The first time I went away to camp was the summer after the third grade. The Girl Scouts were given a plantation in Cordesville and planned to turn it into a summer camp. My mother was a scout leader, so off I went for two weeks.
All first-year campers have nagging doubts about their initial experience away from home and I was no exception. Our sleeping quarters were platform tents with folding cots for six campers and a counselor along with 10,000 mosquitoes. Outhouses — real ones — and freezing cold showers were a good hike into the woods. Nothing about this camp was what I had in mind.
Homesickness set in at some point during the first 48 hours. Excessive rain didn’t help and often yielded to extended rest hours, a quiet time for reading, writing letters and missing home. I wrote multiple letters to my parents each day begging them to come get me. I marked the envelopes “Airmail” for same-day delivery. After about a week with no word from home, I was convinced I must have done something terrible to warrant this punishment of summer camp, or worse — maybe something had happened to my parents. I cried in rhythm with the rain. Neither of us could stop. The homesickness became contagious and spread throughout the camp.
The roof on our platform tent began to leak — bedding, clothes, campers, all soaked. It was hot and humid. The arts and crafts supplies were back-ordered and the rain closed all outdoor activities. So we hung out in our tents and played cards and drove our counselors crazy.
One of my bunk mates brought a ukulele to camp. While we were busy being miserable, she played “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” over and over again. I really wanted to learn how to play her ukulele, so I asked her to teach me. I was hooked. Before I knew it, there were only three days left in the camp session. The end was in sight.
For Christmas that year, I asked for a ukulele. Santa Claus came through; the excitement was overpowering. Peter, Paul, and Mary led the Top 10 of my repertoire. I was destined for stardom. Even better, I was destined to go back to summer camp and share this new talent of mine. I was never homesick again.
This chapter in my life was 58 years ago. I had not missed a summer at camp until this summer. For the first time since the polio epidemic of the 1950s, summer camps across the country are canceling their 2020 summer sessions because of COVID-19. It is heartbreaking. There is no easy way to communicate canceling camp for the summer. Our family has first-hand experience with it because we have a summer camp. Now I am extremely “camp-sick.”
For generations, summer camps have been a tradition in the lives of thousands of children. They look forward to camp all year long. For some, it is what gets them through the school year, their happy place. A modest cabin, a bunk bed and a trunk suit their every need. They can’t wait to experience camp activities, to be independent, face fears, take risks and be their “best me.”
All this means summer camps have to go to Plan B, something camp administrators do well. Many camps are providing alternative ways for their families to engage in summer camp with virtual camp days and family camp programs.
More importantly, camps are asking their campers to remember that camp is more than an experience. It is a place that summer after summer pulls them back to the lake, their cabin and those forever camp friends to be healed and upheld by the magic of camp. Like jumping into that chalk-drawn picture of the sidewalk in “Mary Poppins,” we all grow wiser and stronger for the adventure and everyone comes home a little more grown up.
Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston. She lives in Flat Rock, N.C., with her husband, Sandy, where their family runs a summer camp.