The Rite of Summer Passage: Camp

Written By: Heather  Cohen

At the tender age of four years old my parents lured me into my first summer day camp experience. It was located on the East End of Long Island with sprawling green lawns, mini golf courses, tennis courts, go-karts, trampolines that even a circus crew would be impressed by, along with several Olympic sized pools with spiral slides. Basically it resembled an exclusive country club for kids made for parents who yearned for their peace and serenity. The price tag did not come cheap. Looking back I only have fond memories of my first summer camp happily splashing in the water, chowing down on franks, attending private tennis lessons, lapping up ice pops so fast I got brain freeze, bouncing on the trampolines, and having one of my friends race me around in a go-kart with the backdrop of pristine ocean views. My mind went wild imagining I was a racecar driver rounding the last leg of the Indy racetrack. I should have realized that my carefree, glorious camp days were only destined to head downhill.

After my parents gave my sisters and me the taste of the good life they decided they would save some money by sending us to a cheaper, affordable day camp. We begged our parents to go back to the luxurious digs we were accustomed to but they poured the guilt trip on us stating that the mortgage payment would not be paid if we got our way (they were pulling on our heartstrings even though there was no way that the camp cost that much money). I suggested a pool, anything that would not send my sisters and me to a foreign land.

“You kids are not going to use the pool. It would be such a waste. You’ll end up holed up in the basement watching TV all day,” was my Mom’s response.

So for the next few years we were headed off to a rural, non-profit campsite in Huntington. Where the pools looked dirty and neglected, trampolines were replaced with nature grueling military-like hikes in brutal conditions. Instead of having the luxury of my Mom driving us to our beloved camp out East gazing at the summer traffic snake past farm stands my sisters and I had to shuttle around in a smelly non air-conditioned school bus (which turned even smeller because the rowdy boys in the back of the bus thought it was hilarious if they closed all the windows and sprayed fart spray).

When I thought my summer day camp experience could not get any worse my parents threw my sisters and me a curve ball, sleepaway camp. A six-week stay upstate New York. At first my sisters and I were psyched. The sound of no parental supervision, meeting new friends and venturing outside of Long Island sounded ideal. That was until my folks packed our army duffle bags that weighed so much that it felt like we were lugging around dead bodies around Grand Central Station. My mom did not bat an eyelash when I showed her the neck burn I acquired from carrying the hefty load.

Doubt and fear started to set in. Where were they shipping me out to? We didn’t even see this place. Since when do my parents trust pictures from a brochure? Before I could hop off the Amtrack train terminal the whistle blew announcing its arrival. My folks quickly embraced my sisters and me. They waved goodbye from the platform. We had the look of fear on our faces dare I say my parents had the look of glee on theirs.

“Don’t forget to write,” my mom hollered over the shrieking train.

During the nearly two hour train ride, my sisters and I played card games, ate way too much shoestring licorice and read Teen Bop magazines arguing who was the worthier teen heartthrob. As I was drifting off to sleep the train came to a halt and we were ordered to descend the train with all our belongings.

Our destination was not in sight. We had to climb inside a yellow stuffy school bus for an additional hour before we were dumped on to an isolated field. We were given name tags, assigned to our bunk, introduced to our bunkmates and given the rules of the camp. Lights out at 9 pm (an hour before my usual bedtime), chores were mandatory which included scrubbing toilets, mopping floors and setting the silverware at the dining room tables for over 400 campers.

The first night I was almost eaten alive by mosquitos. Ironically, the bunkhouse was called the kitchen room. The campers were the food that the mosquitos feasted on. Every inch of my body was covered with mounts of itchy bites that my head counselor said not to scratch. When I cried that my skin was on fire, she rushed me to the infirmary where the nurse simply replied,”

“We got us another camper from the kitchen room. Get me the jumbo calamine lotion.”

The food or lack of a better word was served and made by ex-convicts with gold teeth.  Most campers and I were losing weight at a rapid pace due to the awful food choices. Pea soup with slices of leftover hotdogs was a staple. Wednesdays and Fridays were set aside for overcooked fish that stunk up the entire camp. The majority of the campers were skin and bones. I survived on stale bread and butter. My older sister was rushed to the hospital hooked up to an IV because she needed nutrients in her system.

To make matters worse, my parents tried to help feed us to no avail. In letters I complained of the terrible food situation, begging for them to send a care package. I warned them to hide the food stash since I was told that the golden camp rule was no “outside” food was allowed. Our packages were searched with such intensity that I swore we were being watched. Despite my parents’ clever smuggling decoys of stuffing dolls, tissue boxes and socks with Oodles of Noodles, mini containers of Chef Boyardee ravioli, Kit Kat bars and anything we requested the contraband was always discovered. The packages were confiscated and we suffered in hungry silence (too weak to fight).

One boy who took a liking to me was allergic to bees. He had to wear a belt that carried his anti-bee venom on him at all times unless he was a goner. Before dinner was ready, we talked inside a gazebo, a buzzing sound rung in my ears.

“Bee!” I screeched. Luckily his friend came to the rescue and whacked the bee to smithereens. My boy crush was saved. Wow, his parents were crueler than mine, bringing their son to a sleepaway camp where bee hives were set up like condos in West Palm Florida.

Visiting day had finally arrived. My parents were the very last to show up. The nerve of them!

“What took you so long?” I whined.

“McDonald’s doesn’t serve lunch until 11:00 am,” my Dad calmly explained for the delay. The camp’s exception was that only during visiting day “outside” food can be brought onto camp grounds. I lapped up the soggy and cold Big Mac in less than five minutes, as my folks boasted about the parties they held, the white sandy Hamptons beaches they frolicked on and the memorable summer they were enjoying. Glad they were having the time of their lives without me. In the corner of my eye I saw the camper (who had recommended the sleepaway camp to our family) dash past us. She was hysterical crying having a complete meltdown.  She ended up locking herself in her parents’ car demanding they drive her back home. They didn’t budge; they just waited for her to get out of the car and left her there for another three weeks.

One would think after the sleepaway debacle my parents would forgo the idea of ever shipping their kids away again. We ended up attending the same sleepaway camp for an additional two tortuous years. Recently I asked my Mom why she felt the need to send us there.

“You’re Dad and I thought it would be a good experience for you.”

In a way my parents did provide my sisters and I with unforgettable memories. Even though we might not have enjoyed every summer camp moment we still had lots of fun, formed friendships and enjoyed the fresh air instead of catching up on our soap operas. So in retrospect I feel my folks gave their children something they didn’t even know we needed; a summer rite of passage. It’s funny how life comes full circle, now that my son is turning six years old, he will be attending summer day camp for the first time. One could only hope he has a wonderful experience. If he acts up the sleepaway camp is still accepting applicants.