You truly don’t appreciate a nice soft mattress until you sleep on a wooden plank at camp on an air mattress with a slow leak. I’d go to sleep on a firm inflated bed at night, but would wake up flat on the boards the next morning, my sorry excuse of a mattress pillowing out on all sides. If I slept for 5 hours I was doing well. And it’s funny, even on a deflated mattress, how hard it was to get out of bed in the morning to relieve my full bladder. Even a failed air mattress is infinitely more comfortable than 40 degree crisp morning air. And it just seemed easier to get used to the wooden boards flattening my hip and my bladder close to bursting than to brave the cold July morning that felt more like November. But eventually I had to relent, find my shoes, and make the long trek to the bathrooms at the bottom of the hill. Besides, there is no coffee brought to you in bed at camp. If I wanted to wake up, I had to make the even longer journey to the dining hall. On 5 hours of sleep, coffee wins above all.
As I write this, I am sitting on the edge of a stump for a seat. My hair has not been washed yet today. But it is hidden underneath my sweatshirt hood: partly to keep warm, but mostly for protection against the swarming mosquitoes waiting for a snack. It’s the same spot I sat in as a child, and later as a teenager on staff. And here I am now, a chaperone at the same summer camp. As a kid, every year would be spent in anticipation for that one week in the summertime when I would get up early for the Polar Bear Swim, drink hot cocoa to keep warm in the morning, hiking trails in search of the sunrise, making lanyards at the craft shack, mealtime hikes up and down from the water tower, and singing songs around the camp fire every night. And now it’s come full circle as my own kids learn the songs from my youth, twisted only slightly to fit in with the times.
There’s something about camp. You get there, and the dust overwhelms you. You get eaten alive by mosquitoes that will only leave you alone after you smell like a saturated pine cone, and biting flies that will eat you no matter what. If you have allergies (and I do), your face will feel like it will fall off by the third day. You hike up a hill to get somewhere. You hike up a hill to get back. You have to wait in line for a shower, and you’re not guaranteed hot water. The dining hall smells not so faintly of sour milk. The salad is served lunch and dinner, and looks slightly brown by the 7th day. And I think I’ll be fine if I don’t eat red jello until next year. We go to bed late and wake up way too early, and are completely sleep deprived by the end of camp. The pool is ice cold and crowded, and my feet are torn up from the rough bottom, not to mention the blisters from all that hiking….
And still, I come back every year.
This is my sixth consecutive year coming back as an adult chaperone. Why is it that I annually take one week’s vacation from work to get interrupted sleep and to brave the elements? It’s simple. There are the memories I have from my youth that come back full force with each visit. That girl sitting on the rock taking in the scenery before bounding off with her friends, or the one doing dives off the diving board over and over, or the one performing the skit with her tribe at campfire….they all could have been me. Each section of camp holds different memories that are now being enveloped by new memories. There are the night swims, the clean camp competition, the scare hike, the end of camp dance, the bean carnival, and the staffer auction. There are the friendships I made at camp, some of which I still have, and many that I miss but remember fondly. Being with a group of people for one week has the magical ability to form the best of friendships. I have been witnessing bonds of friendship among the kids all week, and still get to experience this myself with the other chaperones. There are several of us that come year after year, and new friends we make as more chaperones start coming for the first time.
But the biggest reason why I come back every year? The kids.
Some of the kids I first met as young camper are now in their final years on the teen staff. Watching them grow from young, unsure kids staying away from home for the first time to the more capable young adults they are becoming has been a heartwarming experience. One teen came to camp as a kid knowing a few good chords on the guitar and played them at each campfire. Now the guitar has become an extension of him as he plays great music for every occasion, and has even inspired campers to bring their own guitars and musical talent to camp. Another teen came as a wisecracking teen…..and his still a wisecracking teen (as I was journaling at camp, he called it “blogging on paper”). But ask him to do any task, no matter what, and he was on it. One sunny girl has been an example of what camp spirit is all about year after year, singing moose songs and infecting other campers with her sunshine. I watched two staffers, past and present, graduate this year. I have held several pancake breakfasts with staffers around my table. I have kept contact with several of them throughout the year, and seen the rest of them at the monthly camp meetings we have throughout the year. These staffers have been a great part of my life, and I am thrilled to be a part of theirs.