“Do you remember those summer camp days of your childhood?” Yes! “Well then come to camp Vegas for sexy campfires and…” Wait, what? No,no,no! Not summer camp! Don’t scribble over blissful memories and sweet innocence! It’s summer camp! Stop talking! But leave it to Las Vegas to take nostalgia and warp it into a scandal, leaving the details at the curb lest they follow you home.
Despite the disturbing radio ad, I choose to maintain my scrapbooks stuffed with laughter and mosquito bites. Sleep-away camp summers are my gold standard; experiences encapsulated in bubble wrap and polished in the light of adult comparisons. Camp was the place where I found my footing, and triumphed in the art of lanyards and spontaneity. I cleared my throat when I boarded the bus and learned the language of childhood. I swapped folded creases for cut-off shorts and studied the craft of sneaking out amidst pine trees to rendezvous for romance. As a girl who felt one notch below in school, one season too late with peers, I found my place card at camp. I learned to care less about dirt under my nails and more about how to tie the knot and avoid the boom. I packed rules and order under my bunk bed and set about living with glee, grabbing hands of friends, and showered in the lake. I was willing to bide my time the other 335 days until I could once again fold stationary beside ‘Bottner’ labeled underwear and don my camper title.
Those summer days symbolized my dawn; lessons on waking up and finding space for silliness. Living on minimal sleep and a diet of peanut butter and jelly, we whispered forever vows and carved our dreams into wooden walls. Camp was the ultimate destination, the place to be a kid, to play without consequences, to sing without blushing. I opened my eyes, shedding my controlled routine and studious manner. I leapt out of my tidy box and stretched my definitions of the person I could be.
I found friends who loved without judgment, walking in a row of 6, arms linked and pinky-sworn promises. We dressed in black and raced down hills after midnight, aiming for stolen ice cream sandwiches and illegal moonlight swims. We wrote songs for campfires and awarded medals to those who first lost their voice during Color Wars. We became the ‘Oldest Campers’ and hence, self-appointed rulers of the fields. We organized casino night, debated outfits for the inter-camp dance, and plotted pranks, just to prove we could. We walked with confidence, flip-flops marking our territory, as we staked our claim to Best Friends Forever, Cedar Cabin, 1995.
I wasn’t the perfect camper at age 10. My first summer at Camp Pearlstein was muddied with homesickness,
“Dear Mom and Dad, Please please come pick me up. I really really really want to come home. I'm not having a good time at all here. Today we had arts and crafts and it was really fun. I made lots of friends in my cabin and tonight we’re making smores! Please come pick me up. I hate it here.”
I skipped during the day only to lose my footing at nightfall, darkness calling up the panicked fears of abandonment. But slowly, I learned the blessing of camp and how to grow into a camper…
“Dear Mom and Dad,
I really really miss you and want to come home. Maybe don’t pick me up today, but can you come tomorrow…”
Until day 18…
“Hi mom! They let me call you to ask if I could stay another 3 weeks for second session…”
There was no second session that summer, but a camper was born, and for the next five years, I lived a constant count down – 67 more days until camp, 66, 65…
But the magic of camp isn’t in the details. It’s not the water-skiing or pottery classes, not the rickety cots or murky lake. Camp can’t be seen in the cabin pictures or wrinkled t-shirts, the bleary-eyed counselors or rainy day board games. Camp is more than the life vests and campfire songs. The magic of summer camp is in the wide-angle lens. The picture in retrospect, a vision of silly freedom lacking obligatory lines. Summer camp is a bubble of glory, days requiring only singing until you’re hoarse, striving for laughter-induced stomach aches, and reaching out to find a hand as the sun sets. Summer camp is a glimpse of safety, a pocket of connection, and an envelope sealed with the joy of being real.
I hike with nostalgia through my camp scrapbooks, remembering names and escapades, cabin numbers and melodies mixed with smoke. I can’t peruse the memories without smiling, always wistful for those summer camp months, grateful for the sip of carefree smiles.
Maybe camp Vegas offers adults this same joy. Maybe they lead song sessions and sleep in saggy bunk beds. Maybe there are marshmallows and face-painting, mail calls and summer romances. I doubt it. But I hope so.
I hope that summer camp isn’t just a warm memory. I hope that the magic seeps into adulthood, weaving laughter and hoarse voices into grown-up days. I hope that the six girls with confidence and laughter in my photographs re-emerge, discovered in new connections and fresh adventure. I dig out my camp place card and post it on my fridge in the hopes of spreading a little magic into upcoming summer months. I post it as a reminder to seek joy and settle on freedom. And I smile as I think of camp and remember to cherish the silly and claim my seat in life.
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