Camp letters take me back to the old days, both good and bad

I was 9 when I went to overnight summer camp for the first time. It was Bothin, the Girl Scouts camp in Marin County, which I was convinced was in another state though it was just over the bridge. I was gone only a week but wrote about seven letters home.

“For lunch, we had macaroni and beef. Yuch! For dinner, we had roast chicken. Yum! On Wednesday, we went swimming. I jumped off the diving board. My counselor’s name is Deelited!”

OK, so not the most scintillating report. But reading my old letter sparked memories of this brief event in my life 40-plus years ago: learning how to fold the flag and sing “Taps,” rolling a huge log using teamwork, passing the swimming test that separated the polliwogs from the tadpoles. I’m certain we were told that resting our elbows on the mess-hall table would crush invisible fairies and, even more troubling, that peeing in the pool would turn the water purple (something I went on believing for several years). It all came back, easily.

I have equally vivid memories of the one other time I went to overnight camp, to Camp Ramah in Ojai in 1974. I was 13 and spent the first week miserable because I was placed with kids my age, rather than the older group with all of my Sunday school classmates from San Francisco. I remember sneaking to join one of their evening activities, getting caught and crying on my bunk bed.

The letters that survived are all from my mother to me, but it doesn’t take much to figure out the drama I was reporting to her. “Try to make friends and always make the best of every situation,” she advised. “This is another experience to add to life. Some day this will all be a memory and I know you will find some humor in it.”

She was right, of course. After intense lobbying on my part, the camp director finally offered to make the switch, but I turned him down. I ended up making friends in my bunk and even feeling grateful that I wasn’t with the older group, which had a few mean girls in it. I learned how to be resilient, accept change and face a challenging situation on my own. I can even recall the tune and first words of my group’s cheer: “Sollelim, kadima Sollelim, Hey ho!”

Camp Ramah holds one other distinction, not as noble but no less momentous: It was there, on an overnight trip, that a boy snuck his hand into my sleeping bag and copped a feel. Not what my parents had in mind, I’m sure, when they sent me to Jewish camp. But instructive nonetheless, I suppose.

My ability to recall these details is not unusual. A number of j. readers wrote about their own memories for this week’s education and camps supplement, and some of their stories go back way further than mine. One reader recounts going to camp in 1945 and having the time of his life, even while the bombs were being dropped on Japan.

Camp is something we don’t easily forget. Maybe it has something to do with being away from our parents at such a young age. Maybe it’s because the experience is so different from the day-to-day of school and home life. Or maybe it’s because we know this is what being a kid is supposed to feel like, and that is worth hanging onto for life.

I’m sure I would remember camp even if I hadn’t kept the letters, brochures and handwritten packing lists — “pink puff-sleeve shirt, white blouse with embroidery, cardigan, pair of Keds, Solarcaine” — but they bring the memories more to life and reassure me that I didn’t make this stuff up.

These mementos also frame my recollections of what it felt like to grow up, which helps me to be a better parent. And now that I have children, whom I (sometimes) miss when they go away even for one night, it’s easy to imagine how my mother felt as she wrote to me in 1974. “Well, I’d better mail this now. Keep eating … and keep smiling. We love and really miss you. The house is empty. Love, love, love, Mom.”


Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is interim editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].