How a chubby, young asthmatic ended up deciding to go to camp.

22 Mar 2009 by Jim Gibbons, 3 Comments »

Camp is a tradition, of sorts, for most people who end up spending weeks upon weeks in the middle of the woods. Very few just up and think one day, “Hmm…wouldn’t life be grand without most basic luxuries like electricity and a comfy bed for a few months?” And, admittedly, camp didn’t seem like a bright idea to an 11-year-old Jim Gibbons.

Before my first summer at Camp Shewahmegon (’95), I was a husky, asthmatic without an abundance of confidence—though I did have a healthy helping of awkwardness and cheek chubbiness—who would have rather spent his summer at the occasional swim meet, watching cartoons and playing Sega Genesis. The summer before, my cousin Tim (who’s a few months older than I am) and my cousin Ryan (who’s years older than me, and as I’m the oldest in my immediate family, like a big brother to me as well) both sent letters to my younger brother Dan and I from camp. Dan, who was much more energetic, outgoing, confident and adventurous than me at the time (and only nine years old), was ready to grab a sleeping bag and head North immediately. I wasn’t. I had a hard time making it through sleepovers, and the idea of being sent off into the forest for a minimum of four weeks was terrifying. Obviously, I ended up deciding to go, and here’s why I think I did…

Though camp was never described as a tradition in my family, it was one. Both of my uncles (Ryan and Tim’s dads) went to camp for a number of years, starting as campers and then going on to fill a number of different staff positions between the two of them—from counselor to tripper and even on to maintenance man at one point for my uncle Jim. Their sons later followed in their footsteps and went to Shewahmegon. Also, my grandparents on the same side of the family (my mom’s, for the record) were friends with Bill and Gerry Will, who founded Camp Shewahmegon in 1947 and ran it for 54 years until it closed in 2001. Heck, my mom even spent some time up at the “Private Camp For Boys” because she was friends with one of the Will daughters! There was never any pressure to go and continue the legacy, aside from some healthy ribbing in Ryan and Tim’s letters, but it was a family tradition to head up to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, even if it was never referred to with that exact language—the word “tradition.”

Secondly, I owe a great deal to my brother Dan for all my years of summer camp enjoyment. I won’t deny I was a bit of a “baby” at the age when I should have been ready and rearing to get up into the woods and play some capture the flag, and the fact that my younger brother was more apt to do so than I was…well, safe to say that struck a chord. Camp helped tremendously to bring my inner courage to the forefront of my character, but at the time, I would have been happy to cuddle up in a corner with some comics all summer. When I was 10, Mom said she wouldn’t send Dan to camp the year before unless I went. I didn’t. The next year, Dan was set to go, and I certainly wasn’t going to have my little brother show me up. And so, I went too. I’m sure Dan, in his infinite 10-year-old wisdom, knew that by doing this I’d owe him an eternal debt of gratitude, or—at the time—the use of numerous Ninja Turtle toys, so Dan played a major part in convincing me to go as well. Not just because he was going and I felt I should, but because the kid made some pretty compelling arguments about how great it would be. I listened, and it turns out he was very right.

While I would love to say that the Camp Shewahmegon video sent to our house also helped, I’d be lying if I did. However, it was well worth watching for the memories alone, and because it stands as testament to the fact that Camp Shewahmegon was one of the most beautifully “stuck in time” places ever. The video, which I saw in 1995, was ripped straight from the mid-‘80s and featured all the male short-shorts to prove it! Based on the video, 11-year-old Jim would have assumed camp literally was the movie “Meatballs”—if I’d seen it at that age—or at least had the same dress code. Oddly enough, during my years at camp it became fashionable for the staff to visit a thrift store called the Bargain Hut in Ashland, WI, which—oddly enough—led the style of dress during my time at camp to be shockingly similar to what I saw in that extremely dated video.

An example of the fine, old school summer fashion worn by the Shewahmegon staff in 2000, shown here at the nearby Hayward Mini Golf.

Either way, aside from the video convincing me you arrived at camp via time machine, it did make things up at Shewahmegon look like a ton of fun.

Lastly, I think there was some inborn call of the wild that led me to go to camp. I know that sounds incredibly cheesy, but there was an element of adventure that roused even a lump of dough like my near-teen self off the couch. Also, I am sure there were quite a few convincing talks with my mom and dad about how it’d all be a lot of fun and a real good thing. Either way, every encouragement fueled that innate sense of adventure and I listened.

So, the summer of 1995 saw my mom, my brother, my sister and me driving in my mom’s suburban up from our house in Georgia to the O’Hare Oasis in Chicago, where the bus picked up most of the campers heading to Shewahmegon. To say I was still scared after all that deliberation and convincing would be a gross understatement, but to say it was one of the best decisions of my life would be as well.

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  1. Brent says:

    Glad to know that Christy and I finding the thrift shops in Ashland all those years ago made such an impression…

  2. Jim Gibbons says:

    Absolutely! I still own a few shirts from the ol’ Bargain Hut! Oh, the memories!

    Oddly, it seems to me—though I could be wrong—that camp was way ahead of the curve on thrift clothing, or “vintage” clothing as it became a few years after camp closed and hipsters were donning more and more old school apparel. That could easily be a view biased by my age, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s a fashion trend that came straight out of the Northwoods.

  3. matt says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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