Summer Camp Is For Winners!

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smeciwThirty years after she thought she had bid her counselors good-bye forever, Patricia Marx returns for a summer camp reunion and discovers that Pinecliffe hasn’t changed. She has.

From the age of 9 to 14, I spent two months every summer at Camp Pinecliffe, a girls’ camp in Maine that stressed competitive sports and, if I remember correctly, desserts. Last summer I returned to Pinecliffe for the Alumnae 80th Anniversary Celebration Weekend. I wondered how the camp had changed, but mostly, I wondered if I–who today would rather not share a room with myself, let alone bats and spiders; hates weather unless it is room temperature; and never engages in any activity where there are points involved–would find Pinecliffe as sublime now as I did then.

I had loved everything about camp: sleeping with seven other girls in a bunk that had no electricity or shower; singing corny songs all day about our undying loyalty to Pinecliffe; making clay ashtrays (my father estimated the cost of each one at $500, given the price of camp); and participating in a color war (the Blue Team vs. the Brown Team) so cutthroat that a tennis counsellor once suggested I jump when my opponent served so that she would be startled and thrown off balance. I did not object to the military school–like custom of awarding posture bands each week to campers who stood particularly erect, an honor that was coveted since it earned points for your team. I did not mind wearing the uniform–clothes I would not have been caught dead in at home. It consisted mainly of a blue middy and brown shorts, except when we wore all white for tennis or Sunday services, or a white middy and brown shorts during team sports if and only if you were on the brown team. (Only models spend more of the day changing clothes than we did.) I did not even think it odd that the day before parents’ weekend we had post-shower inspections so that counselors could make sure we had no dirt behind our ears or between our toes.

In my letters home, I expressed not a pang of homesickness. “Dear Mommy and Daddy,” I wrote in one of my first letters, “Camp is GREAT. I don’t miss you. Send my nightgown (the blue one that is ripped), stamps and underpants (not really necessary). Please don’t send vitamins because someone says you don’t take them at camp. Last night we had a big-and-little-sister party. I was a buffalo. This is a TERRIFIC camp.” By the third week, I was so happily ensconced in the world of camp craft and water sports, I had little time for home. On a postcard, I informed my parents, “I don’t have anything to write. Please ask questions.” One summer, as parents’ weekend approached, my mother, evidently unnerved by how well adjusted I was, wrote, “When you see us, you are to run up and kiss us as all the other kids do when they see their parents–no matter what you are doing, even if you are in the middle of a tennis match.”

Aside from the occasional bad weather report, every note I wrote to my parents described Pinecliffe as a blissful haven. Disappointments were rare, minor and glossed over: “Yesterday we voted for captains and head of cabinet [student council],” I reported. “Ginny and Sue are captains. Carol is head of cabinet. I was nominated for head of cabinet, but I knew I wouldn’t make it because: (1) Carol was head of cabinet last year, (2) Carol was on temporary cabinet, and (3) Carol ran the elections. You can send me all the food you want. I’ll eat anything!” Potential crises were related with nonchalance: “A couple of days ago, Larry, the pottery counselor, got sick and went home,” I mentioned. “They thought he had hepatitis. So we all got weighed to see how many cc’s of gamma globulin we would have to have. They had to call off the Lodge Dance and Sailing Exchange. Today they found out that he only had mono. Tomorrow we are having a regatta and captains’ night. Remember to send my shoe bag.”

Years later I went off to college, with name tapes sewed on my towels, socks and underwear, expecting, I suppose, a version of Camp Pinecliffe. But there I met people who had not only not gone to camp, they looked down on the phenomenon. Basically, there were four types of noncampers. (1) The Too Poor: “We worked in sweatshops as children… in our basement!” they would recall, further explaining: “We couldn’t afford to go across the street.” (2) The Too Good: “We were in the Baby Peace Corps,” they would solemnly brag, “helping the starving orphan migrant workers in Budldnstan.” (3) The Too Family-Oriented: “Your parents sent you away for two months?” they would exclaim incredulously. “I guess they didn’t love you.” (4) The Kennedys.

Suddenly, camp seemed bourgeois, and that, in the 1970s, was what I most did not want to be. Henceforth, I was ashamed of having so cherished my summers at Pinecliffe.

Bourgeois, however, is what I am afraid I have become. The idea of frittering away the summer swimming, playing tennis and braiding gimp into lanyards increasingly appeals to me. And so, bringing more clothes with me for two days than I had packed for eight weeks when I was a camper, I drove along the Maine roads lined with trees and lakes to the Camp Pinecliffe reunion, struck by the realization that I was roughly the same age as my parents were when they drove up to visit me for parents’ weekend. At the camp sign made of birch logs, I turned onto a dirt road. I passed the riding ring and then the infirmary, where, in my day, it seemed no matter what your ailment, you were diagnosed with tonsillitis.

