My 9-year-old daughter is heading off to overnight camp this summer. Each morning, the first thing she does upon waking up is write down the number of days remaining until she heads off to the North Woods of Wisconsin. "Sixty-two days left," she calls out as she lifts her backpack and heads out the door for school. For her, the days pass slowly. But for the umpteenth time since becoming a parent, I'm startled at how time works -- racing by in huge spurts when I'm not looking, then circling back on itself in memory loops, my daughter's rites of passage commingling with memories of my own.
My girlfriend Kim and I are 9 years old, and we are surreptitiously sliding napkin-wrapped stewed prunes up our sweat shirt sleeves. We are at Camp Talaki, an all-girls YWCA-run overnight camp in Wisconsin's North Woods. Here, for some unfathomable reason, ingesting the daily serving of prunes is strictly enforced. Not eating them has become the centerpiece of our resistance.
We hate Camp Talaki. We hate singing, "I am Proud to be a Potawatomi," the listless theme song assigned to our cabin. With our wild, unruly hair, disinterest in Jesus and what we consider our rebellious sense of humor, we are fish out of water. We squirm during grace before meals. Our cabinmates, with their matching plastic barrettes, and tight-lipped passivity, are foreign to us. Our counselors are pointedly square. Their leader is "Jeb," the rabidly athletic head counselor, who looks and sounds startlingly like a man, even in her black bikini. This, more than anything else, fascinates us.
I do not sleep well at Camp Talaki. At night, I lay awake for a long time, listening to the other Potawatomis snore softly. I am haunted by the misfortune of the quiet orange-haired girl whose bed is diagonal to mine. For reasons that are never explained, she has a metal hook in place of her left hand. By day, she sticks closely to the girl she came up with. For two weeks, she manages to keep her voice close to a whisper.
Each night, a pale brunette to whom I never speak sleepwalks over to the foot of my bunk, stops, lifts her nightgown, and urinates on the floor before trudging back to her bed to sleep. At 9 years old, I find this both mortifying and hilarious. More unsettling are the nocturnal visits from "Andre," a manic, wiry tomboy prone to excited, disjointed monologues. Sheer nervous energy wakes her up and sends her to my bedside, where she crouches and shakes my arm, whispering furiously. Her eyes shine like black agates. I watch out of one gluey, sleep-deprived eye as she shows me her rabbit's foot and then demonstrates the new knot she's invented for her shoelaces. Every night, the pattern repeats itself. The crouch, the shining eyes, the rabbit's foot, the knot.
Kim and I eventually hatch a plan to sneak into the infirmary, with the hope of making a phone call to "the outside." We are caught. We write melodramatic letters home on tie-dyed stationary, cataloging our misery with relish. Our parents don't respond to this directly, but write back chatty letters full of Zen-like serenity and reassurance. We are misunderstood from all sides. This deepens our bond.
Thirty years later, we remember Camp Talaki with a mixture of disbelief and black humor.... It is, I imagine, the way combat photographers swap war stories.
Kim and I are soured on the YWCA, but not on the idea of overnight camp. Armed with bug spray, rain ponchos and flashlights, we return to the North Woods, this time to the JCC-run Camp Interlaken near Eagle River.
It is, in every respect, a success. Much to our delight, the counselors -- many of them raised in the same half-Jewish suburbs from which we sprung -- are all hippies, or at least we are sure they are. The males are, to my mind, exotic. They are tanned and shirtless, their necks strung with beads, their ponytails flying as they maneuver motor boats around the lake. At dinner in the lodge (no prunes), after the "Birkat Hamazon" is sung, they strap on their electric guitars, set up their drum sets, and rock with abandon. I develop a vague, distant crush on a lithe guitarist-counselor who arches his head back a la Carlos Santana as he plays, wailing in English and Hebrew. Puberty is just around the corner.
The female counselors give us a peek into a new sort of womanhood that we don't associate with our mothers. They are earthy, longhaired and inspire our unabashed admiration. They play flute, wear Israeli sandals, go braless and teach us how to dive off the pier. At night, a soft-spoken counselor named Dena serenades us on her acoustic guitar with folkie interpretations of Cat Stevens and Don McLean. I listen as I lie between my sandy sheets, filled with a strange and melancholy happiness.
At summer's end, we leave reluctantly. We've been revolutionized by a heady brew of independence, music, Zionism, campfire intimacies, communion with nature and an emerging consciousness of the opposite sex. Re-entry into my parents' house is difficult. My family seems bound by boring routines. The dinner table is too quiet. My new, expanded self chafes at the re-establishment of old boundaries. I listen to Buffy Saint Marie in my bedroom and compare myself to alienated Vietnam veterans returning home. Then school starts. The life lessons summer camp has imprinted on me move from the conscious to the unconscious.
I am 15: too old and too cool to be a camper, yet too young to drive. My girlfriend Nancy invites me to work for the entire summer at the camp her family owns. It's an all-boys camp, and I've signed on to work in the kitchen. We head north in a senior counselor's station wagon, finally arriving seven hours later at camp -- a cluster of rustic buildings in the woods, adjacent to a small lake. It is the beginning, I soon realize, of a different sort of adventure.
Along with a half a dozen or so other girls, I spend three summery months in an all-male, open-air biodome. The counselors come from all over the United States. I hear my first Texas twang. There is also a newly arrived stable boy from the Soviet Union, who mutters bitterly about having to shovel horse excrement, and two gruff, working-class Englishmen, who remain to this day the most scatologically inclined men I've ever met.
My water-skiing improves slightly. I begin listening to Esther Phillips and Nina Simone. I learn to good-humoredly fend off a startling number of passes as the summer progresses. I make a few friendships that I maintain for years afterward. I fall a little bit in love. Late at night, I lay sprawled on a trampoline and stare up at a dense blanket of milky stars, thinking naively, "I'll always make time to do this."
I receive an e-mail from the same old girlfriend who invited me up that long ago summer. Her 9-year-old daughter will be at the same camp as my daughter. "Can you imagine?" she writes. "They might become friends." My daughter and I leaf through the camp paperwork, filling out the necessary forms. She's bouncy with excitement. My emotions are mixed. My own memories of different camp summers come flooding back. I know she'll blossom with this adventure, but I'm not sure I will. I vow silently not to become too weepy when it's time to say goodbye.
Jazzed by my own stories, she is willing to go unaccompanied by a friend. She doesn't know a soul there, so I tell her about my girlfriend's daughter. I am moved by her bravery. Among the camp forms is one that she is to fill out herself. I peek over her shoulder. "What do you think you'll miss most while you're at camp?" She writes, "My parents." It brings me a childish shot of comfort. "What are you afraid of?" She writes "Nothing." She pauses, then crosses it out. She taps her pencil, thinking. I hold my breath. I am not going to say a word. "Deer ticks," she writes.
(59 days left.)