My wife’s experience was similar, except at some point she became convinced that sleepaway camp would be a great thing—for everyone involved. Last year, we visited Camp Expo at Quaker Bridge Mall—an appropriate venue, since, in this generation’s age of internet shopping, actually going to a mall to buy something is itself an unusual, sometimes difficult, character-building experience. Camp Expo was short for Camp Exposition, not Camp Exposure (which would be an iffy name in the outdoors-survival sense, or in the privacy-in-the showers sense). The Camp Exposition lived up to its name, as table after table of exhibitors handed out brochures and talked at length about the offerings of their particular camp.
There were camps of all types—sports camps, science camps, academic enrichment camps, arts camps, equestrian camps, and even camps that emphasized mindfulness, attentiveness, and focus, which are difficult concepts to explain in a 30-second pitch.
Our children would be first-time sleepaway campers, and we wanted a traditional, unspecialized, camp camp, the kind immortalized in the aforementioned movies, books, and song, but minus the plot-driven shenanigans.
Our internet-aided search took us (metaphorically speaking) to a number of YMCA camps, starting with the YMCA of the Pines in Medford, which is further broken down into Camp Ockanickon for boys and Camp Matollionequay for girls—there’s something about those names that just oozes outdoor authenticity. In contrast, we also considered the less-inspiringly named Camp Bernie in Port Murray and Camp Mason in Hardwick. Also in Medford was the ominous-sounding Camp Dark Waters—because there’s no better way to stop kids thinking about home than to get them focused on their own immediate survival, and what might be living under the “dark waters.”
After an open house visit, the kids decided on Camp Mason for two weeks of overnight adventure. If Hardwick sounds familiar to you, there are a few possible reasons why, one of which is that a year ago, a fugitive fled into the woods and hid there. Another is that nearby Boy Scout Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco was the filming location of the movie Friday the 13th. Forget murky water, our kids were heading into the heart of darkness.
The camp rules were mostly as expected, except for one: the only communications to and from campers would be old-fashioned, hand-written, 55 cents-a-pop letters. A strict no-electronics rule would be enforced, extending to smartphone, iPad, Nintendo DS and Switch, and most of the contents of my son’s room. We assured him that we had not entrusted his care to a Luddite cult of anti-technology zealots, but I’m not sure he was convinced.
Dropoff at camp went smoothly, though my wife and I still harbored some guilt and worry. Among the preparatory material we had carefully reviewed was advice on how to respond (and how not to respond) to a child’s letter expressing homesickness. Templates and form letters were available, and I’d thought briefly about my own amusement in simply sending a printed copy of one of these letters while “forgetting” to insert my own children’s names, addressing it instead, in a most heartfelt fashion, to “Dear Camper.”
But after saying goodbye, I found myself dreading the prospect of actually receiving such a letter.
Luckily, within a few days, dispatches from our children arrived, assuring us they were having a great time, at which point our parental concern gave way to parental bliss. We ate at restaurants that didn’t list their menus on the wall behind the cash register. We went for long, leisurely walks and outings without being serenaded by a chorus of complaints, and came home to a quiet, unchaotic house. But if there’s such a thing as a house that’s too quiet or not chaotic enough, it was that, too. Despite the many benefits of childless freedom, we missed the little scamps.
On pickup day, our kids seemed more than two weeks older as they told us of their exploits. They had boated, climbed, and arched (Someone find that sport a verb!). They’d hiked, they’d swum, they’d survived—survival class, and the camp experience in general. They spoke of attending next year as a fait accompli. It’s worth noting that even though “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” only spans three minutes, most people forget that it’s got a happy ending, with the child narrator telling his parents to disregard the list of grievances that make up most of the song.
As we drove away from camp, I looked in the rear-view mirror and snuck a satisfying peek at our increasingly self-sufficient children— back safely with their parents again, ensconced among pillows and sleeping bags, their faces lighted once again by the soft, familiar glow of electronic device screens.