My Summer Camp Nickname Was Gay-Gay

What was yours?

My summers at overnight camp were the best time of my childhood, and I got to re-live them over the weekend. I happily endured a plane seat designed for elves and a gelato-firm mattress in exchange for a few days of authentic female bonding with 80 fellow alums of the late, great Camp Wingfoot for Girls in Painesville, Ohio (pop. 19,563).

Camp Wingfoot was founded in 1943 on 100 acres along the shore of Lake Erie. The camp took its name from the property’s previous owner, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, whose logo was the winged foot of Mercury. The camp closed in 1985 and is now a town park.

Some youngsters have no love for summer camp, especially an overnight camp far away from home. Not me. From the ages of nine to 15, I counted the days until I could leave behind my parents in the Buffalo suburbs and head for my favorite four-letter state. (Pop quiz: There are two others. Name them.)

For eight glorious weeks every summer, I was part of an all-girl community hidden away among bucolic acres of fields, streams and rolling hills. We lived in cabins and shared secrets late at night. We sang at all hours. We laughed hard, sometimes until we couldn’t breathe. I was born for this world.

We also ganged up on girls we didn’t like, I’m ashamed to say. We complained endlessly about chores and counselors. We reveled in breaking the rules, especially Gay-Gay. Yes, that was my camp nickname, but I have no idea of its provenance. Needless to say, it was a prescient handle.

Over seven summers, I learned to ride a horse and shoot a rifle, albeit neither of them well. I became a passable swimmer. My sport, I discovered, was tennis, and by the time I hit my teens I was playing every afternoon until it was too dark to see the ball. My last three years, I was camp champion.

I dreaded the socials with Camp Roosevelt, our brother camp, because it meant hair rollers and makeup and my feeble attempts at heterosexuality. The truth is, I had mad crushes on girls. Though it would be several years before I would understand those feelings, I couldn’t wait for those boy-girl events to end so I could get back to my own little Lesbos.

The last day of camp guaranteed copious tears. We promised to write; we didn’t. We promised to be best friends forever, too, but none of that mattered last weekend. The intimacy, dormant for decades, returned instantly, as if by celestial command. Life is funny that way.

Everyone at the reunion, including women who hadn’t known me as campers, addressed me as Gay-Gay. Just hearing that name brought with it a depth of emotion I had not expected. Gay-Gay. My name was Gay-Gay. I was nine years old and I played the ukulele and that was my name.

My cabin mates and I, almost as one, participated with ecstatic abandon in all the corny reunion stuff—campfires, s’mores, hootenannies. We laughed from the belly. Some of us wept a little. We exchanged cell numbers and promised to stay in touch.

This time, we will. We will, this time.