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 computer programming, robotics, and Web and video game design. Campers supposedly leave with lifelong friends and social skills.
None of these programs are really camp.
Based on my years of experience as a camper, counselor and camp program director, camp is indeed a 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 their children are sufficiently mature enough, like age 21 or 22.
When I was 8, my parents sent me to B’nai B’rith Camp, a three-week sleep-away summer camp on the Oregon coast. The setting was a forest perched on pristine Devil’s Lake, which is linked to the Pacific Ocean and shares its seawater temperature. The camp brochure showed kids with big grins frolicking in the lake, when in truth their jaws were locked at the first leap into the 33-degree water.
Devil’s Lake 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, Mont., 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 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 dual title for the shortest river, distinguishing between measurements at low tide or high tide. 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 B’nai B’rith 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 8-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 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 8-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, too.
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 a 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.
“You’ll love camp,” my devious mother had said. “All the kids, the fun you’ll have, playing outdoors, hiking, swimming!”
Years later, I’d use the same pitch on my sons about going on the Birthright trip to Israel. Unfortunately, I’d inadvertently taught them a lesson when I told them about my days at camp: Never trust your mother.
Trudi York Gardner lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.