I was six years old when my parents put me on a Greyhound bus and sent me off to a sleepaway camp in Massachusetts for eight weeks.
If you’re someone who has never gone to camp – or you’re someone who did go and found living in the wilderness an unpleasant experience defined most vividly by poison ivy and mildewed towels that never fully become dry – being shipped away for an entire summer probably sounds like a rustic form of child abuse.
For me, they were the very best summers of my life.
Camp Norwich was hilly and it was set on a scenic lakefront. I learned to waterski and sail in those frigid waters, and a few summers later, I did my first full skinny-dip in them on a double-dare. The camp had no pool; all the water action took place in the guppy-filled lake. After a while, I got used to the motion of teeny fish swimming through my toes.
Up several rocky hills were the tents in which we lived. They had a raised platform floor and a few electrical outlets for us to plug in our essentials: hair dryers and those enormous portable radios we called "boxes" back in the 80s. When it rained, and it often did, the patter of the water against the tarp became melodic, even when the tent itself began to shake in those winds that sometimes precede or accompany a fierce summer storm. On sunny days, we'd roll up the tent flaps and the rays would shine in and we'd swing our legs off the ledge. About five of us lived in one tent, plus a counselor, and years later when I became a counselor at another camp, it amazed me to realize that the person put in charge of the physical and emotional wellbeing of children living in the woods for two months was a teenager.
Back then it seemed nobody had the peanut allergy that’s almost ubiquitous amongst kids today, so Norwich never had to be declared a Nut-Free Zone. We were allowed to have care packages sent with no restrictions, and my mother never disappointed. All those delicious artificial foods I was never allowed to even glance at during the school year became my warm weather dietary staples. Spray cheese I’d squeeze onto buttery Ritz crackers. Sour Cream and Onion Pringles. Nestlé’s Quik – but only the chocolate kind because the strawberry one never dissolved – and my favorite: Hostess cupcakes with that perfect vanilla loopy swirl. One time my dad sent me a can of black olives with a peel-off top, and I traded one solitary olive for an entire pack of gum (full-sugar watermelon Bubblicious), and to this day, it goes down as the best barter I've ever made, and that includes the time I got the guy at the amusement park to just give me a giant teddy bear in exchange for a smile.
One very silent night, I woke up to the sound of a rustling coming from underneath my cot. I peeked down and a raccoon, face filled with Twinkie, stared back at me. I was frozen; turns out real raccoons look very little like the fluffy, happy ones who appear in cartoons. This ferocious-looking creature eventually slunk away, apparently full, and my relief that I hadn't been mauled was mixed with anger. Those were my fucking Twinkies.
In that first summer, when I was very young, I still believed in the tooth fairy. My fairy's name was Olive T. Fairy – and she was incredible. She would leave me long letters when she collected my newly lost baby teeth, and she would tell me in those letters what she had done with my last tooth and her plans for the newest one in her collection. Olive explained how my teeth lined the bottom of her huge swimming pool and that they decorated the crystal lighting fixtures in her house. She apparently had decorating skills, and I was pleased enough that I had helped her to create a modern shabby chic design scheme that I never allowed myself to notice how similar her handwriting was to my mother's.
So there I was: six years old, away from home, and one tooth down. But when I went to the pebble-bottomed water fountain to wash it off – Olive, like my mother, preferred clean white teeth – I dropped my itty bitty tooth into the swarm of pebbles, and it was lost forever. I was inconsolable. My counselor, my friends, the camp director – all of them tried to convince me it was okay. But it was my older sister who had a solution: draw a picture of the lost tooth, she told me, and leave it and an explanation letter for Olive under my pillow. She'd understand, Leigh said. And since some of my earlier teeth had helped create a sparkly picture frame that Olive had recently hung over the clawed-foot tub in her master bath, maybe my tooth picture could go in the frame! I did what she told me, and that night Leigh got permission from her counselor and mine to leave her tent and, using only a flashlight, she tiptoed into my tent in the wee hours. She removed the picture and the note I'd left for Olive, and she placed candy under my pillow that she'd purchased at Canteen that night. I woke up to a huge grape Laffy Taffy. I couldn't believe Olive had found me in the wilderness, and I hoped she hadn't had to battle a rabid raccoon to do her job.
