Friday, September 3, 2010

Remembering Camp Stupid

Time for a little excerpt from my little NaNoWriMo novel. I hardly remember writing it, so it's making me chuckle. I hope it does the same for you...

For some kids, sixth-grade camp is five days and four nights of pure excitement, adventure and just generally wonderful memories that they look back on with warmth and fondness for the rest of their lives. They're away from home for four nights, a first for most eleven- and twelve-year olds. There are deer and woodland critters and deep, dark forests and rustic cabins and crafts and songs and campfires and all sorts of fun things to do and see. For these kids, those few days are just too great to describe when they get home.

I was not one of those kids. For me, Camp Seneca Falls [not its real name] was a prison for children, with strange wardens who made us sing about Jesus before they would let us eat. I'm sure it didn't help matters that we went in December, when even their warmest cabin was approximately forty degrees, but I swear, that place was wretched. I hated dressing and undressing with a bunch of kids, most of whom I didn't know at all, thanks to the fact that two different schools shared the camp for the week. I hardly slept. The food was simply cruel. Of the nineteen other boys in my cabin, I knew exactly two - Marty and Larry. Misery loves company, and they seemed pretty miserable, too. There. That's my highlight. Marty and Larry hated it, too.

Luckily, we were allowed to choose where we sat in the big dining hall, so Marty, Larry and I found a couple friends, and we wallowed together in our collective despair. Our leader in misery was Lewis, a quiet genius at odds with the beliefs of his huge Catholic family. Somehow, Lewis was well on his way down the Shining Taoist Path, or possibly headed for a life as an agnostic, or at the very least a strong believer in a clear separation between church and state, and he was rather put out by the coerced singing to Jesus for our food. At each meal, he changed the words to sarcastically express his distaste for the ritual.

"Oh, dear sweet Jesus on the cross, we thank you because they won't let us eat if we don't..."


"I'm singing, for my food, with a bunch of strangers. I'm confused. I know what grace is, but I've never been required to sing it and say 'Jesus' every third word, but they seem serious about not feeding us if we don't sing this song. I'd like some food, pleeease..."


"Dear precious Buddha on the mountain, I hope this Jesus song isn't offending you... We don't mean it - we're just hungry and these people are apparently running a little cult here in the woods..."

I gave serious consideration to faking an illness so that I could get sent home. I couldn't, though. Chicken, you know. As the week wore on, word spread about Lewis' sarcastic versions of the blessing, and he stepped up his little protest.

By the second-to-last night, he had graduated to:

"Oh, here we are again, Lord. I'm not even really hungry, but they are watching from the perimeter of the room and I'm already on thin ice, after what I said to the crafts lady when she asked why I made a popsicle stick Star of David when she had suggested a cross-- oh, we're done? Ahh-men!" We all laughed, and for a moment, camp sucked a little bit less.

At breakfast the next morning, we had kids from other tables asking if they could join us in "prayer." Lewis hadn't prepared anything, so we all simply sang "We Love Jesus" over and over, to the tune of the morning prayer song.

At our final lunch, Lewis gave us a copy of what he had written for the prayer, and he urged us all to join him. We passed his song around quickly and did our best to remember it. What we lacked in memorization, we made up for in enthusiasm.

"Dear Lord, please bless this holy lunch of the blessed redeemer. And if you can hear us, please send buses. We promise to be good for the rest of the year. For the rest of the year, Lord. For the rest of the year. If you'd just get us out of here, for the rest of the year." We were in unison by the end, and our hearty "Ahhh- mennnn!" definitely got some attention. We were clearly having way too much fun. One of the camp wardens glared at us for a long time, but no one said anything to us, and we were allowed to eat.

Throughout that lunch, Marty and I made as many copies as we could of some new lyrics Lewis had scribbled in his notebook for what he was calling "The Last Supper," and distributed them to the the ever-growing gang of Bad Children. It was the last night. What could they do, send us all home?

At dinner, there were so many kids packed together at our table, an outsider might have assumed we were all the best of friends and for the moment, I guess we were. We couldn't conceal our excitement. The kids at surrounding tables seemed to be watching us expectantly. At the sound of the warden's little "time to see how many times you can squeeze Jesus' name into a one-minute song or else you don't eat" bell, a hush fell over much of the big room.

"We come on the Sloop John B, Me grandfather and me, Around Nassau Town we did roam, Drinking all night, got into a fight. Well I feel so broke up, I want to go home...”

I realized then that the singing in the rest of the hall had trailed off, leaving just our table. We fed off each other's dedication to this thing we had started, and couldn't help but get even louder.

"So hoist up the John B's sail, See how the mainsail sets, Call for the captain ashore, Let me go home, Oh won't you let me go home, Let me go home, Yeah Yeah, let me go home, Well I feel so broke up, I want to go home."

Everyone stared at us. Our teacher looked for a moment as if he wanted to laugh, but frowned at us instead. The camp cult people glared daggers at us. Lewis cleared his throat. "Oh, yeah. Sorry." He then conducted us through a loud, heartfelt "Ahhh-MENNNNN..." We broke into spontaneous applause for ourselves and were thrilled to hear many kids throughout the room join us.

Okay, so camp had a couple of memorable moments, and that was one of them. The good news was that we were, in fact, allowed to eat. The bad news was that, after some investigation, it was determined that Lewis, Marty and I were the instigators of this uprising and needed to be punished. Our punishment: The three of us had to go from cabin to cabin just before lights-out and sing "Sloop John B" in its entirety. In our pajamas.

Man, I loved Camp Stupid.


  1. I never did camp as a kid, which is surely a good thing as I detest camping. This is quite funny!

  2. Thanks! It's true that camp - especially the way it was foisted upon me and my friends - can be downright traumatic, the first time around. I'll bet summer camp was better!