Tag Archives: self-reliance

Summer’s Rite of Passage

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.

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Modern Inconveniences — Part III: I want my goodie bag

At age 6, I was married to a policeman and had twins. At age 8, I ruled over a complex society of acorn people who lived in a couple cinder blocks under my neighbor’s tree. At age 11, I was Sabrina Duncan of Charlie’s Angels, ready to follow Bosley’s instructions from my diamond transmitter ring.

A typical child of the 70’s, I used to spend hours immersed in elaborate pretend play and hair-brained schemes, usually clad in cut-off jean shorts, red-white-&-blue Converse and an awkward haircut. It was not unusual for me to be seen chopping earthworms into tiny segments on the stump outside our house on North 7th Street, because I believed that each segment regenerated into a new worm. (Years later in 10th-grade biology I developed a keen sense of remorse.) Or standing ankle deep in a large drainage pipe under Route 286 belting out Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” or Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” because the tunnel’s acoustics were “neato.”

Or climbing my favorite tree, where I perched to watch the traffic and let my mind wander. My big brother knew this about me and reveled in spoiling my fun. One sunny summer day, I skipped down 7th Street toward my climbing tree after a PB&J lunch. Approaching the tree, I initiated the sequence of moves that always placed me on the sitting branch in one fell swoop. As I reached up to grip the spot that started the climb, I heard a shout from across the street, “NO! Don’t do it!” 

I looked over and saw my brother peeking nervously from behind a shrub. My initial alarm quickly turned to indignation and I whined back at him, “I can do whatever I wanna do!” 

“Well, then GO AHEAD!” he retorted. My hand deftly rose to the place where I could get the perfect amount of grip to pull my chunky little body up into the tree. As I fixed my hand into position, I felt an unfamiliar sensation. A warm squish I had never experienced here before. Pulling my hand back to inspect, I realized that my brother had tricked me. Dogs can’t poo in trees.

Thank goodness, today’s kids don’t have to resort to standing in drainage tunnels, playing with cinder blocks and hiding dog poo. With the advent of modern technology, parents today can keep their children occupied, educated and entertained with a vast array of private schools, franchise day care facilities, tutoring centers, sports, clubs, music lessons, computer games and amazing toys.

We are so lucky to have all of these modern conveniences to help us raise our kids today . . . or are we? Are having all these choices really better for our kids in the long run? Perhaps not.

On my 9th birthday, my prized gift was a new Barbie Camper. I played with that camper for hours with my two Barbies, one of which I had given a very bad haircut. Even after my brother ripped the tent off the side, I just adapted my pretend play scenarios (grizzly attack) to account for the alteration, and continued to play with the camper for years. A friend down the street got the Barbie Townhouse for Christmas, and I often went to her house so my Barbies could experience the high life. I never thought to ask for one myself; I already had the camper. 

For boys, the attitude toward toys was similar back then. Any kid with a couple Tonka Trucks and a sandbox was someone to befriend, especially if you had your own bargaining tool like a GI Joe with the Kung Fu Grip.

But today’s child does not have to negotiate with peers or resort to imagination. Why butter up the kid down the street or muster extra brainpower when you’ve got toys coming in from holidays, special events, and the birthday party circuit. Today’s children need toys to be entertained and they get them because they are cheap, plentiful and way cool. But when you consider the inevitable atrophy of our children’s creativity and resourcefulness, the cost is quite high.

As a kid, I remember being invited to the birthday party of a schoolmate. We gathered on the friend’s back porch. I wore a dress. We played pin the tail on the Donkey. We tossed beanbags into a target. We sang, ate cake and drank Kool-Aid. We went home happy. It was a TOTAL blast. 

Today’s kid would deem that party a “snoozer” and would see it as a total rip off that they didn’t get a free movie, theme park admission or bowling game out of the deal. It is simply unheard of these days to have a party without a substantial meal (usually pizza and unlimited sodas) in addition to the ice cream cake, and a goodie bag with trinkets and treats worth at least $10.50. 

