Every year as another school term ground to a close and the spring air hinted at the summer to come, our negotiations would begin in earnest. Like many liberal-minded parents, mine believed the modern family should behave as a model democracy. I knew better, though. Our annual discussions were less like the equitable entente of two elected powers, and more the kangaroo courtship of a peace treaty foisted upon a bitter, humbled nation. It was 1919 all over again and I was the crestfallen Kaiser. But the stakes were far greater than rejigged borders and post-war reparations: We were deciding where I’d go to summer camp, and that road could only lead to trouble and tears.
In Canada, summer camp ranks in our national iconography somewhere between the Last Spike and the ’72 Summit Series. Decades out of short pants, CEOs and middle-aged memoirists still get misty eyed at the mention of their golden summers along Lake Wannagoupchuk: learning the J-stroke, communing with nature, losing their virginity. It was in the hot kiln of camp that the mushy clay of youth was finally forged into rigid citizens of the world.
Trading freely in this coming-of-age myth, Canada’s two happiest campers happen to be Americans. After boyhood summers in Algonquin Park, Motor City refugees Michael Budman and Don Green recycled nostalgia for ersatz camp life back to the country that had taught it to them and built the lucrative Roots empire on the embers of their Camp Tawakwa weenie roasts.
For Canada’s vast middle class, summer camp has long held a similar aspirational mystique: one part rite of passage, one part finishing school. And so it was with my parents. My mother is a retired grade-school teacher, with a devout faith in the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bookshelves alchemy of eternal education. Public schooling was fine for the fundamentals. But if your kid hoped to get ahead, there was still some extra-curricular spit polishing to do.
And so, as we negotiated my summer itinerary, my parents would present a catalogue of camps that held forth the evangelical possibilities of secular self-improvement. First, they would suggest I be shipped off to a remote Quebecois village for French immersion camp. A shy anglo kid from the deep suburbs of Ottawa, I would exercise my one veto. After that, a compromise camp would be imposed.
I did my first tour of duty at an arts-and-crafts day camp. The counsellors may have oversold the market prospects of the glue-glitter-and-macaroni medium in which we laboured, but it seemed harmless enough. The next year, though, I was drafted into Sports Camp, where more urgent physical pursuits were supposed to firm up my frail body and confidence. They did neither. Instead, before a jury of truculent peers, the succession of phys-ed ordeals only provoked one empty epiphany: Not only was I inept at all the major status-building school sports, such as soccer and softball, but I discovered I was hopeless at the obscure ones, too, like fencing, squash and archery. I could no longer even pretend that I might be an undiscovered prodigy at some arcane but noble sport. I’d botched them all.
If Sports Camp proved a bust, Computer Camp wasn’t much better. This was during the dawn of the personal computer, so the camp was equipped with only enough low-grade machines to occupy a handful of budding Bill Gateses at a time. I sat in an underlit classroom, learning to touch type, soldering circuit boards and mastering Boolean logic. Whenever our counsellors thought we looked too sallow and listless, they shuttled us to a nearby roller disco for “exercise.”
Since then, high-tech camps have become more sophisticated. Today’s kids can be nerded through a summer of digital filmmaking or video-game design. But I can’t read their glossy brochures without thinking of my own season soldering in the dark. If nothing else, Computer Camp taught me early that behind the gilded promise of the Information Age lay a thousand digital drudge jobs—for which I was amply trained.
The low point, though, was a summer stint at an institution that I will call (if only to protect the innocent from their own repressed memories) Camp Sylvania. Located on the bucolic grounds of the city’s most exclusive boys’ college, Camp Sylvania promised a rounded curriculum of physical and mental endeavours, including the prep-school privilege of private tennis lessons. This was the place, my parents felt, where I might get a toe up the social bunk ladder. Camp Sylvania, though, never lived up to its hoity-toity billing. The counsellors were absentee landlords, and aside from the school’s cavernous gym, the hallowed halls of academe were locked away from the summer herds. The only experience that resembled a tennis lesson was when our stewards reluctantly handed out racquets, like rifles to a troop of reserves, and let us hatchet a few balls for an afternoon.
