The Opening Campfire: An (alternative) Introduction to "A Camp Story" – Author's Cut
My first book, A Camp Story was published five years ago. What you're about to read is a never published, hardly even considered but written anyway introduction to that book. I'm choosing to run it now because it's not terrible and it's the summer camp season and all decently written things deserve to see the light.
What's more is that in 1998, This American Life—then just a little Chicago public radio show—visited my camp while reporting for its episode, "Notes On Camp." That show has remained on the TAL Favorites list for years. It usually gets played once each summer. And, hey, they ran it again on July 7. If you give it a listen, you'll hear the voice of a young me during Act One: Mr. Popular. It's humbling. Always has been, always will be.
And what's more than that, this weekend, I'm at the camp with one of my best friends who I met at camp, Doug Bates, serving as counselors for the camp's Rookie Camper program where boys, ages 6–10 get to test out the overnight camp experience for three days and two nights. It's hardly enough time to really get into it, understand it, grow from it and completely appreciate it, and I've always been a vocal proponent for kids going the full summer, but it's something. And really, in many cases, it's more for the helicopter parents to see if they can stand having their little angel away from the warm, safe-space nest for more than an hour than it is about if the kid is ready to leave the backyard and be an individual. Because ususally, they are.
Doesn't matter. It's camp. And don't give me this crap about how summer camp is for the privileged and the white. It's not. It's more than that. You can read my book to learn more about it. You can also check out the non-profit SCOPE. But to further the book promotion... A Camp Story was written to be a love letter to those who had been there, a source of reference to those who are there now and just a good story for everyone else. I hope you do read it and enjoy it. At the very least, you'll read this post here and give this (previously unpublished) introduction the bit of attention it deserves.
The Opening Campfire
I didn’t want to go to overnight camp.
I tried it the summer before in 1989. Mom and Dad sent me along with my friend Scott Robinson to Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute for three weeks. And I hated it. Scott and I lived in the part of camp with large military tents instead of cabins. And that was cool. But everything else was a bore. There was no horseback riding for me, no building campfires or shooting guns or canoeing. Olin Sang is very Jewish camp and there was lots of praying. Then, one night there was an unbelievably violent thunderstorm.
Our tent was at the bottom of the hill and the area was flooded pretty quickly and quite high. The flooding caused the tent to collapse on top of us. There was no plumbing in our tents so Porta Potties were set up throughout our section of the camp. The high winds knocked over a dozen or so, which caused an enormous amount of human waste to rush directly toward our collapsed tent where 12, 10-year-old boys stood in floodwaters up to our knees. The roads became literal rivers of shit. People were screaming. Counselors ran about not knowing what to do. Kids cried. The camp was in a panic. It was apocalyptic.
And that was the most fun I had at Olin Sang.
So if overnight camp was only fun when there was a poop flood, I wanted no part of it. Besides, I had been perfectly happy at my JCC day camp. I had my friends, I had my afternoon TV; I was a perfectly happy boy living in Flossmoor, Illinois. And my parents were hell bent on ruining my happiness.
The following summer, after months of protesting, pleading and attempting to reason with them, Mom and Dad won the battle. I was going to some camp called Greenwoods where I didn’t know anyone. And I was going for eight weeks—the entire summer. A few days before camp started, I made one last effort to get out of it. Mom was stuffing my new, black duffle bag with clothes that were stained with my name written in Sharpie marker on the inside collars of shirts and inside waistbands of shorts, on the bottoms of socks. She even wrote my name on the Archie comics she was sending me with. Dad stood in the doorway of my room and regaled me with stories from his days at Camp Day-cho-la. He shot rifles and sailed and rode horses and went canoeing in rivers. I asked if he ever went canoeing in rivers of human excrement. He said no. I reminded him I almost had to.
My parents didn’t even have the decency to drive me to camp. Instead, they took me as far as the Chicago Southland Lincoln Oasis along I-294 to meet a large bus full of kids that was going to shuttle me to my wretched summer. As I boarded, I remember my mother crying and thinking, “Good. She should be sad for what she’s doing to me.”
The bus was loud. The kids were laughing and singing. One kid was eating Circus Peanuts candy, which disgusted me. I sat up front next to the counselor. I would come to know him as Brian 'Bo' Jackson. He was a huge man. We were both quiet. As we crossed the Michigan border, I turned to the hulking counselor and said, “Have you been to camp before?” He said, no. This was his first summer. I felt better. Maybe he and I could be friends and suffer through these dreadful eight weeks together.
When the bus pulled into camp, I looked behind me at every kid on the bus to one side pressing their faces against the window. Those who had already arrived chased the bus like wild dogs. I was surprised the bus didn’t tip over and squash the kids outside. That would have made the rivers of caca at Olin Sang look like holy water.
I stepped off the bus into a sea of unfamiliar revelry. Some lady with a clipboard looked at me and said, “You must be David. You’re in Chippewa Cabin.” I looked for the sign that said “Chippewa,” made my way through a few white benches set up in a circle and met one of my counselors, Greg Perkins. He was a tall, blonde guy who right away seemed pretty cool. He already knew who I was, where I was from and that it was my first year. It was his first summer, too.
“It’s the first year for the counselor I sat with on the bus,” I said, hoping to build an allegiance.
“Who, Brian? Bo? No it’s not. He’s been here for a couple of years. Come on, let’s get you a bunk.”
I was devastated. Not even three hours in and I was already being lied to. I never asked Bo, why he lied to me. I like to think it was to make me feel like less of an outsider. And it worked. And if that was Bo's intention, God fucking bless him.
My biggest concern, beyond not knowing anyone and just generally hating camp, was that I was going to spend a summer in the woods surrounded by swarms of big, disgusting, loud cicadas. It was 1990 and the 17-year cicadas had taken over Chicago. I had killed so many with such bloodlust that I convinced myself the winged beasts in Decatur had gotten word of me and were plotting their revenge for their brethren.
I was greatly relieved when I didn’t see a single cicada at that camp. Other than all of the laughter, the camp was quiet. “Maybe the summer won’t be so terrible after all,” I thought.
That summer I met people I still consider some of my closest friends. I learned to water ski and shoot a real gun, not just Dad’s bb gun. Thanks to a counselor named Dayna Glasson, I learned to ride a horse. And I fell in love with Rico, the best damn horse who ever lived. Danny Goldwin taught me to sail and I made fun of his afro. David Cuffy and I sat on the fishing dock for hours just talking. I never thought I’d find a better friend. I even learned to like Circus Peanut candy because that kid on the bus was Brett Katz and he was in my cabin.
Something happened to me that summer. Something deep and true but nothing tangible. I suppose, that something was… camp. Camp happened to me. And it would keep happening to me for the next 10 years. I continued to make friends—great friends. I found new ways to create fun and seek out adventure and laugh at new things and understand all sorts of people. And through all of that, through all of the Color Days and sneaking out and supper letters and songs in the Mess Hall and girlfriends and days off and nights out and showering naked with strangers of all ages and gaining an incredible appreciation for the sound of stories being shared and the high pitched laughter of kids... Through all of that, over all the years, I was slowly, surely, becoming me.
And what I always knew to be true, more than proved itself again and again with every word I wrote in this book. While camp happened to me, I also happened to camp. I happened to camp just like everyone who went before me happened to camp and everyone who has come before, and will go after me, they too, will happen to camp. And camp will happen to them. So it goes, on and on…. Our history is our story with every campfire that burns. Ever changing; ever staying the same.