THERE were two things to look forward to when I went to summer camp: “tuck” and mail. They were even linked. Every morning around 11, you went to the tuck shop to buy candy, and that’s when you picked up your mail. After that, as far as I was concerned, Camp Otterdale’s bedtime plastic bugle version of “Taps” couldn’t be played soon enough.
If you expected I’d say I looked forward to something like “the elegiac cry of the loon” or “waking to birdsong” or “cool dips in rain-soft lakes,” you are probably one of those crazy farts for whom camp was the time of your life.
Some of us call you besotted grown-ups “Guppy,” for that was likely your summer camp name. We recognize you by the Gilligan-style cotton bucket hats you still wear, and the Izod Lacoste shirts you favour, and the canoes you continue to take pride in paddling, despite the fact that you are now adults and should obviously have graduated to yachts.
No matter. Stand proud. You do have your intermediate canoeing badge, and doubtless that, as Robert Frost might say, has made all the difference.
Our parents certainly meant well when they sent us to camp – or so they claim at this point. We adults now know that what they were really excited about was staying up late at home without us around to plague them. They wanted to smoke and drink and carry on, maybe even sneak in a little hanky panky without having to triple-lock the bedroom door.
Count on it, bucko, for every homesick tear you shed onto your moldy flannelette pillow case, mum and dad were merrily clinking their cocktail glasses and bellowing, “To two fabulous child-free weeks!” (That’s if there was a dad back home. If not, mum stocked up on ice, rye, and leopard print lingerie, and left a suggestive stiletto on the front stoop.)
While Ma and Pa were revisiting some enchanting past incarnation of themselves, we campers were learning the crucial life skill of hebertism. Perhaps it’s called something else now. At the camp I attended, at the time I attended it, hebertism involved navigating a playground made of trees, ropes and chains that formed a huge, intimidating obstacle course – I have no idea why. Presumably these days, soldiers posted to Afghanistan have to conquer hebertism first, under the eagle eye of Sergeant “Guppy” McAllister. Otherwise, there appears to have been little use for it in real life.
But maybe hebertism is no longer. For apparently camps, like everything else, ain’t what they used to be.
Once upon a time, spending a few weeks at camp was the equivalent of being sent to a finishing school for unusually limber lumberjacks. Rather than sanding down our rough juvenile edges, camp was intended to give us soft city slickers some down-home country rasp while furnishing us with an assortment of esoteric new interests.
How else to explain teaching us archery? Most adults wouldn’t think it wise to add weapons to the Lord of the Flies-style anarchy that erupts in groups of kids enjoying minimal supervision in the wild. So why urge a 10-year-old to take up the bow and arrow – in 1968? It’s not like we hoped to go home and shoot our families a moose.
I guess we were meant to head for the city with a lot of fresh skills hoisted under the belts of our grimy shorts. That these skills were utterly useless seems to have been of little concern.
Nowadays, camps appear to have departed from the trampolining woodsman theme and instead target an existing interest, or force children into enthusiasms their parents have deemed worthwhile. Consult Google and you’ll find listings for Shakespeare camps and make-a-movie camps, cooking camps and mountain biking camps. There are spy/secret agent camps, hunting camps, and alpine skiing camps. There are camps that specialize in ATV/motocross; cheerleading; chess; circus; horsey pursuits; fencing; paintball; stunts; magic; and robotics.
Not to mention fashion modeling camp. Oh, the food – what there is of it.
There are even family camps, where the entire brood turns itself over to wholesome counselors in charge of fun and games. This must be for families with parents who adored their own summer experience so much they’re dying to repeat it; families with children so shy their parents can’t bear for them to go away alone; or families pathologically addicted to warbling such 100-year-old hits as “The Quartermaster’s Store.”
Along with early morning swimming lessons in ice-cold lakes, interminable instructions on how to park a canoe, and astonishingly bad food, earnest folk singalongs were one of the most excruciating aspects of camp. Some rosy-cheeked leader with elementary guitar skills and a big, daffy smile; a damp, smoky, sputtering fire; vast squadrons of ravenous mosquitoes; and a songbook whose raciest image was a bicycle built for two – that’s what campfire music used to be about.
Surely no longer. I wonder about the singalongs at fashion modeling camp. Are there endless rounds of “I’m too sexy for Milan/too sexy for Milan, New York and Japan”? Are the singalongs at spy/secret agent camp silent? At hunting camp, does anybody ever fell and skin the guitar-player? Ah, that’s a pity.
Camp romances were once another major feature, with kids speculating on which counselors were dating each other or preying on the foxiest campers, and segregated young teens forever stealing away to the opposite sex’s cabins.
These days, compounding that “problem,” there can’t be enough lakeside locations for all the disparate camps’ residents to stay well clear of each other. So, adolescents being what they are, no doubt the cheerleaders paddle surreptitiously over to the chess camp and try to capture its kings.
Meanwhile, the robotics dudes must hop (stiff-legged) into rowboats, short-circuiting for maidens at the Shakespeare camp across the water. I can hear it now, some comely lass whispering into the reeds, “Robe-e-o, Robe-o, wherefore art thou Robe-e-o?” And then, the responding nasal snicker.
I’m not much for nostalgia, no matter what the season. A gawky bookworm, I always saw camp as an equally regimented version of school, with the unwelcome addition of incessant physical activity and forced good cheer. For those well-adjusted young’uns who thrive in active groups, however, it probably remains sweet freedom.
I just hope, for everybody’s sake, there’s still tuck.