The Zen of Summer Camp

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As we Americans work our way through Summer in this great land, a time marked by metric tons of bratwurst, watermelon, beer, and tepid potato salad, our children are facing a terror that most of us adults have blissfully forgotten. This is because we have spent years trying to methodically stamp out all memory of it.

I am, of course, talking about Summer Camp. In case you grew up on one of the moons of Jupiter, Summer Camp is a place your parents send you when they figure it's about time for you to learn how to braid plastic lanyards and cry yourself to sleep. 

The way Camp worked when I was a kid is that your parents would pack you a duffle bag with twelve t-shirts, three towels, and all the other stuff they found on the list printed in the Camp Watchadointomee brochure, each item bearing your name neatly printed in your Mom's handwriting with a Sharpie. Then they would stuff you in the back seat of the car next to your younger brother, whose number hasn't come up yet, and drive you off to meet your doom.

During the Death Drive your father says, "Cheer up. When I was a kid I met some of my best friends at Camp."

"Like who?" you ask.

"We'll, nobody I can think of right offhand. Wait, there was that one guy... no, I met him on the chain gang down in Georgia. Killed thirteen nuns. Good singer though..."

"Dad, is Mickey gonna die?" asks your brother.

"As long as he steers clear of bears, probably not."

"Wait, what? Bears?!?"

"Relax," your father says, "They haven't spotted a bear up there in weeks."

"You're gonna be bear poop... OW!" your brother sings, rubbing the shoulder where you just slugged him.

And so your big adventure begins. You have many survival skills to learn, like how to cultivate black mold on a damp towel under your pillow, or how many mosquito bites can fit into a square inch of the flesh of a fourth grader. You learn that when the team names for Capture the Flag are “Nerds” and “Turds,” it is better to be a “Nerd.” You learn that it is always best to choose the top bunk if there is any chance your bunkmate is a bed-wetter. 

My most vivid memory of summer camp is of my sadistic cabin counselor, who had a record player and one 45 RPM record. It was the Joe Dowell interpretation of the song, "Wooden Heart,” which was even more excruciatingly awful than the Elvis version. He played this record constantly, repeatedly, day and night.  To this day I sometimes wake up with that stupid accordion melody running through my head, screaming the German refrain from that song:

Muss i denn, muss i denn
Zum stadtele hinaus
Stadtele hinaus
Und du, mein schat, bleibst hier?

It seems to me that modern summer camps are a lot more sophisticated than they were when I was a kid. For one thing, many of them are specialized. When my son was growing up, we sent him to hockey camp, where educationally enriching experiences like the ones I had, of sitting in poison oak, or of being bitten by a mule, were replaced by more relevant and useful ones, like taking crushing body checks and slap shots to the groin.

I was recently talking to a friend who is a few years younger than my son, and she said that when she was growing up she was a Camp junkie, going to a different theme camp every summer. She went to Knitting Camp, and Band Camp, and for all I know, Decoupage Camp. It's kind of fun for me to imagine her spending an entire week lacquering magazine pictures of The Backstreet Boys onto a pine board, and I suppose she eventually got really good at it. And my friend does not seem to have been permanently damaged by all that camp - other than the fact that she is now a professional musician.

The bottom line here is that if you are hungry for some one-on-one beach time with your spouse, and your kids are ready for some permanent emotional scarring, then it's time to look for a good Summer Camp. I suppose that in just a few years my granddaughter will be heading off to spend a week at Pinterest Camp, where she will learn to repurpose fashion photographs and pass on useful household tips.

And day and night, for a solid week, her cabin counselor will play, through a Bluetooth speaker, a vintage mp3 of "Wooden Heart." 

Muss i denn!