(HOST) As Labor Day weekend comes to an end, and summer campers everywhere pack up their memories and head for home, commentator Caleb Daniloff recalls a not-your-average summer camp experience he had as a boy.
(DANILOFF) One of my clearest summer-camp memories is the sight of my bunkmates making each other pass out. It involved a not-to-be-tried-at-home deep breathing trick. Within seconds, a boy would slump to the floor, limp as laundry, face as if sleeping. He’d come to about 20 seconds later, bewildered at first. But there was a line to go next. I stood in it, too.
The name of the camp was Yolochka, or Little Pine Tree, a Soviet Pioneer camp, where kids went to bond not with each other or nature, but with the Soviet state. It was 1981, I was 11 years old and my journalist parents and I had just moved to Moscow. They thought Pioneer camp might be a good way to learn the language and culture.
So decked out in a white Pioneer shirt with epaulettes and gold-colored buttons, I boarded one of several dozen buses bound for Yolochka, a few hours outside of Moscow. My campmates wore shiny red scarves marking them as young Pioneers – communists in training wheels.
We slept in a two-story concrete dormitory. Several times a day, campers lined up at the flagpole to salute the hammer and sickle. We spent hours sweeping our designated areas. Afternoon naps were required. Lunch was oily soup, black bread and a gritty fruit drink. No one seemed unhappy except me. After three days, I ran away and called my parents.
Back home several days later, a warm-faced Yolochka counselor named Volodya showed up at our apartment, asking whether I’d come back, that he’d look after me. He brought me a red Pioneer scarf and showed me how to tie it. I agreed.
Volodya was great and my Russian took flight. At the end of the session, everyone signed my Pioneer scarf. And though I still have that scarf and several years ago reconnected with Volodya, it’s the image of us boys fainting in our room that remains most vivid.
It’s a scene that matures in my mind, always open for interpretation. I could barely communicate with my roommates at the time, a virtual mute, yet we bonded over this loss of consciousness, laying vulnerable at each other’s feet. No divisions, only trust, a relationship beyond language and culture.
It was a time when I first took notice of the fluidity of human nature. We weren’t stuck in who we were at home. Each of us was discovering how to translate ourselves between worlds – from West to East in my case; from the promise of childhood to the austerity of a communist life for my bunkmates. At eleven years old, fainting was a transitional tool.
In Vermont this summer, nostalgia for this adolescent passage has been thick, infused, in part, by Michael Eisner’s joyful ode to Camp Keewaydin in Salisbury. And I need only look at my step- daughter clutching a new list of camper addresses to see why – the intense group bonding, the freedom to be vulnerable, and the paths between the two.
For in our own way – me, my stepdaughter, those Soviet boys – each of us realized one summer morning we’d woken up in the same place no longer the same. And that’s a moment you never forget.
This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.
Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer, and recipient of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill Jr. Literary Prize.