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On Being a Camp Person

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  • Posted on 07th Jun, 2022 13:15 PM
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How five summers at sleepaway camp helped me grow—and inspired my debut novel.

I was at the Happiest Place on Earth, and I couldn’t stop crying. It was 1997 and I had just flown to Los Angeles where my aunt—a corporate rockstar who was happily single, childless, and living the West Coast dream—voluntarily traded her freedom for a week of familial bonding with her niece. What she got instead: a fun-sucking eight-year-old with attachment issues.

At Disneyland, I sniffled in line at Space Mountain, my tears blurring the multi-colored lightspeed simulation as I wondered what my sisters—and mom, dad, and our dog Lucky—were doing that very moment. When my aunt took me sailing, I curled up in a ball near the bow, knuckles white as I gripped the rail and tallied every curse she or her friends shouted as the boom jibed, hoping if I told my parents about their linguistic discretions they’d book me an earlier return flight. I was over 2,500 miles from my home in Pennsylvania and I was not okay.

My older sister had visited our aunt the summer before, emerging from the tarmac with a chic new haircut, sparkling sunglasses, and a can’t-touch-me Hollywood attitude. I, on the other hand, returned home with a sprinkling of sunburn, puffy eyes, and a death grip hug for both parents.

The author during her first summer at Oneka, 1998.
Courtesy of the author

And that’s how I ended up at Camp Oneka. Shortly after I got home from California, my aunt told my parents she was concerned about my level of dependency on them (and, I’m sure, my insufferability). My dad spent five childhood summers at a sleepaway camp in New England and immediately suggested something similar for me. (He’s always had more of a throw-em-in-the-water-and-hope-they-don’t-drown mentality.) My mom, less enthused, only warmed to the idea when they landed on Oneka, the Pennsylvania-based all-girls camp she’d attended in the 70s.

By June 1998, I was an Oneka girl. I was also alone, attending camp without my two sisters. Homesickness clutched my body near-immediately, the sobs unstoppable. Junior 1, the cabin reserved for Oneka’s youngest campers, was full of fellow first-timers. Without warning, we were communally smacked in the face with our first Camp Lesson: resilience. Phone calls home weren’t allowed—and there wasn’t an abundance of shoulders willing to let you cry on them for long; homesickness was like a virus no one wanted to catch. I quickly learned I was just going to have to suck it up.

Homesickness found its way onto the back of letters home.
Courtesy of the author
A letter home showing how to sneak candy, which was forbidden in cabins at Oneka, via the mail.
Courtesy of the author

So I did, and by my fifth and final summer at Oneka, I felt like a completely different person. There’s a romance to camp memories, to the way those summers shape you and open your mind to who you are, to who you could become. In my debut novel The Wild One, I touch on camp’s formative power, albeit in a subverted, summer-at-camp-gone-wrong scenario. Because in reality, camp did help transform me into the woman I am today.

Take deck dives. I couldn’t tell you the real-world purpose of these maneuvers, but at camp they were a required skill to advance to the next level in swimming. The gist: You curl your toes over the edge of the swim deck, raise your arms above your head in a pencil shape, and keep your body as stiff as possible while diving into the lake with a goal of making the smallest splash imaginable. They were controlled, torturous, and impossible. I mean, we were tweens, all flailing limbs and manic giggles. But we worked hard, lining up against the edge of the dock, adjusting our matching red one-pieces and titanium white swim caps before swanning into the lake, over and over and over again. And when we perfected our deck dive? Pride. So much pride.

Goofing around just before lights out in 1999.
Courtesy of the author

But pride was rarely excessive at camp. Oneka was packed with athletes—a good percentage of my fellow campers played a sport in college—so rivalry laced most activities, particularly the Red-White Competitions. Playing against our friends didn’t keep us from going all out during soccer and field hockey and softball games, faces speckled with sweat and knees bruised from aggression. Unlike at home, though, we had to live with our competitors. There were always girls who lost it post-game, locking themselves in closets, throwing their gear all over the cabin, silently stewing. And then there were more girls who scoffed at that behavior, and everyone eventually learned if you wanted to keep your friends, you better keep your cool.

