Fiction-fueled preconceptions of camp

16 Mar 2009 by Jim Gibbons, 2 Comments »

After spending nearly half the summers of my life at one camp or another, it’s difficult to remember a time before the culture surrounding those Junes and Julys away from home wasn’t ingrained into my very being—and make no mistake, a summer camp experience is an adventure that, risking the cliché, alters you at your core. I was a pudgy, timid 11-year-old when I first left home for the summer, so I know there was over a decade of my life—a relative era of being me—before the thrall of camp took hold of my pliable young brain. Still, pushing my mind to a time before that was the case—before that influencing force took effect—is extremely difficult.

Like many kids from my generation, those of us who grew up watching Nickelodeon in its heyday, my early thoughts on camp and camp culture were primarily influenced by “Salute Your Shorts“—a half hour show about a group of oddball male and female campers getting into wacky predicaments in the woods with only a single authority figure to watch over them.

Between the awful waffles (some sort of hazing involving a tennis racket and syrup), cruel nicknames (the fat fella was called “Donkeylips”) and the too-old-to-be-a-counselor Kevin “Ug” Lee (played by the near 40-year-old Kirk Bailey), watching “Salute Your Shorts” as an introduction to camp was like watching “Animal House” as a primer on college. The show, full of sitcom-style exaggeration, was more like middle school displaced in the forest than any sort of camp, yet at the time it was really all I had to go on—that, and the fact I presumed some sort of extreme boating competition against a pack of bullies had to take place à la “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown.” Not to say that camp-centric movies and TV shows don’t capture aspects of the experience, it seems they mostly end up just capturing the scenery of it while keeping their plots relatable to general audiences.

For the record, I’ll say that the film “Wet Hot American Summer” seems to be the flick that best represents many of the intangibles that other camp-fiction lacks.
Though it’s an over-the-top comedy spoofing camp itself and camp films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, writers David Wain and Michael Showalter—camp-goers themselves as children—don’t forget the elements that make many of those summer stories uproarious: that smelly kid who never showered, the joy staff experience on an outing away from camp no matter how brief, the goofy interactions counselors have with their oft-times annoying campers and the peculiar social dynamics that thrive in small camp communes. Sure, “Wet Hot” is far to extreme to be an accurate portrayal of camp life, but for those who have had the summer camp experience, there are plenty of nuggets in the film that ring true.

And while there is certainly an element of obvious comedy behind a fellow camper rolling down a hill directly into a tree at the end of a five-mile hike and pooping himself, the basics of the situation never seem to live up to the true hilarity of the memory. There’s some type of inexplicable aspect to camp that is near impossible for fiction to capture, and thus, was hardest for me to imagine before my first summer.

Now try to envision the aforementioned doughy 11-year-old, full of husky fourth-grader anxiety and child-like excitement, knowing that he spent far too much time in front of the television—equally limiting and nurturing his outlandish imagination—and that was me when my mom first broached the topic of camp.

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  1. Caelyn says:

    A very interesting idea for a blog. I could probably contribute my fair share of stories to this kind of topic, having spent 4 years at a YMCA camp (Camp Benson in Mount Carrol, IL) between the ages of 9-12.

  2. Jim Gibbons says:

    Ain’t no time like the present, Caelyn! Share away! This blog is meant to be a forum as much as it is my memoir, so please don’t hold back.

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