22 Mar

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

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.

16 Mar

Random Recollections—Orange Cappuccino

In my last year as a camper at Camp Shewahmegon, during which I would have been 14 years old, I went on my second Border Trip—a 10-day canoeing excursion in the remote Canadian wilderness, usually in a waterway reached only by floatplanes or miles upon miles of driving to a secluded boat landing. I was in Cabin Bunkhouse at the time—the oldest cabin at camp during my seven years, though it had been used for younger campers in the past—and was wearing the same black-and-gray plaid, long-sleeved button-down shirt I’d worn the whole trip during our hours on the water canoeing each day, just like I had on Border the year before. It was the last morning we’d awaken in our tents on some secluded, make-shift camp site, as we would reach the put-in point by day’s end where the vans the brought us this far north were parked, thus completing the circular journey of that year’s Canada trip. We had camped on a small island, which on two sides was comprised mostly of large boulders, and had pitched our tents in the wooded area toward the island’s center. The kitchen and campfire of our site was located on the rocky side that faced the direction we’d be heading out towards when we got in our canoes later that morning. As had been the case at every breakfast on the trip, there was hot water for cocoa, to make instant oatmeal or, in this case of my brother’s Australian counselor Miles Bence, to make some General Foods International Orange Cappuccino.

OrangeCappuccinoAt some point earlier in the trip, Miles had discovered that the tin housing the cappuccino mix had one of those goofy little descriptions oft-times found on coffees. Though I can’t be sure General Foods International hasn’t changed it since then, it would have read something like, “A wonderfully full-bodied coffee with the enticing flavors of orange and spices, inspired by the cafe’s of Europe.” Each morning afterward, including the final one of the trip, Miles would riff on other possible coffee tin epithets, switching into a rich, TV commercial-like voice, probably placing one foot on a rock and leaning on his raised knee with a steaming mug in hand.

“There’s nothing like the warm aroma of General Foods Orange Cappuccino to thaw the chill of a crisp Fall evening from your quivering lips.”


“Just like the snow falls on a barren meadow, blanketing in white the homes of the forest denizens, General Foods Orange Cappuccino is a fresh, clean start to your day—whether you’re waking up to the peace of a thatched cottage or to the hustle and bustle of the big city.”

Years later, I actually saw a skit on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” where two rival writers of these coffee tin vignettes had a poetry slam-esque face-off before deciding the victor in a brutal cage match. After seeing that, I couldn’t help but be reminded of those mornings and think, “Man, camp certainly was ahead of its time in the comedy department!” As, so very clearly, we were.

16 Mar

Random Recollections

Though I’m as big a fan of linear narrative and chronological storytelling as the next guy, one of the perks of doing this memoir on a blog is that I can easily take as many detours and have as many interludes as I see fit. In that vein, and because my camp memories have unsurprisingly never paid me the courtesy of cropping up in sequential order, I bring you Nothing More American’s first regular feature: Random Recollections.

Hopefully, by posting chance camp thoughts that creep into my cranium on NMA as they randomly occur, I can deliver some of the spontaneous joy I receive from my headspace’s incidents of unplanned nostalgia. Also, this will potentially help me to tell many more stories while leaving plenty of tidbits out there that will one day get hashed out—little bread crumbs to lead you folks along, while acting as tasty morsels to some who might have more intimate knowledge of these vignettes. For now, enjoy them as they are and know that these scenes are part of a larger tapestry of tales.

16 Mar

Fiction-fueled preconceptions of camp

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.

25 Feb

Ambling Preambular

Where to start?

A canoe paddle sliding out of a glass-flat lake, feathering forward, dripping cool beads of water back into the reservoir before slapping gently back into the depths itself, at dusk in the Northwoods.

The smell of logs burning in an open air fire, the only illumination for miles, save the resonance of friends sharing stories around it.

The sun spearing through the trees abundance, flickering, as wind off the lake tussles their limbs.

Seven summers worth of sensory memories absorbed by my boyhood self, and yet, I seek not to wax poetic about landscape—a feat that, even armed with my years of impressions, I am sure even the finest laureates couldn’t recapture—but to try and recount some of the fun and friendship that made those scenes truly beautiful.

