My 10-year-old son's camp packing list looks strikingly familiar. Blue-and-white uniform t-shirts -- check; sleeping bag -- check; flashlight -- check; tennis racquet -- check; and way too many pairs of socks and underwear that undoubtedly will not come home at the end of the summer or if they do come home, will smell like they went to the bottom of the lake and back -- check. I remember my mother packing many of these same items for me 30 years ago. I recall her sewing on name tags on just about everything now as I write my son's name or sometimes only initials where I can find the space on his pajama bottoms, his flip-flops and his swimming goggles with my trusty sharpie marker. Note: I'm enormously grateful for the geniuses who started Label Daddy.
My son's "do not pack" list is less familiar than mine was and includes things I could never have imagined back when I was a child. Things like iPods, iPhones, iPads, iTouches. Basically, if there is an "i" in front of it, do not pack it, leave it at home. This list confirmed my initial belief that camp, just like the world we live in, has changed since my days as a camper -- a full generation ago. And that thought made me sad.
I wanted my son to have many of the same experiences and learn many of the same things I did back in my day. Camp, for me, was more than just playing sports during the day and sleeping in a cabin in the woods at night. My all-girls eight-week sleep-away camp in Maine was a place where I grew into myself and in many ways, discovered who I was. It was a place where far from the pressures of home, of school, of boys, I formed lifelong friendships with other girls from all across the country. It was where I learned how to do things that I never could have never done at home -- like climb a mountain, water ski, write a song and lead the gray team against the blue team in my last summer as color war captain. At camp, I learned to truly appreciate the simpler things in life like friendship, natural beauty, the outdoors, tradition and teamwork.
Could this still happen at camp in the 21st century? I kind of doubted it. Everything seems so different for my kids these days.
My son recently asked me what I did before Amazon.
"Um, I just went to the store with my mom like twice a year to get what I needed, and on the rare occasion when a package arrived at our house, it was a big deal, a really big deal," I explained, half-laughing to myself.
And then he asked, "How old were you when you got your first phone?"
"Let's see, it was after they invented the cell phone, after I had graduated from college and was working for a few years. I bought one for myself, and I only used it for an emergency, which was never, " I replied, feeling a bit exacerbated by the generation of excess of which my kids seem to belong to.
I do realize that I sound about 100 years old, and I promised myself that I would never talk like this before I had kids. It's kind of inevitable though in every generation, and especially now when my kids can post their photos on Instagram while practically in their sleep, but have never heard of an Encyclopedia.
"No, not Wikipedia," I explain. "It's a series of books written volume by volume alphabetically with lots of information printed on actual paper, and they filled the bookshelves of my childhood bedroom."
I don't mean to belittle advancements in technology. I am so grateful for them, and I think my husband and I are pretty good about keeping the technology age-appropriate and at bay as best as we can in our house. But I am also very aware that things have changed so quickly and so much since I was a kid. I mean they even changed math! So in my book, camp had to have changed. How could it not?
Before we visited the potential camps two summers ago, I imagined kids running behind cabins to sneak in a text on their contraband phone from the "do not pack" list or checking Facebook, having found the area on the one blade of grass in the whole camp where they could somehow get Wi-Fi service.
I was wrong -- really wrong. I was more than pleasantly surprised to witness that time seems to have stood still, at least at my son's camp. When we first saw the camp, I felt like I had stepped into some kind of magical time warp. I was thrilled.
Besides the obvious differences (a seven-week boys camp in Massachusetts versus an eight-week girls camp in Maine), everything else that really mattered to me had stayed the same. The lake was just as serene as I had remembered mine, and it felt just as cold as I dipped my toe in, it making sure not to step on the dreaded mush at the very bottom. The bunks were the simple and no-frills version that I remembered sleeping in every night set against a backdrop of "pine trees swaying in the summer breeze," or so our camp song went and so too, "the rippling waves slipped by canoes with ease." I think they were kayaks, but you get the point.
It even smelled like my camp -- outdoors in the fresh crisp air and inside in the dining hall with color war plaques and bunk photos adorning the walls. The boys at the camp looked eerily familiar. It was like I was watching my brother and his camp friends playing baseball and soccer a generation ago. They looked happy, healthy, at ease and unplugged. I saw their confidence, their sportsmanship and their camaraderie as they walked around the fields and through the wooded path down to the lake. I knew this would be the camp for my son, and he was really excited about going. I hoped he would love it like I did and drink the camp Kool-Aid (I mean bug juice and yes, they do still have the same bug juice!)
When we saw him on visiting day halfway through last summer -- his first summer at camp -- he seemed different, and in a good way. As he showed us around his camp and introduced us to his counselors and new friends, I suspected he was developing that confidence, that sense of himself even though he didn't know it and probably won't for years to come. He did many of the same activities I did as a kid at camp; he played basketball, tennis, he went boating and swimming. He also learned about some things you can only pick up at camp -- like how to find the perfect stick with which to roast a marshmallow, how to tell a really scary ghost story and how to play cards early in the morning with your camp friends without waking up your camp counselors.
He returned home at the end of last summer a taller version of himself. Did he actually grow or just appear to walk taller to me? Wearing his camp sweatshirt with pride, the same one that did in fact smell like it had been pulled out from the bottom of the lake, I knew he had an astonishingly similar experience to the one I had so long ago. As he got into bed on his first night home, he had another question for me.
"So mom, you were the team captain, huh? That's like the color war general, right?" Right it is, I smiled as I kissed him knowing that he got it -- he really did. He knew about traditions, about all the effort and teamwork it took to prepare for the big basketball game (for him the apache relay and for the young girl in me, the song meet). He knew the true meaning of sportsmanship, of friendship and of the outdoors, and he learned it all while at camp -- away from the iPod, the iPad or anything else with in "i" in front of it.
So, as I pack his duffels again this year, I am so grateful that he can return to his camp -- a place that he loves, and in so many of the same ways that I loved my camp. He will go back to camp, one of the last few places, I think, where things really haven't changed at all.