A tale of two camps

The summer camp that my parents sent me to was a well-respected and venerable institution in the north woods of Wisconsin.

The summer camp I went to, at least in my mind, was something more akin to a Nazi concentration camp.

As a grown-up I might like to spend some time amongst the pines, “roughing it,” swimming in the lake, fishing, engaging in manly sport and jocular good cheer with fellows.

As an eight-year-old child, I was put on a transport vehicle, slept on one-inch thick mattresses and had forced work details for insubordination:  “green buckets” that had to be filled with either pine needles, pine cones, or (hardest to come by in the immaculate woods) trash.

As a grown-up I can see how this very camp helped shape David Mamet’s love of guns and cabins in the woods (he went there and I’m sure he loved it; in my mind he might have been a capo, collaborating with the authorities as some sort of “counselor in training”).

As a child I could hardly conceive of how long eight weeks really was, struggling to even count off the agonizing march of endless days.

As a grown-up what I wouldn’t do for two whole months of repose—Walden Pond, Thich Nhat Hahn, Om Namaste.

As a kid I tried literally to escape, but was caught on the one long dirt trail out to the two lane highway where I planned to hitch a ride with locals who no-doubt insisted that “they did not know” where those greyhound busses with all those children actually went.

The director severely reprimanded me and confined me to my cabin, he refused my rights to call the outside world and say what was happening.  I had seen kids literally spanked with canoe paddles while holding their ankles.  For some reason I wasn’t beaten, but I sense they wanted to keep me alive for some reason.  Maybe it was my small fingers put to use at “arts and crafts,” who knows what we were actually making.

As a kid I nearly drowned at this camp, trapped beneath a dock.  It left me traumatized, clear that one could die in such a place.  This, I later learned, merited a carefully worded letter to my parents, to the outside world—a cover your ass move if I ever saw one—like “visiting day” when everything was made lovely, and then we had two hours after the parents left to consume all our treats or turn them in.

As a kid I stood in line on a fly-buzzing morning before a concrete shed where “haircuts” meant that three-fingered-Louie sheared you with clippers.

As a kid we were given steak one time in eight weeks at an outdoor cookout.  Mine fell off my paper plate, my eight-year-old hands trying to pick the dirt and grit back out of the cheap cut of meat.  When I asked for another instead, I was turned away.  I can still remember the texture of grit mixed with beef between my teeth.

My favorite momentary escape from this halcyon hell was movie night in the mess hall.  Waiting in line to see part II of Exodus a boy cut the line in front of me and kept bumping into me.  I lost it and wrestled him to the ground, for which I was sent alone to my cabin for the night, never getting to see the end of Exodus much less being able to make my own exodus.

I was liberated from the camp, returning home to mournful flags of those on my street who had lost kids in Viet Nam.  I remained gripped by deep dread and depression for an entire year.  I begged never to be sent back, but I was.

Maybe if there had been a camp for Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce I too would have loved it and begged to be sent back.  As a so-called grown-up I am old enough now to understand my differences from the group.  At camp I never had a nickname, unlike all the other kids, and I wanted one so badly.

I realize that as a child I resented my parents for sending me to camp, but they did not send me to the camp I went to.  My parents did not live in the world I live in.  And while few people do live in the world I live in, I love when others drop into my world for a chat.  And when I meet a true Anam Cara along the way, I am blessed many times over.  There were many Anam Cara up in those north woods, only I was too young to see them back then—they were, or rather are, the Native American spirits still roaming the land:  The Chippewa, the Sioux and others.

And in my yard in Studio City I sense the Chumash, coming with the rains, gathering what they need and leaving the land as they found it (unlike us, not yet evolved souls).

Maybe “my camp” was a past life tracing.  Maybe it was a genetic memory of the Shadow of the human experience.  Maybe it was a zeitgeist of Viet Nam infusing my nascent psyche.

Maybe camp was a perfect part of my initiatory journey through fear, pain, alienation, inadequacy, loneliness and feelings of being strange and unlikable.  Like so many things, camp is something that I could not imagine being who I am without that experience, even if I hated it as it occurred.

At camp there was a cave of roots by a far and un-visited cliff over the lake.  I would go and sit in the cave of roots and stare out over the water, feeling connected with the light and the insects and the spirits that I could not name.  There I was happy.

As parents we do the very best we can for our kids.  I accept my path and my parents’ parenting of me, without saying that it was all fun and games.  In this virtual, perhaps sacred, space of our blogging, where I meet more Anam Cara than I can shake a shamanic stick at, I am happy to be both alive and oddly dead in some sense, or ethereal, torn between the veils of worlds, but at least free to speak my heart-mind.

As a grown-up I never pushed my own kids to the camp I went to, but then again they never got to go to their own camp, not sleep-away camp anyway.  Maybe they’ll one day realize that they were over-protected and need to resent childhood for awhile, and then they will become solid and find that their path too was perfect, not because of Andy and I, not despite Andy and I, but interwoven inextricably with Andy and I—and our one world (past, present and future).

