Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Summer camp

My first thought, as we pulled off the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the heart of the Pocono Mountains in search of my son's summer sleepaway camp this morning, was this:

"What the hell is a Jewish camp doing in a town where every other building is a gun shop, gun repair shop, gun museum, "wholesale" fireworks stand, bait and tackle shop or German Shepard-guarded car impoundment lot?" I thought about the Paul Simon song, "America," and the lyric that goes, "Counting the cars/On the New Jersey Turnpike/They've all come/To look for/America," . . . and considered modifying it to go, "Counting the abandoned cars/Off the Pennsylvania Turnpike/Why didn't I cover my Obama '08 sticker/With a NASCAR magnet?"

But the meter was too awkward. And there was the issue of copyright infringement. So I decided it was best if I let my moment of inspiration pass . . .

After making the turn into Kunkeltown (no, I am not making this up), we made our way past the Sunset Diner, past a house that once doubled as a barber shop but now appeared to be abandoned or perhaps just seriously neglected, past another impoundment lot, past a private "gun and road club" (which got me thinking: exactly what kind of club is this? Do they drive around in vintage cars, tractors, trucks and shoot animals, people, bottles, milk jugs? Since the sign said, in big, bold letters, "Members Only," I decided to honor that stipulation and keep driving), past the houses (all with red-white and blue bunting) that sit a good acre off the main road until . . . finally . . . we found the turn into our son's summer camp.

Max Ivers being Max Ivers, he was comfortably strewn across the backseat, feet perched across his sister's legs, taking in the scenery in his boxers and lost inside the world that rested between his headphones. He and his nine and a half year-old teenage sister, Claire, had managed to hold it together for most of the trip, taking a brief respite from their ongoing battles for sibling supremacy, tendered by the realization that they might miss each other for the month that Max will be away. For once, they had united against their common enemy, their parents, so that all "reminders" about their behavior began with "You both," rather than just, "Max!/Claire!" I would never say this to them out loud, but I hoped like hell that their solidarity wouldn't last. We are simply no match for the two of them, when they combine forces.

The first table upon entering the "welcome area" was for lice inspection. No problem there. We then got directions to where Max's cabin would be, which turned out to be in a more secluded part of the camp, away from the "little kids" and closer to the woods, which, I'm guessing, are visited more than occasionally by campers in search of summer romance, and their counselors, also in search of summer romance and perhaps a little herbal recreation to help them bring the day's events into better focus. My hunch on the counselors was confirmed when we were greeted by the sounds of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers , NRBQ and, in a nod to the last 15 years, Phish -- standard Jewish hippie music. This could have been my cabin at sleepaway camp 35 years ago -- minus Phish. Weirdest of all was hearing "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," by the Allman Brothers, my all-time favorite rock instrumental, as I made the trips back and forth to the car to unload Max's stuff. My camp counselor my first year away was Doug Reed, my dentist's teenage son, who had an older sister named Elizabeth, who was a little older and very, very cool . . . and very, very pretty. Doug told me that the Allmans named the tune after Elizabeth after they met her at a Piedmont Park concert the year before (around 1970). I believed that until about 10 years ago, when I was corrected after telling someone I knew the origin of the song's name. Turns out that Dickey Betts took the name off the tombstone, where he had decided to stop and party after sneaking into a graveyard one summer night. I kinda liked my version better.

* * * * * * * * * *

Drop-offs in front of your child's peers during the early teen years are tricky. You want to show that you care, that you'll miss your son or daughter, to remind them to brush their teeth and exhibit some sort of fidelity to hygiene, to press upon them the importance of good behavior, that it is possible to be "cool" without dipping into drugs or alcohol or behaving badly towards girls/boys and to remind them that you are just a phone call away if anything comes up. On the other hand, you don't want to leave a cabin full of your child's teenage peers with the impression that you are one of "those" parents who can't let their kid go to the bathroom by themselves without a staff of 10 monitoring his or her every move. Granted, at a Jewish camp, there is the understood expectation that each kid comes with a lawyer, psychiatrist, certified financial planner, allergist, decorator, personal trainer and chiropractor. From what I could tell, when you show up with only your kid and their camp-issued checklist of stuff, you establish instant goodwill with the counselors. Plus, you spare your child having to go through the embarrassing in-public conversation with the counselors, such as the one we heard while getting Max unpacked.

