I cautiously reached into the dark, dank cavity and pulled out the filthy, wretched garments. Fearing for my safety, I pinched my nose shut with one hand, and carried the contaminated bundle with an outstretched arm to be disinfected.
My son was home from Scout camp, and I had the unenviable job of doing his dirty laundry. He, on the other hand, had returned an hour before, grunted at us, and promptly went to bed.
His troop spent a week in the mountains, where they slept in tents, white water rafted, cooked over a fire and hiked almost 30 miles. My son had a blast.
Summer camp. There’s nothing quite like it. The anticipation, the initial fear, the late nights, the physical challenges, the relationships formed. For that one or two weeks every summer, a kid is transformed to a place where he and his tent mates experience powerful emotions and form intense bonds.
Then they go home, and give their mothers their dirty laundry.
But I don’t mind. I was a kid once too, and I want my kids to experience the same things I did.
Like the summer in the 1970s when I went off to camp in the Pennsylvania mountains. The two-week church camp attracted an intimidating mix of sheltered milk toast do-gooders from the country, preppy snobs from the wealthy Pittsburg suburbs, and a few token oddballs like me, all supervised by fresh-scrubbed, born-again, college-aged counselors.
Upon arrival, we were randomly assigned to the Galatians or the Romans teams, scheduled to wage a battle of biblical proportions through competitions in archery, swimming, canoeing, gymnastics, basketball, macramé and other events.
The first couple of days of camp were rough. I thought my kelly green corduroy OP shorts were fashionably preppy, but they were no match for the city girls’ Tretorns, Izods and Docksiders. And when it came to bible study, I couldn’t hold a candle to the country kids who had all read the Old Testament by the third grade. Little did I know that as the days passed, we would all bond through the necessary trials and tribulations of camp life.
Like the night we all packed into a farm cart for a tractor-pulled hay ride. We were so excited to ride around the lake and sing our newly learned camp songs. But as the tractor chugged up the embankment from the lake to the road, something popped, and the wagon broke loose. Slowly at first, the cart full of campers rolled backwards toward the lake. As the wayward vessel picked up speed, counselors began shouting, which triggered the campers to scream. I screamed too, believing for that instant that we would careen into the dark water and all be tragically drowned.
Just then, the wagon hit some tall grass and inexplicably slowed, coming to a stop just before the water’s edge. It was a miracle – we were at church camp after all – and that night my cabin mates and I finally bonded over facing certain death.
Although he still harbors bitterness toward his fellow cabin mates, my husband had similar camp experiences. Back in the 70s he, too, was shipped off to the mountains for a couple weeks in the summer.
Quite a husky fellow, he was relieved to learn that each camper was entitled to one candy bar of their choice every day from the camp cantina. Despite the obvious motivation, he wasn’t able to locate the cantina and never got his daily candy ration.
On the overnight hike, my husband’s flashlight was stolen which meant he had no light to guide him to the latrine. That night, he accused the kid he suspected of stealing it, who flatly denied the charges. The next morning, after a long dark night, the accused kid returned the flashlight, which he had stolen after all, now with dead batteries.
At the camp’s Sunday religious service, there was a band. In the middle of a song, the guitarist had a seizure, collapsing on the altar and gagging on his own tongue. The counselors rushed to his aid, shoving his wallet in his mouth so he wouldn’t bite off his tongue before the ambulance arrived to rush him away.
The traumatic event made quite an impact on my husband. All he wanted was a candy bar that night to comfort himself, but he still didn’t know where the cantina was, and his flashlight didn’t work anyway.
Fun and adventurous, or traumatic and humiliating, all summer camp experiences offer the same benefit: a kid experiences emotions on his own, without his parents there to guide or comfort him. And by the end of summer camp, every camper in the world brings home a new understanding of himself, a groovy macramé bracelet, and a duffel bag full of dirty laundry for Mom.