The end of June means it's almost July, and July always brought that bane of my much younger existence: Summer Camp.
Yeah, yeah - most children dearly love summer camp, which always means snickering with friends, fireside sing-alongs, marshmallow roasts, canoeing, staging skits and plunging into cold lakes after long nature hikes to the top of Bald Mountain.
My Summer Camp experience was sorta different from all that.
Sure, there were campfires, marshmallow roasts, canoes and a lake (albeit a warm one - my Summer Camping was done in Texas).
One big difference in my camp experience was my pitiful shyness, which ensured I:
- Would never have a bevy of new friends.
- Could not croak out a word at sing-alongs because my vocal chords were paralyzed by my abject terror.
- Was destined to fake illness for the skit lest I had to take a speaking part.
- Would never dare to complain to the camp councilor that a line of huge Texas red ants paraded past my top bunk every night, en route to Little Suzy's illicit stash of candy bars on the top bunk in the next row over.
I did, however, have one good friend at camp. Her name was Paula, and her mother was friends with my mother, so we got together frequently to play while our mothers talked.
I thought the world of Paula, who was everything I was not, which primarily meant she was unafraid of the world.
Our mothers conspired to send us to camp together for 14 fun-filled days (their view). The plan was to draw me out, make me more comfortable among new children, and give me a great experience.
Yeah, well. First, I saw that Little Suzy had those candy bars, which meant we all had the big red ants. I'm talking Texas ants, here. Those ants could haul off a whole baked ham if anybody was so foolish as to leave one sitting around for five minutes. The councilors probably could have saddled up the ants and called it a trail ride.
Paula was housed in a different cabin from me, but it was nearby, so we could see one another all the time. I was OK with that.
At least until nightfall. Then I began to suffer from separation anxiety.
The next morning at breakfast, Paula was not at the table to down her gooey scrambled eggs, clammy toast and stiff, cold bacon. Was she ill? I managed the courage to ask another girl in Paula's cabin.
“Paula? Oh didn't you hear? She fell out of her top bunk last night and broke her arm. They took her off in an ambulance,” the girl chirped.
I almost cried. I had one friend, and she broke her arm the first night. I suspected it was the red ants that pushed her off. Just to spite me.
That morning we went canoeing in the warm little lake. This I could handle, since I had grown up paddling my grandfather's 17-foot aluminum canoe. Afterward the councilors said we could swim, but only right here, and not over there.
Why not? Water moccasins.
Sheesh, what a place for a shy kid to be stuck. I might even be too scared to call for help in the event of a snake attack.
That evening they drew names from each cabin to see who would do what in connection with the upcoming skit contest, which pitted cabin against cabin.
They drew my name to star in our cabin's skit.
That's when I thought of a moonlight swim out to visit the water moccasins, feeling they were less of a threat than Public Speaking.
Then I hit upon the Mystery Stomach Ache ploy. I spent a long time in my top bunk, emitting fake groans while counting ants and surreptitiously reading my latest Nancy Drew mystery, “The Secret of the Old Clock.”
Sadly, I was a fast reader, so the book didn't last long. Plus, it was really hot in the cabin. And then there were those ants.
I learned from my self-imposed stint in sick bay that the ants sneaked in, even in daylight, and frisked Little Suzy's candy stash.
I thought I saw them carting away a whole Baby Ruth. I hoped they would carry me off, too.
That evening, after my micraculous recovery, we were allowed to go over to the “Canteen,” a place where you could spend your pocket change on future ant food.
Sticky-legged June bugs flew around the canteen's bare light bulbs, but at least there was a telephone.
I stumbled over to the store and bravely managed to ask if I could use it.
They were about to refuse me, but I convinced them my mother likely was dying of cancer and really, really needed to hear my voice one last time.
They caved and I called her.
“Just come get me,” I demanded in a whisper, whimpering while I swatted at June bugs.
She agreed and my camp ordeal ended soon.
Good thing. I was about to take a page from Paula's book and fall out of my own top bunk.
Originally Published in The Cody Enterprise. July 3, 2006.