Notes on Camp

Six boys in a cabin. Four strewn about on bunks, affecting casual repose, though their eyes were fixed on two boys at the back of cabin. Something about to go down. We were all around 12. A short, pudgy-but-proud choirboy from Ohio was adamantly refusing to share even a few granules of his enormous supply of Kool-Aid. His confronter, a Canadian beanpole with a long nose shot out from under a perfect bowl of orange hair, wasn’t having it. The noble, carrot-topped weed had shared many homemade treats with “Ohio,” as well as the rest of us.

“Canada” was an odd, sensitive duck. This Kool-Aid situation, brought about by the arrival of a shipment of the illicit flavored sugar from Ohio’s mother, had cut him deep. I remember his frail body shaking more than usual as he raged on about Ohio’s despicable selfishness. Then Ohio said something, I don’t recall exactly, but it was damn smug and after saying it, he made his error: He turned his back on Canada.

I watched in awe and — I’m quite sure this feeling was universal in the room—I was conscious I was witnessing something. Canada shoved a hand down the back of his pants. It emerged like a dagger unsheathed, but in the form of a stiffly hooked forefinger. He grabbed Ohio by the shoulder, spun him around, and with bold deliberation, he passed the presumably foul hook across Ohio’s nostrils.

“Raw anus,” he said, matter-of-factly, drawing out the vowels, Canadian-style.

I’m pretty sure it was a new phrase to us all. But we immediately understood its meaning. Canada bolted for the door. Ohio hesitated—tears forming in the corners of his eyes—then bounded after his attacker, as was his duty, however futile.

I apologize for being so graphic but it’s for a moral reason: We’re talking about camp.

Right now, all over the city, young Sams and Zacks and Zoes and Sophies are being prepped for a “wonderful summer camp experience.” For the very rich it might be Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, N.Y., or Androscoggin or Matoaka up in Maine, all of which charge about $9,000 for eight weeks. Some parents will load their kids on a bus or pack them into a cab to LaGuardia. Others will escort their young ones to the camp’s leafy doorstep. No doubt they are contemplating what the summer will bring while the children are away. But whatever adult adventures await, they cannot compare to the terrors facing their children.

Camp should not be about comfort. My parents were of this mind. They botched plenty of decisions regarding my upbringing, but their take on camp was dead on, if a little extreme. It followed that I was not allowed to follow my pals to Skylake, where half my fifth-grade class went. Instead, each summer brought a new opportunity to build even more character, i.e., a new opportunity to hurl me into the unknown. Returning to the same camp would hardly maximize the opportunity for pain and awkwardness that comes with living with a group of strangers. Many summers, just as I was getting settled into a nice routine of beach days and movie nights with my real friends, another sleep-away ordeal presented itself. Bags were packed.

An extended trip with your best pals from the neighborhood to a plush cabin in Maine or Michigan or the Sierra Mountains (where Skylake was) does not a true camp experience make. It is my understanding that days at these sorts of camps—resorts, really—are a mix of boating, water skiing, archery, while nights are spent cozied around the fire, gobbling candies purchased at a camp store and flirting with friends and friends of friends, before leisurely making your way back to your cabin, which of course is filled with all your best pals.

Bah! This is not camp!

Take one sunny afternoon at Anderson Camp, in western Colorado. I was walking back to my cabin feeling rather proud of my little performance at lunch. Some context: I had been stuck in a cabin full of hulking Chicagoans that summer, who had indeed come as a pack, and with whom I was engaged in an unspoken battle. They’d made it clear before our trunks were unpacked that they had no interest in admitting me into their ranks. I didn’t like their boorish style anyway and did my best to ignore them. Also, it should be noted that my growth spurt had lagged long enough that there was no denying my runt status. I was among the shortest of the boys, some of whom, including these Chicago fellows, were giants.

Notes on Camp