Monday, May 29, 2017

Camp Indian Head

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.


  1. You were a cute kid! I had a neighbor who had a Kinkajou as a pet, and they were native to my part of the world.

  2. Wow! I can't imagine sending a four year old to camp! And yet- you seemed to love it. At least until the older years. How cruel of that counselor! I am so sorry you had to go through such a thing.
    Amazing memories. Thanks for sharing them, Steve.

  3. The camp sounds like it had a very full program. However when things go off the rails in middle school they really go off the rails. I taught middle school and there are many challenges...different for each kids.

  4. What a darling ! I can not imagine going to camp for longer than an over-nighter, afraid to leave home in case of fire or natural disaster- I had to be there to save everyone. Sounds like a pretty good one overall- B-B gun shooting seals the deal! Saving the ribbons, an easy thing to tuck inside a book and save forever. Very nice childhood tokens! Sweet post, dear Steven. Very sweet kid!

  5. I am gratified that my summer camp posts partly inspired this post - bringing back a cascade of little memories - good and bad. How sad that Camp Indian Head, like my Red Raider Camp no longer exists. When I first discovered that the groups at my camp were named after native American tribes - I thought - well, that's good - recognising America's pre-European heritage. I thought it was a positive thing.

  6. It sounds like you got a lot out of the camp experience in spite of the few negative incidents. I was thinking how stupid some people were back then but, the more I think about it, the more I realize they still are. You only need to look at our politics to see that. I love that photo of you with your award!

  7. oh yes, summer camp. our parents sent us every year to Camp Longhorn on Inks Lake, a residence camp, for 4 weeks. I went two or three years, skipped a year, and then went two more years. It wasn't always a great experience for me even though I learned to do a lot of stuff because I was always one of the kids who nobody really liked and didn't want to include. well, that was normal for me so I learned early on how to be a loner. the best thing I did there was learn how to sail a little sunfish. it was a solitary activity and I spent many hours out on the lake. I might have to do a post on that some time.

  8. That was incredibly honest thank you

  9. Since I think we're roughly the same age, these memories of yours really resonated with me. You do such a beautiful job writing of that era and really evoke the sights and smells and just everything about it!

  10. Sweet picture! I'm glad that overall you felt it was a positive experience. I went to an overnight camp for one week and didn't much like it (there was no time to read!).

    I want to punch that counsellor right in the nose. Some people shouldn't be around kids.

  11. I just stumbled upon this site and what a blast from the past it is! I was a nature counselor and an assistant director of Camp Indian Head during the time you were there. Your past brought back a flood of memories for me, mostly good. Many of the counselors and staff still get together now and again to share memories. The owner, and camp director, Joe Potts is turning 90 in a few weeks! His family is hosting a birthday party for him. I plan to attend and I'm sure Your old counselor, Larry will probably be there as well.
    I would love to hear more from you.
    Mike Jeffries

  12. Mike: Thanks for your comment! I will e-mail you!

  13. Steve, I did not attend the regular Summer camps of Indianhead, but my father is a retired Methodist pastor and in the late 60's/early 70's he was the pastor of a church in St. Petersburg. He had a few weekend retreats for our youth program at Indianhead and because my dad was the pastor I got to tag along with my twin brother. In November of 1972 one of Joe's sons was driving the camp golf cart and he inadvertently ran me over from behind. I was pretty messed up for over a year, but eventually had a full recovery. I do however have fond memories of activities on that property. I remember an old airplane that we played on that was up near the entrance of the property.

  14. Yikes! I'm glad your injuries weren't more serious! I remember Joe's son vaguely, and I remember the old airplane, too!

  15. Just googled this out of curiosity, was my first of many summer camps as a child. I was there in 1977...maybe 76 or 78..cant remember the exact year but remember the horses, the ribbons, the photography, capture the flag...I remember they held dances and was the first time I ever danced with a girl. I was an overnighter but was not old enough to go on the survival training I think I was a Camanche (I Think) which was the the second to the youngest group. Any way enjoyed your post brought back some memories.


    1. We were probably there at the same time, and maybe even in roughly the same age group! I don't remember dances, but they were probably just for overnight campers. I was always a day camper. Glad you stopped by!

  16. I went to Camp Indian Head for years. I absolutely loved it. I was a problem child my mom sent me to keep me outta trouble. If I didn't have summer school I was there. Im probably the bratty girl that called you names. I apologize. I went on the Survival trip. It was a fun time even though I went in a different direction. I loved the trampoline that was ground level. I rode Smokey Joe, life saving class. I'd never go in that lake today. Peace and love

  17. I went to Camp Indian Head as a kid. I can email you a few pics I have if you'd like. I have an old camp brochure and a picture of Mr. Potts and a few others. It was great fun as a kid.

  18. I went to Camp there in about 1970 my sister and I from Clearwater Florida I stayed for two weeks and had great memories a lot of fun canoeing down the river I believe I did a 10-day survival trip... playing archery swimming in the lake canoeing great times but a lot of fun people from all over the United States