11 Summers Away

by Leah Beckmann

This is the second installment in a series about summer camp.

I. 6th grade

I was the kid calling my mom to come pick me up from the sleepover in the middle of the night, so when the idea of camp came up, no one thought I would really go until the day I got on the plane. I was just beginning to transition out of basketball shorts and Nike shirts and shopping exclusively at Limited Too. My first days of camp started two before I got there, when my parents put me on a plane with my best friend Sonya and sent us to her grandparents in Chicago. Her grandpa was a doctor and we played in their dusty basement, Sonya chasing me with nightmare pictures of infected eyeballs and engorged penises. The next day, her grandma put us on the eight-hour bus up to camp in Wisconsin, with orange slices and brown paper bag lunches. We looked out the window and made fun of a weird girl who sat with us. We called her Hickapoo, which we sang in high, mean little voices that made me laugh so hard I peed in my pants, beginning a long career of peeing in pants at camp.

When I got to camp, I was so homesick I felt like my stomach could fall out of my butt. We gathered together at the opening fire circle; sitting on benches with red chipping paint, I cried in the back row until my new counselor came to get me. Her name was Abby and she was the owner/director’s daughter. She told me even she would get homesick, with her parents in the big house just 50 yards away. She told me she knew about that stomachache that comes with the worst kind of homesickness, but she promised that it would pass. And that it was worth it. I water-skied for the first time and wore flip-flops in the shower. One night when we were getting ready for bed, Allison Drybel, who had been to camp the summer before, put down a piece of toilet paper on Sonya’s bed, lifted up her bathrobe and pooped. Sonya cried. A girl in the cabin next door went home early for anorexia. A different girl went home early to go to a Spice Girls concert. My counselors were Abby, Jorie, and Lily. Lily was our CIT, and knew all the words to the Rent soundtrack. I worshipped her.

II. 7th grade

Our friend Emily got her period the third day of camp and showed me her underwear; I thought it looked like poop, but I was a late bloomer. As a reward, Emily got a phone call home and a private trip to Cathy’s, the local ice cream shop. I got to skip activities each day to practice for my coming Bat Mitzvah; “practice” meant I sat on swing set and begged staff members to buy me sodas. I sprained my ankle during Capture the Flag, and eight of us injured during the game got to go to Cathy’s after we went to the hospital. Lindsay was my counselor and she worshipped Dave Matthews. I worshipped her. I stayed for four weeks.

III. 8th grade

I had braces, frizzy hair, and if you had asked me what I wanted more than anything in the world, I would have said boobs. My friend Alyson developed an enormous crush on Steven, the hottest male staff, and hung a sign over her bed that said, “Steven I love you forever.”

Our counselors read aloud Judy Blume’s Forever to us before we went to bed, which is largely about a girl naming her first boyfriend’s dick Ralph. Jen, who was so homesick she cried every day until she left, devoutly wrote in her diary every night before bed. She kept track of every detail of the day, including our cabin cleanup score and what we had eaten for breakfast. We wore tube tops with matching True Colors makeup and Rocket Dogs to socials. I stayed eight weeks and sobbed as I drew bubble letters on plane napkins for cabin mates. I avoided seeing home friends when I got home for as long as I could.

IV. Freshman year

There was a cabin talk about cliquishness, hurt feelings, and leaving someone out at least once a week. Our counselor stole the TV out of the staff retreat and put it in our cabin, where we watched Sex and the City. One night we raided the back of the kitchen, but someone left the door open and hundreds of dollars of food went bad. Sean Taylor wrote me letters sprayed with Calvin Klein cologne, that I read aloud to the cabin. Enclosed was his eighth grade photo that showed off his bleached tips and puka shell necklace. When I jumped off a sailboat and slit my foot open on something lurking in the water below, my counselor Susan held her shirt to the wound and said she felt like her child was hurt.

V. Sophomore year

Our cabin was on the outer edge of camp’s property and had a vending machine and a fridge full of otter pops. We cut the younger campers in line for tubing and got in trouble for ordering a pizza to our cabin using a forbidden cell phone. We bought a blow-up pool and put it on our porch. One night we filmed an exact replica of a Real World: Chicago episode. Our two favorite activities included shower parties and taking pictures of each other fake sleeping. One afternoon, Katie Brahmer pulled a tampon out of Melanie Goldberg and chased her around the cabin with it.

VI. Junior year

I had 14 campers all going into seventh grade, plus one mouse, Speedy, who timed his nightly sprint across the cabin floor to coincide with Lights Out in order to produce maximum shrieks. We older girls went on a camping trip to Door County together, and we bitched so incessantly on the way there that our CIT director rolled up all the windows in the car and turned on the heat on a full blast.