"Noah needs to sleep on the bottom bunk because he's afraid of heights . . ."

"MOM! What are you doing?"

"They need to know, sweetie. Ever since he had a panic attack on the escalator at the mall when he was a toddler. Imagine that! A boy who doesn't want to sleep on the top bunk . . ."

"I'm going outside!"

"Careful. You know how your allergies get when your near trees . . ."

Near trees? Why the hell send the kid to camp? . . .

* * * * * * * * * *

After we met the counselors and got Max settled into his bunk -- the one that wasn't ready because the staff had undercounted the number of campers in his cabin, which turned out to be my fault, according to my wife and son, because we left "late" for camp. My apologies, dear family, for getting up at 5.30 a.m. to drive 4 1/2 hours while you slept, for not getting their fifteen minutes earlier so could have faced the same problem -- we got "the look" from him that it was time for us to go. His group was meeting outside in the gazebo that appeared to serve as the informal gathering spot for the older campers. To one side was a tetherball pole; to another, a rock pit with the remnants of the previous night's bonfire; to another, there was some sort of sandy box that did not, as far as I could tell, have a clearly defined function. I told Max that I wanted to make one more trip to the car to make sure that we had unloaded everything, although my wife had (correctly) assured me that we had, while my daughter seemed hellbent on joining the 13 and 14 year-old girls who had come to check out the new boys. I noticed one gave Max an up-and-down look while he was working with a counselor to get his bunk mounted and elbowed her friend to take notice, their heads nodding in unspoken agreement that a new cutie had arrived. "Damn right," I thought, before reaching the more appropriate conclusion of "Oh, shit."

I walked outside into a soft, late morning breeze, the sun coming through the pine trees that scattered kaleidescope light across the grounds. I opened my car door, sat down and turned around towards the backseat. I didn't see anything that belonged to my son, so it turned out that, yes, he was all set. Looking again, I did see something else that once belonged to me: a little boy sitting in his car seat, half-eaten Charms Pop in one hand, a small Tonka truck in the other, fast asleep after a morning at the park, with a little belly full of chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and carrot sticks. In a few minutes, I told myself, we'd be home, and I'd carry him inside and put him down for his afternoon nap. A few hours later, he'd wake up, come bounding into kitchen with a big, "Hi, Dad" greeting, and we'd get ready for our next adventure, be it Thomas the Tank, an episode of "Arthur," or just a little couch time listening to The Beatles.

Then I looked again and realized that all that was left in the backseat were a couple of pillows, a blanket and my daughter's Webkinz collection. My little boy was gone, and a young man had replaced him -- smart, gorgeous, inventive and utterly himself. "I know, I know," I told myself. "This is the day you've prepared him for. The yelling, the correcting, the rules . . . everything . . . were all about sending him off by himself." After patting myself on the back for a couple of moments, I did the only thing I could do at that point.

I turned around, looked in the rear view mirror one more time, and cried.


Lesli said...

Reading this post, all I could picture was a baby and a 5 year old, snuggled on the coach with me, listening to the Moody Blues and the Beatles. Oh I miss those days. I'd love to see some pictures if you care to send them along....Miss you all and think of you often.

deacon blues said...

From one Dad to another, not to mention one best friend to another, I felt you. The "little belly full of chicken nuggets ...." got me!

Jack is growing up very fast, yet he will only be 5 in November.

I vividly remember my intro to Max: awakening me, about 7:30 AM on a Saturday morning, when he was about Jack's age, asking if I liked chocolate chip pancakes.

Tempus Fugit, my good friend, tempus fugit.