Let’s face it: there are misguided parents who send their children to summer camp for the wrong reasons—outdoor activities, like sports and games, or specialty programs, like theater or music. At a local private college, weekend campers, ages 7-17, learn programming, Web design, robotics and video game designs. Nerd campers supposedly leave the weekend with lifelong friends and social skills.
None of these programs are really camp.
Camp is, based on my years of experience as a camper, counselor, and camp program director, the place where kids go to play and meet friends, but the true American summer camp is an institution where children learn about sex. If the camp, religious or secular, does its job, kids will come away with a rudimentary sex education that allows nervous parents to wait for “The Talk” until kids are sufficiently mature enough, like ages 18 or 19.
My parents sent me to three-week sleepaway camp on the Oregon Coast when I was eight. That’s third grade, in case you’re wondering. I could barely make out the word balloons in my Little Lulu comics. Little Lulu was a girl who always wore a red dress and dark hair in ringlets. I didn’t know anyone like her, but I identified with her because she never laundered her red dress and she had two dark dots for eyes and an upside down “V” for a nose. I may have been unattractive, but even I looked better than Little Lulu. And if she could get a boyfriend named Tubby, there was hope for me.
The setting of the camp was a forest perched on pristine Devil’s Lake, a relatively shallow coastal lake linked to the Pacific Ocean and sharing its seawater temperature as gullible campers discovered. The camp’s PR brochure had shown kids with big grins frolicking in the lake, when in truth their jaws were locked at the first dive into the 33 degree temperature.
Devil’s Lake itself was fed by the connecting D River, “the shortest river in the world” at 120 feet, that runs through the town formerly known as Delake. That name came from the early Finnish homesteaders who were heard to say, “I’m going to de lake,” as well as “I’m going to buy de salt water taffy.”
Years later, a group of fifth graders in Great Falls, Montana, with nothing else to do except killing the state bird, mounted a challenge and claimed their Roe River was shorter. In the interest of equality, the wussy Guinness Book of World Records stripped the D River of its title. Since the entire economy of adjacent Lincoln City, Oregon depended on the letter D, (“D River,” “Delake,” “Delake Recreation Area, Delake Chamber of Commerce”), the city contested the Guinness ruling. In response, Guinness created a duel title for the shortest river, distinguishing between measurements during low tide or high tide, so that the Roe River and D River shared the title. When the dispute continued, Guinness resolved the matter in 2006 by issuing a judicious opinion that began “To Hell with it,” and eliminated “the shortest river” category.
When I arrived at camp, the first story I heard about Devil’s Lake was the local Siletz Indian legend that a creature long ago had emerged from the water to capture a group of Siletz warriors, and pulled them down into the lake.
The second story I heard was that eight year old campers, the youngest, were required to take swimming lessons early every morning in Devil’s Lake.
This did not make for good sleep habits.
Nor did the fact that if I wanted to use the bathroom at night, I had to find my way in the dark across a grassy slope and over to the outdoor, five-stall wooden latrine, where during the day giant Oregon slugs, overcome by the ever-present scent of the latrine, hung off the outdoor log walls.
The latrine was where I first learned about sex.
It was so puzzling. One moment my counselor was reading Winnie the Pooh to me and the other eight year olds, though not in the latrine. The next moment I was trying to decipher in the privacy of the wooden stall certain handwritten expressions like “bool crap” and “Esther does it.” Apparently Esther was well-known because she was written up in the other two camp latrines.
One day I saw someone had written the “F” word. An older camper—–for this is the purpose of Older Campers, according to the American Camping Association—-explained to me in couple of sentences what “F” meant. After listening to the Older Camper, I was certain she had some serious mental defect. I could believe in the Sea-Creature of Devil’s Lake before I could believe what “F” supposedly was.
[in consideration of the ridiculously short attention span of blog readers, this post theme will be continued…]