Summer Camp USA 2010

It was the monsters that did it in the end.  When poor eight year old Charlie was crying all evening because he was homesick and nothing else would cheer him up, a silly game I remembered playing as a child involving drawing monsters did the trick.  It was my first week at camp as a counsellor and I’d already had tantrums, broken lights, fights and now the most chronic homesickness from a kid I knew to be suffering a bad divorce back home.  Yet he was missing home desperately and after giving up my evening off to listen and trying all sorts to help, it was a silly game of drawing monsters that made him smile.  And after that he never looked back.

This was just one of many unexpected challenges I experienced whilst counselling kids at Camp Walden in Michigan this summer.  I loved my campers to bits but boy could they be unpredictable.  One of my fondest memories is convincing little Henry that just because he could not find his left trainer, he could not go to soccer with a trainer on one foot and a croc on the other, regardless of which his preferred kicking foot was.  Another is promising Matthew that if our team won Color War, I would buy him pizza, never dreaming that we would win, and then seeing his beaming face when we won by the narrowest of margins.  That night we spooked the kids by waking up the whole cabin and pretending they were in trouble only to make them beam as they realised we were actually bringing them the elusive pizza they loved from the local restaurant.

I was lucky enough to be a counsellor to both the youngest campers, who had never been away from home alone before, and then in the second half of the summer to the oldest campers.  The two age groups required two completely different attitudes. With the former, I did everything for them: I was their teacher, their parent and their friend.  With the teenagers it was all about being cool and gaining their respect; I had to find the perfect compromise between being authoritative when necessary and accepting that they knew their own minds and had been coming to camp far longer than I had.  I managed this well and both groups said I was a great counsellor and grew to regard me as their friend, which was a great feeling.

It wasn’t just the kids that made my summer so unforgettable though.  My time spent at camp was the best of my life for a variety of reasons.  I got to try out so many activities I never thought I would, from driving a van all over Michigan on our days off, to horse riding, to driving a boat, to sleeping under the stars and even “tubing”, the exhilarating process of being dragged around a lake on a rubber ring by a speedboat.

I was lucky enough to try my hand at all forms of teaching as a counsellor, too.  I ran the radio and video programme and watching shy children turn into confident pro’s conducting interviews and putting on film screenings in just a few weeks was immensely satisfying.  I also taught soccer, archery, drawing and painting, and “lapidary”, the art of rock-polishing on oh-so-noisy grinding machines.  Whatever the discipline, seeing campers develop, achieve and enthuse was the biggest reward from anything I’ve ever done.

The spirit of camp is phenomenal and has to be seen to be believed.  “Mess Hall riots” were commonplace and involved the whole of boys’ side and the whole of girls’ side competing in a dance off, culminating in the most passionate routines and chants I’ve ever witnessed at nine in the morning.  All of camp would get excited too for going on trips to the nearby Macinaw Island or the fabulous local water park.  You really work as a team on camp and become a family united by the always fun but always exhausting task of keeping the campers entertained.  Staff that had been returning to camp for forty years made me completely welcome to the point that when one member of staff left I led a chorus of the now infamous “penguin song”, which she loved, to send her off.  Campers would make jewellery out of beads for me to thank me for my help in their winning the scavenger hunt and write me letters when they left.  The more you put into camp, the more you get out.  Like many, I eventually found myself sucked in, to the extent that having begun the summer swearing I would never go on stage, I was up there performing all sorts of ridiculous “skits” more than anyone else by the end.  Hell, one kid was so bowled over by my regular “slam poetry” recitals he refused to believe I wasn’t a professional rapper back home.  I once spent a day rewriting “Poker Face” as “Media Face” to advertise the media programme to new campers and performed it to great success, only for every kid on camp to call me “Media Face” for the next few weeks, an embarrassment which seems inevitable with hindsight.  Still, it got a lot of people to sign up for video and radio so it was worth it.

One of our camp’s traditions was to raise the flag each morning with words of wisdom.  I took great pride in raising the English flag with my own advice and was genuinely honoured when a senior member of staff told me she had used the advice to console a camper who was being bullied and it had helped.  People were so kind at camp and any silly creative idea you had people would encourage and help out any way they could (usually by dressing up in some ridiculous costume!)  I organised a game of “Family Feuds” (the same as our “Family Fortunes”) and surveyed the whole camp at the start of family week, with all the families competing later in the week.  The night was enjoyed by all; one camper even said it was the best game he had ever played.

