I had my first summer camp experience when I was eight. It was the summer after second grade, and I would be spending two weeks attending day camp at a lovely day camp my mother knew about, a camp I will not name at this point in time. Somehow, it was decided that I, a supremely awkward and shy young lad who would rather be a cheerleader in the dugout than every do anything on the T-ball field, would enjoy being outdoors with a bunch of kids I didn’t know all day for two weeks.
I would slog every morning to the bus stop down the street from my house. I would always sit in the very front seat of the bus, scoot up against the window and pray no other kid would sit next to me. The bus seats were all brown, instead of the green I was used to, so everything was always cast in a vaguely rusty light when the sun would shine in through the windows. I would pull my backpack up against me and read the latest Baby-Sitter’s Club book, or reread a passage from my favorite book at the time: “How To Be A Successful Writer.”
(I was a weird kid.)
The bus ride was a jaunty ride through the suburbs, about forty-five minutes in length. And so for that part of the day, I felt safe and happy as could be, because reading was my favorite thing in the whole world. I projected myself into the world of the BSC and made friends with the characters in my head, and basically have a grand old time in my imagination until we actually rolled up to – ugh ugh ugh – camp.
I feel in the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I am sure that objectively, this camp was quite lovely, and 99% of the campers were happy and delighted to be there. It was situated on a lakefront, with docks encircling a swimming area, and canoes and paddleboats for those campers adventurous enough to venture out of them. The lake was framed by hills speckled with trees and honest to goodness log cabins that were more or less the home bases for campers. Winding stairs and paths of dirt cut up and down the hills. At the base of the hills are tennis courts and basketball courts, and a rec room of sorts for when it rains. It sounds picturesque, right? The perfect image of summer bliss.
Except to my eight year old eyes, it was hell on earth.
First of all, we were expected to just change out of our bathing suits in front of each other. Look, I don’t know if my sense of modesty developed early or if it was just my inner gayness bubbling over and making me shy, but the idea of just changing in front of someone else, let alone twelve other boys my age, was preposterous. I CAN’T BE NAKED IN FRONT OF STRANGERS, I would think. Also, the log cabins didn’t have like, beds or anything, so it just felt like a stiflingly hot wooden cave in which I was supposed to bare my entire body and soul to a bunch of strangers.
Also, I had no friends at this camp. The counselors, I am sure, were meant to encourage the kids to socialize, but for some inexplicable reason, they decided it was fine that I staunchly rejected the concept of “socialization” and instead chose to be a weird creepy hermit and sit by myself at lunchtime, a fair distance from the rest of the group, and keep reading rather than talk to anyone. We had tennis every morning, but they didn’t actually teach us tennis; they just put rackets in our hands and expected us to know what we were doing. I sat out every day. When we went to play basketball, we had to split up into shirts and skins, and god forbid I ever be on the skin team, oh god, no, anything but that. Somehow, I was awarded Camper of the Week for one of the two weeks I was there. I’m not entirely sure how, because I don’t think I actually spoke to anyone the entire time**
**I only know that this is true because I recently found the certificate I was awarded. I have no memory of this happening – it’s possible I have blocked out all positive memories of those two weeks, so take all of this with a grain of salt.
Swimming lessons would have been a solace, because I absolutely loved the water, but the thing about this particular camp was that the water in the lake was tinged a very deep coppery-rusty color. So my imagination ran away with itself, and I thought all sorts of things about the water in the lake – it was full of blood, there were dead people in it, it was actually puked back up from the sewers and they were hiding it from us, it would give you diseases, who the hell knows. Every time I jumped in the water, I was convinced I would emerge some kind of mutant creature wiggling my tentacles about with abandon:
To pass the time, I started to run scenarios in my head, coloring my days at camp with daydreams and fictional encounters: surviving the water, running through the hills, and, of course, being struck with chronic diseases.
You have to remember, I was super into the Baby-sitters Club at the time, and as you may or may not recall, one of the eponymous babysitters, Stacey, had diabetes. And her discovery of this fact happened because she wet the bed one time. I, of course, started to imagine what it would be like if I “got diabetes” at camp. How would the discovery happen? Would I just spontaneously lose control of my bladder while not playing tennis? It would almost certainly happen because of that godforsaken sludge passing for lake water they made us swim in. Somehow it would affect my pancreas and I would become a diabetic. I may have had very little comprehension of how the disease actually worked.
I imagined the camp nurse sending home a note to my mom - and I remember the text of the note I dreamed up super vividly:
Dear Mrs. Dudley,
I think Brian has diabetes. You should check it out to make sure. He is a great camper otherwise.
I had a daydream of myself opening this note on the bus ride home and looking forlornly out the bus window as we rolled along down the street.
“He is a great camper otherwise”??? Clearly, the BSC made me think diabetes was some debilitating disease that would make you an awful camper. Sorry, Eliza. I never articulated these fantasies out loud, of course, especially because I think they were mixed in with my fantasies of becoming Sailor Moon, and I would never speak those aloud to anyone, not then, not ever. I would have been a diabetic Sailor Something, I guess. Half the time my camp fantasies involved me saving the camp from a monster that had figured into that morning’s episode of Sailor Moon.
(I was a weird kid.)
For the “finale” of the two weeks, we did some kind of presentation where we wore printouts of the characters from Mortal Kombat on our shirts and did faux martial arts moves. I was super confused by how our group made this decision and why we were doing it because I did not play Mortal Kombat. I played friggin’ Mario Kart and Tetris! WHO WAS THIS GREEN CREATURE ON MY SHIRT AND WHY DID THEY INSIST ON MAKING ME PRETEND TO PUNCH THINGS, DID THEY NOT KNOW I WAS A PACIFIST?????
I do not remember how that presentation went. You will have to ask my mother.
So in conclusion, summer 1996:
The following year, my mother asked me if I wanted to go back to camp. My beleaguered response?
“Mom, I’ve had enough camp to last me a lifetime.”