Real camp

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(HOST) There are soccer camps, computer camps, even SAT preparation camps. But Willem Lange says real camp happens only in the woods.

(LANGE) Sports camps are blooming – as well as others for music, mathematics, SAT training, ballet, and who knows what else. Some pundits decry the nature of these programs, but what they’re doing is a lot better than most of the alternatives at home; and if they seem like training camps for the Ivy League, so what? The damage has been done already. My reservations are about what a kid is not learning when she’s working on her backhand or he’s rehearsing his face-off technique on indoor ice. Oh, one other thing: the hijacking of the word, “camp.” Sleeping and showering in a college dorm, carrying a cell phone, and dining in a college cafeteria are not camp.

Camp is a tremulous commitment to the rustic unknown. It’s having your name sewn into your clothing; it’s dragging your duffel bag onto an old school bus repainted with the camp’s name and full of quiet kids nervously checking out each other; it’s rolling, after a long ride, through an arch of cedar poles with the camp’s name tricked out in sticks overhead.

Camp is the aroma of raw pine board cabins with squeaking bunks and the embarrassment of nakedness – changing into a bathing suit for the dreaded swim test, where you’re given a buddy for the next two weeks. Woe to you if you and your buddy are more than a couple of seconds apart when the cry goes up. “Buddies!”

None of us suspected anyone else was as homesick as we, or looked as puny in a bathing suit. Everyone else seemed so confident. Yet I recall the sound, long after Taps, of soft weeping and the consoling rumble of the counselor’s voice.

Camp is where you learn things that will be of no earthly value to you afterwards. But I can’t remember what I learned that I haven’t used ever since – with the possible exception of lanyard-weaving. Everything else has stayed important: canoeing, sailing, swimming, fire-building, knot-tying, riflery, even washing dishes. I use at least one of those skills every day still.

Most of the things we did would be forbidden by today’s liability coverage. Swimming tests substituted for personal flotation devices; yet passing the open-lake test was one of the high points of my young life, and imparted a confidence that’s remained with me ever since.

Camp was cabin inspections and snipe hunts on dark nights. It was earwigs in wet towels and brown rings of dirt around our ankles at the height of our sneakers. It was pink tongues from the war surplus raspberry drink at lunch. It was skit night, canoe jousting, and tug-of-war. It was bullfrogs in the swamp and smallmouths cruising past the boat dock at dusk. And finally it was back onto the old bus with our tattered clothes and smelly duffels for the ride home – but singing this time: “…I got sixpence, jolly, jolly sixpence; I got sixpence to last me all my life!”

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

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