Camp I – A place to be normal

It’s hot and humid here, and although I don’t like summer (when is fall coming – I LOVE fall) this time of year makes me think fondly of the best thing about summers past – summer camp. I like to camp in general but we haven’t been in a long time (and yet we lugged most of our gear to Manhattan – what’s that about?) As a teenager my girl scout troop was known for being pretty serious primitive campers, and I spent a lot of weekends in the woods. This was great but it always meant coming back after a few days, grimy and exhausted, and facing a mound of homework that should have been done Thursday evening.

Summer camp was different. Starting in mid-elementary school and continuing until the summer after I turned 16, I spent two weeks every summer at a camp for visually impaired children. As soon as school was out in June, I started getting excited about camp. I would try to guess which cabin I’d be in that year (Otter or Raccoon would be acceptable, Fox would be the best because everyone knew the coolest girls were in Fox, Squirrel would be a disaster!) I’d day dream about catching up with my camp friends. Our letters would start to have things like “P.S. See you in 3 weeks 5 days and 5 hours!!!” at the ends. I studied the packing list that came in the mail endlessly, trying to divine from its contents what they had planned for us. Would there be a dance? A talent show? Beach theme day? Wild west day? It was important to come prepared. I thought about what I might be able to do that I hadn’t done before – maybe that year I would be old enough to do the endurance swim across the lake, or good enough to get a real part in the musical.

Camp was in a beautiful area in the mountains of northern NJ. It was surrounded by state forest land and although not actually far from civilization, it always felt very remote. We had all the usual summer camp stuff – little cabins, sports fields, a pool with a diving board, a nature hut, craft hut, and dining hall, a game room with pool, pinball, and air hockey, two bowling lanes (that you had to reset yourself, the old fashioned way), a library with books, board games, and computers for rainy days, and a lake with canoes and rowboats and (rumor had it) water snakes.

The best thing about camp was that only visually impaired kids could attend. My parents were rather dubious about the whole idea at first. They’d never heard of the place and hesitated to leave their oldest daughter there for 2 weeks. I think there may also have been a sense of something like “it’s nice for there to be a place like that for certain kinds of children, but my kid doesn’t need that.” It was probably too close to charity or special treatment for there taste. Somehow my caseworker convinced them that I would love it, and that it might be really good for me to be around other kids like me for once.

It turned out to be a very very good idea. At camp I met kids like me for the first time, and I also learned that there were kids who could see much less and were still doing okay. I even met other kids with albinism; I went from being the person with the condition nobody had heard of to just one of 10 or 12 kids with the same thing. Camp was a place where we were all normal, and you didn’t have to explain what you could or couldn’t see. Sometimes we talked about our lives back home – how terribly we were treated by peers and the ignorant things that teachers said to us, but mostly we just had a good time. We were somewhere safe and fun and we pretty much just soaked it all in. When I was young we cared about which night there would be ice cream for dessert, whether we had done well enough on the swim test to be allowed in the deep end of the pool and learning all the words to the camp songs. We competed to have the cleanest cabin, raced each other on big wheels, and came home with address books full of new addresses written in pink and purple so we could keep in touch with our new best friends. As we got older we pushed the dress code, competed for spots on the primitive canoe-camping trip at the end of the first week, and tried out for parts in the all-camp musical. We borrowed each others’ clothes, whispered about periods and boys and sex late at night after lights out, and tried desperately to find dates to the dance at the end of the second week.

At camp I learned how to row a boat and paddle a canoe, how to do a back dive off the diving board, and what it was like to be in indoor color guard (5-6-7-8…) From talking with friends I discovered that my family was affluent and my school very safe. I made friends with everybody and had a sense, for two weeks every summer, of what it would be like to be one of the popular kids. I had my first slow dance, first (camp) boyfriend, first kiss, and first break up.

Sometimes as a child and young teenager, thinking of camp kept me going. There were usually days each year, especially as spring approached and my sister and brother went off to play Little League softball and baseball (sports I can’t see well enough to play) that I would be overwhelmed by despair. I would sit at my desk, hated math homework in front of me, looking out the window feeling lonely and isolated. There I was, stuck at home, doing math (ick!) of all things, while other people got to have all the fun and all the attention. My sister, a really good catcher, would inevitably come home the hero, having made an amazing catch at home plate. Sometimes she broke fingers in the process, which only added to her status as a player. And what had I done in that time? Math homework. Well, some of it at least.

It was at these times that I would remember camp, and my friends. I wondered how many of them were stuck at home doing math homework or something else equally dreadful. I’d think about how good two weeks of being normal felt and would count the days until I got to go again. And somehow, I always felt better.

——

Next time – Camp II – Mosquito Nets and Hoof Picks: Girl Scout Horse Camp

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~ by Sophia on July 21, 2008.

2 Responses to “Camp I – A place to be normal”

  1. I love hearing about your camp experiences! My experience with camping was that I couldn’t sleep a wink, and my sleeping bag got wet — nothing to write home about!With the right kind of equipment, though, I might be able to try again ….who knows?

  2. I laughed reading this. It made me remember my times at summer camp, which i loved!

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