Are You Ready For The Summer? Camp, That Is

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Take a photographic journey back to summer camp in the 1980s and '90s and read parts of essays submitted by the big-haired, tube-socked campers in Camp Camp. hide caption

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Coming Of Age

Scott Simon with his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon, at Camp Indianola in Madison, Wisc., circa 1967. i

Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon with his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon, at Camp Indianola in Madison, Wis., circa 1967. hide caption

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Scott Simon with his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon, at Camp Indianola in Madison, Wisc., circa 1967.

Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon with his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon, at Camp Indianola in Madison, Wis., circa 1967.

Join the NPR Summer Camps Flickr group to share photos of your own experiences at camp and browse camp photos from Scott Simon and other staff members at Weekend Edition Saturday. We'll post a sampling of your submissions later this summer at NPR.org.

Roger Bennett, co-author of 'Camp Camp,' at Camp Kingswood in 1990. i

Roger Bennett, co-author of Camp Camp, at Camp Kingswood in Bridgton, Maine, in 1990. Courtesy of Crown Publishing hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Crown Publishing
Roger Bennett, co-author of 'Camp Camp,' at Camp Kingswood in 1990.

Roger Bennett, co-author of Camp Camp, at Camp Kingswood in Bridgton, Maine, in 1990.

Courtesy of Crown Publishing

It's that time of year, when children swarm to camps on lakes with appropriated Native American names and sweaty cabins filled with bunk beds and the spoils of independence.

Yes, summer camp, where many experienced their first kiss beyond the lazy patrol of camp counselors, or their first time cross-dressing for the lip-syncing competition. It's a place where Esprit rules as the Prada of adolescence, and where boys perfect pranks on their bunk mates.

Roger Bennett documents this cultural landscape in a new collection of essays titled Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies. A native of Liverpool, England, Bennett first experienced what he calls the "Petri dish" of American camp culture as a counselor in the 1980s.

"I came over when I was 19 expecting to hang out with Huggy Bear in New York City, but being whisked off to Maine to a wonderful camp," Bennett says. "And I'd never seen anything like it. ... It truly was a teenage utopia where it seemed to me kids were making the rules for other kids."

He entered a place where children first learned to swim, to take the lead in a musical and to dabble in the ways of love and aftershave. "There's probably no better prism to really look at our generation — who we are and how we got to be that way — other than through the summer camp prism," Bennett says. "So the book is about summer camp, but it is in kind of the same way as Plato's cave is about prisoners and chains."

In creating Camp Camp, Bennett spent three years collecting more than 80,000 photos and thousands of essays about the American camp experience in the 1980s and early '90s.

"We realized there's a nation of Americans who, on the surface, have been out to sculpt seemingly normal lives as lawyers, doctors, accountants and the like," he says. "But they're still waiting for the Color War cannon to go off at any second."

Bennett talks about coming of age at sleep-away camp with Scott Simon — who spent time at Camp Indianola, in Madison, Wis.

Excerpt: 'Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord Of The Flies'

'Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord Of The Flies'

Introduction

This book is about summer camp in the same way Plato's Cave is about prisoners in chains, or "Hungry Like the Wolf" is about the animal kingdom. On the surface, this is the tale of the great American institution of sleepaway camp, a parallel universe filled with bunk mates, unrequited crushes, appropriated Native American terminology, competitive sports, libido-soaked socials, panty raids, and snugly fitted velour shorts topped off with tube socks. But underneath, it is nothing less than the story of our generation and how we got to be this way, picking up where our first book, Bar Mitzvah Disco, left off. If that book was about one night of adolescent madness played out against a backdrop of family and friends, summer camp is the logical next chapter—the one or two golden months a year in which young Americans escaped the smothering embrace of home to travel far away from everything that was familiar. Summer camp was the chance to leave the grind of the city or crushing boredom of the suburbs to embrace the green fields and freshwater lakes of camp, where they could create temporary teenage utopias, run by kids, for kids.

We have spent the past two years piecing this story together via photographs, tall tales, and tie-dye T-shirts that were sent to us from around the country. As we near the end of the process, we are happy to be able to confirm that summer camp is the definitive formative experience for our generation, performing a role similar to the one Woodstock, Pearl Harbor, and the Boston Tea Party played for our parents and grandparents. This claim is based on our scientific research, in which we uncovered vast networks of former campers scattered across North America, each more eager than the last to catalog the ways in which camp has made them who they are today. Their number, fanaticism, and collective power are staggering, equaling that of Opus Dei, the Masons, and Simon Cowell combined. While most have gone on to create what could pass for normal lives on the surface, many admitted they were still ready to respond to a Color War breakout at a moment's notice.