Mostly, I spent my tenure on my back, staring at the sky. A bullet-faced fellow camper was so bored that he passed his free time between activities by pinning me to the grass, with his knees on my shoulders. He didn’t torment me. He rarely even spoke. “Isn’t there something else you’d rather be doing?” I’d ask after a half-hour of his silent treatment. Eventually, I just accepted my predicament.
This, then, seemed the experience of regimented leisure distilled to its metaphorical essence. To paraphrase George Orwell (and anyone who dreamed up Big Brother must have done time at self-improvement school), “If you want a picture of camp, imagine a sneaker stamping on a human face—for a whole summer.”
Months later, a package arrived from Camp Sylvania. I slit the cardboard sleeve, and a vinyl 45 rolled out. I placed it on my father’s turntable and heard an oom-pah-ing tune followed by a tinny choir of kids’ voices: “I love to go a wandering/ Along a mountain track/ And as I go I love to sing/ My knapsack on my back…” Where the familiar chorus should begin, they hollered instead: “Sylvan-yee! Sylvan-yah! Sylvan-yah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
Who were these true believers yodeling their fatuous ode to our slovenly camp? Where was the recording studio in which they’d been sequestered to tout their lies? This was propaganda of the vilest sort.
My mother just smiled: “It sounds like you had a wonderful summer.”
“All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice,” Susan Sontag wrote in her famous essay about an entirely different notion of camp. “Nothing in nature can be campy…. Rural Camp is still man-made, and most campy objects are urban. Yet, they often have a serenity—or a naiveté—which is the equivalent of pastoral. A great deal of Camp suggests Empson’s phrase, ‘urban pastoral.’”
My final summer-camp experience was a last-ditch effort to convert me to the Canadian creed of the urban pastoral. Maybe I’d just attended the wrong camps. Maybe I could make others’ experiences more uplifting than my own. And so I was enrolled in Leadership-in-Training, a touchy-feely boot camp for the awkward youth of socially conscious parents. We performed trust-bridging exercises, learned non-competitive games, talked about our feelings and the “meaning of leadership” among a circle of strangers. Its mid-’80s methods echoed the banal “team-building&rdquo
; ethos metastasizing through the cubicles of corporate North America, and it wasn’t exactly how a hormonally flustered 15-year-old hoped to spend his summer.
In the final two weeks, we had to put our training into practice. I was assigned to intern as a counsellor at the same recreational centre whose Sports Camp had doused my dreams of being an Olympic épéeist. I vowed that my charges would fare better. Then I met Kirby the Camper.
Kirby was a flame-haired dervish with the restless imagination of a comic-book super-villain. “Every summer, I pick one counsellor,” he told me, “and I make his life hell.” I’d been selected. But if Kirby hoped to break me with his anarchic mischief, I intended to break him, too, with my Zen-like patience.
We fought to a draw and a grudging respect by the camp’s final hurrah. For Sleep-Out Night, campers pitched tents in a wooded grove behind the rec centre—bordered by a shopping mall, a Revenue Canada tower and a hectic intersection. Here, counsellors tried to recreate the bonfire bonhomie of the more expensive cottage-country programs they’d rather be working at. I suspected Kirby would view this exercise in faux wilderness with his usual cynicism, but he seemed uncharacteristically excited about Sleep-Out Night. After the sun dropped, I found out why.
“Okay, now’s the time we go see the bums,” he said. At every Sleep-Out Night, Kirby explained, he’d steal away from the campsite, descend a nearby pedestrian underpass and hang out with the homeless men who kipped there. This, for Kirby, was an authentic adventure—the real face of the urban pastoral.
I was tempted. But then my leadership training kicked in. We couldn’t possibly do that, I insisted. It was too dangerous. It was against the rules. It would flunk me out of Leadership Camp. “Don’t you want to sit around the fire?” I asked. “We’ll be toasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories and…” I couldn’t believe what I was saying.
Kirby’s face shaded from disappointment to contempt. We both knew I was feeding him the same bogus camp song I’d been forced to listen to myselfevery summer. All that was missing was the Roots sweatshirts and the oom-pahband and that frantic chorus of campers pretending to have the time of their lives.