My friend Jon was here this weekend for a party. We’ve known each other since we were 13 and both campers at a YMCA summer camp outside of Port Jervis, NY. My twins were on my wife and my laps and Jon was playing guitar as he often did by the fire when we were Counselors-in-Training, living in an isolated group of tents away from the main camp cabins. The weather had been perfect, the garden had performed admirably and life was good.
And then it came to me…I have completely patterned my life after my summer camp experience…nature, a diverse group of close friends, live music, kids, doing lots of different things that were important enough to work on in a relaxed, non-Scout way. Nine years of Y camps, four years for one-month and five years for the (now unheard) duration of eight weeks. Each year was different, partly because each year I was different and partly because the campers and staff were different.
My camp ‘career’ stretched from the late fifties to the mid to late 60’s and passed through a love affair with sports through a love affair with 1960’s folk music through a few love affairs themselves. I went in that time from the Yankees and our ‘faux’ Native American dances, through Civil Rights and anti-war activism. I lived day to day with kids and staff that were representative of New York City’s economic and cultural diversity. I bested the sons of Roy Campanella, Sugar Ray Robinson and Hector Lopez for the first base All Star position. I was a camp bugler for three years and played taps over the lake to hear its romantic echo and I listened after lunch to a 14 year old boy with two first names play a rickety old piano as others played ping-pong and flirted with girls. I believe Billy Joel was his name.
Sure, I’ve perhaps whitewashed the camp experience a bit. I was not always popular, not always successful, not always entertained, but I was always more ‘myself’ than I ever was at home. That was probably the most important thing I took from my summer camp experience, even more than the half finished lanyards and broken slip-cast pottery.
Originating in the late 1800’s but really coming to fruition in the early 20th century, summer camps were merely a way to introduce nature into the increasingly industrialized adolescent life. They also provided a space away from the structure and regiment of school, a worry that still holds true today. Though currently kids can choose from a wide array of different sport camps, art camps, travel camps, religious camps, computer camps, even weight-loss camps…all seemingly very structured! So here’s to the history summer camps, may they continue to provide a safe space for children to grow, make mistakes, and even meet a famous musician…