The more interviews we held, the more we were staggered by the sheer breadth of impact the institution of camp has had on our generation. We began to understand that every camp is a unique compressed world with its own rhythm and traditions. Camp is also enhanced with more ritual than your average Shriner Temple. The variations between these worlds were vast, effectively making the choice of camp a life-changing decision. We interviewed former bunk mates from all-girls camps where the culture was pure and virginal. Boys were not seen and were rarely missed. Summers were spent mastering the harp, canoeing, and making jewelry. We also encountered bunk mates from another camp of the all-girls variety who spent their summer hanging out in the cabin, shacked up with a bong, treating every social as an opportunity for some Dana Plato–esque debauchery. All of the former ended up in publishing. All of the latter now work in the fashion industry.

The critical element that set summer camp apart from high school and college, and that shaped so many lives, is that it was expressly designed to make sure that everyone became part of a community, at a time when traditional pillars of community—clubs, places of worship, and even bowling leagues—were all in sharp decline. Well-defined hierarchies existed. The beautiful and the athletic shone. But if you had neat handwriting, were the king of the archery range, or played a mean piano, you could find your niche. Far away from everything that was familiar, each camper had little choice but to assimilate into this new social order, because camp was a place in which it was impossible to be alone.

Camp also offered everyone a second chance to start over and, freed from the shackles of their hometown reputations, be the kind of kid they always wanted to be. If you longed to be seen as a clotheshorse, a cutup, a ladies' man, or a dodgeball expert, here was your opportunity to reinvent yourself with confidence. The only constant was the predictability and repetition of the camp rituals, which served to reinforce the sense that the only thing that changed year to year was you.

Camp culture is a unique juxtaposition of opposites. A cross between Fantasy Island and Lord of the Flies. Periods of frantic excitement coexist with long bursts of calm hanging out; the thrill of endless love one night can be replaced by the numbing pain of being dumped the next; the freedom to test your boundaries can exist alongside an unshakeable homesickness; a bunk can be a place of both vicious exclusion and serious bonding. These factors created ever-changing storylines, comparable only to the daytime soap operas like Days of Our Lives and General Hospital that were compulsory viewing back in the real world – the only difference being that in the soap opera of camp, you were the star.

Camp Camp is the history of it all. A coming-of-age story of self-definition and exploration, of friendship and mentorship, and (not to sound too Erica Jong) sexual awakening and experimentation. Camp was the place many first kissed, got to third base, or cross-dressed. It is also a curious story of style. This was a place where everything depended on the duds you sported and, on how many garments fifteen young girls could collectively stuff into one bunk. And it is also a cultural history. There are few finer prisms than the American summer camp through which to detect the emergence of rap music, the rise of the World Wrestling Federation, Nike Air, the waxing and waning of the hold Saturday Night Live had on our imaginations, or the scientific effect of adding a Rob Lowe poster to a bunk of ninth-grade girls.

We would be remiss if we failed to thank those who have made this book possible. First of all, the camp directors and staff who made the magic happen, motivated, more often than not, by the richness of their own experiences when they were campers. We are in awe of you all and the way you have dedicated your lives to shaping those of thousands of teenagers. Second, we would like to thank the inventors of the Kodak Disc Camera, for your technology is the engine that drove this train. We estimate your cameras were the weapon of choice for 95 percent of the thousands of photographs we received. The graininess and poor definition of your photographs are much missed and deeply mourned.

Finally, we want to thank all of those of you who took the time to send in your photographs, tell us your stories, and trust us with your memories. Camp was a place in which there were few secrets, everything was discussed, and almost everything was discovered, and the level of honesty and the reflection we encountered throughout the project made it a joy to undertake. It is a great honor to present your photographs and your words, unvarnished, unfiltered, and straight from the source, in the equivalent of one big camp yearbook, stuffed with romance and rejection, order and anarchy, music and style, all depicted down to the very last raging hormone.

Friendship, loyalty, and courage forever!

Roger Bennett

Jules Shell

New York City

Reprinted from Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies Copyright 2008 by Roger Bennett and Jules Shell. Published by Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc.

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Camp Camp

Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies

by Roger Bennett and Jules Shell

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