What I Learned from Summer Camp

Yesterday at lunch time, my wife and I dragged trunks, backpacks and duffel bags to the JCC here in St. Louis and saw our kids board buses taking them to four-weeks of sleep-away summer camp.  This is my son’s eighth year and my daughter’s fifth.

Where All This Learning Occurred

Our children are carrying on a tradition from their parents and some of their grandparents.  My wife and her mother both went to sleep-away camp.  My dad and I did as well.  I hope some day that my grandchildren will continue the experience.

I went to summer camp from 1974 through 1981, seven of them at Camp Ramblewood located on the Susquehanna River in Darlington, Maryland.  There are some great movies that portray some real aspects of summer camp:  Meatballs, Little Darlings, Wet Hot American Summer, Friday the 13th, and Parent Trap (which is drilled into my subconscious thanks to my daughter).  Ok – maybe Friday the 13th wasn’t based on reality.

We all learned something from those movies, but here are the top 10 things I learned from my eight years of summer camp:

10.  I learned that if you put a normal aerosol top on shaving cream, it creates a fine stream of shaving cream that is perfect for fights.

9.    I learned that it’s possible to stick a fork through your own ear lobe.  This kid named Jeffrey did it one day at lunch, when he impaled himself accidentally while leaning down to pick something up under the table.

Gimp: Does This Exist Outside of Summer Camp?

8.    I learned how create a rat-tail from a towel and put welts on others with a “snap.”  This would have been of great use, had I been cast in Porky’s, but that’s about it.

7.    I learned how to make bracelets out of gimp – in multiple stitches no less.  In the politically correct 21st century, I’m told this is now called “lanyard.”  Does gimp exist anywhere else but summer camp?

6.    I learned how to go commando (and that I didn’t care for it) when Camp Ramblewood lost all my underwear in the laundry in eight weeks.  I can still hear my mother on the phone to camp wondering how a 7-year-old kid can lose all his underwear.

5.    I learned how to do a lot of stuff that I had no opportunity to do elsewhere and have barely done since:  water skiing, riflery, archery, and horseback riding.  I know I haven’t shot a gun since 1981.

4.    I learned how to gamble.  I still owe my friend David Gildenhorn in excess of $2M from a rigged gin rummy game.  How did I ever agree to a progressive game of double or half?  Didn’t I realize I’d never end the debt?

3.    I learned that puppy dog eyes and a mumbled “I have a headache” led to TLC from the attractive infirmary nurse.  (That only worked once a summer, but helped later in life in my social life.)

2.    I learned all there is to know about the birds and the bees.  Conversations with mom & dad?  Nope.  Learn something new in 6th grade health?  No.

1.    I learned independence.  This is important.  Because of summer camp, I easily made the transition to being away from home for college and moving out after graduation.

I’ll add one thing in closing.  I also learned about the ebb and flow of life, about the highs and the lows by going to summer camp.

You see, after first-year jitters in 1974, I eagerly looked forward to camp every year.  I saw the same people from Baltimore, from Philadelphia, and from Cherry Hill, New Jersey each year and went with my friends from D.C.  After 7 years at Camp Ramblewood, I knew the place, the ins, the outs, the rules and how to break them.  Everyone knew me.  Then, in August 1980, just a few weeks after returning from camp, we got a letter in the mail telling us that Camp Ramblewood was closing.  Some of us went to another camp the following year, but it wasn’t the same.  Camp Ramblewood open again a few years later, but is now a corporate retreat.  Bummer.

Perhaps that disappointment makes the memories fonder.  I don’t know.  I do know that I’d go again in a heartbeat, if I could.