My Summer at a Quaker Nudist Camp

Writer Mark Oppenheimer shares his childhood memories of his month-long stay at a nudist summer camp run by Quakers.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Good clean competition, hairy or otherwise, is a part of summer fun for children attending sleep-away camp. But in the middle of August, camps across the nation are closing their activities, kids say goodbye to new friends and first loves and their daily dose of Capture the Flag. Most children are sad to leave, but there are some who cannot wait to get back home, and that was the case for writer Mark Oppenheimer.

MARK OPPENHEIMER:

When I was eight years old, in 1983, my parents sent me off to a nudist camp; not a camp for adults who voluntarily chose nudism as a lifestyle, but a summer camp for young boys where nudity was encouraged. At Timberlake, nestled in the woodlands of Vermont, boys swam in the nude, slept in the nude, even played Whiffle ball in the nude.

I think my parents sent me to Timberlake because the camp had been founded by Quakers. I had spent a lot of time that year watching Michael J. Fox play the young right-winger Alex P. Keaton on the TV show "Family Ties," and my parents probably hoped that four weeks in the care of back-to-nature pacifists would cure me of any conservative impulses.

Now Quakers are not generally nudists. Richard Nixon was a Quaker and he wore clothes in public. James Dean was a Quaker and he wore clothes, too. But at this summer camp, the free-spirited tradition had evolved over the years to include more freedoms than most of us consider normal. Well, I was a modest boy and I wasn't having any of this nudist nonsense. At the beginning of the summer, there was one other boy who insisted on remaining clothed, even at swim time. But he caved, and by August, I was the only boy willful and stubborn enough to wear clothes all the time. I thought these people were crazy. And if the skinny-dipping and nude sports hadn't been enough to drive me away, then I surely would have made up my mind after sneaking out of my bunk on the very last night and finding my counselors--some of them well into their old age--square dancing in their birthday suits.

My parents picked me up the next day, and on the drive home from Vermont to Massachusetts, they filled me on what I missed. Dave Righetti had thrown a no-hitter for the Yankees on the Fourth of July. My youngest brother had learned to kick a soccer ball. But what about me?--they wanted to know. Had I been homesick? Happy? Had I made friends? I can't remember what I told them, but I'm sure that I didn't want to hurt their feelings. They'd had such high hopes for my summer with the Quaker nudists. I must have said something like, `Well, it was an interesting month.'

It turns out that I should have been a little more honest because the next summer, after promising me I'd never have to go back to Timberlake, they sent me instead to Kinderland, a socialist sleep-away camp where the cabins were named after dead leftists, like Eugene Debs and Woody Guthrie. I spent all of that summer singing songs about union solidarity and writing letters to congressmen about the civil war in Nicaragua. But look on the bright side: At least I got to wear clothes.

CHADWICK: Mark Oppenheimer is a writer who lives in Connecticut. You can read Mark's essay about his leftist camp experience in the book "Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp."

I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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