‘Into the Pool, Kid!’
What’s more terrifying than a scary summer camp story told to wide-eyed kids around a bonfire? The stinging memories of an adult who had a bad camp experience as a kid and fears the same thing will happen to her child.
My daughters were ready for summer camp long before I was ready to let them go. I didn’t really want to go to camp, you see.
In New York City, “playing outside” frequently means playing on the sidewalk or in the streets. As an only child growing up in Queens, I preferred the safety of my picture books and TV. But at the end of first grade my parents decided that fresh air, green grass, and other kids to run around with would be better for me than “being cooped up” in our basement apartment all summer.
To this end, they enrolled me in a day camp on Long Island especially for city kids—bus service included. So on my first day I boarded the camp bus at 8 a.m., clutching my Peanuts lunchbox and a security blanket of sorts—a massive orange terrycloth towel on which my mother had sewn L-I-N-D-A in letters a foot high.
I left my familiar neighborhood far behind as the bus drove on, stopping repeatedly to pick up more campers. Too shy to make eye contact, I practiced my reading skills sounding out storefront signs. Joo-ish Dell-eye. Dry Clee-ners. Real Eee-state.
Between the stop-start ride and the reading, I grew nauseous as the trip went on and on. My Barbie wristwatch said 10 o’clock when we finally pulled into a large parking lot. Counselors waved us toward a lawn behind a two-story boarded-up building with a sign on top. Mow-tell.
As soon as I spread out my towel, two kids plopped down. “Hey!” I yelled. They turned to me with mean faces. Other buses pulled up, disgorging their passengers. Soon the entire lawn was covered with fidgety children corralled between the asphalt parking lot and a chain-link fence surrounding a concrete swimming pool.
Two counselors launched into Hokey Pokey and B-I-N-G-O, but nobody paid attention. Under a shady tree three picnic tables offered arts and crafts to kids led over in small groups. They came back with big smiles and paper bag puppets decorated with yarn hair, macaroni noses and button eyes. When my turn came, supplies had run out.
Back at the towel the sun was beating down. I looked longingly at the pool beyond the fence, but my reverie was interrupted by a loud whistle. Counselors mimed Lunchtime. My PB&J was soggy. The milk in my thermos was warm.
We were told we could go swimming after lunch but we had to wait an hour. More singing. “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” “If You’re Happy And You Know It.” I wasn’t. I was one of the last kids escorted behind the fence. Sitting on my towel, I dangled my feet in the water. At last.
But then a counselor yelled, “Into the pool, kid!”
“I don’t know how to swim,” I said in a small voice.
“Sure you do!” Suddenly I was flying. Then I was under water.
The world floated above me, distorted, rippling. I broke through, screamed, then sank again.
Hands pulled me out. Gagging and crying, I couldn’t find my towel. Later I noticed those mean-faced kids wrapped in it, LINDA dragging on the ground. By the time I got it back it was 2 o’clock and we were ushered onto our buses. I arrived at my stop at 4 p.m., sunburned, tearful and terrified of going back.
I never did.
School may be about the Three Rs, but for me summer camp was the Three Ts: Transit (four hours on the bus), Tedium (four hours on the lawn) and Terror (40 seconds of drowning in the pool).
My parents found out later that the enterprising owner of the defunct motel had tried to pass it off as a day camp—unsuccessfully, in my case.
No wonder my PCSD (Post-Camp Stress Disorder) kicked in when my daughters Jaye and Em clamored to go. We risked single-day puppetry camps (no paper bags allowed), two days a week of games and swimming (nobody drowned), two-week theater camp, and, finally, multiple-week village- and town-run programs and YMCA camps.
When the time came for sleepaway camp, however, I had panic attacks and visions of them at Motel Hell Camp, Em thrown into a pool, Jaye crying as another child stole her LINDA towel. (Still with us after 30 years, it had become the family favorite.) I imagined the girls on a 15-hour bus ride, reading highway billboards featuring exotic dancers and fireworks each time they crossed state lines.
Of course they didn’t take a bus. We drove them to a collection of ramshackle cabins on the shore of a weedy lake where they said their goodbyes and ran off without looking back. On the drive home I kept thinking about the sign that marked the road to camp: Dead End.
When we picked them up two weeks later, they were sunburned, bug-bitten and happy. Em told us about the Wayne lamp, a revolving disco-ball light awarded to the campers who kept the tidiest cabin. Jaye described the wildly painted bath house and shower stalls depicting various camp legends. Both chattered on about the farewell dance party.
Summer camp became an annual pilgrimage, the high point of their year and better than Disney World. They learned new games, new skills and life lessons. The first year Em and her bunkmate didn’t shower for two weeks because “nobody told us to!” Jaye was upset to find a nearby lake tainted by an oil spill downriver and realized that even the Adirondacks were vulnerable to pollution.
Socks were lost, hoodies left behind, and the LINDA towel disappeared. I grew quiet when they told me. It had been my last link to a painful memory, but the sting had been soothed by their happy experiences. Losing it was probably for the best.
But we weren’t quite done with that towel. I saw it once more when we picked up Em after her final camp stay. I was in the dining hall getting a drink of water when a familiar orange floral pattern caught my eye. A camper was using a tattered remnant to wipe down tables. It wasn’t the piece with my name on it, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t need it any more.
Linda Lowen writes for MSN.com, where she covers technology, pop culture, style and home decor. She also teaches creative non-fiction writing at the Downtown Writer’s Center. She lives in Syracuse with her husband and is mother to two daughters and a mini schnauzer.
Photo above: © Andrey Burkov | Dreamstime.com