It’s that time of year again, when all the papers are full of ads for summer camps you can send your kids to. There’s Spanish Immersion Camp, Rock and Robot Camp, Filmmaker’s Camp, even something called Brain Monkeys Camp. We didn’t have camps like that when I was a kid. Ours weren’t nearly as specific or smart. We just had plain old Summer Camp.
Oh sure, our camps had names and, because we live Michigan, they were apparently all legally required to have Native American names. Like Camp Pa-Wa-Pi or Camp Algonquin, which was, technically, the name of the summer camp I went to. The name is somewhat inaccurate though so from here on out it will be referred to as Sadist Summer Camp.
The camp was run by a well known organization but in the interest of protecting their reputation I will only reveal their initials, Y.M.C.A. It was in the little town of Hastings, far from our home but close to our cottage on Leach Lake. Yes, you read that correctly, no one ever wanted to come visit, thinking I was inviting them to a “Leech” lake. At the time I didn’t get why we went to camp by the cottage but now I understand it meant my mom could spend a week at the lake without us kids. That was surely heaven, even if it meant sending us to hell.
I am sure she didn’t mean to send us to Sadist Summer Camp. It looked good on paper. Nothing but swimming, archery, canoeing, lanyard making, healthy meals, fun campfires, and a safe environment where weirdos wouldn’t mess with us while we were sleeping. The brochure said nothing about “Charlie” or the buried bodies, not to mention the Mad Plunger and the dead fish ceremony. In the end, however, these things tended to overshadow the pictures in the glossy brochure.
Take the healthy meals, for instance. They were completely destroyed by “Charlie,” a small super frightening piece of wood that the camp counselors would secretly place behind a campers chair during dinner. Whatever unlucky kid found Charlie behind his back had to get up and do an impromptu performance in front of the whole camp. You could showcase any talent you had. It could be anything, but it had to be something. This was a huge problem for me as I had already discovered that I didn’t have any talent. I wouldn’t learn to burp loudly until middle school and, to this day, that is really all I’ve got to give in terms of public performances.
And so I spent every dinner in utter fear, barely gulping down chunks of food while twisted around like a corkscrew in my chair. All to make sure Charlie would not suddenly appear behind me. I think I actually gave myself a mild case of scoliosis that summer as it was the following year when they started pulling me out of the “check for scoliosis” line for further examination. It’s hard to eat a healthy meal when you’re terrified and twisted.
Even canoeing at Sadist Summer Camp was an exercise in horror as we always paddled to a small island where we would spend the afternoon traipsing through the woods searching for the dead bodies that the counselors told us were buried there. If anyone stepped on anything squishy you were all expected to run over and jump up and down on the “body.” I’ve never seen such gleeful jumping in all my life. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t do my fair share of corpse stomping. It was my first exposure to what happens when you let a bunch of kids loose on an island. When I read Lord of the Flies years later, it took me awhile to figure out it was an allegory. I thought it was just something that happened.
Going to bed at Sadist Camp produced another set of terrors, actually one huge terror, in the form of the Mad Plunger, who purportedly patrolled the bathroom at night ready to plunge any child who dared have to pee after dark. We all knew he was real because every night, after we had crawled into our bunks, he would come around and repeatedly plunge his plunger on the outside walls of the cabin. Needless to say this produced screaming all around and forged our resolve that we would never, ever leave the safe confines of our cabin at night.
And then we discovered it wasn’t safe in there either. The Mad Plunger, it turns out, knew perfectly well how to open our cabin door after we had all fallen asleep. And so we would awaken, our bladders ready to pop, and find ourselves covered in seaweed, in our hair, on our faces. And as we panicked and pulled it off, the realization settled in. The Mad Plunger had been watching us and touching us while we slept. And he did it, over and over again, night after night. As you can imagine, we tried our best to stay awake but we were so exhausted from the nightly campfires that we never made it for long.
Usually when you think of campfires you think of s’mores and camp songs and, while I don’t remember s’mores, I do remember the camp songs. How can you forget songs like “Plant a Watermelon?” Everyone sang this one right?
“Just plant a watermelon on the top my grave and let the juice (make slurping sound here) slurp through.
Just plant a watermelon on the top my grave, that’s all I ask of you.
Preacher likes the chicken and the chickens might fine
but nothing could be finer than a watermelon rind so
Just plant a watermelon on the top my grave and let the juice (make slurping sound here) slurp through.
Just plant a watermelon on the top my grave, that’s all I ask of you.”
Obviously, this is wrong on a host of levels. First, why were we singing about graves? Why was the camp so obsessed with graves? And, second, preachers, chicken and watermelon rinds? Seriously? You would think a camp named Algonquin would save its racism for Native Americans and there was plenty of that too, included the most feared “Indian Initiation Ceremony.”
During this “ceremony,” first time campers were blindfolded and “initiated” into the tribe by having a dead fish rubbed on their face. It took place at the last campfire and, as that night approached, I grew increasingly hysterical.
By the time the initiation rolled around I had worked myself into a sweaty lather and was shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. This might have been entertaining to the counselors and other campers but it was painfully embarrassing to my sister Carrie, who was older, popular and one of those campers who loved finding “Charlie” behind her chair (she could, and still can, belt out a song from Oklahoma at the drop of a hat.) It was also not her first time at camp so she knew I was making a complete ass out of myself for nothing, humiliating her in the process.
And so she sidled up to me and grabbed my arm so hard I think she might have fractured my humerus. Then she put her mouth right next to my ear and whispered in her hot, wet, angry big sister breath “Shut up. Just shut up right now. It’s NOT a fish, it’s a carton of milk. SHUT UP!”
It took awhile for that to sink in (and even longer for my arm to stop hurting) but I did slowly calm down and by the time they blindfolded me to rub a wet, slippery carton on milk on my face and welcome me to the tribe I was only shaking a little bit.
In the end, like many kids, I came home from summer camp a changed girl. I hadn’t become a fluent Spanish speaker, a filmmaker, or a kid who could build lego robots but I had transformed into a skinny, sleep-deprived girl, who was guilty about having jumped on corpses, and was nursing both a latent bladder infection and a mild case of scoliosis.
Thanks Sadist Camp.