Sleep-away camp revisited.
Five miserable summers straight, I made the trek to Camp Saginaw, a.k.a. Camp Saggyballs. The cornpone setting in Oxford, Pennsylvania, was the backdrop for my induction into the myth and ritual of the camp, whose songs and traditions served mostly to perpetuate the philosophy that this was the best place on Earth. It was not—what with the mediocre campfires, the soggy waffles, the deflating banana boat on the murky lake.
Still, I attended until I had earned the only slightly coveted green Old-Timer shirt, affixed with an Indian chief insignia; until I’d scraped my knuckles raw enough times at the gaga court to develop permanent scars; and until I no longer became teary-eyed when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played at the roller rink while the girl I crushed on slow-skated by with another boy.
Most important, I attended until, at long last, I successfully snuck to Girls’ Camp at midnight.
How many nights over multiple summers my bunkmates and I had stayed up plotting Project Angel Raid! We dressed in all black or navy blue, talking with our flashlights pointed up to the rafters, only to fall asleep in our sweatpants and hoodies. Come morning we hit our mattresses with a heavy fist—yet another failed mission …
But there was an added incentive the summer I turned twelve: I met Jill, she of the freckled cheeks and strawberry blonde hair. So what if she wore corrective glasses because she was slightly cross-eyed? She had taken a shine to me, and it was important for me to demonstrate my devotion with the type of bravado brandished only during a caper.
My affection, to be sure, was pure. After all, she was different from the usual campers—ages six to sixteen—who were generally from mid-Atlantic Jewish families in the Potomac area and northern Jersey. Those kids romped through the acres of zip lines and climbing walls, go-cart tracks, playing fields, tennis courts, canoe creeks, mess halls (with pitchers of bug juice), swimming pools, archery and gun ranges. Jill wasn’t one of the JAP-y girls who clumped on eyeliner and tube tops for evening canteen. She was a down-to-earth type, a unique beauty—if suddenly she were to pass by, you would lengthen your stride on the soccer pitch or muster enough strength to hit a fade-away jumper on the basketball court.
Our operation became imperative after the annual field trip to the roller rink. We traveled on dizzying yellow school buses past Mine-as-Well, Pennsylvania, and neighboring aw-shucks hamlets with hog farms that inspired accusations of flatulence:
Skunk in the barnyard
I sat next to Jill, whose hair smelled like delicious Herbal Essences shampoo, and the sweat on my hamstrings made my legs stick to the pleather seats. Such a brazen move as sitting together made teasing—in the form of another humiliating ditty—inevitable.
Hey, lolly-lolly-lolly. Hey-lolly-lolly-lo
Hey, lolly-lolly-lolly. Hey-lolly-lolly-lo
I know a guy, his name is Ross …
Jill’s salad he likes to toss …
The roller rink smelled like microwaved pizza and was a galactic-neon relic of the eighties. At this very rink, in a past summer, I had caught wind that a girl named Kim “liked” me. I had pursued her but had made the mistake of leading with the following line: “Hey, Ryan says you ‘like’ me …”
This year, though, Jill and I were able to skate awkwardly along the slippery waxed wood, the strobe lights aglow, the disco ball for a moment covering her crossed eyes. We made a pact that my crew would visit hers that night. She and her friends might sleep in blush. We guys would change into all black when we got back to the bunk and do our best to stay awake.
* * *
My crew had been conducting daily recon on far-flung edges of the property with the covert goal of completing an angel raid. But the obstacles preventing a successful mission were numerous.
First, the counselors, who at Camp Saginaw were mainly British and Australian. To this day, when I meet an Aussie, I become docile at what I perceive to be authoritarian cadences. These characters used their accents to enforce the rules. You might get a jolly congratulations for this or that romantic conquest, but no Sydneysider wanted trouble for letting you loose on his watch.
The geographic orientation of the camp, too, posed its difficulties. The cabins of campers twelve and under were divided by age group—Juniors and Inters—into clusters, with Boys’ Camp set on a slope and the equivalent Girls’ Camp cabins set at a higher grade uphill on the opposite side of the mess hall, a model-rocket launch away.
Though our Inter bunk was laughably distant from Jill’s, we had one strategic advantage: a short left out of our door lay a staircase to Lower Field, out of reach from the counselors’ “torches,” which beamed across lawns, and the patrolling golf carts and John Deere Gators, always on the lookout for camouflaged delinquents.
And many were the watch squads.
After all, there was no shortage of rabblerousing at Saginaw. Mornings, for example, you’d wake at seven to the blast of reveille from the loudspeakers and the voice of “Birdie”—real name Roberta Frankel, a red-haired old lady with a predilection for Tweetie Bird shirts, a habit of playing Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” over the loud-speaker, and a nonchalance that said, I’d rather be in Boca—and exit your cabin only to find BOLLOCKS written in shaving cream by the tetherball pole. But to me this was child’s play—I was almost of bar mitzvah age, mind you, and ready to engage in grown-up behavior. Namely, making it to Girls’ Camp at night.
After lights out, the counselors on duty would sit in the pagoda drinking Coors and talking about getting some, their words peppered with the vernacular of the British Isles.
Once their chatter died down, my friends and I tip-toed toward the exit. Among us were Eric and Ira, whose fathers ran neighboring dental practices in Maryland, and David, whose perpetual hang-dog demeanor earned him the moniker “Droopy D” or “Droop Dog.” If you didn’t remove the spring on the screen door, it would emit a cartoonish whine, so I unhooked it and held the now ghost-silent door for my comrades. We dashed down the staircase into a heavy darkness through Lower Field—the suede of our Vans and Airwalks soaked in the dew.
We trudged up past the pool where, during the day, the swimming instructor Mort Fish held court and knocked on his head, claiming it was made of wood.
We had to traverse a brightly lit road by the canteen. We crossed one at a time in flash sprints and entered Girls’ Camp—I smelled pine needles, and pinecones crunched beneath our feet. When we arrived at Jill’s bunk, we rapped gently on the door and some functionary sideline friend answered with a promise to retrieve Jill.
Soon, out came my sleepy four-eyed damsel and two of her friends. We sat cross-legged there on the deck—too awkward to make any moves and too drowsy to express too much emotion: we were all like the diffident Droop Dog. The girl in the shadowy corner suggested a game of truth or dare. This, I later realized, was just a ploy to initiate some tonsil hockey. I was ready, I thought. My auburn bowl cut at the time was so damn cute, I deserved half a dozen strabismic concubines.
Jill went first and chose dare. I, debonair boy that I was, challenged her with knocking on the door of the adjacent bunk and then running back to us.
“I mean, I’ll do it,” she said. “But …”
The elliptical pause meant both “this is just kind of stupid” and “why didn’t you dare me to kiss someone?”
We were in the process of letting her off the hook—suggesting it was a dangerous endeavor—when all of a sudden we heard a squeak, a definitive, high-pitched one. We ignored it aggressively, and in so doing called attention to it. Just then, a female British counselor wearing a bandana came out of the bunk and told us to hush up and pack it in for the night. That was enough to deflate the party. We four guys bid brief, mumbled farewells of zero poetic substance or consequence and descended the steps.
On the way back we debated whether the high-pitched squeak was a soprano fart or that new term we had learned—a queef. I suppose we should’ve felt defeated; my first kiss was still two summers away. But the feeling was of victory. We’d stayed awake. We’d successfully executed a mission to Girls’ Camp. We passed the pool, ran up the steps, pulled back the screen door, reattached the spring, and drifted off into a heavy navy-blue sleep.
Ross Kenneth Urken is a writer in Manhattan. Read more of his work here.