We were up to our necks in the gurgling swamp.
The counsellor in charge of Nature Walk, Tom, had taken us to this pungent fen, filled with snapping turtles and croaking frogs. “Can we go in?” asked one of the campers. Counsellor Tom didn’t see why not.
So into the quagmire we had advanced, mosquitoes and deer flies buzzing around us as we sank — up to our knees, up to our waists, up to our Adam’s apples. This was 50 years ago, but I still remember the faces of my fellow campers as we gazed in surprise upon our counsellor, and at one another.
We’d come to the swamp to discover nature. Now we had discovered something else instead.
It’s summer camp season here in New England. Just across the lake from where I live in Maine is Camp Modin — established in 1922, the region’s oldest Jewish summer camp. Not far from there is Camp Runoia, which takes away girls’ cellphones and replaces them with sailboats and wilderness trips. Up on North Pond is Pine Tree Camp, founded in 1945 for children with physical disabilities. Camp Aranu’tiq — the exact location is not widely published — provides a safe harbour for transgender and nonbinary kids.
And then there is the camp in western Massachusetts where I found myself sinking in a mire.
I learned a lot of things that summer.
Cygnus and Cassiopeia
From my counsellors I learned the names of the stars. I can still point up at the summer skies and show you Cygnus the Swan, and Cassiopeia, and — closer to the horizon — the Scorpion and the Archer. Summer camp gave that to me.
I learned to swim in the cold waters of Rudd Pond, a feat that had been eluding me for years. I still remember the exact moment it dawned on me that I was finally doing it — that after years of lessons that had always ended in failure and in tears, I was, good God!, actually swimming. Camp gave me that too.
I learned that white people sometimes imitate Indians, a practice that even then I thought was odd. Upon my arrival, I was taken to Iroquois Village, where the youngest campers resided, and installed in Tuscarora Cabin. We made headbands the first day or two, and as the weeks went by, we got feathers for doing good deeds. Once, when my cabin was beating the Onondagas in a baseball game, my counsellor took us all aside and told us not to run up the score, to allow the Onondagas a fighting chance by committing a few errors.
Later, we all got feathers for that. It’s a good lesson: that even in victory you can show humility and grace.
But I’m thinking that we could have modelled good sportsmanship without necessarily pretending to be Indians.
I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow, and how to play tetherball, and how to make a toy boat out of tongue depressors, and how to make a lanyard out of gimp. It is impossible for me to think of the necklace I made from plastic thread without thinking of the poem Billy Collins wrote about his mother:
“Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, / strong legs, bones and teeth, / and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered / and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.”
But the most important thing I learned that summer was what it meant to be achingly homesick, to be hundreds and hundreds of miles away from my parents, and to have no way to reach them except by letter.
Homesickness is the entry-level version of the kind of loss that with time becomes familiar. Those long summer days of childhood, separated from the people you love, are the first brush with a cruel truth — that as the years pass, you will find yourself pulled away from each other again and again, a little further each time, until at last, one way or another, you slip out of each other’s arms for good.
Adults may not always tell the truth
We lay in the swamp up to our necks, the Nature Walkers and me, the fetid marsh gurgling all around us. Was it possible, I wondered, we might be in danger?
Counsellor Tom had been forced to confess, the day before, that most of what he’d taught us that summer was a lie — that he’d made up the names of most of the trees and animals he’d shown us. There was no such thing as a “Moustache Tree,” he explained, or a “Sausage Plant.” There was no such thing as a “Doodybird.”
“I’m sorry,” Tom told us. “I just wanted to entertain you.”
It had never occurred to me before that adults might not always tell the truth, or that the world I lived in was one in which I could not always be kept safe from harm. But it occurred to me now.
“Counsellor Tom?” I cried out. We all sank a little deeper. “Are we going to be OK?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m here to protect you.”
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel Long Black Veil.