Still, tiffs arose. One night, my cabin played a game that was called something like “What I Don’t Like About You,” where we each wrote one thing about our cabinmates we didn’t like. It was brutal and also cathartic. We were on top of one another 24/7, a forced family of wildly different personalities—thick skin was required. Most of us had it; if we didn’t, we developed it. When I was Annie in the Junior Row play, my voice cracked during the opening notes of “Maybe.” I heard about it the rest of the summer (and my sisters, who started at Oneka a year after I did, make fun of me for it to this day). But the criticisms and teasing were forgotten when, say, we were hiking 12 miles along the Appalachian Trail and, 7 miles in, a camper threw up. We gave her space as she spewed, then shared our water and arms for support, and all held hands as we took turns jumping into a watering hole a few miles later.

The author in 2001 packing up her things just before end of session.
Courtesy of the author

Camp runs on community. We were assigned weekly waitressing and scraper duties in the cafeteria; we all had to contribute to our cabins’ inspections or we’d fail and have to clean during free periods; if someone’s towel or clothes smelled, we offered soap and our personal labor for the collective good of the cabin’s noses. We traded clothes (much to our parents chagrin) and shared shaving cream, face glitter, hair ribbons, and nail polish.

We also shared stories. There were the classic ghost stories, like Bloody Mary, and the ones particular to the area, like the rumor that you could sometimes see the tip of a church steeple and hear its bell ring across Lake Wallenpaupack, the manmade lake in the Poconos where we did an overnight on the porch of a run-down cabin. Or the one about Betsy the ghost, an alleged former camper who hit her head on a rock in the lake near Intermediate Row and now haunted its shores. And then there were the stories we told about ourselves. True ones, often heartfelt and eye-opening (I learned more about divorce and sex and addiction at camp than I ever did at my sheltered Catholic grade school), and untrue ones: super hot older boyfriends, trips abroad at fancy hotels, family histories and ties to the famous, sports achievements won and records broken. I never got away with Gatsby-ing myself since my sisters were also campers, but plenty of others did. For new campers especially, camp provided a blank slate.

The author’s cabinmates and counselor during her last year at Oneka, 2002.
Courtesy of the author

Some girls just wanted another life, and in many ways camp provided that. There was always a slight thirst for rebellion among us. We tried to sneak in candy. We pranked one another and our counselors. During the dance with the local all-boys science camp, a handful of girls got their first kisses. It was innocent enough, until it wasn’t.

And that’s when I learned about consequences: real, serious ones. There was the time in Junior Row when we were hiking to a pond and a black bear paused in our path, staring straight at the dozen shaking 11-year-olds cowering in a huddle. Another night, when I was in Intermediate Row, my cabin sat near the edge of camp; I awoke around midnight to the sound of honking and a man’s voice shouting the name of a counselor. The rumor was that they had met at the town’s summer fair a few days earlier and he was just being a drunk 20-something idiot—but, to us 13-year-olds at the time, it was terrifying. In both situations, the camp owners or our counselors guided us to safety, but the hum of something unsettling, of danger lurking just beyond the walls of our sugary camp bubble, was always there.

The Wild One
bookshop.org
$25.10

Sisterhood, though, really does make you feel invincible. We were never worried for long, leaning on one another for shelter through each summer’s harder moments. Some campers are still inseparable—even getting married at Oneka, their wedding parties packed with familiar faces. These days I see my camp friends sporadically, but our bond remains unique, tied by memories of coming-of-age and suspended time.

When I visited my aunt in California in 2011, my first solo trip back since 1997, I showed up with a box of truffles from a female-founded company I had recently profiled and we split them over glasses of Zinfandel. She took me sailing on her new boat, named after the pirate queen of Ireland, and I unabashedly took the wheel to steer Grace O’Malley through the Pacific. Rather than Disneyland, we ended the trip with brunch at a ritzy hotel in Laguna Niguel where I was producing a huge conference. Our glasses brimming with champagne, my aunt toasted the now independent niece she was so proud of—and I toasted the phone call she made that helped put me on that path. To camp, and then, to a new future.

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