Ellen Freeman Roth                      

July 20, 2006

Homesick for camp - and another life

In the chorus of "Don't forget to write!" and "Wear sunscreen!" shouted out to daughters boarding the bus to camp, my parting words to my 14-year-old stood out.

"Don't be a frat boy, honey!"

Her antics came to light during Visiting Day last year as we enjoyed the view from her cabin's back porch. One of her bunkmates stood on the porch railing guffawing as she described how my daughter managed to make use of her balancing skills and the scrub 20 feet below to avoid a walk to the loo.

At home, my frat-boy daughter is too demure to venture into a communal dressing room.

Then there was her call home from camp.

"Hi, Mom! Ah, you're going to be angry."

"Why would I be angry?"

"I put a second piercing in my ear."

"A second piercing?" I had nixed that request months earlier.

"I used a needle. A bunch of us did."

"A dirty needle? And you just followed the crowd?"

"Oh, no, Mom! We used rubbing alcohol on the needle! And I went first!"

I knew she had potential to be a leader. But a ringleader?

Actually, she's been a leader of sorts since she started camp seven years ago. Back then, I went to the post office daily, including Sundays, to mail her letters -- which, I later discovered, she never opened. While I was pining for my little girl, she was busy rallying her homesick bunkmates and having a blast.

Two years later, when my daughter was 9, circumstances allowed me the rare privilege of spending a midseason morning at camp with her. She pointed to a girl playing the piano and whispered to me, ``She's one of the most popular girls in camp."

"Is being popular at camp different from being popular at school?" I asked.

"It's completely different. At camp, you're popular if you're really nice. At school, you're popular if you're cool."

While Mac hiavelli doesn't take a summer sabbatical, it seems that camp songs, bunk clean up, and towering pines conspire to make character fashionable.

We've certainly seen it first-hand.

Two years ago on Visiting Day, my daughter took a spill doing a gymnastics dismount. Her Dad carried her to her bunk, where several friends stayed with us by her side. She was simultaneously sweating and shivering but knew she had to "break a leg" (though it turned out she already had) in the camp musical. An hour later, she left her pain in the wings and swaggered with crutches onstage as tough gal, Rizzo, in the musical, "Grease."

This summer camp started the same day as middle school ended. She had just an hour to trade her high-heeled sandals for sneakers. I thought it would be a tough transition, but when we turned into the parking lot, my daughter sprang from the car amid jubilant shrieks from her camp friends. She spends just 24 days a year with these girls beside a lake, but any time and place they reunite -- airports, special occasions, midwinter visits -- they stick like s'mores.

After I returned from the camp bus, I noticed the gauzy white dress she'd worn to the closing ceremonies at her school. At camp, her white uniform shirts become gray with wear. To my eye, that's when she's most beautiful: W hen she's scuffed with camp spirit, her laughter is unbound, and her long-since-manicured toenails are practically feral.

At camp, my daughter shared a cabin with 13 girls and their accoutrements. The cabins are truly wireless -- no electricity; no computers or cellphones. She heard the calls of loons and the scraping of metal jacks against the bunk floor.

In her letters home, her giddy excitement leaped from every line. "Hey! The bus ride to camp was really fun! Guess what! We're having an age group Texas Hold 'Em Tournament! AHAH! My focus activities this week are gymnastics, kayaking, soccer, and tennis. Not the best but oh well! Haha!" And the next letter (and the last): "In gymnastics I got my round-off back tuck. Yay! Haha! We're planning Carnival! The theme is Willy Wonka! It's gonna be the bomb! Haha! I love you! Mwah!"

The last day of camp, the girls skipped the autograph books and signed each other -- in permanent marker. Prying the bunkmates apart seemed to defy the laws of n ature. When my car was packed and my charges piled in, I shifted into drive and heard, "See, Jenny? I told you my Mom wouldn't notice." An extra girl had snuck into the back seat.

My daughter's first night home, she shared the bed with her full duffel bag so she could smell camp. Now that she's here, her pranks won't include midnight forays with her giggling confreres to swipe the curtains from the shower house, set up a luau in the middle of camp, or drink hot sauce on a kitchen raid. No, she has signed onto instant messaging, plugged in her hair dryer, and is hoping her focus activities include shopping.

I wish she could be a frat boy a while longer.