Worldview: The Summer Camp Issue

by flaunt

I’m what you would call a dyed-in-the-wool-camper. Not the “go into the woods with your family or friends and pitch a tent and build a campfire kind of camper,” but the “go away to summer camp for two months (in my case in the Poconos in Pennsylvania) and play sports and live in a bunk with a bunch of other kids your age” kind of camper.

My son is about to be six, and I was just telling him that when I was his age, I was shipped off to live away from my mom and dad for eight weeks. To him it sounded like a horrible punishment. And I must admit, as a parent, I can’t imagine sending my child away at such a tender age for that long. But I was raised in the '70s, by Jewish parents who lived in New York, and one of the things that almost all of them did back then was send their children away as early as they could, to be someone else’s problem for the summer.

I remember occasionally questioning my mom and dad on this. They’d always say that it was for my own good that they sent me away—that the city was hot and boring, and all that was on TV was reruns, and that I’d be much happier frolicking about in nature with a bunch of other young castoffs. I have to admit that they were right. But not solely for the reasons they gave me. I loved sports, which at home mostly meant watching the Knicks, Mets, Jets and Rangers on TV, but at camp it meant actually participating in these activities. All day and every day.

I still have fantasies of pitching for the Mets or starting for the Knicks, but at age 51, I probably have to admit that it’s extremely unlikely (but not out of the question). When I imagine playing ball professionally, I think that it must feel like going to camp all year round—that I would permanently and as an adult, walk around with the feeling I had every July and August as a six through 15 year old.

Yes, I went to camp for 10 years. What I didn’t realize then, was that apart from enjoying myself and improving at sports, I was experiencing for the first time in my life what it’s like to just be me. Not an extension of my mother and father, not a younger brother, not even a student in a classroom. I became known at camp for who I was and what I did and what I said. Not for any preconceived notion of who I was supposed to be or where I came from. When I contemplate the better parts of my personality—my ability to be a happy worker among workers, my awareness and acceptance that some people are a lot better at certain things than I, and some people are a lot worse, and they both deserve kindness and respect, my ability to be a “good camper”—meaning to make the best of a difficult situation at work or at play, I realize that the earliest memories I have of displaying such traits happened on the ball fields and sport courts and mess halls of camp.

Camp is also the first place I got to test the limits of pushing back against the rules. Somehow getting thrown out of camp didn’t seem quite as ominous as getting thrown out of school. Not that I ever got thrown out of either, but I came closest at camp.  That was all a rather verbose way of saying that when I was around 12 years old, I started going on panty raids at night. There was no doting mother or judgmental father to observe and comment upon my interest in girls. I was free to look and talk and act (if I could get the nerve up) as I saw fit.

So there I was, in the middle of the night, out in the middle of the camp golf course, on a blanket with Ellen Huberman, trying to screw up the courage to get my first kiss. We talked about I don’t know what until the sun started to come up, my quiet panic slowly growing as I realized I could not face my bunk mates (or my counselors for that matter) without being able to report that I had at least achieved some lip touching. I walked her back to her bunk in the half light, more frightened of my peers’ derision than getting caught by the head counselor, and somehow managed to thrust my face forward into Ellen’s. I went in a little too hard though (not yet being too good at gauging the proper velocity for this kind of thing—something I’m still working on) and I cut poor Ellen’s lip with my braces! At lineup around the flagpole later that morning, Ellen’s fat lip was obvious. Thus I was the target of derision anyway. But it was ok. I’d rather get crap for that then not having the cajones to try it at all.

Little epilogue to this story—I’ve carried around embarrassment over this lip cutting incident for about the last forty years. I recently ran into Ellen and apologized to her about it, and told her how glad I was that I could get that off my chest after so many years.

She had absolutely no recollection of the entire event, which kicked off a new shame spiral that I’ll be dealing with for the next 40 years.

Written by Hank Azaria