My 9-year-old son, Andrew, wants to go to sleep away camp next summer, and I guess I’m going to let him, even though my heart will feel like it’s being ripped in two when he steps on that bus to depart. Zoe will follow a few years after, breaking my heart all over again. As my husband, Brett, and I prepared to tour some camps with our children over 4th of July weekend, we reflected back on our own camping days.
Brett loved camp. He went to some magical place in Massachusetts for like 14 summers or something, ending up as counselor of the year and forever branded with “Living Legend” status. (Brett fans will not be surprised to learn that his bunk was always the cleanest, and therefore the model bunk visited by touring families.)
Meanwhile, up in Maine, homesickness was settling deep in my stomach. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like the idea of being a camper. It’s just that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help feeling like this was the wrong camp for me. While other campers in other parts of the Northeast were boasting about “living 10 for 2”, I couldn’t wait to return home to Scarsdale after my 8-week sentence was up.
Why didn’t I love camp? Let me count the ways.
1. No boys. I attended an all-girl, uniformed camp without electricity that required a plane ride because it was that far away from boys. You know those 80’s camping movies, like “Little Darlings” and “Meatballs”? I assumed camp would be like that, filled with raids to the boys’ side and underwear hung up the flagpole. I thought we’d have food fights and dances and color war and that Matt Dillon and Kristy McNichol would teach me how to smoke cigarettes behind the shower house. I assumed there would be an inspirational soundtrack playing as we won the softball game against our rival camp.
I couldn’t have been wrong-er.
Instead, my camp had lots of singing girls swaying back and forth with their arms around each other. When not singing, these girls liked to ride horses. Oh, and we had pine trees. Lots and lots of pine trees.
2. No pool. My camp did not have a swimming pool. Only a lake. And everyone knows the truth about lakes, right? They are teeming with creatures waiting to kill you. Don’t pretend you don’t know this. Every time I swim out too far into a lake I worry about being dragged down to the murky bottom by either a seaweed monster or the Lady of the Lake. (Here’s the narrative running through my brain when I am on the verge of entering a lake: The LOTL was murdered here long ago, and now she waits. In her long white nightgown, her skin glowing white-green, she waits for unsuspecting feet to kick by her. And then…and then…well, you know the rest.)
Yes, I really believe that.
My lake had other creatures in it, too. There were microscopic bacteria in the lake. After we swam, we had to line up and tilt our heads to one side and then the other for eardrops that smelled like grain alcohol and prevented us from getting nasty infections.
So, was my camp lake in Maine the most beautiful sight ever? Yes. Was I afraid to swim in it? Absolutely. Did I have a lovely, heated swimming pool in my own, empty backyard in Scarsdale, just waiting for me to dive in? You betcha.
Ah, the irony.
3. No canteen. I honestly thought that this “canteen” thing was a myth until I visited camps a few weeks ago and saw it with my own eyes. You mean, my friends weren’t lying when they said that they got candy at camp and had a game room to hang out in? With electricity? Seriously?
And then I began to uncover other truths, so that “canteen” became synonymous with all the fun things that people did at other camps that I did not do at mine. Like, for example, they didn’t go hiking in the rain. In inclement weather, they went to the movies. And ate candy. In fact, these camps were not quite as outdoorsy or rustic as mine in any recognizable way.
My birthday is July 3rd, which means I was at camp for this particular celebration for four consecutive summers in the early 1980’s. And when I tell you that, on my birthday, I was always canoeing down some river in New Hampshire or on the top of some mountain in the rain drinking water from a metallic-tasting canteen, I am not stretching the truth.
This is not my idea of a good time, people.
My daughter Zoe also has a summer birthday, and I will not leave her out in the rain. That’s why the camp tours are so critical to a mother like me. I am picking a camp that will allow her to spend that special day eating cupcakes while smiling at boys and doing water aerobics in a heated swimming pool overlooking a lake. At dinner, she will not wear a brown and white uniform but rather her favorite tie-dyed tank top. She will visit the canteen as the sun goes down, enjoying the satisfaction of a Milky Way bar while looking up over the lake into the Milky Way. And when the counselors say “lights out,” they will not mean it metaphorically.
The Gerstenblatt clan toured three lovely camps over 4th of July weekend, each one tricked out with golf carts (driven by adorable male counselors) so that we didn’t have to walk to the soccer field/roller hockey rink/tennis courts/skateboard park/senior camp/zip-line/anywhere at all.
I am happy to report that we have made our selection. It’s a co-ed, non-uniformed camp within three hours driving distance from home, featuring tons of electric power. There’s electricity in the bunks, stadium lighting for evening games on the fields, and air-conditioning in the main house. While there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure, there are also indoor, rainy-day activities so that no one has to catch pneumonia on her birthday. (Unless she really, really wants to. This camp offers lots of choices.)
While boys and girls have separate activities, there are certainly opportunities to develop crushes and flirt at evening campfires. It’s not “Meatballs”, exactly, but it will have to do.
The lake doesn’t even look that scary.