I pulled up to Main Bunk, which served as the camp dining room and living room. In Main Bunk, I had watched the TV coverage of men landing on the moon in 1969 and, on the last night of camp every summer, had listened nervously as Hammie, then the camp director, announced to crying and shrieking gifts whether the Blues or the Browns had won color war. As I looked down the long expanse of lawn to Crystal Lake, my heart pounded. Group of women? Reunion? Many changes of clothes? Had I just entered a drippy movie, possibly starring Meg Ryan?

About 70 other former campers, ranging in age from 25 to 92, from as far away as California and Texas, had signed up for the weekend, which took place in August, immediately after the real campers had left for the season. We were assigned bunks. I was in Bunk 3, which coincidentally had been my first bunk. The bunk looked the same, except that now a bare lightbulb hung from one of the rafters; electricity had come to Pinecliffe, albeit in a token way.

On the same bed that I had dumped my duffel bag many, many years ago, I now dumped my gigantic suitcase-on-wheels. The bed, which I once considered ample and sturdy enough to play jacks on with a partner, was more accurately a cot. Lying down made you feel like the melted cheese in a taco. The beds were sharply made with gray blankets left by campers over the years. In fact, a woman in Bunk 2 discovered a blanket in another bunk on which her name tape was sewed–the very blanket for which she’d been searching for the past 25 years.

The bed catercorner to mine was taken by a golf pro who had been a counselor the summer I was in Bunk 3. I hoped she remembered me as a charismatic leader, athletic, able and kind–a budding writer as well as a young beauty. “You were so tiny,” she told me, “and always shivering and blue from swimming.”

That weekend, I played tennis, canoed across the lake, water-skied slalom, climbed a mountain, ate s’mores and went on a midnight nature hike, where I learned that coyote urine sprinkled on the ground repels deer. I skipped color war; apparently I’m not as competitive as I once was. At least not in softball–had we been vying for book contracts or eligible dates, I might have participated. (My team lost, though I cannot pretend there was a connection.) I was also not as immature–well, less willing to get in trouble. When the 30-year-old girls in Bunk 4 stole our lightbulb–or so we believed–the 50-year-old girls in my bunk smeared peanut butter on their toilet seat; I didn’t get involved.

At the “welcome campfire,” the camp director told us of her great-aunts Miss Mildred and Miss Esther, who had founded the camp 80 years ago. One of them–Miss Mildred, I think–had fled to Maine to escape a married lover for whom she worked as a dental assistant. (Could this be a ghost story? Was the dentist hiding in the fir trees?) The next night, at the clambake on the beach, Jo, who has been a head counselor at the camp since the 1930s and who, at age 93, can still play a nice game of tennis and hike four miles, recalled the days during World War II when campers used to wash their clothes in the lake and grow their own food.

We awoke to reveille but drank beer past taps. And always, there was singing–nonstop bursting into song. Pinecliffers have lyrics for everything and everyone. There are campfire ballads, swim-meet fight marches and tunes to mourn lost laundry by. We sing to the girl who drops a tray of food and to the driver who takes us to Lake Sebago. When I was a camper, we even had a ditty to compliment Hammie after she had her hair done-a ditty I can only suppose Hammie herself must have composed. (She was in charge of the place, after all.) While it was amazing to realize that I had total recall for words and melodies I had not heard for years, I confess I found it too embarrassing to join in with abandon, like I used to, as everyone sang “The Prune Song” (“Whatcha doin’ pruin? Stewin’?”, belted out “The Peppiest Girls” (The peppiest girls I ever saw, they never come a-pokin’/If I were to tell you the pep they had you’d think I was a-jokin/It’s good old-fashioned P-E-P, the pep you cannot down/Camp Pinecliffe pep, Camp Pinecliffe pep, the peppiest girls around!) or tearily crooned “The Lodge Farewell” (For once you’ve passed that Pinecliffe gate, you’ve made a little date with fate. And your heart is with Pinecliffe to stay). Similarly, I felt out of place and wanting in sentiment when several alums told the group that they sing camp songs to their children before bed and others woefully regretted that they had no daughters to send to their alma mater. Maybe you can’t go back to camp again, I thought at moments such as those.

Still, before I left, I jotted a postcard to my mother. “Camp is great,” I wrote, “and you don’t have to send anything! Love, Patty.”

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