Three summers later, two big things transpired: I stopped believing in the tooth fairy – and I had my first real crush. His name was Asa. He was blonde and he looked strong and he told me he liked my smile. One sun-drenched afternoon, he gave me a necklace down by the waterfront while we stood on a rock. The necklace was made of fake silver and it turned a portion of my neck green, but it was still quite the moment for a nine year old – or it was until my friend Stephanie had to use a loofah to help me scrub the green from my skin before Visiting Day so my mother wouldn’t think I had turned moldy.
If you stayed at camp for the full eight weeks, you were called a "Lifer." I guess the term was meant to convey that you had survived it all: the tents, the chipmunks running across your bed, the orange newts we would keep in empty shoeboxes as pets (they were never lifers; those poor, captured suckers died of starvation and dehydration in less than a day), the dining hall’s disgusting shepherd's pie and the sweltering heat that always crushed down on us the moment it became August. To celebrate the end of summer, and those of us who stayed the entire time instead of leaving after a two, four, or six week sessions, we’d get to go on Lifer’s Night Out.
I think I need to stop for a moment to explain why Lifer’s Night Out was such a big deal by momentarily hopping forward in time:
I was seventeen, and I found myself unexpectedly part of a pathetic love triangle in which I served as the shittiest corner. Miserable at the prospect of a summer surrounded by two people I felt had betrayed me, I took an opportunity when it presented itself that allowed me to leave my home on Long Island for the summer to become a counselor at a gorgeous camp nestled into the farmlands of Pennsylvania.
Whoever designed this camp could have given Olive T. Fairy a run for her money. Vibrant flowers in every color lined the grounds of Headquarters, and the lawn around the Olympic-sized swimming pool was always neatly trimmed. If you walked up a big hill, you found the go-kart track and the rock climbing wall and the amphitheatre that overlooked the sprawling golf course – which, incidentally, were all places I would sneak off to in the dead of the night to spend time with my new camp boyfriend because that’s the kind of thing that happens when you hire seventeen year olds to be in charge.
At that camp, parents sent their child’s trunk ahead of time, and in the days before the campers arrived, the counselors would unpack every trunk and make every kid’s bed. The belief was that if a homesick kid arrived at camp and saw her favorite purple tee lined up neatly in the cubby and saw her bed already made with her flowered comforter and recognized Fluffy, her chocolate brown Pound Puppy resting happily against her pillows, chances were high that the kid would recover quickly from hysterics and go out and play a rollicking game of beachfront basketball. And that idea, though stunning to me as someone who lived out of a trunk and in a tent for six summers, made sense, even if I did spend hours cursing my campers before I even met them for having so much fucking stuff that I had to give up one of my own cubbies where thirty-seven of my black tank tops were already perfectly organized.
At the Pennsylvania camp, we lived in huge bunks that came equipped with working doors, fans built in to the windows, and bathrooms. (Oh yeah – at Norwich, the bathrooms were in a separate building down a hill. This is why, though I would have to either be hallucinating or dying to ever use a porta potty today, I can still pee out the side of a tent with no problem whatsoever.)
Odder still, we left the Pennsylvania camp every single week. We would go to the movies and to Dorney Park and to Hershey Park. If it rained, they’d often take us bowling. If it rained at Norwich, the entire camp would pile into the dining hall with sleeping bags and pillows and they would show the entire camp the same movie on a large television that had a VCR attached.
The same movie for kids ages six through sixteen? Why, whatever appropriate movie did the wise person in charge select?
Since I’m now relatively certain that “wise person” was probably at best, eighteen years old and high as a kite, here are some of the movies they screened for us during stormy days at Norwich:
St. Elmo’s Fire.
And then, when the rain cleared up just a few hours later, they made us dive into a lake they sworewas shark-free, but really, what the hell did they know? They had been dumb enough to show us Jaws.
But my point – besides that Norwich counselors had either questionable or perverse taste in films – is that we stayed in camp for eight weeks. Leaving, even for just one evening, was a huge deal.
Lifer’s Night Out began like this: the Lifers would be called down to the dining hall over the loudspeaker. Like royalty, we would bid adieu to those left behind. Gathering together like we were the chosen ones, we’d board buses that would bounce down the dirt roads for twenty minutes until we hit a paved highway.
Our first stop was Friendly’s. Earlier in the week, we had to choose our dinner from a limited menu (hamburger, hotdog, or cheeseburger) and then we would sit on the curb as our meals were delivered to us. (Not a typo – we ate in the parking lot. And balancing a cheeseburger and a Fribble on your knee isn’t as easy as you’d think when you’re eight years old.)