On our nights out the older counselors told us to dress in all black for something called Wet Bandits. We broke into boys’ camps and spray-painted that — “Wet Bandits” — in the front driveway. We broke into the AmericInn pool and ate at Country Kitchen Buffet at 2 a.m. We took the four-person sailing boat out on the lake and swam naked. On one of our “nature walks” (walking through the woods to smoke pot), we stumbled on a garage sale and bought an old rowboat. We dragged it back to camp and climbed in, only to jump out screaming 10 seconds later due to massive amounts of prickly antifreeze embedded on the seats. Amy, who had to wear back brace to combat a worsening case of scoliosis, fell down the hill while wearing it and instead of helping her up we peed in our pants laughing.

VII. Senior year

My new campers were three years younger than I was. They made me cry twice that summer: once when one got her ears pierced in town, and later, when two others put on roller skates and flew down a hill and straight through a glass window.

On one night off, my friend Lizzie’s cool and much older boyfriend drove up to camp and rented out a room for us at the Motel 6 in town. He bought us vodka and we all took shots out of plastic cups in the room. A few of us ran outside, and Amy pulled down her pants to pee. Almost immediately the lights on a cop car we hadn’t noticed flicked on. They breathalized us, slapped us with MIPs, and called someone at camp to come collect us. We sobbed in the van on the way home, and again the next morning as we stood on the waterfront, the sun just beginning to come up over the water, as the director threatened to send us home the next time. The rest of our nights off were taken away.

I fell in love with my co-counselors and my campers and hardly missed the nights out. A week before camp ended, I had a dream I was sleeping on the bottom bunk and was late to lifeguard. I stepped out of the top bunk where I was actually sleeping and slammed into the floor, rupturing my spleen. My mom flew out to Eagle River, Wisconsin, and spent a week sleeping curled up in a chair in the hospital room while I recovered. Camp was over and empty by the time I went back to get my stuff. I flew home heartbroken.

VIII. First year of college

My campers were 15. I started hooking up with a guy on male staff. We bought alcohol and drank it in the male staff cabin, which we christened the BBCBBIT — Back Boys Cabin, Best Bar in Town. I drove the ski boat and taught first timers to bend their knees, to keep their arms straight. My campers got in trouble for doing that thing that was popular for a little while, where you sort of choke yourself until you’re about to pass out. It was Amy’s 10 Year, a massive celebration for girls who have been there 10 years, and we went wild celebrating. We took our fake IDs to the Kathan Inn, a tiny bar the size of a large closet, and three friends entered the wet t-shirt contest. I left camp for two days for college orientation in California and hated every second I was gone.

IX. Second year of college

My campers were nine years old and I loved them. They still played pretend behind our cabin. I had them write funny letters to my friends at home: “What’s your favorite kind of melon?” One camper, Jordyn, became particularly attached to me after the friend she came with turned out to be more popular than her. She ditched Jordyn and broke both our hearts. More mornings than not I woke up with one of them in my bed with me. My age group and I were all coming down from the high of living on our own at school and we began to believe we were beyond camp’s magic, that we were too old for it. Jen and I snuck out to visit two boys at a boys’ camp for more fingering, and because we did it in a way that was shitty to our friends, we were ignored for a few days. This summer was not one of our best.

X. Year abroad

I had said goodbye to school for a year and was refusing to acknowledge what I knew: that at 20 years old, this would probably be my last summer at camp. My campers were nine, again. I would wake them up in the middle of the night to run around the South Field under the stars, wearing towel-capes and screaming that we were witches. Sometimes when we came home drunk, Amy and I would go into the cabin and turn on all the lights and tell them it was time for breakfast.

My three co-counselors were my sister’s age and entering their senior years of high school. The campers adored Jenny, a CIT, and she adored them back. It was my 10 Year ceremony that summer and she wrote a song for our campers to sing to me on the night of the celebration. Her mother sent her cookie cake and she shared it with the cabin. Later that fall, when we were all home, Jenny collapsed on the soccer field after an irregular heart condition she’d had went unnoticed. For my sister and the rest of her age group, this was something they would never fully recover from. The bottom had dropped out. When you lose someone from camp, a small and irreplaceable part of your foundation is gone forever. Camp celebrates Jenny Day every summer in her memory. There is always lots of cookie cake involved.

XI. College graduate, extremely lost

I flew to camp to visit for a few days, moved into a cabin, and stayed for a month. The other five counselors living there pushed their beds together and we slept in one huge one. I lifeguarded without, I think, actually being certified. I recharged and pretended to figure out a plan. On their nights off, my age group and I told the CITs to dress in all black and we took them to break into boys camps to write Wet Bandits on the driveway.

*Thanks to Jen, and her diary, for helping to remember every part of every summer.

Photo via foresthistory/flickr.

Leah Beckmann is an editor at Gawker. These days she only matches her eyeshadow to her tube tops on special occasions.