Summer camp. My mind filled with memories of my own experiences as I sorted photos of a local Boy Scout troop’s most recent outdoor adventures.
I remember packing my stuff – the most important items included pens, paper, sketchbook and a contraband AM transistor radio (it was long before the Walkman or iPod appeared on the cultural radar)—for a week before my sister and I actually left for camp.
Fortunately, my mom had a bona fide checklist of the stuff we really needed. She inspected our suitcases and added superfluous items, like socks, underwear and a few extra T-shirts.
“You know, you’re not supposed to bring radios,” she said, rolling the socks together and lining them up along the inside edge of the suitcase.
“Um, yeah,” I said, setting the forbidden object on my bed and making a mental note to pack it when she wasn’t looking. Mom was more into rules than I was back then. You just couldn’t mess with my precious pop music.
Early Saturday morning, my parents woke us up, loaded our bags into the car and headed to the circus that was part of the leaving-for-camp ritual.
The parking lot swarmed with frantic parents trying to cover all the details and excited girls who just wanted to get to camp. A few official looking people carried clipboards, answered questions and pointed people in different directions.
My sister and I got on the enormous bus, complete with microscopic bathroom in the back. The motor rumbled and occasionally sighed, its diesel-scented breath filling the air.
Finally, it was time to leave. The doors snapped shut, the bus jerked forward, and we waved at the parents lined up like soldiers along the curb. I now suspect that as soon as the buses were out of sight, the parents high-fived each other and went out for a celebratory champagne breakfast.
That didn’t matter—we were finally headed to a parent-free zone with friends, campfires, swimming, canoeing, hiking and tons of other stuff to fill the long summer days for the next two weeks.
Hours later—OK, for a kid who tended to get carsick 99.99 percent of the time, it seemed like days later—we arrived at Camp Windego, somewhere in the forest that was Wild Rose, Wisconsin. Relief! Campers were quickly sorted as they leapt from the bus. This was usually the last time I saw my sister—other than meal-times–until the ride home, because we were always assigned to different units. We grabbed our bags, gathered into our groups and hiked into the woods in search of the tiny tent villages that would be our homes.
Granted, my camp experience wasn’t entirely primitive. Our tents sat on wood platforms off the ground. We had the choice of an outhouse or, if we wanted to walk a long, long way, there were actual flushing toilets out there in the woods.
It was primitive enough for me, a girl from the ‘burbs of Chicago. The outhouse was a no-go unless desperate measures were in order, like in the middle of the night. The same woods we skipped through during the day took on a Blair Witch Project look at night as our imaginations ran far ahead of the dim beam from our flashlights.
We hiked everywhere, singing silly camp songs along the way. I often wonder what my parents thought of the musical selections my sister and I would belt out in the back seat of the car when the mood struck. Sure, there were the traditional “If I had a hammer” and “Kumbaya,” but we liked the more interesting songs, like one about a billboard:
As I was walking down the street one dark and dreary day,
I came upon a billboard, and much to my dismay,
The sign was torn and tattered from a storm the night before.
The wind and rain had done its work and this is what I saw:
Smoke Coca Cola cigarettes;
Chew Wrigley’s Spearmint beer;
Ken-L-Ration dogfood keeps your complexion clear;
Simonize your baby with a Hershey’s candy bar;
And Texaco’s the beauty cream that’s used by all the stars.
That’s only the beginning. But after almost 30 years I remember every word!
Camp wasn’t always perfect. I usually attended with one friend or another from home—and inevitably, we’d end up in a big fight over who-knows-what, and not speak to each other until we were home for a good week. Then we’d cry, apologize, and forget what the fight was about in the first place. Stupid girl stuff.
I was introduced to horses at camp. My friend, Nancy, was a horse freak. I was not. Nancy convinced me we needed to be in the horse unit one year. I figured it would be an adventure, and maybe I would love horses as much as she did.
I was wrong.
The horse unit had to get up early to muck out the stalls (for you uninitiated, that means we had to shovel the horses’ poop) and feed and brush the horse that was ours for the two weeks.
Strike one: getting up at 5 a.m. was not my idea of fun at the time, especially because I tended to stay up until nearly midnight yacking with friends or reading a book by flashlight.
The bonus was supposed to be that we got to ride our horses before breakfast as well. However, we quickly learned that we were the lepers of Camp Windego, since the horsy smells tended to follow us wherever we went. We had our own table at the mess hall, and generally ignored the other girls’ wrinkled noses.
Strike two: the horses.My horse was named Nikki. I think horse people would describe her as an old nag. She uncooperatively poofed out her belly when I pulled the saddle straps around. If I didn’t pay attention, as soon as I put my foot in the stirrup and swung the other leg over, the saddle would slide sideways.
I swear she snickered when that happened.
Once I learned to check the straps more than once, I figured I had her conquered. Ha. She was always at the back of the line on trail rides, munching grass and leaves and taking her sweet time.
“No, Nikki!” I yelled, pulling the reins up and hoping her head would follow.
“Don’t let her eat. She’ll have a bad attitude,” our unit leader said.
It was too late for that. Nikki’s attitude was years in the making, probably from dealing with kids like me who had no clue about horses.
One day we were riding in the ring. Nikki must have had an itch to scratch, because she got down on her knees.
“What is she doing?” I asked, yanking the reins upward.
Nikki looked over her left shoulder, her eye gleaming. Then she started rolling over.
I jumped off.
“Don’t let her roll over,” the leader said.
Sure. No problem. By then I realized Nikki could do whatever she darn well pleased. She was much bigger than me and, I suspected, much smarter as well.
It was with relief that I would head back to the stalls, put Nikki inside and toss her a bunch of hay. That was the only time she was truly happy.
Nancy, of course, had a great time. She loved her horse, which was the biggest one. He was in the stall next to Nikki’s. One day when I was brushing Nikki, he leaned over the wall and bit me in the back. Maybe that’s what started our fight. Nancy thought it was kind of funny, and I’d had enough of horses. Never mind that at this point I realize she was right—it was funny.
Even the year of my horse adventures, when I looked forward to going home, the final night of camp was filled with tears around the campfire (more stupid girl stuff, I guess.) We’d sing our repertoire of pretty and obnoxious camp songs, talk about all the stuff we did, made amends with the people we didn’t get along with and exchanged addresses with the promise of writing at least once a week.
I remember the scent of smoke mixed with burning sugar—an invisible testament to the marshmallows that had dropped off our carefully carved sticks into the fire below, and canopy of stars far above our heads. I remember feeling like I was really part of the natural world.
Sometimes I wish I could go back, so I could appreciate every moment as it happened. My two weeks at summer camp gave me a chance to operate as an individual, without being defined by my parents or siblings. I saw and ex-perienced things I never would have otherwise. I probably have a better time visiting camp in my memories—and when I do camp that way, I don’t have to deal with mosquito bites.