Summer camp was invented as a way to warehouse children during the hot summer months so that parents don't have to deal with them. Some modern camps focus on building children's skills, allowing them to explore interests in art, academics, or computer science on air conditioned college campuses while schools are out of session. There's no need to talk about these camps. They're not summer camps, they're little mini-schools for the pampered few. You want to get god out of those camps be my guess, you don't need god on your side when you're playing Doom 3 with your little nerd friends. No, what I'm talking about is real summer camp. The kind your parents went to and the kind they probably sent to you if you're of a certain age. The kind of summer camp that doesn't teach kids practical skills or nurture their talents. It builds in them only one thing. Character. How do you build character, you ask?
The answer is simple. Hardship.
I remember my first time at summer camp. The camp was called Camp Billings and it was located on a lake in Vermont. A friend and I were slated to attend together, our parents dropping us off at our cabin on a hot day in early July and promising to return for us some day. Fools that we were, we actually believed them. While the parents were there the councilors were kind and eager to help. Everything looked to be in order.
Then came night fall and the parents leaving. As the last Volvo rattled down the dirt packed driveway Camp Billings finally revealed itself for what it was. Hell on earth. I think I first realized something was amiss when our nice helpful councilor dropped his shaggy smile and informed us that he'd be out of the bunk for the evening and we could fend for ourselves. I hadn't really gotten to know anybody yet, and I was preparing to make a shy introduction when one guy pulled a knife and demanded everybody's candy. I didn't know his name, but I did know a switchblade when I saw one, and his larger toothless buddy who had probably seen 13 years of life to my ten but who looked approximately 35 with his scars and missing teeth from street fighting. Wordlessly everybody turned over the butterfingers, Reese's cups and Jolly Ranchers they'd managed to smuggle in. Knifeboy informed us that we'd do well to have our parents send more if we didn't want to end up keeled over in a pool of blood out by the tether ball court. Then he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and started smoking.
As if the absent councilors and juvenile delinquent campers weren't bad enough for a young lad like myself the camp was run in what one could term a military style. Every morning we'd get up, go salute the flag, and then march over to the mess hall. The entire camp would be expected to sing the camp fight song, swear an oath of loyalty to the camp president (One James L. Fuhrer) and then eat as quickly as possible. The cabins ate together and one person was assigned service duty at each meal. Somehow knife guy and his thug never seemed to draw the short straw. The camp was situated on a lake but in order to be allowed to swim or boat there you had to pass a test. This consisted of, and I do not exaggerate, being taken out in a motor boat to the center of the lake after nightfall wearing a full set of clothing including your shoes and being told to jump out and swim to safety. That was the test. On the way to the dock my friend and I thought we felt lake weed pulling at our legs, but it turned out to only be the rotted flesh of those who had failed the test.
The whole summer passed in approximately this fashion. We were shuttled from activity to activity where angry instructors whose life plans clearly hadn't involved caring for a bunch of pasty city brats in the wilds of Vermont took out their frustrations on us in activities termed things like "Soccer" (run around until you drop from exhaustion) "Archery" (Imagine a bowling alley, only instead of pins at the end of the lanes there were targets. Imagine shooting at one of said targets with your bow. Now imagine going to collect your arrows from the aforementioned target while a bunch of scared poorly coordinated kids shot at their targets with steel-tipped arrows. That was archery. There's a reason that the recommended clothing list included a pack of big-boy diapers.) and "Do fifty push ups you little maggot or there'll be no dinner tonight. You heard me you little shit. You make me sick to be the same species as you are. In fact I don't even think you're a human. You're some kind of worm. A maggot worm. Do you know how to do a push up maggot worm? You won't like it if I have to show you."
The camp had a canteen where you could buy candy bars to give to the kids with knives (there was one in every bunk it seemed) and dances where the 4 girls whose parents hated them enough to send them to that hell danced with the thugs while the other boys milled around together and longed for the sweet release of death, or at least for the DJ to put on a different Bertie Higgins song. We didn't know that there only existed the one.
As the session dragged on my friend Nico became more and more paranoid and I found myself alone. His mom was willing to send him candy but since knife boy would confiscate it he asked only for stone-ground wheat crackers. These he hid and hoarded, eating only when the thugs were out of the bunk. Eventually they caught him and made him promise to ask for something worth stealing. I think he blamed me. For my part I got comic books and lots of nice letters but no food. The thugs tried to make an example of me by throwing my pillow into a water fountain. I fought back and ended up getting knocked on my ass in the mud in front of one of the four girls, who clearly found this amusing. My only friend became a spanish speaker named Jorge who knew nothing of this strange exotic place called camp but desperately wished to return to the sugar cane fields in Cuba where at least Castro's men operated with some sort of rhyme and reason.
And the thing is it's not like my camp experience was much different from most people's. Sure there are the kids who found camp a fun and exciting place full of neat games and wondrous tick bites. Those are the people who remembered to pack their knives. For the rest of us schlubs it was one long stretch of abuse and neglect in the hot summer sun. Weeks of sunburn and painful reminders of where we stood on the totem poll, aided and abetted by a core of caretakers who took care only of their need for pot and sex. I did learn a few things about how to shotgun a soda (there wasn't any beer for the campers) and that some people take pride in stupidity, but mostly I learned that if you smacked knifeboy in the face while playing tether ball he'd leave you alone for awhile. This is the place they want to remove god from? This is the world they want to expose children to with the full knowledge that there is no world beyond this lord of the flies existence, no great scorekeeper in the sky to punish the wicked and reward the righteous?
Keep religion out of our courthouses, schools, and legislatures. But our camps? They need more religion, because it's bad enough watching your underwear get run up the flagpole without knowing the horrible truth.