But camp wasn’t just about camp, if that makes sense.  In many ways it was the days off that brought all the staff together and it was then that I forged friendships for life. I persuaded our camp director to let me take one of the camp’s vans and I would drive us to some lakeside condo, via Walmart where I would buy alcohol for myself and any under 21s who were not allowed to purchase it themselves.  With such an intense job comes some well-earned letting off of steam and the phrase “work hard, play hard” has never been as apt as during a summer at camp.  I’ve never been to parties quite as good as the ones we had on those days off and I’ve never remembered less from nights off either.  Suffice to say there was many a story to be pieced together the following day, when we would relax by a lake.  The lakes in Michigan are stunning and we managed to find the most breathtaking places.  Swimming and sunbathing by the lakes felt like paradise and was always a welcome respite after a long week, even if I did somehow get a handprint sunburnt on my back which stayed there the entire summer!  Often someone at camp who lived locally would invite us back to theirs for a sensational midnight jeep ride through the woods or elk soup complete with photos of the elk we were eating shot only the week before.  One of the scariest moments of the summer was actually hitting a deer whilst driving which jumped from nowhere in front of the van.  We collected our breath and carried on only for me to have to swerve to avoid another two minutes later!

Thanks to the levels of partying, we would always return from days off more tired than before and getting through Mondays of early breakfast bells, showering only to be covered in dirt in lapidary, mosquitoes, kids having the dreaded sugar rush from eating too many “s’mores” and giving up my only free time to edit videos on PCs that crashed twice a minute, could often be hellish.  But it was always worth it.  The videos of camp I edited on the tragically slow PCs would be shown every few weeks to the whole camp on a giant screen and they went down a storm.  I’ll never forget people cheering my name after one of them and my soon-to-be girlfriend who I met at camp coming over and congratulating me on it.  Here’s a tip, by the way: everyone smells at camp so a little aftershave goes a long way in drawing attention from girls!

Camp is a really great place to meet people and many counsellors paired off as the summer went on.  Lying on the dock watching the most amazing shooting star display with a friend soon became us travelling together as a couple after camp.  We stayed first in Detroit with the camp doctor and his family, the children of whom we had been counsellors for.  They provided unbelievable hospitality, putting us up in their beautiful house and driving us round Detroit, showing us the “Dream Cruise” rally and taking us to the Henry Ford museum and village.  Next, we took a bus to Chicago where we met another friend from camp.  We went up the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the Americas, had proper Chicago pizza, went to the world famous Shedd Aquarium and Cloud Gate sculpture and bought far too many clothes.

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Next up was Cleveland, Ohio for some Baseball action.  For just $7 I spent an amazing three hours watching some great sport and hilarious entertainment.  My mate and I didn’t know any of the chants so somehow managed to start our own by just shouting “BASEBAWL!”  Equally amusing was the appearance of the Cleveland Indians’ best player, Choo.  Someone in the crowd stood up and hollered “Can you hear that?” only for his mate to respond “Hear what?”  The first guy would then shout “Chugga chugga…” and the entire stadium boomed back “CHOO CHOO!”  This happened several times and it never got old, unbelievable.

I went to a Frat party which was disappointingly full of 16/17 year olds but some other college parties made up for it.  At camp, I had often mistook people telling me they were from Ohio as a rather camp greeting so when I actually went there I stood up in front of a whole crowd of college students and got them to shout “Ohiiiioooo” to me. This was when I realised I was “camp cracked”, the term used for someone so immersed in camp’s in-jokes he or she has gone slightly crazy.  Still, I was not as crazy as the old hippy man on the Greyhound bus who pointed to a landscape we were passing and asked if I could “see the hills breathing?  What’s it like to be young, can you feel the magic?”  I have no idea what he meant but it was a fantastic exchange nonetheless.

Washington D.C. was next on the agenda where we visited the White House, the Air and Space Museum and Natural History Museum.  The highlight was surely the American History museum which would be better described as America’s attic: there were some excellent exhibitions but there were also cases of Americans clearly struggling to fill a building with history when they are such a young country, having a Dumbo car from Disneyland in pride of place was a case in point.

After a horrific day when we went to the wrong airport and eventually had to buy new flights, we made it to our final destination, Miami.  We had a fantastic week going out on a boat in Fort Lauderdale and sunbathing in the coolest place on Earth, South Beach.  Snoop Dogg and NeYo gigs were advertised on banners pulled by planes over the beach, that’s how cool that place was.

It was quite remarkable that despite splitting off on my own for some of the route, I made it from the top of America to the very bottom without a phone.  Even in 2010 it can still be done the old-fashioned way!  All the way down America we had stayed with people we had met at camp, saving ourselves a fortune.  In Miami, we met another friend from camp who had been travelling and just bumped into us on the beach.  It was fantastic being able to spend the day with him – when you work with someone on camp for a summer you feel like you have known them your whole life and it’s great to see them again.  Since getting back from camp, whenever I see my girlfriend or anyone else from camp all we can talk about is the incredible summer we all shared.  I’d urge anyone to try it.  Yes, I went a bit insane at times when my campers were whingeing and always losing things, but I found it so rewarding in the end.  Especially as on the last day, little Charlie, now the most confident kid on camp after seven weeks of growing up, having lost everything else that summer,  pulled a picture of a monster out of his pocket.  “I’ve kept this all summer,” he said.  “And I’m going to keep it forever.”  I’ve never felt so proud in all my life.

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