When the toy box exceeds its capacity and there is a lull in the party circuit, parents entertain their kids with camps, sports, classes and hobbies. But will the extra enrichment of our children make up for the detriment to their self-reliance? I recall my own mother pulling the station wagon up to the community pool (she couldn’t get out of course because she had her rollers in) to drop me off. As she drove away, cigarette smoke trailing behind, I heard her yell, “See you at four-o-clock, dumpling!” I had an entire day to make friends, avoid drowning, figure out how much I could buy at the snack bar with $2, and be dressed and waiting out at the curb when four-o’clock rolled around. Talk about a learning experience!

So what am I saying? Are we completely screwing up our children today? Are they destined to be selfish, materialistic, over-indulgent, unimaginative little brats? Perhaps we can avoid this fate by not always availing ourselves of the modern conveniences designed to make parenting easier. Instead, we should teach the simple life lessons we learned as kids.

 Like how to get the nectar out of honeysuckle. That a priority-mailing envelope with holes cut out makes a fairly decent Imperial Stormtrooper helmet. That you can only keep a jar of tadpoles and creek water a couple days before it starts to stink up your room. And that a cardboard box has endless possibilities.

Modern Incoveniences — Part II: Mr. Yuk retired to Boca Raton

I remember the time I stuck my finger in an empty but live Christmas light socket. It was December 1971 and I was five years old. From the couch in the front room of our old house on North 7th Street, I sat in my little flannel nightgown, mesmerized by the glowing electric candle trios in each window. I spotted that one plastic trio was missing a bulb. Determined to investigate, I found the socket the perfect size for my little finger, and besides, what was in there that gave all those colored bulbs a magical glow? I instantly felt a jolt and a simultaneous resolve to never do that again.

Fortunately, parents today don’t have to worry about household dangers. With the advent of modern technology, we have a vast array of child safety products to make the job of parenting easier. Kids today can tear through their houses with reckless abandon, without fear of so much as a splinter, because all unused outlets have been capped, sharp edges padded, and cabinets and doors fitted with safety locks. 

Parents no longer have to follow small children around warning them of dangers. But doesn’t this have to be taught at some point? In our haste to simplify parenting, have we ironically complicated child rearing today?

I clearly recall banging my chin on the sharp edge of my aunt’s coffee table and never wanting that to happen again. That piece of furniture became a terrifying object that I tried to avoid, despite the location of the candy dish filled with root beer barrels at it’s center. Today’s kid-friendly coffee tables are padded with big elasticized bumpers that almost challenge kids to give it a good nudge.

And what ever happened to “mean, green” Mr. Yuk? Now that there are child safety locks, he might as well be in an assisted living facility in Boca Raton playing pinochle with Don Rickles. Back in the 70s, I faithfully brought the Mr. Yuk stickers home from an annual safety assembly at East Pike Elementary, and my mother helped me stick them on all the poisonous items in the house that could make me sick. I learned that a Mr. Yuk sticker meant that, even if it contained a liquid that looked like delicious Tang, I was not supposed to sip from that bottle. 

So what am I saying? Should we forgo the safety products and let our kids learn the hard way? Not quite. Outlet caps and cabinet locks are actually ingenious innovations, but how will little Dick and Jane truly understand the dangers lurking behind these gadgets? Convenient or not, today’s parents must still teach the simple life lessons we learned when we were kids.

Like the difference between Smarty Pills and Rolaids. That you never use a fork to make the toaster to “leggo” your “Eggo.” That oven cleaner can actually take the first layer of skin off your hand. That wet porcelain plus bare feet equals chipped tooth. 

And that, no matter what your brother says, sticking your finger in an empty but live Christmas light socket will not make light shoot out of your ears.

[To request a free sheet of Mr. Yuk stickers, send a self-addressed stamped business-sized envelope to:

Mr. Yuk
Pittsburgh Poison Center
200 Lothrop Street
BIR 010701
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Or to listen to the Mr. Yuk song, go to http://www.chp.edu/CHP/mryuk.]


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