Yesterday, I offered glimpses into my summer cottage experience, which I recall as being relaxed, uneventful and calm, an arrangement entirely in sync with my excitement-phobic, “No news is good news” persona. Virtually nothing happened at the cottage. And every summer, I could hardly wait for another helping of the same.
Summer camp was exactly the opposite.
I cannot possibly encompass fourteen summers at Camp Ogama (1954-1966, and again, in 1968) in a few hundred words, other than to say, as I did in a speech once, that during those fourteen summers, I lost over a hundred and fifty pounds, and a tremendous amount of laundry. (The laundry that did come back was returned, exhibiting, what was once called on Seinfeld in a entirely different context, “a pinkish hue.”
I have previously written about the fact that the first time I went to camp, I had no idea I was going. This claim was rebutted by my mother who reasonably rejoined,
“How could you not notice that your clothes were gone?”
She got me there. I had to notice my clothes were gone. My dresser drawers would have been empty, and my closet, all hangers. However, he replied, stubbornly clinging to his “injured party” illusion, what I think did happen was was something in between.
I can easily see myself getting Arctically cold feet as my mother chauffeured me and my older brother, who’d been going to camp since he was six, to the West Prep parking lot, wherefrom the buses for the hundred-and-fifty-mile-away relocation to camp would depart. I can hear myself reneging on my previously arm-twisted agreement, screaming, “I don’t want to go!” at the top of my lungs.
I can imagine my beleaguered mother, in an effort to restore peace and tranquility in the car, finally conceding that I didn’t have to.
And so – point made. My mother told me I didn’t have to go to camp. I ended up going to camp. Ipso facto, I went to camp without knowing I was going.
(How exactly did that work? My brother’s name was called. He got on the bus. My mother said, “Wait! He forgot his flashlight! Go give it to him.” I got on the bus to give my brother his flashlight, the doors closed, and I went to camp. I am ninety-two percent certain that’s the way it went down.)
Why didn’t I want to go to camp? Because I was a “summer cottage” guy. Happily contented with its rhythms and requirements. For two blissfully boring months, there was nothing that challenged me, tested me or made me uncomfortable. Or move even. If I didn’t choose to do so.
(The single exception: My paternal grandmother once came out, bringing along a giant watermelon for our family luncheon. I assured her that, despite its girth and weight, I was fully capable of carrying the watermelon into the cabin. I was wrong. I dropped the watermelon, and it smashed to pieces on the sidewalk, triggering subsequent decades of self-doubt and psychotherapy. Though, oddly, I never once mentioned the watermelon. Hmph! I may have just had a “breakthrough” here.)
Besides being deprived of my summer cottage idyll, I had specific reasons for not wanting to go to camp. I had earlier scoped out the whole setup, having driven up with my parents, to see my brother on Visitors’ Day. It did not appeal to me at all.
For one thing, there were the discouraging bathroom arrangements. Nothing in the cabins. Just two ten minutes-away facilities, one for the boys, and one for the girls. There was communal shower arrangement, where campers, scheduled for weekly cabin grouping visits, stood naked under overhanging showerheads, which sprinkled down a sputtering trickle that was alternatingly scaldingly hot or numblingly cold.
The toilet stalls had no doors on them. The walls of the stalls were littered with graffiti, a raunchy accumulation of, hopefully, anatomically inaccurate drawings, and witty aphorisms like,
“We aim to please. You aim too, please.”
So much for privacy.
And good writing.
Big Picture: Camp had nothing to offer me that I liked. It had deafening noise, especially during mealtimes in the Mess Hall, which offered a cacophonous din that would remain ringing in your ears weeks after you got home.
Camp had crowds of people. I hate crowds of people. Besides triggering outdoor claustrophobia, a large assemblage means the chance of a greater number of people not feeling kindly towards me, and possibly doing something about it. (I have written elsewhere of the time my cabin-mates attempted to hang me.)
Camp also meant a vast assortment of activities I couldn’t do, a situation unlikely to endear me to my detractors. Tennis? The wooden rackets were too heavy for me. Badminton? What’s that? Archery? I kept lacerating the inside of my wrist on the feathers. Baseball? No hit – no field – no good. Football? Totally hopeless. Basketball? I kept dribbling the basketball off my foot. Lacrosse? What am I, an Ind0ian?
And the most alarming part was that all of these certain-to-humiliate-me activities were mandatory. Which brings us to the heart of my objections about camp.
From morning to night, the camp routine was rigorously structured, scheduled and regimented. Like the military. Or a prison for children. Once you opted into going, you were forbidden from opting out of anything. You had to do it all. Whether you wanted to, or really, really didn’t. I hated that.
Okay, I can see this sounding like the graceless complaints of a congenital whiner. And I might readily agree with that evaluation. If I hadn’t, during my first ever Swim Instruction class, been summarily tossed into the lake by a Swim Instructor, impatient with what he took as stalling, when what I was actually doing was wisely preemptively dabbing water on my wrists and the back of my neck, to help mitigate the shock of entry.
Cut me some slack, here! The water was brown! And paralyzingly cold! And they said there were leeches in there! And I didn’t know how to swim!
Or make my bed with “hospital corners.” Or happily consume Welsh rarebit, or hot cereal with lumps. Or burp and fart on demand, a guaranteed peer crowd-pleaser after “Lights out”, where there was “No talking”, but no sanction against simulated bodily functions.
What was I doing at camp anyway? Everything I did – watch TV, eat what I wanted, proceed at my own pace and schedule – camp didn’t have. And everything camp had, I summarily stunk at.
Except for one thing. Camp had shows. And it turned out, I could do shows, both writing and performing. Which is what I wound up doing as a job, and continue doing with immense satisfaction to this very day.
Failing to acknowledge that my camp experience pointed me in the direction of my life’s work would be the height of unpardonable ingratitude.
He didn’t have to throw me in the lake.
For more specific details concerning my camp experience, check out the “Summer Times” series on this very blog. And stay tuned for further installments.