to. I’m scared of putting my clothes into the laundry because I’ll lose them and they’ll come back different colours. Send ear plugs.”

Many years later, Joshua – now Rabbi Joshua Hammerman – continues, “What’s funny is that I actually loved camp — even that first year — because I discovered there what children have been discovering about summer camp for decades, and what Jews have known for millennia: When you leave home, you can reinvent yourself.” He then draws the parallel of how Abraham had to leave his home in order to found a new faith. And later, when Jews were sent into exile in Babylon, they were forced to examine themselves and create new national institutions.

In fairness, summer camp isn’t for everybody – and even hindsight doesn’t make the memories rosy. For Andrew Silow-Carroll, summer camp meant “alarming competitiveness among its campers and staff by turning every activity into a high-stakes contest.” His camp was run by “a barrel-chested martinet who based his management style exclusively on the promise to parents that their girls would not get pregnant.” And days were filled with “lust, competition, status.” But all is not lost. Silow-Carroll does advise that knowing your kid will help find a camp that is right for your child. And he did have a recent experience that seemed to go well. “My family and I spent a month at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, where I ran writing workshops; the whole place gave off a crunchy, menschy vibe.”

This American Life, has devoted an hour to the topic. Host Ira Glass kicks things off by getting camp kids to “explain how their non-camp friends and their non-camp loved ones have no idea why camp is the most important thing in their lives.”

My favourite segment is titled, “How The Israeli Army is Just Like Summer Camp.” As a half-Israeli growing up in the U.S., Adam Davidson really felt the challenge when he found himself at a teen army camp in Israel. “What was tough about this was that I was really a nobody there. … I mean, we were always, for no apparent reason, running like crazy from one tree to another tree, or up some mountain. Every few minutes there was something you could be the best at. And I was never the best.” However, thanks to some quick thinking, Adam’s self-described “geek status” was transformed one evening. Listen to his lovely adventure.

Next time, some final camp memories about visiting day and mail that makes parents break out in a sweat (until they find out that everything’s just fine.)