Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How I survived summer camp

I grew up on a rural road, one with more forest than houses, more cows than cars. Back in the 1970's, we were considered too remote to merit a house number; our mail came to a rural route address.

We were also fortunate to live very close to the kid friendly beaches of Narragansett Bay, and not far from the Atlantic Ocean beaches of South County.

My parents, surrounded by all this nature, didn't believe in camp.

Or perhaps more accurately, they didn't see a need for it, at least when we were little. They certainly didn't go crazy, researching various camp options.

I got sent away one summer, when I was ten or maybe eleven, to a lovely, rustic place called Alton Jones, which was located in an even more rural corner of the state. I suspect two factors played into its selection: My mom knew how to drive there, and someone she knew had sent their kids and they had survived.

Alton Jones offered swimming, canoeing, candle making, cow hugging and long walking expeditions in the woods. Their campus featured an impressive lodge-slash-dining hall where they must have offered some kind of musical entertainment in the folk tradition. The details are hazy.

What I remember most: homesickness, mosquitoes and poison ivy. The bunks smelled funky, and one perky red-headed girl got festering mouth sores from not washing her retainer.

Maybe my parents got their money's worth, because I learned three things about my ten-year-old self.

First, I learned I wasn't the type to fall head over heels in love with some eleven-year-old boy in the dining hall and spend the week alternately cooing about him and tormenting him, and I didn't have a lot of use for girls who did.

When the girls weren't chasing the boys, they liked to engage in childish playground games which primarily involved jockeying for rank based on upper body strength.

I couldn't do a handspring.

Back in 1984, this physical shortcoming constituted the playground equivalent of leprosy.

Thankfully, while I was a late bloomer, I wasn't a total moron. I had the brains to keep my headgear—which the orthodontist wanted worn every night for twelve hours—in the bottom of my suitcase for the duration of the camp week.

So because my bunkmates' hormones and biceps were in overdrive and I was still pretty much an underdeveloped little kid, and a horse obsessed one at that—and this was so NOT a horse camp—I didn't make any lasting friends.

Nor did I smoke copious amounts of pot or change the course of my life in the manner of the gang from Meg Wolitzer's bestselling novel The Interestings.

I always feel a twinge of regret when I hear about someone's (real or imagined) LIFE CHANGING, WONDERFUL, AMAZING sleep away camp experience. I know outwardly normal adult people who say meh to their high school and college reunions, but would never miss a camp reunion.

But in fairness, the kids reporting such camp based life transformations, whether at real cocktail parties or in fiction, tend to have been at least pubescent when sent to camp. I was a tween, and a naive one at that.

Second, I learned that I prefer my outdoors with some basic creature comforts. I love spending the day out in nature, but I also like hot water.

And screens. Window screens would have greatly improved my camp experience. I still have small scars on my legs and feet from the bug bites I suffered thirty years ago.

Third, I learned that most of my fellow campers spent a few years going to day camps that offered similar, outdoorsy activities in a coeducational setting before their parents loaded them into the Plymouth station wagon and abandoned them—with headgear no less—in the wilderness of  Rhode Island. Some of the kids were old pros. They showed up with arsenals of mosquito repellent, as well as sleeping bags designed for placement on surfaces other than wall to wall carpet.

Those five days felt like a month, and represented the beginning and end of my camping career. I harbor absolutely no bad feelings toward my parents as a result of my ordeal. I think, with the benefit of thirty years' hindsight, that it built character.

You'd think the great Alton Jones bust would be enough to put the kibosh on the Grape's future as a camper. But did I mention I just read devoured The Interestings?

So I'm starting him early. He goes to a day camp for the under five set, a few days a week. They go on amazing adventures all over the city and he loves it, though he's always happy to come home after lunch.

Check out the pure joy:


  1. The cost of summer camp here on the left coast always gives me pause but I can't put a price on the fun my now 6 yr old son has. I'm not sure how many summers we'll continue filling his days with camp and then we'll have Baby G going, too, but I hope they both have fond memories of their summers filled with swimming, and hiking, and baking, and crafts, and archery, and climbing, and tie-dying.

    1. So expensive here in Boston too, but I love seeing my kid SO HAPPY. He loves the adventures with other kids. Obviously as he gets older, and camps become more involved and more expensive, we will need to make some choices.

  2. I sent my three daughters (now grown up with families of their own) to day and overnight camps growing up. Mostly they loved the experiences and made friends they have to this day. Skills like archery and canoeing may not come in handy every day but learning and mastering do build confidence to try new things. Campfire songs are remembered and lovingly sung at the cottage every year. I think camp is a worthwhile activity to put in the budget.

    1. I agree: a GREAT experience for most kids. I was just awkward and probably at the wrong camp at the wrong time for me. No permanent damage, though :)