Lots of talk about camps these days. Friends are sending kids to swimming camps. Others are going to basketball camps. Teenagers we know are headed to acting camps. They're all sleepaway camps, a chance for young kids to stay away from home for the first time and an opportunity for teens to leave the nest and enjoy some freedom before returning back to their parents, a nice preparation for life after college.
My parents never had any desire to send me off to any camps other than basketball ones and for that I'm forever grateful. I understand their appeal. City-dwellers pack their little ones off to camps in the country where they see real pigs and real crops. Suburban moms and dads load their kids onto a yellow bus that takes them to a green lake where they get to be around water for the only time all year. They learn how to interact with other kids. They learn, I don't know, woodworking skills, so when they return home they can show off the shabbily made hat rack they constructed at camp. It boosts their self-esteem, at least when it's not being stomped out of them by a goon named Billy and his giggling 11-year-old henchmen.
I dreaded the idea of those types of camps as a kid.
Here's how I spent my summers during my elementary school years:
Shot baskets at the city park for five hours a day. Pepper with friends at the baseball field. Played quarterback or wide receiver in pickup football games. Stood on Mott Street alone, throwing a tennis ball against a rock wall for hours at a time, practicing my fielding. Ran around the tennis court for three straight hours, took a half-hour break, went back for two hours. Rode my bike around Janesville, including trips to Lake Elysian. Bought cheap baseball cards at Wiste's with my friend Brandon. Beat everyone in town who had the guts to challenge me in ping-pong.
And I was supposed to give that up for a week or two or three spent at some lake with dozens of kids, none of whom I knew, many of whom likely displayed sociopathic tendencies when lodged in poorly constructed cabins and supervised by horny teens who look the other way at camp shenanigans while getting to second-base with their fellow counselors? Certainly the fact I was not an outdoorsman played into my perhaps-ignorant disdain for camps. I loved being outside, but not if it involved fishing, hunting, fires, tents, bugs, hikes or treks. I wasn't a Boy Scout, at least not an upper-case one.
Only once did I ever come close to going to a real camp. In the summer before sixth grade, I learned I'd been selected to attend the school safety patrol camp in Legionville, near Brainerd. The camp - which supposedly is the only one of its kind in the United States - lasts a week and teaches kids to be crossing guard captains. It's on a lake. I wanted to remove myself from consideration, but I don't know that anyone had ever been done so in the program's history, which goes back decades.
Crossing guards are apparently a Minnesota invention, like Bisquick and the Green Giant. At the camp you learn safety patrol essentials, although I'm not sure what the essentials are: how to hold the flag, how loud to yell at students who walk outside the lines? You learn how to lead your fellow crossing guards. But you also swim and canoe. The camp apparently works, as does Minnesota's attention to school safety patrol. According to this trooper, "since the school patrol began in 1920, there has never been a fatality at a crossing where the school patrol has been on duty."
It's a great achievement. Still, I'm not sure if the camp deserves all the credit for that great safety record. Specifically, how does canoeing and swimming help the junior safety patrol members? What's the connection? Do they teach crossing-guard training at swimming camps?
I fortunately never found out what exactly happens at the crossing guard camp. My parents had already planned a vacation for the week in question, a trip to Kansas City to see my uncle Jerry. Later I heard some stories about the camp, some of which I believed involved depantsings of weaker children. Instead of spending that week in Legionville, I spent it in K.C., taking in a Royals game in their beautiful stadium, seeing Top Gun on the big screen and watching the Celtics clinch the NBA title. All right, so not everything about the week went well.
I missed the camp and missed out on my chance to be a captain. In fact, I didn't become any type of crossing guard, though I did enjoy their efforts as they helpfully kept us safe on the mean streets of Janesville.
My prejudices weren't restricted to sleepaway camps. For a few years, Janesville's Catholic church, St. Ann's, ran a little camp early in the summer, where we gathered with other little Catholics from other little towns for a week of bible study and games. It was as boring as it sounds - sorry, Mom. And with the church one alley away from our home, I had no chance of avoiding the camp or scripture.
Finally, in the summer before seventh grade, I went to my first sleepaway camp. A Pacesetter basketball camp. A week-long camp where I knew no one and had to show off my Janesville skills in front of southwest Minnesota's young hoopsters. It wasn't too stressful, though. The camp was in Fulda. And instead of sleeping in a bunk bed with a snoring roommate, I stayed with my grandma, in an upstairs bed. Instead of eating burnt marshmallows, I ate French toast and bacon - every morning - and hamburgers, roast beef and chocolate shakes at night. It was the type of sleepaway camp I could handle.
Louise didn't have much time for camps as a kid either. She hated the sports and other activities but did manage to capture one honor - the prestigious Boy Chaser Award. She still has the certificate. As parents, we'll probably ignore our own youths and pack our bawling children off to sleepaway camp, where they'll learn crafts and woodworking and improve their self-esteem. They'll swim and canoe and write letters home, telling us how much they love the camp, or at least that's the letters we'll read once the camp censors are finished with their edits.
Or maybe we'll schedule some family vacations for those weeks.