Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What August 30th Means To Me -- Thoughts on Summer Sleepaway Camp

The actual date?  Nothing much.  But August 30th falls into a time period that was an annual buffer of my childhood; the week or so between the end of summer camp and the beginning of the school year.  When you're young, Jewish, from New York, and have parents with any sort of disposable income, your childhood summers were spent at camp.  This is a hard and fast rule. And I'm not talking about some bullshit one week basketball or soccer camp where you arrive at eight, cry all day, leave at four, and forget about the experience as quickly as it actually occured.  No, I'm talking about 8 weeks of 24/7 sleepaway camp that was all encompassing to the point where the outside world no longer seemed to exist, and was replaced by camp culture, politics, and sports.  Eight weeks seems like a long time, doesn't it?  It was.  Perhaps our parents were trying to encourage us to enjoy an experience unique to childhood, or maybe they just wanted us the fuck out of the house so they could have a quiet summer. 

But though I've relayed camp stories to my non-camp friends over the years, I'm not sure I've ever accurately conveyed what an odd experience it actually was. In retrospect, the camping community/way of life was so regimented and engrossing that it created a unique 8-week community and culture that was completely different from everything we were used to, but we accepted it and bought into the experience quickly and easily, with little thought, even if it seemed strange and unfair. In short, we weren't treated all that well.  Unless you call being holed up in a small bunk with 11 other kids fun.  Unless you think being woken up everyday by bugle calls (at 7am) while counselors banged the legs of your metal bed with broomsticks fun. How about the time the camp directors accidentally served the entire camp bad turkey, leading to a camp wide stomach problem and the night of 1,000 flushes...and never apologized for it? We were shuttled around the camp on an incredibly regimented schedule, were not allowed any sort of food that was understood as tasty (in fact, if camp directors discovered you had a soda or candy, they were liable to raid your bunk, go through your shit, and confiscate it.  This created a sort of underground smuggling community that sold simple items like a can of coke for 10x the price...and don't get me started on how much a Playboy would go for).  But, even though the kids and counselors severly outnumbered the benevolent dictatorship of the camp directors, there was never much thought of mutiny or any sort of illegal activity other than playful indescretions.  I'm not saying that the "directors" of this camp could have created a Hitler Youth kind of atmosphere, but they certainly did engender an odd sense of both "fear" and "camp pride" that would manifest itself as hatred that we'd unleash on neighboring camps during "intercamp sports tournaments" and competitions.  In fact, there was an adjacent camp to us called "Camp Wayne," and on the few times we were actually allowed off our campgrounds (for competitions), we'd often stop the vans just outside the Camp Wayne lake, quickly exit the vehicle, scream "Fuck You, Camp Wayne!" at the top of our lungs, and quickly re-enter the van with a giggle while we sped off like it was a drive by.  All weird. 

The camp community/experience existed in a vacuum.  It's because our access to the outside world was severly limited.  We'd get the occasional letters (that were inspected for contraband, ya know, like a Snickers bar), we were allowed ONE FIVE MINUTE phone call to our parents per week (and I believe that was collect) and though we received world/sports news in snippets, it never dominated the collective camp conversation because there was just not enough of it...and we didn't care.  In fact, I often wondered how long it would take us to realize that a nuclear attack occurred and decimated the surrounding areas. That's how isolated we were, both by force and persuaded choice.  Because of this, we only cared about camp news.  Who was dating who, who got in trouble for what, what sports teams would we have the chance of making, and so on and so forth.  The camper heirarchy became important and most campers wanted to elevate their status with in it, we all wanted to find some kind of love that seemed incredibly real at the time, and enhance our experience to the best of our ability, even though it would all be a memory in a short time as we'd slip back into our normal lives.  But, make no mistake, these emotions and moments were very real.  Kids would often cry during color war (color war is a 5-day camp competiton where the entire camp was split into two teams to compete over...EVERYTHING!  Even EATING. Worthy of a post on its own), crushes were, well, crushing, and performance on the sports field was often connected to your self worth as the heirarchy, at least in my camp, was tied more to athletic prowess and confidence than it was looks (for males, anyway...then again, we were probably all awkward looking Jewish boys then).

On the last day of camp, they'd usher us down to the lake and provide us with floating candles to place into the water, symbolic of...well I'm not sure, perhaps it just looked peaceful against the dark sky.  But even though the previous 8 weeks had been all encompassing, often super emotional, physically and mentally trying, the second you left and seperated from your camp friends and back into your regular life, the importance and significance of camp vanished. I mean, within seconds.  I can't recall ever hanging out with a camp friend during the winter even though some lived close, or even giving them much of a thought.  But when the next summer rolled around and it was time to go back, we all seamlessly slipped back into our camp lives and, generally, picked up where we left off as if the 10 months in between were tantamount to fleeting seconds. 

The funny thing about camp is that, in retrospect, it was an amazing time, but while I was there, I'd say I was miserable for 75 percent of it.  But, as nostalgia and memories often go, we glorify the good parts, sweep away the bad, and polish up the experience and compartmentalize it as a seminal part of growing up.  So, if I ever have kids, I'd be inclined to send them there, too, so they can have a similar experience, even if I find it odd today (and I can't even imagine how the cell phone/internet has changed the camping lifestyle).

Or, maybe, I'd just want a quiet summer away from these hypothetical children. 

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