Then we would pile onto the buses again – and I would pray that nobody would throw up because vomit on buses always terrified me more than any other kind of vomit – and only then would we be told what movie we were seeing. One year we saw Back to the Future. Another year it was
The Last Starfighter, which I disliked so ferociously that I think I blocked out the movie’s plot the way I would one day learn to block out my middle school years. And one year the selection was E.T.,and when I saw the sequence where E.T., Elliot, and their friends take flight across the luminous shine of the moon in the most gorgeous of wide shots and the score began to swell, I had my first experience with true movie magic.
Camp changed as I got older, or maybe it was me that changed, but in my later years I was less interested in the organized activities. I always liked waterskiing, but I was content with the prospect of never playing another game of kickball again. My last summer there was when friendship bracelets became a thing, and I’m pretty sure I spent eight weeks weaving colorful strings together, a safety pin affixed to my clothing at all times so I could keep the bracelets taut as I worked.
The bonds that developed over several consecutive summers in my core group of friends – we were six girls and three boys – had grown strong, and amazingly, even before the days of Facebook, we managed to somewhat stay in touch over the phone through the winter. We never saw each other though, except at camp, but as soon as another summer began, it was as though no real time had passed. From that early stage of my life, that level of understanding and familiarity was how I learned to define a true friendship.
I stopped going to camp after age twelve, but its hills and its shores have never left my mind. Some nights – and I mean nights when I was well into my twenties – if I couldn’t sleep, I would walk through the camp in my mind. I would remember the gigantic rock on the upper field that I was never able to fully climb and which trail in the woods led to where the closing campfire was held. I can still see the rocks we would paint in Arts and Crafts on our last full day, scrawling across them our name and the years we were part of the Norwich family. At the end of the campfire, after the songs had been sung and after the tears had been shed, we would place our rocks beside the smoldering fire.
I’d bet almost anything that those rocks are there still.
Norwich closed many years ago, and for a long time I heard the land had been sold to a developer who was building condos for homeowners who craved isolation in a scenic lake setting. I mourned the loss of a place that had seen my first kiss and my first use of a tampon and my first understanding that the deepest friendships can survive the participants not seeing one another for many months of the year.
For a long time, just the scent of the air after it had rained, as day morphed seamlessly into dusk, reminded me of camp.
Once I called Leigh to simply say, “I went outside tonight – and it smelled like Norwich.” And she knew just what I meant.
Many moons later, when Google first became a mainstream way to access information, I typed “Camp Norwich” and “Huntington, MA” into the search engine. What I found was that the camp had never been turned into housing, but instead stood untouched. As far as I could tell from the limited information I could find, my childhood summer home had been left barren since the year after I stopped attending.
I called my sister to tell her the momentous news. She had just given birth, so the possibility of her hopping in the car and taking a four-hour road trip to walk through the woods was not likely, so I appealed to my mother who can always be talked into an adventure. I printed out the closest directions to the camp that I could find, figuring the dirt road MapQuest led us to couldn’t possibly be too far from the dirt road of my youth.
After hour three in the car, my mother asked me if I had called ahead to make sure there wasn’t a gate or a fence that would prohibit us from entering.
“There’s no gate,” I assured her.
She drove for another five minutes and then turned to me, a glint in her eye.
“You have no idea if there’s a gate, do you?”
“I have no idea,” I told her. “But I’ll give you a boost if necessary.”
We drove and the roads went from paved to rocky to pure dirt and then, out of the blue, there was the camp. Only a low fence blocked our entry, so we left the car on the side of the road and hopped over the mini barrier.
And then I was back.
I saw the platform floors of the tents that no longer had tarps. I looked at the pole where once I played games of tetherball that had left more than thirty kids a summer with a bloody nose. I walked down the hill to the lake and I stood on the rock where I had received my first gift from a boy, and I gazed across the water at those shores that I had once known so well and I could almost feel them looking back at me.
I carved my name and Leigh’s into the railing of one of the crumbling buildings and I found (and stole) a No Trespassing sign that was propped against what was left of a wooden fence I used to sit on daily.
There are places, I think, that have an innate dignity to them, and Norwich, even after all those years, was one of them. It was overgrown and it was dirty and some of the buildings seemed to lean jarringly to the left, but it still appeared strong and vibrant. And as we drove away, the dirt of the road swirling majestically behind us, I felt like I had literally just revisited my past – and I recognized how fortunate I had always been.