a few years ago, ira glass dedicated an entire episode of “this american life” to exploring the phenomenon of camp. in his words,
no one back home understands it, none of their friends, nobody. there is just a gap between camp people and non-camp people.
when glass interviews a teen-aged girl camper at an upscale camp in the northeast, she confirms his assertion:
…it’s also like little stories you tell, and you think they’re so funny, and everyone in your cabin understands them, and then you tell them to your friends back home, and they’re like, “that’s stupid.”
our family does camp a little differently than most in that we allgo to camp for a month. the week-long church retreats andy and i attended as teenagers apparently did not satisfy our desires to be part of a small sub-culture of nature-loving people. but though our camp model isn’t traditional, some of the universal camp themes apply.
first, there are bizarre traditions at montreatthat make perfect sense to those who have been part of them since they were in diapers. my children, for example, will probably never question the normalcy of the greased pole competition on the fourth of july, wherein a smooth 20+ foot wooden rounded plank is cemented into the ground, adorned with u.s. currency of various values, thoroughly greased, and scaled all day long by daring contestants as an emcee narrates the events to spectators scattered on picnic blankets all around.
and then there is the fourth of july parade, complete with bagpipes, makeshift family floats, and saved seats along the route for onlookers, whose families have occupied those particular patches of bag-chair-real estate since before bag chairs were invented.
these are the kinds of things that carry a certain meaning that can only be adequately translated by virtue of experience.
the monkey and the bird attend a day camp at montreat called “clubs,” which entails morning and afternoon activities led by college-aged counselors, who bring a necessary coolness to the imparting of silly songs, dances, and story telling that goes on there. the monkey would return to our rental house during lunch and, with eyes dancing, relay tales of how his counselor, ryan, wrestled a troll in the deep end of the pool at the conclusion of a treasure hunt. this event, by some sort of camp logic, resulted in the distribution of stickers to all of the campers. all of this made perfect sense to the monkey and the rest of the “blues,” as his group was called. even at age four-and-three-quarters, the monkey is already what glass calls “a camp person.”
both children look forward to the friday night circle mountain dancing and are committed to mastering the motions to novelty dances such as “the hampster dance” and “agadoo.”
the bird has chosen the car as the ideal place to practice the verses of “i’m bringing home a baby bumble bee,” a song that his older brother helps him with when he forgets the words.
about this kind of camp vocabulary, glass remarks
the special songs and ceremonies are part of so many american camps… these traditions bring kids back year after year….you let them know about all the extra rights and privileges the kids are going to get if they return as older campers. it is using all of the stage craft that all of the world’s religions have always used. the ceremonies, the chanting, the repeated words, the official honors and offices, but for an entirely different reason: to thrill children, to make them feel a part of something big and special.
i’m not going to lie. our annual sojourn to montreat is not just for the kids. i enjoy being part of an alternative, smaller world. my children are in someone else’s care from 8:30 – noon and 2-4 on weekdays. and like an older kid at traditional camp, i have the freedom to choose my own activities. i spent many hours last month in the pottery studio and hiking my favorite mountain.
but my favorite part about julys in montreat really is as glass describes. i love that my children are thrilled. it means the world to me that they get to be a part of something big and special… even if they will never be fully able to convey the meaning of it to their friends back at home.