Unpacking Summer Camp

By Cullen McGough

If you’re a parent whose child attends camp, you’ve probably encountered one of those official packing lists, complete with dire warnings about the required number of socks, the importance of labeling underwear, and the forbidden nature of sharp objects, video games, cellphones, lighters, and processed sugar (because, so they claim, it attracts bears).

I can still remember epic battles with my mother about packing for my first time away at summer camp. 

“But Mom,” I whined. “I need this axe. I’m going to be in the forest. I have to survive.”

To my 8-year-old-brain, the demands of sleeping away from home were roughly on par with that scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo slits open the belly of a Tauntaun and shoves in the comatose body of Luke Skywalker, just to keep him from freezing to death.

I wasn’t exactly sure what camp would be like, but based on the number of socks I was told to bring, I assumed it would be cold and stinky, and I would have to get tough if I wanted to survive.

“You don’t need an axe,” she said, taking it out of my bag. “They have axes. In fact, you’re not allowed to use an axe. Where did you get this?”

On the other hand, going to summer camp meant I would get my very own sleeping bag. Prior to this, I had to make do with a hand-me-down from my older sister, a particularly embarrassing Strawberry Shortcake-themed sleeping bag.

Sleepover parties were rough. My friends all had bags printed with cool action figures like Skeletor, Optimus Prime, or the Tasmanian Devil.

“What’s his super power?” demanded my friend Steve, pointing to a cartoon image of The Purple Pie Man leering out the window of a pastry-themed castle.

“He makes pies,” I muttered, and pretended to fall asleep.

No more! With camp in my future, it was time for a trip to L.L. Bean where I immediately latched on an $800 arctic survival bag.

“Mom! Mom! This is tactical nylon. Tactical. You can sleep on a glacier. It only weighs two pounds. I think it stops bullets?”

“Put it back,” she said, dragging me over to the Lightweight Summer Cotton Zone.

Still, I remember it was a good day. I went home with a brand-new plaid sleeping bag, which was totally cool that year, because the movie Braveheart had just come out, and I would be able to tell Steve that this was exactly how Scottish Highlanders went camping.

Even better, Mom agreed to get me a flashlight. My own flashlight. Not one of those crappy plastic ones that lived under the sink, oh no, this was a Mag Light. Adjustable focal point. Textured grip. This baby was clearly high-tech gear used by law enforcement, ninjas, scientists, and could probably burn through walls if only I could get the adjustment right. I leaned out the car window on the way home, signaling nearby planets in Morse code.

“Don’t point that at airplanes,” said Mom. “It’s illegal.”

In those days, LEDs were still a dream of the future, and the 12 size-D batteries required to run this monster cost a small fortune.

We made one last camping-supply stop, dropping into the local pharmacy.

“One bag,” Mom said. “And don’t tell your counselors.”

I stared wide-eyed at the candy isle. Was this real? Was I dreaming? This never happened. Even at Halloween, Mom routinely demanded a 90% candy tax on my haul. “It’s for charity,” she lied.

I made some quick mental calculations. Hard candy would last longer, but chocolate bars would be better for trading. I settled on a bag of Smarties, reasoning that I could always split them up into smaller units if I needed to wheel-and-deal with the other kids.

Later that night, I tried out my new sleeping bag and lay on the floor of my room, tracing the glow-in-the-dark stars attached to the ceiling with the beam of my Mag Light.

“Are you sure I can take the candy?” I asked Mom when she poked her head in to demand I go to sleep. 

“No,” said Mom. “But it’s your first time at camp. Play dumb. Sweet dreams.”

In the end, Steve and I ate the candy before I left for camp, and I used up all the batteries on that first night, but I still have my plaid sleeping bag. And it still reminds me of one of the best summers of my life.

I survived.

Cullen McGough is a former camper, counselor, camp manager. He is currently working for Camp Chewonki, a fantastic summer camp in Wiscasset, Maine, which does not allow sharp objects, video games, cellphones, lighters or processed sugar.

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