by jody a. reale
2001 Finalist Jody A. Reale is an essayist and humorist from the Rocky Mountains. She maintains a strong web presence at Jodyreale.com.
by Jody A. Reale
Before the dot-com revolution, before telecommuting, before Playstation, reality TV and phrases like “she’s all that,” life for most Generation Xers was simpler. And by that I mean that we were children still unburdened by the rigors of regular corporate humiliation. Sure, we had acne, doubts, irrational fears, and bad school lunches. And we were utterly confounded by the opposite sex. But I didn’t say life was better then; I said it was simpler.
Strangely, our safe, simple youths became surprisingly complicated adulthoods, which is why certain peers talk so much about the past. For those who knew pubescent glory, there are few conversations about the present and even fewer about the future. Those who enjoyed teenaged acclaim relentlessly reminisce of proms and family trips to destinations unfussy. There are endearing stories about the big Homecoming game and detailed accounts of old muscle cars that are still sorely missed. Of male friends, female friends, and that one year—it was the last year ever—that there was a comforting, healthy balance of both.
I’ve accompanied more than a few folks on some lengthy journeys down memory lane. I always listen acutely, earning license to make gross generalizations about people and savoring the bonus of possibly using the information against the storyteller later. And after listening to volumes of youth-related tales, long and revealing and peppered with wistful laughter, I’m convinced that our generation is full of people of a certain variety.
They are Camp People.
Until a few years ago, I had never met a genuine Camp Person, as most of them ventured to my neck of the woods from the east coast during the mid-’90s Colorado transplant rush. Those charming easterners, with their fast talking and their penchant for slang and velvet ropes. They might not know their Grand Canyon from their fourteen thousand-foot peaks, but they sure as shootin’ know their summer camps. I’ll give them that.
If you happen to be someone who spent youth’s treasured summers at sleep-away camp, or if you’ve spent a lot of time with someone who did, you’ll agree that Camp People—not to be confused with people who happened to attend camp—are militant about the value of their experiences. The songs they learned, the skills they mastered, the underage drinking, the requisite losing of that pesky virginity- all these things made them better, specifically, than you. Camp People are haunted by those once-new and life-altering experiences forever, and you yourself will become a ghost waiting for camp reminiscences to be eschewed in favor of here-and-now-type topics. It only gets worse if your own children become Camp People too. In time, you’ll be listening to all the same stories, next-generation-style, and the songs will feature an extended dance remix track.
And for all my patience with Camp People, there’s a reason why I’d rather eat a tinfoil sandwich than spend an afternoon listening to a Camp Person rehash the outcome of the controversial potato sack race of ’84. I know why I’d rather listen to a collection of Christmas carols sung by Fran Drescher with Rosanne Barr on backup than hear a little ditty my husband sings about making new friends, but keeping the old. (One is silver; the other, gold.)
It’s because I’m so painfully envious, terribly left out. Although I can’t complain one iota about my own childhood, it’s hard to argue with Camp People that combing the convenience store asphalt for accidentally discarded winning lottery tickets constitutes a well-spent vacation. I haven’t found a way to believably assert that an afternoon at the dog track is just as lovely as a wildflower walk. Betting windfalls or no, I think camp is much different, if not much better.
Though my friends and I could see the clean, colorful Rocky Mountains to the serene west, we lived polluted blue-collar city lives. My parents worked full time and I was the only child in the house, affording me the delicious opportunity to wake up mid-morning after staying up late–later than David Letterman, but not as late as soft core cable porn.
There was hot concrete everywhere and people just as unforgiving. The friends whom I had mercilessly harangued for information on menarche one summer began experimenting with sex the next. They were 11 or 12 years old; I was almost a decade away from my own sexual initiation. There were lonely days spent at the woefully under-stocked library nearby; there was no direction from an older youth or caring adult wearing a whistle on a color-coordinated lanyard. When I sustained a superficial injury, I did not hear an order over my shoulder to “Walk it off.”
When the isolation became too much, I would call my Aunt Beenie, who would kindly pick me up in her giant Lincoln Mark IV, with the tinted windows closed and the air conditioning and Dean Martin eight-track tape on high. I happily bounced and slipped across the leather of the generous back seat the few miles back to her house, where there was space, grass and gardens, a swimming pool, cousins.