I’m sure that in my attempt to open with something profound I’ve already done an injustice to my goal here—to collect the memories of my camp days and capture the spirit of them for myself and others to enjoy—but, hysterical and goofy as my memories are, there was something in the capture the flag games, naked dips into the lake, stupid jokes, raincoat hikes and fast friendships that was distinctly profound in regards to my life.

I’ve thought it myself, heard it verbalized by my mother and had other former camp-goers express the same: My life and who I am would be different without camp. How? Maybe I’d be less confident, or meaner, or just a little less capable—I don’t know. Luckily, I’ll never have to find out because I had an experience over those seven summers that somehow carved me into the man I am today, an experience I feel extremely lucky to have had and one I will never forget.

The thought “Cliché, much?” may jump to mind, but be that the case or not, I’m here to tell my tales because of that aforementioned and ever-present fact: Camp made me who I am today. Hopefully, my stories will expound on the glorious wackiness of summer camp enough to forgive the sappy sentiments already oozing forth here and entertain. If my first attempt at making number two in the great outdoors is any indication, it’s going to be more laughs than idle pontificating once things get going.

Now, with my attempts at poetry and rambling preamble out of the way, let me tell you a story or two…


Next post, I’ll really kick things off. I promise!-JIM

20 Feb

Round the blazing…

Welcome to Nothing More American!

It’s always a bit hard to decide where to start on these first posts, but by their very nature I guess they do demand that one begin at the beginning, so that’s where we’ll commence.

The short version goes thusly: I’m Jim Gibbons and summer camp was a big part of my life. It was such a big part that I felt I had enough memories, stories and idle thoughts on it to fill a Web site for months upon months and years upon years.

Now, to expound upon that further (this being “the long version”), I’ve always wanted to find a way to capture the stories and spirit behind my camp experiences and put them out there for people, and Nothing More American is how I decided I’ll be doing that. As a storyteller, writer, journalist and a comic book fan, I’ve decided to take a multi-venued approach to chronicling my camp days. Between written memoirs, web comics, pictures and interviews with past camp friends and camp-related people I hope to not only create a view into what camp meant to me, but also a place where people can share in that experience and rekindle their own camp memories.

For the next few months, the site is going to be a bit of a work-in-progress. The look of this puppy isn’t set in stone, nor is it exactly how I’d like it, so at some point most of what you see now will change. As far as the writing goes, my mind is currently just a mess of camp memories, so early posts may be a bit rambling. Bear with me on that front and—given time—a style, voice and feel will find it’s way out of the swamp of my recollections, shake off the muck and truly emerge.

The web comic will also be going through a similar metamorphosis, and much more so than the writing, as I’d currently describe myself as a fledgling doodler and not an artist. Still, I’ve always wanted to delve into web comics and my own cartooning, so the overabundance of mental space taken up by summer camp seemed as good a topic as any to start with. It won’t be pretty right away, but I’ll get there. Fret not!

At some point, I do hope to start interviewing many—if not all—of my old camp friends and acquaintances for the site. I’ve always found that many more of my goofiest camp yarns emerge when I’m reminiscing with my brother as opposed to sitting at home and trying to recount them, so fostering that format seems like a pretty logical idea. As many former-campers will likely attest, your camp experience ends up being about the family you create at camp much more than the place itself, so neglecting to bring that to this site would be a shortcoming I don’t plan on allowing.

Lastly, I hope this site can become a place for anyone and everyone from any corner of the globe (Not much may be more American than summer camp, but no, camp isn’t just for Americans.) to come and soak up the camp goodness with a walk down memory lane, and hopefully some discussion. You’ll notice that right below this post is a place you can write comments. If you have them, please do! It’d be great if they were related to the post, but in the end, I just want to get the conversation going—so talk! Even if you’ve never commented on a blog or in a message board, give it a shot now. You’ll be surprised how much fun just posting a few of your memories can be and how many more it can stir up when you see other people’s comments on them. All I ask is that you keep it friendly and have some fun.

That about does it for this first shot into the dark. I’ll start getting some more posts up as soon as I’m able. Again, thanks for stopping in and checking out Nothing More American. Though you may only be able to huddle up to your glowing computer monitor, I hope this can become a place where all folks who love camp can gather “’round the blazing council fire’s light,” so to speak.

Till next time!


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