The author, front row, third from the right. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Young)
You’ll find this simple greeting on a wooden sign at the end of a short and very bumpy dirt road in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania.
Schwenksville (zip code 19473) is as epic as it sounds — it’s a hilly, leafy town in the exurbs of Philadelphia that had a small cameo in the book The Corrections. Schwenksville is also home to Camp Kweebec, an overnight camp for boys and girls founded in 1935, and, for more than a decade, my summertime “home away from home.”
I both attended and worked at Camp Kweebec in the 1970s and 1980s, spanning ages nine to 19. Once school was out every June, I jumped on the camp bus from a Lord & Taylor parking lot in suburban Philadelphia and never looked back. My sister and both of my brothers went to Kweebec, as well. So did at least five of my cousins.
I’m not trying to one-up my fellow campers, but I also got married at my camp, in a gazebo overlooking the lake. Anyone who was there will tell you it was a chilly September day, but it was also an incredibly fun and memorable wedding. In camp lore, I’m now in the upper echelon of Kweebec royalty. (The marriage, incidentally, lasted about as long as my time at camp. But that’s another story…)
“Welcome home” is always what it says when you log on to Camp Kweebec’s website, which I’ve been feverishly checking all summer for photos of my son, who is spending his third summer in the 19473.
In the digital age, it’s alarmingly easy to stay connected to camp life. (I bribed my kid to befriend the camp photographer.) The payoff: I’ve seen him glide across the water in a canoe; shoot an arrow with the precision of Katniss in The Hunger Games; dress a tiny teddy bear — not sure what that is about; sit in a drum circle with a bunch of sweaty boys; gather around a campfire; paint pottery; make a bed — like that’s going to happen when he gets home; conquer his fear of heights by zip lining across Lake Kweebec and swim, swim, swim.
Every day there is at least one shot of him participating in a variety of sports, including street hockey, basketball, soccer, tennis, flag football, newcomb, BBS (a combination of basketball, baseball and soccer) and Gaga, a game that didn’t exist in my day and appears to be a combination of dodgeball and handball. In each picture, he is beaming.
When I look at these photos, I am peering into the mirror of my own childhood.
There are some changes, however. For one thing, camp is now seven weeks instead of eight. My first summer I brought a Panasonic Toot-a-Loop AM radio. Now kids arrive with heavy electronics in the form of the Nintendo DS, iPad and iTouch. (Phones — or anything that has a cellular signal — still are verboten.)
Back in my day, the wooden bunks were old, creaky and hot, literally covered with camper graffiti. Some days you could smell the cesspool rising behind Boy’s Line. (Did I mention that Kweebec is also conveniently nestled between towns with a nuclear power plant and a maximum-security prison, which makes for some excellent campfire fodder?)
There have been many upgrades since then — layer upon layer of fresh paint, a bigger lake, a new pool, better bathrooms and a picturesque performing arts space. Even with these improvements, it is by no means plush. I often compare Camp Kweebec to the mythical Camp North Star, the zany camp depicted in the movie Meatballs.
But camp isn’t about fancy facilities. It’s about the people. Fun people. Serious people. Lunatics. Artists. Jocks. Malcontents. Pollyannas. You name it. They all exist in the camp eco-system. And the beauty of camp is that you are forced to live side by side with all of them. You learn to get along with anyone and everyone, which is an invaluable life skill. You gain independence and confidence. You lead, and you are led. Thus, an explanation for why kids to who attend camp fare better when they go off to college.
The other thing about camp is that you get to recreate yourself. During the school year, I was never a thespian. At camp, I was Anna in the King & I; Anita in West Side Story and Princess Leila (yes, Leila) in Starlet Wars, an original creation by the drama counselor who is now a famous self-help author. From September to June, I wasn’t much of an athlete, either. At camp, I scored goals in hockey and soccer and, miraculously, excelled in other sports.
And then there were boys — lots of them. At camp, I always had a boyfriend. One summer I dated eight different guys, with a few repeats. A three-day relationship seemed like an eternity…
And yet, despite all of this, people still think I’m nuts when I say that my son is “gone for the summer.” The truth is that it’s a lot harder for me than it is for him. Some nights when I can’t sleep, I walk into his empty room and hug his stuffed animals.
But time, it does fly. Now I’m reliving the final week of camp in pictures — the end of Color War, when the entire camp divides into two teams of Blue and White and battles each other for five days. Next up is “Cabaret,” a formal dance that is akin to the camp prom but held on the basketball court. Then there is the final 3-5-10 ceremony, where kids cast floating candles off into the lake under a starry sky to commemorate their years at Kweebec.
No one sleeps the last night of camp. You reminisce about the summer that has passed. (Remember that time when…?) You laugh. You cry. You sing corny songs and you talk about the summer that has come and gone. It’s too hard to swallow even one bite of that last breakfast in the dining hall the next morning. The lump in your throat is simply too big.
There are hugs, and there are tears.
And then it’s time to board the bus. Off you go, down that bumpy road to your other home away from home.