By Bob Schwartz
When I saw my son with the brochure advertising for the summer camp devoted strictly to skateboarding and cartoon drawing, well I knew this wasn't exactly the camp of my youth. Times have changed since I attended those generic multi-activity camps. Camps where I had to endure my inept lanyard-making ability (one time I almost tied off circulation in two of my fingers with my less than brilliant braiding), before engaging in the thrill of water balloon scooter dodgeball.
In sending our first child to camp, we did find a general all-around sleepover one. When camp day arrived, I had the normal trepidation as my wife and I dropped him off with what seemed to be enough supplies to comfortably survive twelve years alone in the wilderness, while also having the capability to change clothing six times a day and never run out of T-shirts and shorts.
As we waved goodbye, I tried to convince myself that he'd write us many enlightening and lengthy letters detailing his superb camp experiences. But, deep down, I knew that was as likely as a bar of soap actually making physical contact with his body at any point over the subsequent two weeks.
As for mail, I just couldn’t quite foresee that he’d be saying to his bunkmates, "Hey, you guys go ahead and have your ice cream and start playing mud volleyball without me. I'm just going to stay inside here and finish up this five-page letter to my folks while I review my daily journal notes, and then do a quick spelling check.”
The first week passed without a single word from our camper. The mailman ultimately learned to put a rubber band around our mail, sprint past the house, and swiftly toss it toward our front door. This way he avoided being the recurring tackling dummy for an overly anxious information-starved parent, namely me, who desperately needed a camp letter of some kind.
As camp progressed into the second week, I wondered if our son had now completely forgotten us or had simply lost all of his seventy-two stamped and addressed envelopes with which we’d diligently equipped him. I thought that maybe we should have sent him with premade post cards that could be completed by simply checking the appropriate boxes:
1. Having lots of fun[ ] I guess it beats school[ ] Get me the heck outta here![ ]
2. I miss everybody back home[ ] See you soon[ ] What was my brother's name again?[ ]
3. The food is great![ ] I’m surviving on PB&J[ ] I’ve lost 10 pounds and my shorts don’t fit![ ]
4. Love and kisses[ ] Signing off from your wild and crazy son[ ] Adios from your tattoo boy[ ]
After what seemed like a decade, we did eventually receive a letter and were pleased to learn the following:
He did indeed remember he had parents and two younger siblings.
The sole reason, apparently, that he finally wrote us was to request that we, as quickly as possible, forward him his latest Nintendo Power magazine.
He could still produce an almost legible four-syllable sentence that seemed, to me, to say: "Camp is a blast!" My more skeptical wife was left wondering if it were instead some new secret code actually reading "Damp in a mast!"
Certainly not a letter with as much detail as the U.S. Tax Code, but it was all we needed to know.
We did thereafter receive a picture of him along with a short, but revealing, note from his counselor. The photo showed our son with a fairly dirty T-shirt, worn inside out and backward, and sporting his shoes untied with no socks on. His hair clearly had not been introduced to his comb for the prior eight days, and chocolate cookie remnants surrounded his smiling mouth as he hammed it up for the camera. He appeared to be having the time of his life, which was indeed confirmed by his counselor's letter stating, "I've yet to meet a warm-blooded mammal of any age that enjoys things so much!”
We finally picked him up after fourteen long days for us and two weeks that zipped by at warp speed for him. We promptly learned about the inherent joy in having your bathing suit pulled off by a thunderous waterskiing wipeout; in addition he confirmed that he could actually eat sixteen “S'mores” without throwing up; he also admitted that he’d lost his toothbrush sometime in the first few days and that he’d learned some great Australian slang terms from his counselor.
He also casually advised us of his gigantic bullfrog named Big Bertha traveling home in his duffel bag, and asked whether we could change the upstairs bathtub into a terrarium for her.
But seeing him interrupt his little brother in mid-sentence with a genuinely affectionate bear hug, reaffirmed to us that despite the constant barrage of head noogies and obligatory older brother insults at home, he did truly miss him.
We also learned that our son could survive quite happily, for a time, without us. Which to a parent is both the most rewarding and frightening lesson of all.
But that is indeed what camp experiences are partially about. Of course that and his proudly wearing the ribbons for winning the OutKast karaoke contest and coming in a close third in the highly challenging Cup - the - Hand - Under - the – Armpit- and – Generate - Noise competition.
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