Monday, July 1, 2013

That Summer Camp Feeling

Originally printed in June 2007:
That Summer Camp Feeling
June 2007
The Outs
The Noise

Ellen Jo Roberts

Tower Hill Camp, Sawyer, MI, 1984

I got my first kiss at summer camp. Mid-June, a heavy all-day rain that had continued into the night. It was the summer of the “17 year cicadas” their newly emerged pupating bodies littering the earth and hiking up the bark of trees. I was new on staff that summer, a Chicago girl, an all-worldly, cross-legged 18. The giddy, goofy pre-teen girls in my cabin quizzed and teased me mercilessly. They had decided that all of the boy counselors were hot for me. One in particular bravely made his move, a tall dark Sagittarius, a freckle faced identical twin. He appeared at my cabin door that night, while I was off brushing my teeth. When I returned and could hear his voice quizzing the girls as to my whereabouts, and being the bashful late bloomer that I was, nervous but feigning a sense of “cool mystery”, I decided to sit outside in the rain, on a window ledge. The rain drops coming off the roof made lines across the thighs of my jeans. I looked up when I heard him open the door. “There’s just something irresistible about you, an aura or something”, he said.

south haven - private beach

Recently a friend of mine described his delightful new romance with the expression, “that summer camp feeling”, and I knew right what he meant, instantly. Away from home, long days, star-filled nights, the perfect, intense butterfly-filled romance. Dreamy, fragrant, abbreviated like the short life of a mayfly. Every June I always get that summer camp feeling. During college I was a counselor at an arts camp in southwestern Michigan. It was a camp I’d been to as an adolescent camper, so it was a heady experience to return in a position of authority. People from Michigan always describe where they’re from by holding up the palm of their hand and pointing to a spot. Because Michigan looks like a hand.

Each June fellow counselors would pile onto the basket-weave vinyl seats of my aged rusty VW bug and we’d make the long, sticky, un-air-conditioned drive over the Chicago Skyway, on the toll road skirting the Indiana shores of Lake Michigan and up the coast into the cool pines of Tower Hill Camp. If I were pointing at my hand now I’d be touching the hard side heel, the part you’d use to karate chop someone.

My cabin was inexplicably called “The Swamp”, and was located in an area called “The Pines”, high in the forest, a fair hike from the rest of the communal buildings of the camp. I had lived in this place as a camper and a counselor both. Watching the 1979 Bill Murray film “Meatballs” had inspired me to come back. “THE SWAMP” was scrawled in faded red paint above the door, and the ceiling rafters were carved full of ancient graffiti. As a camper I’d lie awake at night reading the scratched names and dates and rude phrases from my top bunk.
Tower Hill dated from the 1930s or ‘40s and bordered on a state park and the lake. The camp had several large halls where we met up for arts & crafts, dance, drama, music, meals, sing-a-longs. In addition to the older girls in “the Pines”, there were the “A-Frames” where the younger kids resided, and the barracks on the far end where the junior high boys lived. A trail weaved in and out of Chicagoans’ summer cabins, and side roads, to follow a wooded creek that reached the beach in long winding curve, finally emptying into Lake Michigan.  The skies were clear and the lake cold. Michigan side always is in the summer.

Great Lakes, 12x12

The campers were full of enthusiasm and glee, though dealing with pre-teens figuring out social structure was not without the assorted “issues” and “dramas” to untangle. Overall the challenges were not so difficult after the first few nights away from home. Evenings were full of dog-eared ghost stories and gales of laughter. A symphony of flashlights bouncing off of the darkness. That summer camp feeling is fleeting magic. Camp ends and it’s back to the city, back to reality and the fanciful days and nights of camp soon grow faint. The fling with the twin didn’t pan out much beyond the end of camp, though we did make a valiant effort to prolong that dreamy feeling. I think I lost sleep over him maybe one night of that summer, maybe thought I loved him for about a minute, while clutching his forgotten sweatshirt to my face and breathing it in.  His bird-like kisses and fakey romantic gaze began to grate on me. We had no chemistry, something was a bit off. I always thought it was the absence of the carefree summer camp setting, but years later he finally came out of the closet, and now lives in Santa Barbara with his boyfriend. (My brother finds this hilarious, of course, and uses it as an example of how I, by my sheer heinousness, converted someone to homosexuality). My last sight of the twin that year was as my headlights washed over him in someone’s wintry driveway. He accused me of loving my Volkswagen more than I ever loved him. Turns out he was right. 

 I had a new boyfriend every year at camp. Everyone did. That bunkhouse boogie was like a square dance. The next boyfriend killed me. Not in a Jason Voorhees- Friday the 13th Summer Camp fashion, but instead a long lingering heartbreak that took me a good year to shake.

“He was the boy who broke my heart the hardest,
” –journal entry.

“The hippies love each other” said the girls in my cabin.

Marty was an absolute freak, an adorable doe-eyed wildman in crazy hats and insane boots, pookah shell necklaces, cradling his boom box and singing along with REM. At Tower Hill he was a superstar- he was DJ for the dance- he was always everyone’s favorite counselor. The kids all loved him because he was “on” all the time, funny and rude, he’d do anything for a laugh, even if it meant hurting feelings or being absolutely gross.

His theme song was Herman’s Hermit’s “I’m Hen-ery the 8th I am”—it was his calling card, he led rousing renditions of it that echoed throughout Tower Hill. . He called himself Jesus Christ and shouted at random passersby on the road. Chaos. Capricorn, skinny, too skinny, tall, with full lips and a great kiss, he spent the rest of the summer trying to get me to lay down with him on the beach, in the forest, in my car, on his bed. I played hard to get.
Goodie Two Shoes.

old fotobooth photo- summer 1992

The summer camp feeling lingered on after camp a bit-- he plied me with romantic mix-cassettes and lengthy phone calls but in the end he just lived too far away. I got a flat tire on some farm road with my dog and had to sleep in his garage. We played Marco Polo in the lake, ate Key Lime Pie at a late night suburban Denny’s. He later dumped me at that very same Denny’s, in front of all of his friends and some gothy new girl he was already grooming to be his new summer romance. He sorta shrugged it off like it was all casual and hey, that’s life. That’s what broke my heart the hardest --too inexperienced to have any perspective or know any better. Now it makes me laugh to think I got in such a lather over that goofy ass weirdo. The following year and a few girlfriends later he became a father. He was a 16 year old son now, maybe causing his own summer camp mischief, maybe breaking some hearts just like his dad did back in the day. Hey Marty, if you’re out there, Happy Father’s Day, 8th Ol’ man called Hennery, Hennery the 8th I yam, I yam. H-E-N-R-Y.

It’s time for summer camp again, and wouldn’t you know it every year it comes to mind, though I am a many-years married girl, many years living 2,000 miles away, I still think of it every June. The anticipation of packing up the car and driving around the lake, the ghost stories and sing-alongs, and the thrill of first kisses. The 17 year cicadas are back  this summer. Incredible really. How do they know when the 17 years are up?  It must be a feeling they just cannot shake.

madd camp memory


Ellen Jo Roberts lives in Clarkdale AZ. with Bike Daddy Chad and some famous pets. Read all about it at For a few Michigan summers back in the 1990s she was the coolest camp counselor the Swamp ever had.