Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2009 | Features

Camp Echo

By Robin Hemley
In a comical attempt to "do over" his failed efforts as a participant and a counselor at summer camp, UI writing professor Robin Hemley learns valuable lessons about being a child—and a grown-up.

No one paid attention to kids when I was growing up, not parents, not teachers, not counselors. Childhood was something you went off and did until you got over it. And camp was one of those places to which kids were exiled, almost as a form of punishment, a warehouse where you suffered while your parents went on that Norwegian cruise. Camp was anything but fun, unless you define fun as forced marches, prison food, and Darwinian social dynamics.

In some ways, I've always considered myself a failed camper. I was not a great physical specimen as a kid, not quite a sissy but one who had to use his brains to deflect a bully's animus and divert his attention: "Psst. I'm not the one you want. There's a sissy over there."

One camp was a sleepaway experience in North Carolina at Camp Catawba when I was nine. What I remember from this summer camp is the cruel society of boys, torturers of little animals, always trying to get an edge on their fellow campers through the well-placed taunt or blow.

Granite Lake Camp, my last, was equally grim. I refused to do anything my counselors wanted, regardless of any consequences they offered. I even made one of my counselors snap—a quiet young man from Taiwan, who chased me around the outside of the cabin one day, screaming "I gonna kill you!"

I was briefly a camp counselor at Camp Echo in upstate New York when I was 18. My bad-camper karma caught up with me here when I was assigned to a group of the brattiest ten-year-olds imaginable, worse than I had been. I remember the kids in my bunk placing bets on how long it would take to get rid of me.

Admittedly, my reasons for wanting to go back as a camper were a bit immature. A part of me wanted to use my unfair advantage as a fortysomething male to make a big impression on a cabin of ten-year-olds. I wanted to beat them at swimming, baseball, Ping-Pong, capture the flag. Pathetic? Undoubtedly.

"The boys are waiting anxiously for you," Marla, the owner and director of Camp Echo, tells me before letting me out of her golf cart in front of Bunk B5-2. Really? They're anxious to spend the next few days with a 48-year-old man? Maybe they're thinking I can help them find a way to escape.

Today, as I enter the bunk, a faint whiff of parent scent still lingers. I, of course, drove myself here, the only camper to have done so. The boys stare at me and tell me their names and say "hi" in that friendly, uncomplicated way that ten-year-old boys have about them. I say "hi" back and the counselors introduce themselves, my counselors, both young enough to be my children.

There's 21-year-old Craig Warwick, from Birmingham, England, at least a head shorter than me but three times as muscular. No one calls him Craig, but "Snoopy," his nickname. This is his third stint at Camp Echo. Brad, son of one of the camp doctors, has the bunk across from me. He's 18, younger than my students at the University of Iowa, but I automatically see him as an authority figure, and I wonder if he automatically registers me as a subordinate. It's Snoopy and Brad I'll answer to over the next few days.

On my first day at camp, Tony, a slightly chunky kid who would have been beaten up for his chunkiness in my day, invites me to play catch with him at Twilight. Like everything else at Camp Echo, Twilight is scheduled, a certain time of the day when the 350 boys (and the girls on the other side of the lake) are free to play within sight of their cabins and their ever-vigilant counselors. We toss a rubber ball and a hardball, and Tony keeps praising me for my throws and my catches, most of which are off the mark—and I'm thinking, What kind of boy is this? Campers praise one another at Camp Echo? That just seems sick. This must be a new version of Ten-Year-Old Boy, introduced during the 1980s or 1990s after my version was phased out.

Soon we're called back to our bunk to get ready for dinner. A water fountain sits beside B5-1, and I go out to fill my bottle, but another one of my bunkmates, a darkly tanned boy named Vince who wears a turned-around Yankees cap, tells me there's a better water fountain behind our row of cabins with colder water.

"Robin, where are you going?" says Brad, who's sitting on the porch regarding me cannily as I head off.

"I—" I start to say, and point.

"Is it necessary for you to go to that water fountain?" he asks in his best counselor voice, friendly but firm.

I put my head down, Charlie Brown-like, and trudge back to the less-cold water fountain in front of B5-1.

Growing up involves many lessons, but as a grown-up it's easy to forget the lack of power and choice I had as a boy.

My visit has not met with universal approval from all quarters of Bunk B5-2, I learn from Snoopy the next morning. The bunk leader, a boy named Jason, has been quiet since my arrival, obviously acknowledging the new Alpha Boy. Me. Or I'd like to think it's me. At least I'm in no danger of getting beat up anymore. This is the kid I would have been terrified of when I was ten—he has the haircut and the look of a little Roman centurion.

