The author, third from left. (Photo courtesy of Amy Barr)
In many ways, life inside a summer camp bunk is a microcosm of the adult social world, especially for females. The atmosphere can be simultaneously congenial and competitive, intimate and exclusionary. In a space the size of typical two-car garage, a variety of personality types are thrust together, forced to navigate an often-complicated jumble of events and emotions. And, if you were like I was some 40 years ago, you loved it.
For me, camp was a place to both be myself and test myself, to slip into my beloved pair of broken-in Tretorns even as I tried out new skills. Those dusty, musty cabins provided us temporary inhabitants with stability and solace even as we pushed boundaries during the day.
At camp, there are no parents around to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, or catch you when you fall. It’s a place to figure out stuff on your own, be that how to soothe yourself to sleep on a homesick night or stand up to a snooty bitch. But it’s also a place to practice integrating yourself into a group as you come to understand what you have to offer, and the nourishment you can take in return.
We groomed one another like kittens, braided each other’s hair, and shared cramped showers so we didn’t have to stop talking, even for a minute.
Camp Oxford-Guilford was tucked in a sleepy stretch of upstate farmland in Guilford, New York. The boys’ campus (Oxford) was about a quarter-mile away, but we only saw the males, my brother among them, at socials, services or during predawn panty raids. So on a day-to-day basis, this was essentially an all-girl affair and we reveled in our femaleness.
I learned how to shave my legs, use a tampon and roll my hair around an empty orange juice can before bed so my locks would be smooth and straight in the morning (this doesn’t work). I regularly enlisted my bunkmate, Harriet, to take wire-cutters to my braces in an effort to appear less gawky on social nights (that didn’t work, either). We groomed one another like kittens, braided each other’s hair, and shared cramped showers so we didn’t have to stop talking, even for a minute.
For seven summers, from age eight to 15, I kept coming back to experience camp life at Guilford. Bunk living breeds a particularly ferocious brand of closeness that is mostly wonderful, especially in early youth. But kids mature at different stages, so once our tightknit crew started to hit adolescence, there was often trouble in paradise. Some girls dabbled in drugs. Others grew cliquish and mean. There were girls with boyfriends or divorced parents or money — and those without. The effect of the real world in which we lived for the other ten months of the year loomed larger with each passing summer, eventually piercing the bubble that had kept us blissfully intact when we were “kids.”
I have a distinct memory of feeling both inside and outside the group around age 14, when my mother first got sick. Yes, these were my best buds, girls who had known me since I was eight, but they couldn’t possibly understand what I was going through that summer. I spent much time on my own or with the world’s kindest counselor, Lois, who was probably all of 19, but compassionate and wise beyond her years. I channeled some of my anger into becoming a pretty tame bad girl, stashing a smuggled six-pack of Bud and a pack of Marlboros in the woods behind the bunk. But drinking warm beer and smoking strong cigarettes did nothing to soothe my head or my heart. It just made me throw up.
But the truth is that that tough summer, one of my last at Guilford, was bearable because of those girls. They might not have been able to empathize with my situation at home, but the group’s constancy, boisterousness, even squabbling, were buoys. Our differences were now bigger and more meaningful, yet we all still meant a great deal to each other. As we were developing our own sense of self, I’m confident that each of us contributed something — something really important — to the women we became. When I think of my bunkmates now, I don’t recall individual talents or faults or even some of their faces. What rises to the surface is a feeling of commonality and tenderness and gratitude. In the words of our alma mater: Camp Guilford, we sing to you with hearts of love and friendship, too. Our camping days we will recall, Camp Guilford unites us one and all.