That girl at summer camp

My parents sent me to summer camp every year. It was usually a week, sometimes two weeks, and I never once said, "Can I go to summer camp, can I please?," so I think they enjoyed the week without me more than I enjoyed summer camp. Most years, anyway.

It was always a Christian summer camp, where kids were required to attend Bible studies, morning, midday, and before supper. If it wasn’t raining, though, the Bible study might be at the lakeshore. There were singalongs, but the songs were hymns. There were arts and crafts classes, but the art was always supposed to be about something Biblical, like my macaroni Joseph and his coat of many noodles.

The best part of summer camp was an hour and a half daily when all the kids got to hang out at the main building, or on the basketball courts right outside.

I wasn't there. It was easy to sneak away and there were bullies to avoid, so I usually spent that hour and a half having fun instead, in the woods, climbing trees, telling myself stories, and eating ferns that tasted like licorice.

♦ ♦ ♦

One summer at camp, in early adolescence or on the cusp, I stayed out of the woods long enough to have an almost-girlfriend. Her name was Anita, and I liked her, and she liked me. We didn’t make out, we only kissed twice, and the second one was a kiss goodbye, but she was a real live girl who spent some of her time with me, by choice. That had never happened before.

We lived hundreds of miles apart, so I knew I'd never see her again, but when camp ended we exchanged addresses. We sent each other a few letters, and then stopped, of course. Now I remember almost nothing about Anita except her name. She hasn't been even briefly on my mind in years, perhaps decades — but she mattered to me that summer.

On the drive home from camp, my parents asked whether I’d had a fun week away, and I answered their questions. I told them about the so-so food, and the bugs in the cabin, and complained that there’d been too much Bible and too much God … and I told them about Anita.

Mom and Dad listened as I prattled on. Mom didn't say anything, and Dad said only this, about my beloved girl from camp: “Anita, huh? The same name as your grandmother. I wonder what that means?”

Until Dad said what Dad said, I'd been pleased with myself — super-shy kid goes to summer camp, reinvents himself as a little ladies’ man, and actually holds hands with a girl? This was my greatest accomplishment so far in life!

But wait, was I not allowed to like any girl who shared my grandmother’s first name? Was I also supposed to avoid girls who had my mother’s name? My sisters’ names? What about cousins?

I was just a kid, and hadn’t yet heard of Oedipus Rex, let alone GrandOedipus Rex, but what my dad was implying seemed downright freaky. To me, Anita was Anita, and my grandmother was ‘Grandma’. I hadn’t even noticed that they had the same name.

What my father said pissed me off, obviously — it’s fifty years later and I’m still annoyed.

I know, of course, that it was just my dad not knowing what to say, so he made a lame wisecrack. That's what dads do. I'm not a dad, but I do that, too. The experience didn't warp me, or make me into an axe murderer. But I understood that my first big crush was a joke to my old man.

And from that day to this, it was the last time I was simply open and honest with my parents about anything that mattered to me. After that, always there was a moment or a month of hesitation, as I calculated the risks: If I tell them, will I be scolded? Will I get a wisecrack, or a Bible verse? Will I get anything helpful from being straightforward with Mom & Dad?

The answer was usually nope, so there's a lot about me that they never knew.



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  1. Captain HampocketsJuly 14, 2021 at 6:00 AM

    One of the weirdest things I saw when I moved out of NJ were ads for "Vacation Bible School." Like, church-sponsored summer camps, like you describe. Wild shit that I never saw where I was from.

  2. That isn't all that harrowing what your father said, but I bet it was when you were a kid.

  3. Two friends of mine got married, Joe and Jo Ann, and I wonder what your father would say.


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