As we're easing into summer, it seems like a good time to write about summer camp. I'm partly inspired by Mr. Pudding's recent accounts of being a camp counselor in Ohio in the mid-'70s. That's about when I was attending day camp in Florida, at Camp Indian Head, just north of Tampa.
I started at Camp Indian Head in 1971, when I would have been four years old. I think my mom had to work out a special deal to get me in that early, because the camp usually took kids who were five and above. Since I have a late birthday (November) she could reasonably argue that I was due to turn five soon enough. At any rate, I was accepted as the youngest Navajo. (Kids at CIH were divided into "tribes" by age and gender. The youngest boys were Navajos; the youngest girls, I think, were Cherokees. The oldest boys were Crow, the oldest girls, Iroquois. There were five tribes for each gender.)
All these Indian references -- not to mention the camp's logo, a chief in a feathery headdress -- would probably be called "cultural appropriation" these days, but back then, nobody thought ill of it. At least not that I ever heard.
At camp, we learned to swim and ride horses and did arts & crafts and studied wild Florida nature and jumped on an in-ground trampoline that was probably not the safest thing in the world. The older kids took photography and learned to shoot BB guns and use bows and arrows. (Fewer lawyers back then, apparently!)
We ate lunch in a screened-in cafeteria that served sandwiches in white wax-paper envelopes -- sometimes peanut butter with grape jelly, sometimes egg salad, sometimes bologna with mustard. After lunch we gathered in the auditorium, a vast, 3-walled building with a stage at one end. We sang camp songs right out of the Peter, Paul and Mary songbook, like "500 Miles" and "If I Had a Hammer" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "I Gave My Love a Cherry." Another favorite was "One Tin Soldier," typical of the pacifist vibe of the era. After the sing-along, we sat or laid quietly on benches lining the walls for a mandatory rest time.
Every Friday was awards day, when ribbons were distributed for distinction in any given activity. And there were the silver and gold sportsmanship awards, a paramount honor that came with a little plaque.
I still have 16 of those ribbons. I attended in 1971 and 1972, and then took a five-year break. I went back in 1977, '78 and '79, when I was in middle school.
I have nothing but fond memories of the two earliest years. After all, what kid isn't happy at that age? I even won the sportsmanship award one week in 1972. I was so happy and terrified when I was called up to the stage that I cried. (That's me at the top, holding the plaque.)
Here's what the plaque looks like these days. A little weathered, but I've kept it all this time.
My later years at camp were not so carefree. Middle school is a rough age for anyone, and I got bullied a bit for being more into books and stamp collecting than sports. (In one memorable incident, my chief antagonist -- who shall remain anonymous here but whose name is still legend among my relatives -- threw my shoes out the window of the bus that took us home each evening. One of my parents had to drive back to Busch Boulevard and rescue them from passing traffic.)
Undoubtedly my gayness was a factor in the bullying, though being ten or eleven years old, I didn't understand it then. One girl -- whose name I will also never forget -- called me a "faggot," and asked me if I knew what it meant. I confessed I had no idea. I asked my mother when I got home, which of course prompted an uncomfortable conversation.
Another memory: I was friends with a boy whose mother worked with my mother, and we used to give each other back rubs during rest time. This incensed the jock counselor who oversaw team sports. One day he made us stand in the middle of the auditorium for five or ten minutes hugging each other, in front of everyone -- I suppose to embarrass us into not trading harmless shoulder massages.
Not all my memories of those later years are negative. I had a favorite horse, Smokey Joe, and I collected award ribbons in subjects like photography (above). I still remember the photo counselor, a laid-back guy who supposedly used to shoot for Led Zeppelin. I got not one but two ribbons for "patience" in swimming, which mystifies me now -- maybe I amused myself by splashing around on my own, and stayed out of the counselor's hair, and she appreciated it.
Another counselor had an exotic pet he called a "honey bear," and I've never been clear on what this animal really was -- I think it was a kinkajou. It added an interesting element to the nature outings. (Kinkajous aren't natural in Florida, but whatever.)
Anyway, all in all, Camp Indian Head was certainly a growth experience. I never stayed there overnight, though many kids did, and I never did the "survival" training, in which older kids went out into the swamps and forests at the end of the summer to fend for themselves. Too bad -- if the economy ever really goes south, those skills might come in handy!
Alas, these days, Camp Indian Head is no more. The land was sold and subdivided in the 1980s, but the road that used to lead to the camp's entrance -- and now leads to a bunch of houses -- still bears the name.