I have recently become aware of deeply buried memories. Memories that I thought I had successfully erased from my brain. But, the same brain that cannot remember where my glasses were set down minutes before managed to dredge up recollections from many years ago. Painful memories. Memories of forcibly being made to do things I did not want to do. Yes, that’s right. Memories of summer camp. And I have Facebook to thank for this.
What set these flashbacks hurtling past other deeply hidden memories from storage was my recently added friends on Facebook. Actually, they’re more than friends. They’re long-lost cousins with whom I was thrilled to re-connect. We were not as close to my dad’s side of the family because of distance and age difference. My dad was the baby in his family, with his oldest sister almost twenty years his senior. His siblings were married with children when he was still a kid, making his nieces and nephews (my cousins) only a few years younger than him. My cousins’ kids were my age. Follow me so far? But, distance also separated us as several of the family were located in the beautiful states of Wisconsin and Michigan. Upper Peninsula Michigan, to be exact. And that’s an important distinction. Kind of like trying to tell someone from Sicily that they’re from Italy. No they’re not. They’re from Sicily. They are Sicilian. It’s different.
And the UP of Michigan IS different from any other place. And my dad LOVED it. He was a city kid, as we all were, born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. And while he was a proud South Sider, absolutely beaming on “the Saint’s Day”, he was also a man who loved the great outdoors. My parents even bought a plot of land on Indian Lake, planning to build a cottage up there someday. Until then, we made the trip a few times to visit our cousins and get a taste of country living. And that was fun. They had a farm and what seemed to us a huge farmhouse. And they had horses.
The painful part comes now… One year, my folks thought it would be great to send my little brother, Paul and me, ages approximately six and nine, to Camp Batawagama on Indian Lake in the UP of Michigan. For two weeks. All by ourselves. Well, not ENTIRELY all by ourselves. Our cousins would be there too. It would be fun, Mom and Dad assured us. And they would be nearby the whole time. Well, it DID sound like fun. Sort of. But I still remember the drive up, feeling scared to death that our parents were just going to LEAVE us. And it didn’t help matters when my dad casually mentioned that some of the kids there might not particularly like us. WAIT. WHAT??? He went on to explain that they might not know anyone from Chicago and might have preconceived ideas about us. Whoa. That was quite a shock to our innocent ears. There might be people who wouldn’t like us or be nice to us?? Wow. I used that long car ride to prepare for the challenge. I mean, I didn’t have any choice, so…
Upon entry to the camp, Paul and I were horrified to learn that we would be separated into different cabins. He looked at me with pleading eyes. I told him it would be okay and I’d see him in a while. Which I did. Later that day. When I hugged him tightly, wiped away his home-sick tears and whispered in his ear that I would take care of him. I was planning an escape.
Yes, I had a plan. And until it could come to fruition, we played the game. We went to the forced swim lessons, where I swear, we had to stand on the edge of a pier and a counselor held our ankles while we assumed the “dive” position. Then as we took the plunge, would flip our legs upward in order to keep them straight. Terrifying. I was sick as often as I could possibly get away with it. We also did crafts, which I didn’t mind so much. It killed time until my devious plan could be put into action. I surprised myself with how much I liked (and was actually kinda good at) archery. That was probably the coolest part of camp for me.
But at night, when all the lights were out and Taps had played, I’d return to my ingenious scheme. Midway through the two week ordeal was an event to which parents were invited. It was then that Paulie and I would artfully stash only our most necessary belongings into the back of Mom and Dad’s car. And at the conclusion of the evening, stash ourselves as well. We wouldn’t breathe, lest we alert the SS guard. I mean the counselors. No, we’d be as quiet as we ever thought we could be while the car safely carried us away to freedom, making ourselves known only when our parents arrived wherever it was they were staying. Surely they’d be thrilled to see us.
One hurdle loomed, though. Something I hadn’t expected and certainly dreaded. It was a hike in the woods. Not just any hike. It felt like the Bataan Death March. I had no idea where we were being led, singing all the way: “Out on Indian Lake, there’s a camp that takes the cake. It’s the youth camp. Batawagama…” ending with a rousing recitation: “B-A-T-A-W-A-GA-MA” But I was having none of it. When we finally set camp (or whatever you call it when you figure out where you’re going to sleep), we made a fire and proceeded to “cook” our dinner which consisted of potatoes pierced with sticks we found ON THE GROUND. There may have been other food, but I spent the whole time trying to wrap my brain around the whole potato/stick thing. After what felt like hours holding our potatoes over the fire, we finally got to eat what was basically a raw potato. Oh and wash it down with “bug juice” which I was told was simply pink lemonade, but I was way past trusting anyone at that point. We finally put an end to our (my??) misery when night fell and we cozied up in our sleeping bags out in the open on the hard ground to sleep. I’m not sure, but it might have sprinkled a little rain that night. Maybe that was just my imagination, though. I pretty much laid awake all night waiting for signs of dawn and wondering when ANYONE was going to wake up. How was it possible that these people were actually sleeping?? The fun of that morning was counting how many ticks had attached themselves to us during the night. One girl had one on her earlobe, which I thought was an earring. That was about it for me. Miraculously, I was tick-free. The ticks might have sensed my “She’s crazy. Don’t mess with her” mojo. PLAN: GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE couldn’t come fast enough.
Finally, the big day arrived. I was beside myself with excitement, all the while keeping a cool front so as not to cause suspicion. As evening grew and parents arrived, my plan took an unexpected turn. First, we kids were not free to run to the cars to greet our parents. At least I don’t think we were because, second, my parents didn’t come. That was the real wrinkle in my crafty plot. Not that I blame them. They were probably having a blast somewhere, not there, assuming that we were having the time of our lives singing camp songs and doing camp things. So, Paul and I had to tough it out. In all the years that followed, I never let on to my folks what my true feelings about Camp Batawagama were. That would have made them feel terrible, which was the last thing I ever wanted. They tried. They did their best to give us a fun camp experience. And my cousins tried, too. They included us with their friends. Paul and I were just a couple of city mice trying to blend in with the country mice. I guess you can take the kid out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the kid. I did learn a valuable lesson from that experience though. I learned that I’m TOTALLY an indoorsy person.
PS: In all fairness, if you google Camp Batawagama, the images are absolutely gorgeous. And I’m sure it is a fabulous place and provides a wonderful experience for kids. I really mean that. I’m not just trying to cover myself. Especially now that I saw they have a whole band thing. This post was born from the memories, skewed as they probably were, of a very homesick kid.
PPS: It is quite possible that the camp was only a weeklong experience that felt like two weeks. My brain will not allow me to delve any further in order to confirm.