In Other Words: The nature of summer camp memories
Published 8:42 am, Saturday, July 25, 2015
Thoreau had the right idea: He walked into the woods, camped out, communed with nature and lived to tell about it in astonishing detail. For a while, and much to my chagrin, my parents — the well-meaning folks that they were — allowed me to commune with nature, too, never realizing that while you can take a city girl to camp, you can’t turn her into a Thoreau.
But my parents wanted me to have the camp experience and so, for eight years, they sent me away to the Adirondacks, the land of pristine lakes, purple mountains and the scent of pine trees, where I could interact with other girls and learn all about team spirit.
Here’s the reality: City girls are accustomed to scents of a different kind: exhaust fumes, subway stench and smoggy air. Taxis rattling along Madison Avenue sounded more familiar and pleasing than waterfront counselors whistling for us to make the dive off the high board. The smell of musty bunks and horse manure wafting over from the stables paled by comparison.
I feared for my life at Camp Red Wing. I wasn’t sure I was going to last the two months, and while I did learn how to make a lanyard, dig a latrine, swim laps in murky-bottomed water and paddle a canoe on beautiful Schroon Lake, I never quite got the hang of it all. Even though those halcyon days offered endless opportunities for personal growth, I longed to return home to city life.
Yet, every year in late April, my mother marched me off to the Camp Shop where I was outfitted in the obligatory uniform whose fashionista color was earth brown — not soft beige, not a creamy ecru, but a dark mud brown that made us look like moles. The brown wool swimsuit topped them all. This was worn for all activities involving water sports. Not only were they the ugliest suits ever created, but I was also allergic to the wool. I spent the entire summer scratching my red welts and applying a smelly salve to my inner thighs, given to me by the camp doctor — a grotesque little man who handed out Coricidin tablets as though they were candy, and painted our sore throats with iodine that left us with purple lips.
The amount of dissatisfaction was never more apparent than those summers when I was groping to find my identity and come into “my own” — whatever “my own” meant. But try as I might, I could never get into the camp spirit and often hid high up in the bunk rafters to avoid attending activities, my least favorite, archery. Trekking out into the field, a bow and arrow flung across our backs, other girls felt like Indian warriors, while I felt like the very last of the Mohicans. I was also too busy scouring the ground for snakes, which occasionally made their summer debuts, wriggling past me as I cowered in fear, proving yet again I wasn’t Camp Red Wing material.
By the end of my eighth summer, older now and more experienced, and knowing this would be my last year at camp, something shifted and subtle inexplicable changes became apparent. I found myself more proficient at the breaststroke. I could hike up Crane Mountain with a sleeping bag mounted to my shoulders. I smacked a tennis ball gracefully over the net, and my backhand had improved. I was no longer the awkward child, but an adolescent girl, who could do a perfect jack-knife dive, slicing the water without making waves ... even in that itchy brown swim suit.
Looking back on those camp years, those summers shine brighter now than they did when I was in the throes of them. When I recall my youth I see it all through a blurrier lens as though I were another child in another time. There, friendships were formed and the aroma of evergreens fell sweetly on the evening air as we huddled around a blazing campfire, holding hands and singing camp songs.
I was so young and restless, my moccasins buried deep within the pine needles, while I sat eating S’Mores and watching the sun set on those endless Adirondack days of my youth, never realizing then, how these were to become some of the most cherished memories of my life.
Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.judithmarks-white.com.