Sleep-Away Camp: Then and Now

Last summer, I was introduced to the wonders of modern-day sleep-away camp when my daughter spent a week at one for the first time. And let me tell you – these kids have it good. Real good. I went to sleep-away camp too, when I was a kid, and let's just say things have changed.


Then: It was 1989, and we had just finished our nightly clean up of the mush we’d been burning over our camp fire. A few campers snuck into the woods to smoke cigarettes while the rest of us dripped sweat around the flames, scratching our bug bites and whispering our plans for what time we’d sneak out of our tents that night.


We hadn’t given a thought to our parents since they dropped us off (and vice versa); most of them didn’t even get out of the car to see us off. Behind us someone let out a shriek; the snake was back in the outhouse.


Fast forward to last summer when I dropped my daughter at her first sleep-away camp. I believe the registration packet was 10 pages front and back, and then upon arrival she went through a series of checks (lice, body temperature, mental state) before we went to her cabin and made up her bed with fresh sheets and a comforter.


Over the next week, through a series of photographs and videos, I was introduced to the wonders of modern day sleep-away camp. Here are just a few of the differences between then and now:

Documentation. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that when all was said and done there were over 2,000 pictures uploaded to the camp’s Flickr account. And this doesn’t count the daily video of her wishing me good morning. It got so overwhelming that her friend’s moms and I (there were five of us on a text chain) did a divide and conquer every night, each taking a section of photos to comb through and share if we saw a familiar face. By the time I picked her up I felt like I had vicariously lived through a week at camp myself.
The food. Meals at my camp arrived via a rusty pick-up truck that dropped a trash bag full of whatever we were supposed to cook for the day. And I say whatever because much of it was unrecognizable. I’m pretty sure some of it was only half dead. We cooked “it” over an open flame and happily ate it without complaint because we were starving.
My daughter and her friends ate restaurant-quality food in an air conditioned “mess hall” that doubles as a wedding reception venue in the off season. Alternative options were available if they didn’t like what was served. Let’s just say there were tears shed when I picked her up, and not because she was going to miss the friends she made.
Activities. Part of the registration packet included a sign up for extracurricular activities; among the options were banana boat and zip lining. Which, in all fairness, we had in 1989. However, the zip lines were DIY and “banana boat” meant something quite different.
As far as scheduled activities in the 1980s… once after dark our counselors took us through the woods to an old graveyard. We sat around the grave of “Mabel,” a young girl who’d passed away, and they’d recount the story about how she had actually been buried alive and unsuccessful at clawing her way out. My therapist has heard all about it several times.
Shenanegans. I don’t know if our counselors were aware we snuck out to make out with boys every night or if they just didn’t care. Knowing kids will be kids, I decided to get ahead of the curve with my daughter the night before she left.
“Hey, girl. You know there’s going to be boys at this camp...”
*blank stare*
“And I want you to make smart choices…”
*blank stare*
“So, here goes.” *breaks into Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls*
Apparently my little song and dance did the trick because neither she nor her friends snuck out even once, according to the live web cam. They probably didn’t want to leave the air conditioning.      
Modern conveniences. And by “modern” I mean things that had been invented for well over 100 years but no one felt were necessary enough to include in my sleep-away camping experience. Things like air conditioning, running water and flush toilets.
My daughter’s “cabin” had a vanity mirror. The bathroom had a light you could turn on to make sure you didn’t sit on a rattlesnake. Human waste took less than five seconds to hit the water below, leaving you without the fear of whatever lives down in that hole, praying it didn’t decide to climb out when you’re taking a #2. We used bug spray to wash our hands afterward.
Safety. One of my fondest memories of sleep-away camp was the day a few of us decided to go on a spontaneous hike through the woods. There was no trail; we just simply wanted to see how far we could make it in the woods and survive. Did our counselors know we had even left? Doubtful. We stumbled upon what must have been at least a 100-foot cliff, daring each other to see who could get closest to the edge. We found a quarry, probably filled with water moccasins, and dove in without checking the depth.
My daughter’s sleepaway camp required an intense swim test to determine skill level before they let you touch water and even then everyone wore a life jacket everywhere, even to dinner.
I guess it all comes back to the age-old cliche of “back in my day.” Every year after camp I came home sunburned and bug bit, about 10 pounds lighter due to sweating out half of my internal organs. My butt cheeks felt weird touching the toilet seat when I took my first #2 in seven days.
Last summer my daughter came home slightly tanned and very well rested. She immediately said she wanted to go back next year.
“You know, back when I went to camp it was a lot different,” I said that night as she scoffed at her one and only dinner option.
“Oh really? How?”
“Well, for starters, the mosquitoes were as big as dogs, and to pass the time we’d all sit around sweating on stained mattresses playing poker. And to eat we had…”
I trailed off, noticing the horrified look on her face.
“You know what? Never mind. Go grab my cell phone and let’s look at those pictures of you and your friends on the Banana Boat. And turn down the A/C on your way back.”
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Hannah Mayer is a nationally award-winning blogger, humor columnist and exponentially blessed wife and mother of three. She would trade everything for twelve uninterrupted hours in a room with Jon Hamm and two Ambien. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram or at her blog, sKIDmarks.

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