But of all the memories from all my years at camp, there is one that stands alone in its clarity and sacredness, one memory that lives with me as a moment of truest perfection. Because it is a ghost of happiness past, it can never be destroyed or undone—it stands like a lighthouse of my childhood.
When our parents dropped us off at summer camp, they saw the rows of wooden cabins and the smiling staff; they saw the oak trees arching over the gravel road that led down to the lake and the beat-up camp trucks; they saw the piles of trunks packed with bug spray and swim goggles. They saw campers running every which way chasing footballs, Frisbees, and Gypsy, the faithful camp retriever. They saw the ever-present tribe of girl campers braiding each other’s hair and whispering secrets and shooing away spies who tried to interfere. Then there was always the tinny sound of cheerful music playing over the PA, the brightly colored flags hanging overhead, and the general atmosphere of a backwoods carnival. To them this was, basically, camp.
When our parents dropped us off at camp they saw a well-oiled machine: people, property, and programs all working together in the spirit of clean-cut American optimism. What they didn’t see, at least not directly, was the magic that came to life as soon as the last minivan or station wagon left the camp gates—the kind of magic that only comes to life in a place where there are cliffs to jump from, campfires to gather around, and tribal ceremonies to perform. The kind of magic that only happens when moms and dads are absent. They too might have experienced the camp magic when they were children—and maybe even longed to experience it once again—but they could not. They were adults now and had to buy insurance and pay for something called a mortgage. When our parents dropped us off, they saw the face and shook the hand of camp, but it was only us kids felt its heartbeat and saw it come fully alive under long days of sunshine and the cloudless cerulean sky of our youth.
For those of us who went to camp year after year, summer was the nucleus around which the whole calendar circled. We believed camp was the best place on Earth (or anywhere else for that matter)—our own private Neverland. Except for video games, camp had everything we could ever want in life: tree houses and ball fields, a lake full of boats, bows and arrows and rifles, card tricks, and unlimited peanut butter sandwiches.
At camp we didn’t have to wear shoes, but we wore bliss and we wore mischief.
There in the woods beside the lake, we found a place of profound simplicity, but also of expansive imagination. We were happy castaways who evolved into something perhaps less civilized but substantially more alive than what we were back in the suburbs. There, on a hill named for an Indian chief, we succeeded and failed in the arenas of competition. We bestowed nicknames upon one another. We broke things and built things. We idolized our counselors, those elder statesmen of outdoor do-goodery. We tried our hands at chivalry. We dressed as pirates and spoke in codes. We played the part of little brothers and big sisters and, if we could find the courage, the bravest of us even dared to dance with a member of the opposite sex.
But of all the memories from all my years at camp, there is one that stands alone in its clarity and sacredness, one memory that lives with me as a moment of truest perfection. Because it is a ghost of happiness past, it can never be destroyed or undone—it stands like a lighthouse of my childhood, casting a searchlight over other foggy and darker memories. Even today if I close my eyes the scene materializes immediately and I can see it—I see us, sitting there near the cold lake, gathered around a roaring fire. I can see Rudy and B. Rob and Chris Minor and “Scharr Daddy” and all the boys sitting on railroad ties, weaving tall tales. I see their freckles and well-beaten tennis shoes, their sunburned skin, and the fire reflected in their eyes. I can hear us teasing Rudy. I can hear him tease us back. I can see the fiery dust flying upward each time we stir the coals and I can see kids drawing hieroglyphs in the sand at their feet. I can smell the smoke and seared sugar of lost marshmallows. I can smell that singular “lake smell” drifting over the camp road. How many hours did we sit there?
How many times did we gather and spin the yarn of our own mythology, our own greatness? How much did we laugh at each other’s clumsiness and our own lame jokes? I can see us then: both innocent and mean, fearless and terrified.
We sat together around that campfire first as little boys and then as adolescents and then as young men. Like a pilgrimage to the holy forest was summer camp; like a counsel of mighty chieftains were we around the campfire. There in the immortality of memory live the finest moments of my youth, spent with the greatest friends I’ve ever known.
The kids back at home, who never went to camp, never understood us—not the inside jokes or the camp legends or the songs. They didn’t understand the value of the “Best All-Around Athlete” ribbons that hung on our walls or why we treasured the hand-written letters that came from old counselors and cabin-mates. Mostly, our friends back home were shocked that we would choose to live for a month without air-conditioning. Camp was an enigma to outsiders and we liked it that way. For kids from the suburbs, camp was our Narnia—once experienced it needed no explanation—but you had to step through the wardrobe to “get it.” There we met fantastic characters, set out upon great adventures, and always came home a bit wiser and braver and taller than when we had left.
Whatever it cost our parents to send us to camp all those years, it was worth it. Their investments have paid us back with the immeasurable richness of a lifetime of golden summer memories that burn warmly through all seasons.
Reprinted with kind permission of Kinfolk Magazine.