"Yesss! There's cooking today!" he yells when Snoopy tells us of some of the choices on the day's schedule. I like cooking, too, but I never would have admitted it within earshot of a centurion boy when I was ten.

"Sounds delicious!" says Gary, the new kid like me, with a sweet voice, who would have been beaten up twice, once for being a new kid and once for having a sweet voice.

Throughout my stay, Marla, the director, appears ubiquitously to give me her spin on my camping experience. She tells me that camps have only recently learned what business they're in. "They used to think they were in the recreation business, but they're really in the youth development business."

There are ten Echo Values posted outside of my bunk, reinforced every day by counselors and staff, culminating in a Sunday night torch ceremony in praise of individual campers who have exemplified one of these values over the past week. Marla has given me my own laminated sheet of Camp Echo Values: SELF-RELIANCE, COURAGE, PATIENCE, COOPERATION, COMMITMENT, RELIABILITY, COMPASSION, REASON, CREATIVITY, SELF-IMPROVEMENT.

There were no Echo Values when I was here last. But, in hindsight, they might look like this: INTIMIDATION, HUMILIATION, CRUELTY, BOREDOM, IMMATURITY, SADISM, INDIFFERENCE, EMBARRASSMENT, SELF-PRESERVATION, TOUGH LUCK.

It's the regimentation of camp that strikes me the most. The wildness of being a child constantly clashes with the camp's need to control this wildness. But sometimes even the carefully controlled and monitored environment that is contemporary camp life breaks down in the face of the inner pandemonium that's at the secret center of every child's savage heart.

There is a lady, let's call her the Drum Lady, who visits our camp. She teaches our bunk how to pound on drums and release some of our wildness, both natural and sugar-induced, but control it at the same time. She did it at orientation with the counselors, "and it worked very well." Hmmm.

She does it with B5-2 one afternoon, and it works less well. For the most part, the bunkers follow her hand signals. She gives us three. Raising her hands means that we should increase our pounding. Lowering means we should decrease. And the most important: swiping her hands the way an umpire does to call a base runner safe means to knock it off. But sometimes the kids turn inward. They don't look at her. They follow their wildness fully and pound and pound and pound and seem as though they will never stop.

That night, she hands out percussion instruments to the entire camp, 350 campers. Before long she has 350 drummers pounding. She raises her hands, and they thump furiously. She lowers her hands, and they thump furiously. She makes that "safe" motion, and they thump furiously. I have never before heard anything so loud as 350 campers thumping drums.

Finally, the senior staffers raise their hands to signal silence, and the counselors raise their hands, and slowly the campers calm down, but there's still pounding going on, and so Herb, one of the senior staffers, steps into the middle of the circle and shouts, "Put the instruments down, and put your hands on your head!" He repeats this a half-dozen times. And about 100 of them do it, like prisoners in the aftermath of a riot. They put their instruments down and their hands on their heads. I put my hands on my head, too, and then I take them down slowly, edge up against the wall, and stand, willing myself to be a grown-up again.

But sometimes that simple fact (I am a grown-up) momentarily escapes me. Or maybe I let it escape and happily watch it float off like a lost balloon in the sky: Bye-bye, simple fact. Have a nice time!

I admit, I've come to like this place. I find myself reliving camp in a way I'm not prepared for. I've tried on a new kind of boyhood, XL, and it fits. I'm made to feel good about myself at Camp Echo. I'm encouraged to try new things, and I try them. One morning I climb a 60-foot ladder to a tiny platform, where I'm supposed to swing out on a trapeze and fall on my back into a net below. Slowly, I climb. I have a fear of heights that at 60 feet does not feel unreasonable. A staffer tells me to rub my hands in a chalk bag so I can hold on to the trapeze, and I'm fine with that, but when I actually grab the trapeze bar and feel its heft, I panic. "I don't think I can do this," I tell him. "I want to go down."

My bunkmates stand below, Snoopy shouting for me to press on, and all of a sudden I'm in midair, swinging. It's always Snoopy's voice I hear—and it doesn't seem forced or fake. He's the counselor I wish I had been 30 years ago, and the counselor I wish I had had as a camper. I'm infatuated with him in the way that ten-year-old boys get infatuated with their counselors. The problem is that I'm not ten. I'm 48, the father of three girls, a college professor. Infatuated with my counselor and still swinging in the air.

"Okay, on the count of three, I want you to kick up your legs and let go of the bar," the instructor says, and counts one . . . two . . . three, and I'm still swinging, and so he tells me this time he wants me to pay attention to the letting go part.

And I do.