All those same summers, many identities before I would meet him, my husband won medals and ribbons for his outdoorsy aptitude–when he wasn’t in trouble for aiming his speeding Hobie Cat at swimmers’ heads. He and his life-long best friend: Immortals challenging themselves and others. Cheerfully robust, they were fearless of life-long scars, or worse. I strain to imagine: All that long-distance hiking, sans asthma inhaler. All that water, sans drowning, as my aunts convinced us was likely after diving back into the pool less than 20 minutes after lunch.
I didn’t know about camp then, but I believe now that camp was, and still is, the place that teaches people that they could do great things if they learned the proper way and then tried in earnest. Camp said the world wasn’t always hostile; in fact sometimes, it held only your best intentions at heart. Camp let its people grow up, but not away from youthful enjoyment. Camp could hold you close without holding you back. It could, in fact, even launch you forward.
You were loved and accepted until you were cast back into school, home, and the long, cold winter. You probably blather on about camp because you were more innocent then, and thinking about camp helps you to feel that innocence again. Returning to a kind of innocence, even for a moment: That’s a tall order, what with the news and airport security, and the obscene success of boy bands. Ordinary adult life makes us wonder, sometimes aloud, if anyone “gets us.” And too many times the answer is no.
Your fellow Camp People understood you then. They may be the only people in the world who understand you now. You had a friend, or a talent, or a job, or a cabin. At the very least, you had your place in the world, even if it was the outhouse. You knew an identity, whether it was true to your core or not. You knew far-flung boundaries and a rugged comfort in your own skin. And you learned, as my husband did, that punishment isn’t necessarily cruel or unusual; his misbehaviors resulted in solitary confinement in a dark room, but it was also a private screening of The Music Man. It’s still a favorite of his and his Camp Chingachgook compatriots’.
That’s not to say that there were no challenges; social Darwinism was the order of every day. If you were a successful Camp Person though, you learned how to expertly hide your most unspeakable foibles. Unless you’ve been to therapy, you still have never revealed them to anyone.
Whether you’re a touchy-feely sort or not, you frequently remember that there were people at camp who cared about you, or alternatively, they let you care about them. After more than 20 years, my friend Jim, a Camp Scatico devotee turned rough-and-tumble journalist from Jersey, still knows those who did both the caring and the letting. He always will know them. All that stuff must hold a person hostage—in a welcome way. The friends and the lessons and the relentless memories call Camp People back to simple roots without stunting growth. Camp’s curse is that it ceaselessly asks you if you’re living the way you always wanted. The way you imagined you would live right before the starry night took you to different dreams, and long before time and agendas jaded you. Camp, for all its sweetness, demands a brutal honesty with oneself for a lifetime. I tried basket weaving once. The self-awareness it fostered was absolutely Zen-like.
Camp can teach a guy or a gal with misdirected ideas about what’s “cool” and what isn’t; that there are certain kinds of hobbies and people and careers that will sustain and nourish them forever, whether they choose those people, places, and things as an adult or not. And there’s the bitterest lesson of all: While there really is magic in the woods or by the sea, happiness and geography make tragically dysfunctional partners. Because if you go back to visit camp as an adult, I’ll bet you’ll find the nostalgia downright painful. You really never can go home again, even when you’re standing in the great room. The clear, friendly lake where you piloted your first canoe may seductively waive you back, but attempting to live in the past is as possible as building your house on its slick, green floor.
That romantic Camp Persona: It’s too delicious to refuse. I know that camp, no camp, everybody spends youth, and adulthood too, seeking love and acceptance. Everybody. For those of Camp Personage, for the rest of us, youthful summertime memories are bittersweet. You were different then. Life was fun, even if it was only fun for 12 weeks out of 52.
You may not use it consciously, but there is a wisdom that people glean at camp, and it’s in there somewhere, packed away in muscles and brain cells, or in the basements of tolerant mothers. Listen. It will come to your service in a quiet disguise or with a long, adorably boring anecdote. It will take you places. And as with all of wisdom’s vehicles, your mileage will vary.