Today’s post comes to us from Steve, who is at the extreme left above, petting the dog.
The pattern of sending kids off to summer camp is much stronger in the East than in the Midwest, but summer camps seem increasingly popular here. Kids from cities like New York or Boston might be shipped out to spend the whole summer in one or more camps. The Midwestern pattern is more likely to let kids live at home, perhaps attending one or more camps in the summer.
Camps used to be very traditional and outdoorsy, much like Boy Scout camps everywhere. Kids would play outdoors, swim, do crafts and have bonfire picnics. Modern summer camps are increasingly educational, perhaps teaching computer skills or a foreign language. My daughter has fond memories of Artward Bound, a camp that encouraged kids to engage with the visual arts. Alas, it no longer exists.
My first camp was Camp Matigwa, a Boy Scout operation. I was at an awkward age, shy and reclusive. They taught me to make a lanyard, which later made the Billy Collins poem all the funnier. We were supposed to swim once a day, but the water was cold and I was delighted to learn I could spend that hour at the camp’s “canteen” eating Baby Ruth bars instead.
I wore shorts on the day we took our first hike. I contacted some stinging nettle, which hurt like liquid fire until one of the counselors found some jewel weed, a plant whose sap canceled the nettle’s poison. The obvious lesson was that we should learn all about plants. I now suspect that our counselors staged the whole thing. They obviously knew where the nettle and the jewel weed grew, so I was the dupe they maneuvered to blunder into the nettles so they could showcase their expertise.
My favorite camp experience came in the summer of 1956 when I spent two delightful weeks riding horses at the Larry-Jo Dude Ranch near Boone, Iowa. We camped out, sang around a bonfire, groomed horses and took two trail rides each day. On my faithful horse, Margarita, I twice won the water relay event at our end-of-camp rodeo.
But the big event from that summer was when we played hide-and-seek on horseback. Pardon me for telling a story I’ve told before. We rode south of the ranch to a patch of woods. I had been assigned to ride Diablo, a large white mare that was the fastest horse in camp. But Diablo was lame that afternoon. When we divided up to go hide ourselves, I was stuck riding the largest, whitest, slowest horse in camp. I dismounted and led Diablo into a little gully where we could hide under some overhanging shrubs.
It was so exciting my heart still races when I remember it. Horses thundered all over the woods, kids screaming and tagging each other. I knew enough about psychology to know that time passes slowly when you are hiding like that, so I kept squelching the impulse to come out. Then the noises stopped. After what seemed an eternity, I ventured out of the gully. The woods were empty. Everyone had gone back to the ranch house, obviously unaware they were one buckaroo short.
As a courtesy to my lame horse, I held Diablo’s reins and walked her for half an hour back to the ranch. When I got to a hill overlooking camp, I saw three cop cars near the corral, their red and blue gumball lights madly spinning. And I understood: the town’s cops had been called in to find me.
The camp’s managers were delighted to find me perfectly alive and unharmed, but they infuriated me over and over. They kept calling me “the lost camper.” That was outlandish. I knew exactly where I was every minute of that day. They saw me as the lost camper although I saw myself as the hide-and-seek champion of all time.
Do you have any summer camp memories to share?