Sadist Summer Camp


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.



Beware the Ides of Green Dairy

The Ides of March is fast approaching, a time known in the ancient world for the assassination of Julius Caesar and in the modern world for the availability of shamrock shakes at McDonalds. In my world, both of these events are associated with childhood traumas and vomiting.

People will tell you that the best thing for kids is to have young, ambitious elementary school teachers but sometimes old and crabby actually works out better for the actual children. Take, for instance, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Schulke who was certainly young and ambitious, not to mention overly optimistic about the skills of her students (at least this particular student). What else could have given her the belief that a bunch of 9 year olds could not only understand Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, but that they were fully capable of memorizing it and bringing it to life onstage for the cultural appreciation of their parents and fellow students.

I have no idea how Mrs. Schulke cast the other roles in the play but she saved the biggest talking role for the biggest, most disruptive talker in class. Thus I became Marc Anthony, with his exceedingly long “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar not to praise him” speech. For the record, I remembered those first two lines, even now, all by myself. There was no googling involved.

I must have been having trouble memorizing the other 35 lines in the speech as Mrs. Schulke gave me a cassette tape recorder to take home so I could record my speech and listen to it. I was at her desk the very next day to give it back, explaining that while I followed her instructions on taping, somehow there was someone else’s voice on the recording reciting my speech. (I know it seems unfathomable today that a child would make it to 4th grade without hearing their own voice but back then our parents didn’t spend their lives attached to a recording device.)

I was shocked and horrified when she explained that was my voice and that it just sounded different to me in my head than it did to everyone else. How could that be? My voice was my constant companion, my trustiest weapon, my reason for being! I thought it was melodious, beautiful, smooth and yet here was Mrs. Schulke telling me I sounded like a chain smoking old man with a nasal affliction! I was conceptually not ready for this information. Trauma #1.

Trauma #2 came in the form of another discovery, the discovery that while I liked to talk, I preferred a free form method whereby I said whatever came into my head. I was far less capable of actually reciting someone else’s words, even someone as illustrious as Shakespeare. And so I found myself onstage standing over “Caesar” in a toga, which was painstaking decorated with a Greek Key pattern by my own little hand. But what could I remember after all my practicing with my nasally old man voice? “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Ceasar not to praise him.” That’s it. No more, no less. The same two lines I can remember to this day. I said them and then I went all Cindy Brady (and kudos to all of you who got that reference. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who wasted my childhood watching The Brady Bunch).

All I could do was stand there holding a bloody toga and wait for Mrs. Schulke to feed me my lines from behind the screen onstage. It wasn’t pretty, although my friend Ray had really done a pretty nice job splattering the fake blood on the toga. Still, even with the good props, it was humiliating.


So much for my acting career. Trauma #2. This does, however, point to the upside of growing up in an era where parents only had black and white cameras. There is a rumor that a recording of this play exists but it has yet to surface and, even when it does, someone is going to have to dig up an 8 mm film projector to play it. This is a thought that comforts me.

So that explains the childhood traumas, but what, I’m sure you’re asking, about the vomit? No, I fortunately did not vomit all over “Caesar.” He went on to be the first boy I ever kissed and I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened if I had yacked all over him on stage. No, it’s time to turn to the modern harbinger of the Ides of March, the ubiquitous shamrock shakes.

We may not have had smart phones back when I was in fourth grade but we did have McDonalds. Not that our mother would let us go there. Like most mothers, she was opposed to the idea of McDonalds, even in this pre-Super Size me era. It wasn’t a nutrition issue. We regularly ate Spam, fried baloney sandwiches, La Choy Chop Suey made strictly from canned ingredients, and some kind of weird Chef Boyardee “lasagna” made with cottage cheese. But McDonalds, that was simply too expensive. All restaurants, fast or slow, were too expensive in her view. As were Pringles (“Chips in a can? I’m not buying expensive chips in a can!”). I did get to eat Pringles every year for Christmas breakfast (Thanks Santa!) but McDonalds was an even rarer treat.

So, of course, all we wanted was McDonalds. In particular, I craved a shamrock shake, the bright green seasonal harbinger of Spring that I was sure would create an unprecedented taste sensation in my mouth. But there was no way I was going to get a shamrock shake from my mother and, since they weren’t around in December, Santa was out too.

I’m happy to report that my sister has not maintained this tradition of denying her offspring an occasional McDonalds or a tasty shamrock shake. Here, for instance, is my nephew Tobey, demonstrating the proper way to drink a shamrock shake.

Tobey is way smarter than me

What makes this the “proper” way to drink a shamrock shake? First, it was purchased for or by him. Second, it is in a cup. Third, the straw. Fourth, it is still frozen. All exceedingly important things I wish I had known when I “drank” my first shamrock shake. The first  shamrock shake I tasted looked like this when I discovered it.


Note the many ways in which this was not a proper shamrock shake that could be consumed in a proper manner. It was not purchased for me, not in a glass, no straw, and no longer frozen. Instead it was someone else’s shamrock shake that had been abandoned to melt on the sidewalk. And what did my little pea size brain think when it saw this sorry sight? “Finally! A shamrock shake! I gotta taste that thing!” And so I pressed my little face to the sidewalk and licked it up, an event which was followed by a truly unfortunate series of biological events.

Did you see the Exorcist?  If so, then you can envision what ensued (here is where the vomiting comes in). Turns out you really, really, REALLY, shouldn’t lick up dairy products that have melted on the sidewalk. Nope. Don’t do it. LOTS of vomiting and Trauma #3.

And so, as the Ides of March approaches, the best advice I have to offer is skip the shamrock shake and avoid Shakespeare at all costs. Plays by 9 years old are probably also not a good idea, even if your own kids are involved. And, flash forward, you should also watch out for the Bushmills that appears a few days after the Ides. The Bushmills thing though isn’t a lesson I learned until high school.