Friday, April 17, 2009

Camp N

I'm about to send a wave of bummer across this blog. There may be some humor here, but mostly this post is going to tell an unfortunate tale. I'm doing this because I want to thank someone who cannot be identified.

In the summer of 1984 I went to sleepaway camp. I had been to sleepaway camp three summers before this, but I think one or two years had gone by in between. I enjoyed those first three summers, especially the two that I spend at Camp Ramah in New England (Palmer, Massachusetts). I learned to paddle a canoe there, how to hit a ball with a tennis racket, and how to batik, and I got to experience Kabbalat Shabbat (that's the Friday night service for "welcoming" or "receiving" the Sabbath) outside in the mountain air. Most importantly, I made many great friends and even kissed a boy or two.

The camp I attended in '84 was different. It was also a Jewish camp, and it had a Hebrew name, but I'm going to call it Camp Naked, because it was situated on the grounds of Ramblewood in Darlington, Maryland. If you click around that site, you come to figure out that Ramblewood caters to "alternative groups" that might wish to hold events in which guests are in their "natural state." Yes, really. It's in the middle of nowhere, away from main roads. Observe the towel etiquette when sitting, please.

Slipping Down

This camp experience was different for me, not because we ran around naked, but because I didn't have a good time there, to say the least. It turned out that half the girls I bunked with were in my class at school. My school was very small and, as in many high schools, students were categorized as "popular" or not. I was not, but for the most part everyone liked me. Even still, having those girls there was a problem. They were in that popular caste, and thus in another social world. Camp has a different dynamic than school, and it wouldn't be wrong to say that at Ramah, I was fairly popular. But at Camp N in 1984, with our hyperawareness of our places in the hierarchy, the girls from my school didn't suddenly become my friends. So from the very first, as people were getting to know each other, those girls from my school started getting chummy with the other girls, and then there was I. I quickly realized I was not making friends as I always had easily. What could I do? I folded up. This was whacked. This was bad.

This was rock bottom.

My counselors didn't help much: our "senior" counselor had an additional job at the camp, so we didn't see much of her and had two junior counselors instead. They were 16, not much older than we were. They hardly spoke to me the entire summer. (I heard that one of them suffered from a rare disorder that causes your boobs to move around your body, so that sometimes they're on her stomach, sometimes on her back, sometimes even on her head, which makes it hard to get a bra to stay. The other one became addicted to World of Warcraft and Second Life and never leaves her house.)

There were a few other things I had going against me. We were 14, no longer kids, and some things had changed while I was off doing theater day camp:

  • My mother had followed the recommended clothing list to the letter and this meant I did not have enough clothes. I didn't have the right clothes either; my bunkmates came from wealthy families and their mothers bought them designer clothing.

  • I was not fat by any means, but I didn't have the eating-disordered starved bodies characteristic of most of my peers either. (A couple of the girls were actually chubby, but they made up for this with their fashion sense and exuberant personalities.)

  • I had hair that was a bit difficult to control, especially in the humidity, whereas the other girls had the kind of hair you could run a brush through in the morning and it would shine and look beautiful.

  • The hair on my legs was very light, nearly invisible, and I really had not felt the need to start shaving it yet. But leg shaving was a Big Deal at camp that summer. It was odd that I didn't do it.

  • I wore glasses, and they weren't like the glasses I have now that I get compliments on those days when I don't wear my contact lenses.

  • Most notably, I'm very fair and sunburn easily, while most of my bunkmates brought Coppertone SPF 2 tanning oil with them. When you are wearing shorts the color difference really stands out.
I didn't have any friends at camp that summer, unless you count the little ones. Not the skunks and the little birdies. I mean the poor homesick kids who were too young to be away at camp. If I remember correctly, Camp N took kids as young as seven. I was often swimming "buddies" with one of the little girls, and they loved that I was bigger and could throw them around in the water. On a camp trip to Hershey Park, I ended up chaperoning groups of little kids on the log flume. I think I rode it seven times in a row with a different group. I could forget about things during times like these.

Quiet? Or Undead?

It gets even a little worse. People talked about me behind my back. I tried to ignore it but I kept thinking I heard them calling me a certain insulting name. It didn't come out into the open until the day we had auditions for the camp play. I'd done theater before--usually cast in funny roles--and I sing, and I figured I might be able to come out of my shell a bit this way. After the audition, I went to ask the counselors that were running things--both guys--when we might hear their decision. They said it would be soon, and one said "we have to work on the casting now, so why don't you make like a tree and get out of here." (It's "make like a tree and leave," dumbass.)

That sounded mean in itself, but then the other guy said, "yeah, take off, Poltergeist."

I froze. My eyes bugged out of my head. "W-what did you call me?" I asked him.

"Poltergeist," he answered. "Isn't that what they call you?"

When I ran away crying, I think he got his answer. It was the name I had pretended not to hear. He apologized later, of course, but I heard that over the next few years, he lost his swagger as he slowly grew into a giant, gelatinous mass, and took up residence in a swamp. He now eats swamp vegetation and the occasional toad.

But I never knew why they called me that. Best guest: my "ghostly" pallor. Oooo, scary. Run away! Run away! She's heeeeerrrre.

"I am Hugh"

I wasn't the only one who had troubles. There was a guy there, and I'm a little fuzzy on his purpose at camp, but I think he did various jobs there. He had a mental disability of some kind, and he was openly teased by the wonderful Camp N population. I don't remember his name, but I'm going to call him Hugh, because it is a movie star name, and because it was the name the Enterprise crew gave to the Borg drone who became disconnected from the collective. Borg Hugh (a/k/a "third of five") turned out to be NOT evil at all, as Captain Picard was able to determine in this clip, but unfortunately he ended up getting reassimilated. You can see that underneath his scary cybernetic exterior, Hugh is a cutie-pie.

Toward the end of my stay at Camp N, I got well and truly sick. I had a nasty sinus infection and was laying in a bed up on the second floor of the infirmary when the entire camp lost electricity and water. At that point they decided to send all the sickies back to their bunks to rest. I was feverish and dizzy, and I found myself at the top of a flight of stairs, looking down in fear, wondering how I would get down those stairs without falling (ever had a sinus infection like this?). All of a sudden (at least it was sudden in my memory), Hugh appeared. He took my arm and led me slowly and carefully down those treacherous stairs.

I can't explain it, but there was so much kindness in that gesture. Hugh certainly didn't care that I was Poltergeist, just that I needed help. I could have kissed him. I wanted to put him in pocket and take him home, except I wasn't going home just yet. (When we did go home, there weren't enough seats on the bus, so I sat in the aisle perched on a duffel bag. It seemed fitting. All I could see out the window from that angle was the sky.)

The Fame soundtracks (film and TV) were played constantly at camp. This song is for you, Hugh. You're a star. I don't know where you are, but I know you've become one with the sun.

Epilogue: some months after camp I went to a youth group dance. I'd washed off the scum of Camp N, and had a wonderful time socializing and dancing with guys I met. Some camp people were at this dance and I steered way clear of them. At one point, the D.J. announced that a song was being dedicated to me and Hugh. This was meant to be cruel, and I (and Hugh too I assume) ignored it, pretending we didn't hear.

Hugh, I owe you a slow dance. And as for my fellow campers and camp counselors, my mutant friends with advanced cerebral capabilities have seen that some of you, sometimes, cry in your coffee, and you're not sure why.