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Joel Schwartzberg

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Revering Summer Camp, or Maybe Just the Memories

Posted: 07/17/08 12:54 PM ET

For a period of time in the mid 1970s, my parents signed me and my brother Paul up for summer camp in our hometown of Smithtown, New York. I don't remember how many years we attended, or even what years they were. The whole experience has been reduced to a shoebox's worth of mental snapshots that blend in my head with favorite scenes from camp-themed movies: "Was that the year I made a plaster-of-paris face mask or chopped the head off a sex-crazed counselor?"

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One thing I do remember is the name: Ivy League Day Camp. A quick Internet search pulled it right up, though the place was completely unrecognizable. For one thing, my childhood summer memories are faded and washed-out, like a Super-8 movie. The Ivy League website makes the place look like an art camp for aspiring air-brushers.

Ivy League, a phrase which meant nothing to me at the time, took its namesake seriously. Age groups were named after Ivy League Schools, including Cornell, Harvard, and Princeton. My group was Dartmouth. My brother claims he was in the University of Michigan, but I've told him that's impossible.

I think the whole Ivy League naming thing appealed to my parents, who couldn't resist teasing themselves with vicarious academic fantasies. They weren't about to send us to Camp Community College, Camp Drop-Out, or Camp Live-at-Home-With-The-Folks.

Paul and I were the last campers to float unassisted, the last to blow bubbles, and the last to dive off a diving board, while other kids were cannon-balling carelessly all around us. Whereas other kids counted down the minutes until swim time, I couldn't wait for it to end. To this day, I feel self-conscious in a pool unless I'm surrounded by my own kids, flopping and flailing about in the shallow end.

My Dad, a schoolteacher, was the camp's basketball coach. "Howie Basketball," they called him, and he kept en eye on us, for better and for worse. I felt calmed knowing he was always nearby, but I could never use the excuse I left my bathing suit at home to get out of swim.

At the seasonal camp carnival, Howie Basketball sat under a delicately-positioned water bucket connected by string to a wooden bull's-eye. Many tickets were spent trying to hit the mark with a heavy softball, but my Dad stayed dry for most of the afternoon. When it was my turn, the counselors gave me about 16 free tries to douse him, each time moving me progressively closer to the target. Given my skill, I'm lucky I didn't put his eye out.

I don't remember when or why we stopped going to camp. At some point, the collective experience -- bug juice, plaster of paris, disco music, lanyards, color war, all of it -- just froze in time. I never got to Yale.

Today, whenever I hear the 1975 one-hit wonder "Magic", by a band called Pilot, I'm delivered right back to that faded, fuzzy place, and to the terrible, nagging thought that persisted in my head: "this will never end." In camp, as in parenting, yesterday goes by too fast, and tomorrow never comes.

My own children are now old enough to engage in their own camp adventures -- and I'm honestly shocked by all the possible electives they can choose from: art, science, music, tax evasion techniques, Hummer repair and maintenance, calculating your property value, memoir-writing, grooming yourself for a run at the governorship, etc.

I'll treasure my kids' summer camp moments vicariously, even if they don't. Those carefree days never return to you the same way, not even in memory.

 
 
 

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