There were dozens of sleeping bags, soft and bulging like caterpillar pupae. There was a neat line of tiny suitcases — pink, with ponies; black, with Spider-Man. The driver stowed them in the bus' cargo compartment while the children endured the parental farewells. The bus engine awoke with an industrious rumble, and the kids scrambled aboard. "Bye. Love you. Don't forget to write — oh, who am I kidding? Have fun."
You look for the small face pressed against the window, mournful at this first long parting, but they're already busy finding seats and greeting friends, too eager to care about anything else. Then you see your child, and you wave, and she waves, and the bus trundles out of the lot like a weary bear. Oh, I remember that. And I remember what followed the moment it was out of sight:
"Manipedi!" a group of moms screened in unison. "It's time for a manipedi!" I think that's Latin for "socially sanctioned noon mimosas while your toes are painted."
Any parent has to admit there's relief in sending your kid to camp. You get to revisit the old days when you weren't tied by invisible filaments to an unpredictable biped. But please, let's be clear: If you're dropping off the kids at 9 a.m. and picking them up at 2 p.m., it's not camp. It's day care.
Camp is woods. Camp is the lake. Camp is musty cabins and hard water, hoot owls and gross bugs. Camp is staying up late telling stories about the killer with a hook for a hand. Camp is sunburn and slivers.
I went to the same Lutheran camp every summer for six years. The barracks were spare — creaky bunk beds with war-surplus mattresses (Civil, not Vietnam). There was a tennis court on which no tennis was ever played and a flagpole where we assembled in the morning to Pledge Allegiance before heading to the dining hall for flapjacks.
I have absolutely no memory of what we did every day, aside from braiding colored flat plastic strings into key chains or bracelets and trying to hit one another in the head with the tetherball.
One year, a counselor named Charlie Brown decided to have everyone gather at the shore for sunset vespers. He told us nuclear war had broken out and we'd never see our families again. Let us now pray.
After an agonizing interval of silence, punctuated by sniffles and sobs, he said this wasn't true, but if it was, would we be ready to meet our maker? After lights out in the cabin everyone exchanged elaborate ideas for torturing Charlie Brown, and then everyone had nightmares and wet the bed.
To this day I imagine him working as a telemarketer; he calls up people and says, "Your family is dead!" (Pause.) "Tired of paying retail mattress prices?"
That was my last year. The first year, the seasoned campers in our cabin sent the raw recruit out on a snipe hunt. Here's a bag and a stick. Go out in the dark, strike the bag with the stick and a snipe will jump in the bag. Bring it back, and you'll be a true camper.
Into the woods I went. Wind in the trees, moonless night. I went as far as my courage would take me, and then some elemental panic flooded my nerves and I headed back, snipeless.
Wait! There, in the underbrush, something rustling, an animal squeak — some mercurial creature, sluicing through the leaves and weeds and fallen limbs. It could be rabid! It could have the dreaded lockjaw rabies, which you could get only at camp.
I ran back to the cabin and burst in, all the lads on the bunks like roosting crows. "I didn't get a snipe," I announced, "but I think I saw one on the way back!"
The room exploded in laughter. I'd shown myself to be a coward and a liar, but that was OK. Humiliation was the price of admission to the brotherhood. Next year, I'd be the one handing the novice the stick.
That's what I remember. It might even be true.
Daughter returns from summer camp tomorrow, and she'll have video on her phone to fix the memories with exacting specificity, like butterflies on pins framed behind a sheet of glass. Her camp likely will be around for a long time, and when she's my age, she could go back and let the scent of the woods and the water bring it back.
My camp is gone. I don't know when it closed. But every year when I drop off Daughter at the bus, I go home, think about bonfires and bug bites and the slap of the waves on the hull of a boat, and I look at the camp's site on Google's satellite view. It's all overgrown now. You can't tell where the cabins were. You can't see any of the paths we walked, or the docks where we ran full-tilt for cannonball dives.
Eventually, no one will remember it was a camp. Like the rest of the deep green forest of childhood: It will belong to the snipes.
firstname.lastname@example.org • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks