By Robin Rhyner
Camp came alive just before curfew, between sunset and lights-out. Two hundred teenagers in cabins in the woods, chaperoned by 20 college students and a handful of token adults, all came alive as the day died away.
Mornings were fresh with the smell of dewy woods and the sound of birdsong. The day began with unsullied shorts and t-shirts leaving bare legs and arms goose-pimpled in the foggy air. After breakfast, roaming adolescents found their packs, made their games of frisbee golf, lurked around the crafts center, picked out ballads on cheap guitars and circled each other in groups. They watched each other watching each other. They picked each other out for later.
The day lazed along under the sun, with the awkward rowboats splashing in the lake, the swimmers sliding off docks into the water, sunbathers laying on scratchy beach towels on the pebbly shore, smelling of sunscreen and baby oil. They wrote letters home. They napped in the shade. They drank sodas from the canteen. They waited.
Meals were loud and irritable with the metallic sounds of silverware, the scrape of folding chairs on the tiled floor of the dining hall, the murmuring din of campers tucking into their suppers, and the occasional outburst of nonsensical camp songs full of meaningless rhymes. Their eyes darted around the room, seeking out the eyes of others, quickly looking back down at the table.
And then… countdown to Night Games. First there was Cabin Time. Then Fire Circle. Then Night Games.
Cabin Time was quiet. Ten campers and the cabin counsellor all sitting on bunks. The talking stick handed from camper to camper. Taking turns. Waiting.
Fire Circle was magic. Sunset, twilight, and starshine. All of camp gathered in one place where flames danced in the middle of blackness. Circled wooden bench seats at the edge of night. Finding the one you wanted to sit next to so that your shoulders might touch or your arms might brush or your hands might clasp together while voices sang around you so you knew that this was the one and you would find each other later.
Then Night Games. This was what we lived for. Flashlight Tag and Capture the Flag and Hide-and-Seek and Jailbreak and Manhunt and Mission Impossible. Games to play in the dark and make our blood rush and our hearts pound. There were screams in the woods and booby-trapped trees and pools of black shadows. There was awful silence and there were whispered plans and hoarse cries of warning. Sounds of running cabin teams and squeals of campers lost alone in the trees.
But most of all there was night. There was the memory of the one you had watched, the one you had picked, the one you sought out, the one you waited for. There were “accidental” meetings on out-of-the-way paths and a reason to grab someone’s hand. And if you weren’t careful, you might just bump into someone, trip into their arms, and need to be caught.
I always find this kind of experience fascinating to read about, Robin. We didn’t have the tradition of summer camp, growing up in Australia (at least, I didn’t!). But it’s so evocative of teenage hopes and hormonal surges – the games apprentice lovers play – and strongly reminiscent of the more short-term school camps we had in our final years. Loved it.