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Big Man on Camp

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The author eating lunch.  

I quit on the spot and mentioned the incident to no one for 30 years.

Admittedly, my reasons for wanting to go back were a bit regressive. I wanted to use my unfair advantage as a fortysomething male to make a big impression on a bunk of 10-year-olds. I wanted to observe the cruel society of boys and relearn the lessons of cutthroat male competition. I wanted to beat them at swimming, baseball, table tennis, capture the flag. Pathetic? Undoubtedly.

I don’t like to think I hold grudges, but I do. I had a grudge against childhood. I had a grudge against that particular child who had bested me 30 years ago. He and his bunkmates haunted me, all of those Hobbesian boys (nasty, brutish, and short) who resided in B5-2 in 1976. I don’t know what I thought would happen when I returned. Those children are 40 years old now and long gone. I guess I hadn’t moved on. Perhaps if I’d learned better lessons as a camper, I’d have made a better counselor. Perhaps if I’d been a better counselor, I might have made a healthier adult, not the kind who wants to pay back 10-year-olds.

My first hints of the dramatic changes since I’d left Camp Echo were the water fountains scattered strategically around the 200 acres. I certainly don’t remember those, but I’m grateful, especially as the camp is suffering through a 100-plus-degree heat wave. At dinner, campers line up without stigma or comment to get meds. That’s new, too. In fact, everything seems new, from the water park on the lake to the GaGa court (GaGa, Marla explains, is a “gentleman’s version of dodgeball”) to the attitudes of the administration. Marla, a past president of the American Camp Association, bought Camp Echo with her family five years ago and runs it like a cross between a small, enlightened European principality, say, Liechtenstein, and a cruise ship.

If Camp Echo were its own country—it has its own flag, raised and lowered with the U.S. flag every day—Marla would be the country’s information minister. She tells me that camps have only recently learned what business they’re in: “They used to think they were in the recreation business,” she says, “but they’re really in the youth-development business.” Like so many institutions of contemporary childhood, camps now serve an educative agenda, and this one has a moral code as well. There are ten Camp Echo Values, posted inside each bunk, reinforced every day by counselors and staff, culminating in a Sunday-night torch ceremony in praise of individual campers who have exemplified one of these virtues during the past week. Marla has given me my own laminated sheet of Values:

SELF-RELIANCE
COURAGE
PATIENCE
COOPERATION
COMMITMENT
RELIABILITY
COMPASSION
REASON
CREATIVITY
SELF-IMPROVEMENT

(There were no Echo Values when I was here last. But in hindsight, they might have looked like this:

INTIMIDATION
HUMILIATION
CRUELTY
BOREDOM
IMMATURITY
SADISM
INDIFFERENCE
EMBARRASSMENT
SELF-PRESERVATION
TOUGH LUCK)

Not only has camp changed, but kids seem to have changed, too. No one paid attention to kids when I was one—not parents, not teachers, not counselors. Childhood was something you went off and did on your own until you got over it. I remember a kid in fifth grade. We called him Booger. He’d make little bombing noises throughout class. Once, he peed out the bathroom window on kids playing kickball. Another time, he grabbed our teacher, Miss Cotton, and pulled her across her desk. Booger was either being yelled at by the principal, ridiculed by the other kids, or manhandled by a teacher or two. Today, Booger would be medicated and in therapy. Maybe me too.

What I remember most from sleepaway summers are the torturers of little animals. When I was 9 at Camp Catawba, a group of wayward boys threw a knife at a stunned bullfrog in the middle of the main path while counselors walked by unmoved. With each successive toss the dagger edged closer and closer, until one camper stuck the blade into the bullfrog’s back, and its heart seemed to jump out of its mouth. That was camp play. That was praiseworthy.

Praise has almost reached pandemic levels at Camp Echo. The campers even praise one another, which just seems sick. On my first day, Tony, a slightly chunky kid who would have been beaten up for his chunkiness in my day, invites me to play catch with him at Twilight. Like everything else here, Twilight is scheduled, a certain time of the day when the boys (and the girls on the other side of the lake) are free to play within an appointed and supervised perimeter, called the Twilight Zone. We toss a rubber ball and a hardball, and Tony keeps praising me for my throws and my catches, most of which are off the mark—and I’m wondering, What kind of boy is this? This must be a new version, introduced during the eighties or nineties after my version of boy was phased out.


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