A Summer at Camp Kweebec

Our writer grabs a bunk at one of Philly's most iconic camps to see the epic, high-emotion moments that defined life at summer camp for generations.

COLOR WAR FINALLY broke early Tuesday. Counselors rousted campers before sunrise, and they watched technicians blow fire into two rainbow-colored hot-air balloons. Everyone looked up, and blue and white confetti rained down from the gondolas. This means war!

Camp immediately was divided in two—Blue City and White Country—like in that General Custer movie where the cadets at West Point are split when Civil War is declared. Morning competition included fishing in the camp’s small pond. Fish were one point each, with a bonus for catching Jackson, the legendary giant catfish with a gold tooth. There also were kayak races in the 40-acre lake that the Weisers built last summer.

After lunch (hot dogs, hamburgers, watermelon), the war continued as counselor Shawn Kaplan coached a White team of eight- and nine-year-old boys on the basketball court. “How many know how to play a zone defense?” he asked. Zero hands went up. “Okay,” he said. “We’re gonna play a two-three zone defense.” He told me after breaking the huddle, “They have a tendency to foul a lot when they play man-to-man.”

White got the opening bucket to go up 2-0, a good start for the strategy, but momentum shifted and Blue won, 17-2. One of the kids I’d seen at lunch got hit in the face with the ball at least twice. Maybe not all of camp has gotten softer.

Every parent knows that summer camps are about building children’s self-sufficiency­ and confidence. Camp also is a constant in a time when so much Earth can shake beneath our children’s feet. It’s one of the few things left that are still similar to how they were for us, a way to give kids a childhood experience we can relate to. At Kweebec, about 30 percent of campers have parents who went there.

But let’s be honest, too: One purpose of summer camp is to get the little mother-lovers out of the house for a while. Because, seriously, how long has it been? I imagine that was another reason my parents sent me and my brother away, despite our perfect willingness to stay home and demand their attention during all waking hours.

The secret to a successful camp, one that understands parental needs, is making the kids want to come back again next summer. Kweebec’s return rate is insanely close to 100 percent. That’s partly about the friendships, which campers forge in shared moments of independence and maintain off-season via texting and Facebook and Skype. (The kids can use no communications tech on campus.) But it’s also the world-of-its-own that a great camp creates, with its rituals and legends and secret words that outsiders don’t get. It’s about the rising status and privilege a camper gains by returning year after year. Little girls at Kweebec idolize the young women of the oldest bunk, Wellesley, who live not in a cabin but upstairs in the central Mansion House. The 16-year-old boys in Villanova swagger like kings and have privileged roles in events like the epic Rope Burn.

“When I was young, I could name the kids in ’Nova,” said Matt Goldberg, who got his nickname, “Chunks,” here years ago when he resembled a character in The Goonies. “We all looked up to them. Now everyone looks up to us.”

“I’m 16,” said his bunkmate, Troy Tucker. “People ask me, ‘What are you doing for the summer?’ and I say I’m going to overnight camp, and they say ‘Still?’ They look at me like I’m crazy. But if you’re on the outside looking in, you just don’t get it.”

Toward the end of Color War, there’s the Apache Relay, in which every camper has a small role: a run, a swim, a set of push-ups, blowing a bubble from frozen gum, making a bed. It ends with one anchorman from each team onstage at the “Campitheater” eating a pie (blueberry this year) loaded with an entire aerosol can of whipped cream. The whole can? “That’s how we know it’s fair,” Les told me.

White’s runner arrived at the stage first, and Tyler, a Villanova bunk member who’d been watching older campers do this for years, thrust his face into the dessert topping. A chant rose: “Eat that pie! Eat that pie!” About five minutes into the munch, the inevitable happened. Tyler lurched a little, and a burst of purple mud seeped out of his mouth, back onto the pie plate.

I had been told that regurgitation wouldn’t end a pie-eating effort. I never imagined this rule would come into play, that one young man would have to make the ultimate sacrifice for his team. There have been legendary moments in the annals of Philadelphia sports: Chamberlain’s 100-point game, the Flyers’ 1974 Cup championship. I’ll spare the details, but Tyler cleaned his plate first. He won the Apache Relay. His teammates mobbed the stage. Someone shouted “That’s how to get it done!” and slapped him on the back. Younger boys gaped in awe. Someday, they dared to dream, that’s gonna be me.

I’m not saying I would have slurped that pie goop myself, but I was beginning to understand what I missed as a kid. These were epic moments, high-emotion memories packed into a brief time, that you don’t get from the routine of school or staying home. And the more I pillaged my memory, fed by what I was witnessing, the more I realized that I actually spent some time liking camp. I remembered that I was on my team’s spelling-bee roster for Color War one year, and overheard one counselor telling another—knowing I was in earshot—that we had spelling bee clinched because Steinberg was in it. I quietly glowed. I also remember the word I misspelled to be eliminated in an early round: courageous.

And that letter I wrote that started “Camp is ok but getting worse”? It contained no evidence of anything getting worse. Its next sentence was about feeding frogs. “I am making a model car and when you wind it up it goes,” it said. “I bought some gimp and I am working on a square stitch. Our cabin is going to camp outside tomorrow. We are having a tournament in archery and I’m in second place. We saw a James Bond movie last night until 10 o’clock.”