Fuzzy memories of summer camp

On Monday, my son started summer camp.  Beng that he is a four-year-old rising kindergartener, this was a pretty big deal because it is his first “summer break” after a year of school (whereas up until last August he was simply in daycare).  The camp is run out of his school, so there really is no difference in our morning and afternoon routines of dropping him off or picking him up, even though he is going to spend most of his days going to the pool or making crafts or playing games as opposed to sitting in class and learning letters and numbers.

Apparently, camp around here is kind of a big thing, to the point where every spring, there is not only a huge advertising supplement in the local newspapers about the various summer camp programs offered throughout the greater Charlottesville area, but there is a “summer camp expo” held at a local hotel where parents can stop by, pick up literature, sign up for camps, and meet local newscasters (I don’t know what the appeal is in meeting local newscasters, but there you go).  Where I grew up on Long Island, I don’t remember the ramp-up to summer break being a huge rush to get kids “signed up for something,” because quite a number of my summers were spent sitting around and doing very little.  I know that I sound like an old fart when I say that I was a kid in the days when kids could be left home alone and there was no danger in that, but it is actually true.  Most of the friends I had in later elementary school were kids whose parents weren’t always home and as long as I could ride my bike to their houses and as long as I was home before dinner time and wasn’t committing any criminal acts (and seriously, I grew up in freaking Sayville … the most “illegal” thing I ever did was cut through an abandoned lot and buy smoke bombs from the ice cream man), everything was fine.  Granted, there were days where my friend Tom and I spent time jumping out of trees and body slamming his little brother and I’m amazed that nobody got seriously injured, but we wound up fine.

But for those kids whose parents: a) were sick of their children doing nothing except watch TV all day; b) didn’t want their children unsupervised; or c) had the money, there was “camp.”  I didn’t know many kids who went to a “sleepaway” camp like the type portrayed in Meatballs or Wet Hot American Summer, probably because by the time I was old enough to do a sleepaway camp, those places had become synonymous with machete-wielding, hockey-mask-wearing killers.

Okay, that probably wasn’t the reason–it was probably more like sleepaway camp was a pain in the ass and parents preferred something more local, of which there were plenty of opportunities, some of which were almost like a sleepaway camp but were called “day camps.”  Every spring during my childhood, when I would be home in the afternoon watching G.I. Joe or He-Man and the Masters and the Universe, the local syndicated stations (like WPIX and WNEW/WNYW) would air a commercial for Young People’s Day Camp:

Now I am sure that this commercial ran well into the late 1980s and maybe even the early 1990s because I remember seeing it for years and I am sure that most of the kids in the commercial were in college by the time I was watching it.  I’d say that Young People’s Day Camp is the Mount Airy Lodge of children’s camps–the type of place that if you visited it now, it would be mired in bankruptcy and one skinned knee from being shut down by either the board of health or child protective services–but they are still up and running throughout the New York and New Jersey area, even if they’re not airing the same commercials.

During the years when my parents did want to ship me off to somewhere with a little more structure than the basement with my Star Wars toys, I went to a more low-key situation that was referred to as “summer recreation” or “summer rec.”  This was a program run by the Town of Islip at the old junior high school, a huge orange brick building located at the end of Greene Avenue near the train station, and right next to the church where I had gone to nursery school and met my best friend at the time, Chris.  Chris and I were in separate elementary schools (he was in Sunrise Drive and I was at Lincoln Avenue), but for the years between kindergarten and third grade, we would meet up (albeit sporadically) at the old junior high every summer for summer rec.

To be honest, the building was more interesting than anything we ever did.  I remember sitting around a lot and doing Spirograph drawings and making various things out of gimp, most of which probably hit the garbage as soon as the summer was over.  I also remember thinking that the giant columns at the building’s entrance and the ornate decoration over the entrances to the auditorium and gymnasium (which were labeled as such with the “U” in each word being a proper Roman “V” shape) as well as side entrances labeled “boys” and “girls”, which I believe were actual separate entrances for the separate sexes from back in the early 1928 when the school was built and served as the district’s high school until the current building was built in 1959, which is when this building became “Sayville Junior High” until 1972 when what is now the middle school was built.

Anyway, the place at the time was a relic of a former era (it has since been refitted to be brought up to code and I believe is a Suffolk Community College satellite campus) and had a gymnasium that was something out of a movie like Hoosiers–the type of gym that seemed like it could barely fit enough people to play basketball, let alone the types of crowds that you get at high school basketball games these days.  And it was in this gym where I would get my lone memory of  summer rec because it involves what has to be the most infamous gym class game of all time: dodge ball.

Now, dodge ball when I was a kid was less of a structured activity with boundaries and rules and more like a free-for-all where you and several of your classmates hurled red rubber balls bigger than most human heads at one another until everyone on one side got “out.”  In fact, from what I remember during those days there were only three actual rules to the game: 1. If you got hit by a ball, you were out; 2. If you stepped over the center line, you were out; 3. If you caught a ball, the person who threw the ball was out and your “out” team members were back “in.”  This third rule varied depending on who was running the game–in most of my experiences, only one person came back in on a caught ball–but it is the source of one of the first–and so not my last–athletic screw-ups in my life.

We were in the gym one day playing dodge ball and it was one of those epic games where everyone kept getting back in, thus prolonging the game indefinitely, something the counselors really didn’t care about because it was probably hot as hell outside and as long as someone didn’t get a tooth knocked out and one counselor was available to make a pizza and soda run (they always seemed to be eating pizza and drinking soda whereas I was stuck with warm mushy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), everything was fine.  Anyway, at this point, the game was actually winding down because there were five or six people on the other team hurling playground balls at one person–me.  I had been pretty good at dodging things, but my throws weren’t very good–I kept aiming low so that they weren’t easily caught–so it was taking a long time for anything to really end.  My teammates, standing on the sidelines and knowing that one catch would get them all back in the game and almost guarantee a win, were screaming at me to catch a ball.  I was listening to them, but most of what was being thrown at me was at my legs, bounced in front of me, or sailed way over my head, so I was basically left to make a last stand.

Then, I saw it.  Someone had made a mistake and lofted one across the center line, right in my direction.  “Catch it!” came the cries from the bench as I looked up and saw it floating there.  It made total sense, too–unless I got hit while trying to do so, all I had to do was wait for the ball to come to me, stick my hands out, and bring it in.

But it didn’t exactly happen that way.

In what seemed like super slow-motion nearly 30 years ago and seems like super slow-motion today, I saw the ball come at me and instead of waiting for it to come within my reach, I jumped up and reached for it.  It wasn’t going very fast and I was right under it, so I knew I could do it.  And in an instant, it plunked off of my finger and I hit the ground, hearing the groans of my teammates and shouts of “Why didn’t you CATCH THE BALL?!”  I mean, there aren’t that many people who can point to one exact moment where it was evident that they were not going to wind up being a star athlete, but I’m not many people.  This was the first missed opportunity I had in competition and all of the ones I had after that–popping out with the game on the line, hitting a volleyball out of bounds, letting a goal go through my legs–were an echo of this particular moment.  It was a first humiliating step into my jaded adulthood.

Anyway, I don’t expect that psychological bullshit to happen to my kid.  He seems to be having too much fun playing superheroes and splashing around in the pool and coming home completely worn out from a hard day of playing.  It’s the type of experience that makes me happy that “camp” or “rec” or whatever you’d like to call it, is still around.

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