I know I am not the only person who ever went to camp for the whole summer. I know this, because there were 150 other girls with me at summer camp and there was the boys camp across the lake. I know this also because Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol made a movie about summer camp. That makes it socially significant.
My own kids weren’t interested in summer camp. That is to say, they were interested in hindsight, but since they hadn’t gone when they were younger it was somehow my fault that they were too old to go when I found one and offered them the option.
How naive I was! I thought summer camp was for the kids. I thought summer camp was a time to escape one’s parents, go play in the mountains, water ski on the lake, ride horses, and make leather crafts at the art hut. For me, camp was about seeing my good friends, watching a sunset and writing poetry while perched on Big Rock. I looked forward to participating in the play, to the camp outs, and walking to the general store for the locally made chocolate chip cookies.
Summer camp is where I learned how to play tennis. I didn’t know at the time how one would learn such a skill living in the city. I certainly didn’t know where to ride horses in the city, much less get to feed them and groom them and pick out their hooves. The horses taught me fearlessness. They gave 12 year old me confidence that I never really got on a tennis court or on a sailfish. I weighed 90 pounds, but I could command a beast well over 1,200 pounds. I could communicate to this animal where I wanted her to go, and listen to her so that I could anticipate her next move.
Summer camp was bug juice and salt tablets, color wars, campfires, and catching mice.
Catching mice is a skill that has served me well. I caught one in a box just last week that had sought shelter from the pounding rains in my home. It made it’s way under the suitcase I had not yet unpacked, and the cat alerted me to its presence. I was immediately transported back to camp, the summer our cabin had a mouse infestation, the summer I was a 14 year old girl faced with wild life. I remember catching a mouse in an empty toilet paper roll and carrying it way across campus to release it into the woods behind Arts and Crafts.
Perspective tells me that probably wasn’t even half a city block, but back then it seemed like miles away from our cabin. I was sure it would never find it’s way back.
So the other day when my husband scrambled for a mouse trap, I asked for a box and a towel.
I’ve had pet rats as an adult. They are awesome pocket pets. Smart and clean and social. By comparison, this mouse was the tiniest little thing ever. Small and grey and terrified out of it’s little mouse brain. I cornered it between some packing boxes, and with the towel I shooshed it into a plastic shoe box.
“Why do you care that it stays alive?” asked the hubby
“I don’t. I care that I know that I caught it and got it out of the house. It could take days for it to find the trap and it might have babies behind the bookcase by then. I want to know it’s every move.”
I took my mouse in a box out the back door, to the farthest corner of the fence, and tossed it unceremoniously onto the grass in the pasture under the pouring rain. It looked back at me, unsure whether it should be grateful for freedom or flip me off for putting it back where it started.
I realize now, that summer camp wasn’t for us. Well, not all of us. I’m sure some parents in the 1960’s and 1970’s believed a wilderness camp experience for their city kids would build character or skills or something. However, I think I stumbled on the real purpose of summer camp this year when planning a vacation.
We took our son on a cruise this year. He moped and grumbled and frowned in high teenager style almost the entirety of the trip. So I wondered what I had been like on vacations, grateful or grumpy, when I realized, I hadn’t been on summer vacation with my Mother. In fact, I have no idea what she was doing while I was gone. She certainly wasn’t answering letters from camp, responding with pages describing the loneliness of the apartment in my absence.
Our cruise this year was filled with screaming children, running every which way, oblivious to the fact that 40 years ago they would have been packed off to camp so that their parents could enjoy a Mediterranean cruise on their own, child and responsibility free.
Summer camp was a three month long babysitter for some parents. How had I missed this?
I have no idea what my Mother did while I was stamping leather and camping out in the Adirondacks. Throwing wild parties? Renting a house on the beach? Redecorating? Who knows?
Would I trade those summers by the lake?
Not in a million years. How else would a city girl learn how to catch a mouse in a box?