I went to sleepaway camp in the late 1970s in New Hampshire. It was an “international camp” where United Nations diplomats sent their children. The counselors came from as far away as Australia. It was at summer camp, in the month of July 1979, that I had my first kiss one night, between the tents, with a boy named Chris who lived in Boston and was an amazing guitar player. I remember Chris singing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to a rapt crowd around a campfire and “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” in the mess hall. (I wish I could remember his last name, because I have always assumed he went on to become a famous rock star.) Although he was my first kiss, Chris wasn’t actually my first “boyfriend” at summer camp: I had thrown over a French boy named Pierre — Pierre! A small, dark boy in tennis whites — a few days before. I remember Pierre and his elder sister taking me aside, one by one, to ask for an explanation: “Why?” Pierre asked, making a French gesture with his hands. “Why?”
Whenever the subject of romance comes up, and my many missteps and bad choices, I like to say that I reached my peak of popularity in July 1979.
Now that I have launched into this topic, I realize I remember a remarkable number of small moments from the two Julys I spent at Interlocken International Camp more than 40 years ago. I remember one morning when the thermometer read 54 degrees and we all stood freezing in our T-shirts on line to use the payphones to call our parents. I remember a camp saying that we had to remember when using the rustic latrines: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” I remember being allowed to join the advanced swim group and swimming for a mile, out to an island in the lake and back, in a silent line of swimmers. Diving off a high platform and my ears hurting as I plunged deep into the lake. Leeches in the lake. A totem pole carved from a log and erected by a pair of hunky male counselors, and much snickering over the word “erected.”
For some reason, I am only able to remember the hunky male counselors in their running shorts and have no recollection whatsoever of the young women counselors. Hmm.
I remember a set of stationery, for letters home, decorated with an illustration of a gray mouse climbing a strawberry vine. Discovering I had the weird ability to control a tennis ball precisely, and sending it across the center of the net, just an inch above the net, with each swing; I had never played before and didn’t know that was what I was supposed to be doing, and the tennis coach called over another coach and said, “Look at this.” Running back to our bunks to get our rain jackets when a thunderstorm broke out during that tennis lesson and never playing tennis again. The first time I heard reggae music, “The Harder They Come.” A pair of counselors from Wales who taught us to chant, “Uggie, uggie, uggie! Oi, oi, oi!” The strange newness of camp buildings made of plywood, like the strange newness of buildings in the Wild West. A party trick I devised in which I would look at another camper, absorb their personality and vibrations, and then tell them what color and texture they were. This was something akin to kinesthesia: One girl would be saffron yellow and a yarn texture; another would be an emerald green silk, like a green ribbon. It had nothing to do with their appearance, it was something about their essence, and the kids recognized that my colors and textures were accurate. They lined up to be told, like I was telling a fortune.
But the best thing about Interlocken — other than the boys, obviously — was choosing from an amazing array of potential weekly activities, like choosing from a full menu of ice cream flavors under a glass case. I loved the variety. I played Elizabeth Proctor in “The Crucible” one week, and another I clomped through a series of grand jetés in ballet class. I remember the two bearded counselors who led the campers in singing sea shanties walking past and laughing at the ungraceful sound of my pointe shoes thudding on the floor of an open pavilion made of plywood.
One unforgettable week, I signed up for something called the Magical Mystery Tour. The Magical Mystery Tour was a special activity in which 8 or 10 kids were loaded into a bus with a camp counselor, driven to some remote location in rural New Hampshire, and left by the side of the road. Our mission was to survive without money or assistance.
(I swear! It happened just like this!)
The first punk rocker I ever met in my life, an indelible vision all in black who had a nervous, self-soothing habit of rocking back and forth when sitting down, went on the Magical Mystery Tour with me. I remember him rocking forward and back on the seat of the school bus as we listened to the Knack song “My Sharona” on the radio. We were left by the side of the road in some far boondock and had to walk what felt like a long distance from house to house, in the blazing sun, knocking on doors and asking strangers if we could work in exchange for food or shelter.
We found work that afternoon on a farm lifting hay bales from a field onto the back of a flatbed trailer. Have you ever lifted a hay bale? It’s heavy, each one about 50 pounds. Clearing the field of hay bales was the physically hardest thing I’d ever done in my life — each one was more than half my body weight — and I remember being surprised that the farmer expected us to finish the job and clear the field. It was almost impossible. We slept that night in the hayloft of his barn, and I got a heat rash all over my back from the prickly straw.
We went onward the next day, and walked, all covered in heat rash, into a town where a closed textile mill stood beside a river and there was a dismal atmosphere — in my perception — of depression and neglect. It was hot, it was still. Nothing was going on. I was thoroughly confused about why we had been delivered to such a nothing of a place. The kids in the empty mill town rode past us slowly on their rusty banana-seat bicycles; they seemed bored in the heat of a town where most of the shops were boarded up, but they didn’t take any interest in us.
This year, 1979, was when 10-speed bicycles were cool. The movie “Breaking Away” was a hit in the cinemas, and every kid I knew had convinced their parents to buy them a 10-speed.
I had always thought of myself as an intelligent person, but I was — like most kids of 11 and 12 who have led sheltered lives — capable of being totally self-centered and foolish. When we got back to camp a day or two later, after having been led in the singing of the sea shanty at our morning all-camp meeting, those of us who had gone on the Magical Mystery Tour were invited to give an account, to report back with some insight.
We were meant to have gotten something from it, but I was completely in the dark about what that something was. I nevertheless stood up and offered my impressions: “The town was kind of depressing!” I announced to my fellow campers, adding with scorn: “The kids were just riding around in the street on their banana-seat bicycles.” One of the yellow-bearded counselors looked at me and said, “Not everyone has money for a new bicycle.”
The point of the whole thing hit me like a smack in the face.
Just the other day, Monday morning, while having blueberry breakfast pancakes at John Papas Cafe with my teenage daughter, Nettie — and attempting to provoke a bit of soul searching on the subject of material goods, selfishness, the have-fancy-bikini girls and the have-not-fancy-bikini girls — I told her all about the Magical Mystery Tour, and as I spoke about it out loud, I could hardly believe, myself, what I was saying. But I swear all this is true. Summer camp in the late 1970s.