There are two kinds of people in the so-called ‘free world’ — those who went to summer camp and those who should have.
There were and still are all kinds of summer camps, of course: the horseback camp, the lake camp, wilderness camp, band camp, sports camp, arts camp and the ever popular get-the-kids-out-of-your-hair-for-awhile summer camp.
I’m thinking about this on account of several of my nieces and nephews’ kidlets are away or have been away at various camps this summer and thinking about that got me to thinking about when I went to camp.
And how, sometimes, I wish I was 12 years old again. So I could go to summer camp again.
Mine was a lake camp and I spent two weeks there every summer for the three summers of junior high.
Now, it bears mentioning, to put things in proper perspective as it were, believe it or not our family didn’t even have a car then. (In fact, in a stunning case of bad timing for my parents, the ’58 Ford came along right about the time I was old enough to drive.) We didn’t really take vacations or go too many places and so when camp happed to me it was like I had suddenly been transported a million miles (1.6 million km) away, even though it was at Sylvan Lake, only 25 km (1.6 million miles) from our house.
I found myself somehow landing smack in the middle of what felt like Happiness Ranch on the Planet Summer Camp.
The camp consisted of a row of small wooden cabins (the “old” ones), a mess hall, a shower/bathroom building and several mysterious and inviting activities buildings. And up on the far hill, on the other side of the big playfield and across from the bonfire pit, were the “new” cabins, which were probably built just before the Second World War.
These larger cabins had such luxuries as big living room-type windows (with bug screens!), and even a bit of wall paper and linoleum. Unlike ours, I think they even had some sort of heating, so of course that’s where the girls stayed.
Did I mention it was a co-ed camp? No wonder it was so much fun.
But I loved staying the old cabins. Facing the lake through the trees, built one by one down the sloping path like steps down to the dock where the canoes were waiting for us in the sub-zero, bone-chilling lake.
One of the best things about our cabins was that they had — get this — bunks beds that were three beds high! It was and still is the only time in my life that I had even seen a three-tiered bunk bed, so of course every year I made sure, first thing, that I scrambled up there and called dibs on one of the top bunks.
I can clearly remember hunkering down in my red cloth sleeping bag waaay up there after “lights out,” cocooned under the covers with my flashlight reading Marvel and Archie comics. Now if that isn’t the very definition of “summer camp” I don’t know what is.
However, I also vividly recall compulsory “swim time” in the aforementioned Arctic waters of Sylvan Lake, which consisted of sticking a very reluctant foot in the weedy, rocky shore by the dock and immediately watching your foot turn as blue as a bubblegum-flavoured popsicle.
This was inevitably and immediately followed by the nearest person — usually a girl or one of the camp counsellors splashing the heck out of you until you just gave up and ran, plunging headlong into the freezing lake with wild abandon.
There’s nothing quite like risking having a heart attack at the age of 12 at summer camp.
But the nightly bonfires made up for the suffering of “swim time.” There always the compulsory guitar or two, and the compulsory sing-alongs like Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore and Kumbaya, and the campfire games like the one where you have a message that you whisper into the next person’s ear and they whisper to the next and so on around the campfire at the last person says out loud what the second last person whispered to him or her, and of course it isn’t even remotely close to the original message and is always highly amusing. Especially at a campfire with girls and everything.
And then there was everybody’s favourite: The Tuck Shop. This was a little cabin down by the volleyball court in the woods that turned into a little corner store once a day. At Tuck Time, you could go down there and spend something like 25 cents on goodies like chocolate bars, gumballs, and various and sundry delectable candy comestibles that were shaped like strawberries, or tiny ice cream cones or little Coke bottles.
And I know it’s difficult to fathom now, but that quarter could go a pretty long ways when some of the more popular sugar-boosting items were a penny each. I usually favoured a nice wad of licorice “shoestrings” — red or lime green — which I would tie in knots and chomp on one knot at a time. In fact, I still do that when I happen to find the licorice strings. I blame it on Summer Camp.
But the very best part was meeting people and making friends.
There was the perfectly named “Glee” (her real name) who was from Calgary and who I wrote love letters to for almost a year after camp.
A crazy popular kid we nick-named “Specs” (yes, he had big horn-rimmed glasses) from Edmonton, and Diane, from my second summer — one of the first girls I ever held hands with.
And then there was the last night of my last year at camp. They had a Last Night Dance, and me being the shortest shrimp at camp danced with Dee Dee, one of the tallest girls from the new cabins up on the hill.
It turned out to be a waltz and much to my complete mortification, she picked me up in waltz position and proceeded around the crowded room, my feet dangling off the floor, flapping like the fish at the dock.
But you know, if I was 12 years old again I’d go to summer camp in a heartbeat. But I’d make sure I was a lot taller next time.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.