Namaste, Bruce

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12 Responses to “A tale of two camps”

  1. Jen Says:

    Your camp experience is appalling and upsetting. I was a camp nurse at a sleepaway camp in the wilds of New Hampshire almost 20 years ago. It was conceived and overseen by pediatritions with the goal of getting ‘city kids’ out into nature. The counselors were all trained professionals in teaching, health, etc., an off beat camp, most of the kids came back as adults to work there themselves. It was the toughest professional job I have ever had bar none but I loved it-I can tell you the kids were loved and thrived. They received love and attention that they often didn’t receive at home and really blossomed. While I would love for my kids now to have that experience, I really can’t imagine ‘sending them away’ for 2 months. An 8 year old sent hundreds of miles away for 2 months?! I find it very interesting now, as an adult, to rehash with my parents experiences we had as a family and see the different viewpoints of the same experience. However, I was ‘lucky’–with my own 2 boys, I can only hope to come close to my parents’ love, wisdom, and parenting, they set the bar high. With your kids, your consciousness is so high, they will be just fine without the camp experience.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I remember seeing the nurse at camp once or twice. She was very kind and would paint some sort of yellow iodine on my cuts, but the moment of kindness was worth the wound that got you there. And here you are giving kindness in another medium 🙂

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I never had the traditional (or even nontraditional, as I hope yours was) summer-long camp experience, but each summer I was shipped off to a week of sleep-away basketball camp from which I would call my parents, begging for reprieve, as though my call to them was the one call afforded to criminals before being locked up for good. I railed against my parents for making me go and making me stay. So I appreciate your perspective here. I suppose they were doing the best they knew how to. And maybe someday I’ll think it important to pack up a skinny 12 year old and send him off to work on his jump shot for a week – or whatever the equivalent will be with me in the role of my parents and my sons in the role of me.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Yes, as parents we do our best, but it’s painful to be that kid who, for whatever reasons, is not “like the other kids” who just love to be doing whatever it is that the “normal” kids are supposed to love doing and feel great about.

      Even though we may have seemed over-dramatic to the grown-ups back then, I know quite what you mean about trying to make that call feeling “like the one afforded to criminals before being locked up for good.”

      It’s good to livin’ free 🙂

  3. Amber Says:

    Camp would have been hell for me. I am terrified of bugs. This fear has turned into a hatred. That and no showers is enough to send me off the edge. I think my parents sensed this in me and never pushed me too hard. I am sincerely grateful for that move.

    In another note, my husband also didn’t go to camps but spent many summers hiking mountains with his grandfather. That has shaped him in so many ways. You can see our relationship conundrum.

    But, have no fear. I sacrifice and he sacrifices (read: RV).

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I think the bugs were one of my favorite things about camp—I got along with them better, and found them more interesting, than my fellow campers.

      Still, I’m glad you didn’t have to go, since the bugs would have been no comfort for you. The RV, on the other hand, sounds like just the ticket for you guys (I always resist that because of the responsibility of driving something as big as a city block).

      Happy trails.

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    What a strange, echoing, eerie journey you have shared with us. Somehow, tunnels within tunnels of a time I remember well.

    I am fortunate in that I was never sent to “summer camp away.” And my sons never asked, and I never offered.

    How different our adult perceptions of “alone” time are. And how different these experiences become for each child.

  5. Sarah @ For the Love of Naps Says:

    Your camp experience sound horrific. I am sorry that you had to endure that.

    Thanks for your comment on my blog – I also blog for the community, the ideas, the friendship….but in the back of my mind I think that rereading the ups and downs and thoughts that I had while in the trenches of raising my two boys at this young age will be so valuable…for myself and my boys when they grow up.

    You are a great writer!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      It’s such an interesting challenge to treasure memory, be present to now, connect with everyone, find the right balance between all our passions, not to mention obligations. In some ways I hope this space will help us do all that, not so much individually, as it all seems like too much, but as a group, which seems capable of true multi-tasking.

      Nice to be connected with you, here, now.

  6. Rachel @ MWF Seeking BFF Says:

    I must say this post made me incredibly sad. I went to summer camp in Maine for 9 summer and absolutely loved it… I am horrified at the experience you had and would hope most readers will know it’s not the norm. (It’s not, right??) But it did make me think about my own kids in relation to my love of summer camp. I went to an all girls camp and often day dream about having my own daughters I can send there one day… and I wonder, will I be sending them somewhere completely different than the place I went. And if so, will I be able to see that? I will most definitely keep that in mind when I head back to Maine this summer for our 100 year reunion…

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Wow, I had NO idea you were a hundred… JK. No, my story is not the norm at all, the other normal kids really did love that camp (and we were subsequently sent to another camp that was better for me, although I was done with the whole thing by eleven). Ironically, my brother’s oldest child ends up going to the very place we both spent many a therapy session getting over… he’s blessed to have a fun-loving normal kid.

      Still, it’s good to really listen to the kids we do have, as they often are not so much like ourselves as we might imagine. Or maybe Maine’s just better than Wisconsin for non-traumatic woodsy fun 🙂

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