Here are some things kids are still doing at sleep-away summer camp: learning woodworking, taking swimming lessons, making bracelets out of colored strings and letter beads that spell EMILY or ALLIE, trudging back to a hunter green cabin after an endless sunstroke kickball game, running to the canteen for water ice on moonlit, cricket-serenade nights, writing letters home begging for gum, getting the nickname “Chunks,” zip-lining, co-opting Indian words, obsessing over the girls/boys in the other bunks, dodging bees, collecting splinters, fighting homesickness, and trying to look cool despite everything.
I witnessed many of these activities last August, when I—a full-grown man—spent most of a week embedded at Camp Kweebec, a camp for boys and girls ages six to 16 in the far suburbs of Philadelphia.
One thing I was determined to investigate upon my arrival was whether camp still smelled the same. I have vague sense-memories from my camp days decades ago, and probably the strongest is the musty aroma of the black steamer trunk, with its sturdy cardboard shelf, that I set up next to my cot. I inherited it from an older cousin who, my forensic sniff test indicated, had died in it, tragically perspiring to death after overdosing on mothballs.
I have to admit, the camp memories I’ve extracted from the mildewed footlocker of my mind are mixed and a little warped. As a kid, I attended overnight camps in New England for parts of three summers, but my experience was more Holden Caulfield than Huckleberry Finn. I was introverted, scared to swim, tiny for my age. I would have been happy to stay home playing wiffle ball and drawing comics with friends I already had. I recently dug through some old papers and found a progress report that my first camp counselor, straining to be upbeat, wrote to my parents when I was eight: “Donny has gotten over the ‘smallest kid in the cabin’ syndrome and has been getting along with the other boys fairly well. He has adjusted to the camp program and seems to enjoy it.”
One famous letter I wrote home begins: “Dear Everybody, Camp is ok but getting worse.”
The camp memory that always comes to my mind first is from a rainy day when water activities were canceled due to bad weather, a turn of events that secretly made me happy. I was watching a storm whip up the lake, along with a few kids and the swim instructor, and I got up the nerve to speak out loud for a change: “I wouldn’t want to swim in that!” The swim instructor cruelly cracked, “You can’t swim.” I guess he showed me, because I didn’t talk a lot after that. After all these years, I’ll only grudgingly forgive him now. Maybe he’s dead.
My experience isn’t typical. Thousands of delighted families across the Philadelphia region have sent offspring to overnight camps to play sports and make friends and become young adults, and those kids loved every minute of it. I know many of them as old adults. They’re pillars of society: lawyers, doctors, executives. Some couldn’t get enough; they became counselors after they couldn’t be campers anymore, then had children so they could send them.
Kweebec, founded in the 1930s, is the kind of traditional camp that generations of Philadelphians have lodged in their memories as pure and unadulterated, the sort of institution that remains the way it was when things were still great, like scorekeeping a baseball game or blowing out birthday candles. My official assignment there was to investigate how summer camp has or hasn’t changed, to contemplate why the tradition has stood the test of time. My unofficial mission was to see if I could discover what I’d missed as a kid. And maybe smell around a little.