My dad is an ear, nose and throat doctor.
I have a certain pride in him and his work. My sister even followed in his footsteps; I refer to her as the heir to the allergy empire.
But the respect for doctors—in particular allergists—did not start well.
When I was 4 years old—about the same time I was forming my first lasting memories—my dad oddly dragged the entire family to a summer camp where he was volunteering as the camp physician.
I don't remember the details precisely, or even the location—it felt like somewhere remote in the Midwest birch forests, but really could easily have been just a 20-minute bike ride from Minneapolis. But I do remember the camp's name, Camp Super Kids.
Like naming an inhospitable chunk of remote land Greenland, Camp Super Kids was nothing like it sounded—it was not a special place for large-brained 8-year-old math prodigies or a training camp for future Olympians; it was a camp strictly for asthmatics.
A few years ago, when my mom demanded that I finally clean out my childhood room and closet, I found my one souvenir from that camp—a yellow shirt with stick figure kids brightly declaring "Camp Super Kids," like some desperate attempts to front-load self-esteem for these kids who would face years of sucks-to-your-ass-mar grade school mockery. But really, like a leper colony hosting a fashion show, a camp for asthmatic kids has certain limitations: Again, I don't remember the details, but I do remember that common camp pastimes like woodworking were not allowed (dust particles irritate lungs), and vigorous outdoor activities were somewhat curbed so as not to set off one of the campers' oxygen-sucking attacks.
In fact, I only have two distinct memories from Camp Super Kids, but each was enough to strike an early-childhood distrust of summer camp: First, perhaps because my parents didn't want me to consider myself above or separate from the other kids or because their parenting style can best be described as Norwegian self-reliance, they decided that I should lodge with the other kids; mind you, most of these kids were double my 4-year-old, pre-kindergarten age, including my upper bunk mate who still wet his bed—a fact I learned because his mattress was thin and as absorbent as a gallstone.
My second memory is the dining hall. It wouldn't be until decades later that I learned the German word "schadenfreude," but I learned the concept that summer from this "special" pack of children, a group that collectively had been sidelined from the normal reindeer games and chosen last for gym class dodgeball teams for years and was ready to pay forward those social snubs.
During the first evening, when I finished my beans-and-weenies or whatever slop was being served, I set down my fork and leaned forward onto the dining room table. Quicker than a mosquito bite, I heard a chant raise from the mess hall: "Elbows, elbows on the table, this is not a horses' stable." The chant continued, growing more frenzied with each repetition. "Elbows, elbows on the table, this is not a horses' stable."
A camp counselor stepped over and informed me of my penance: I needed to walk twice around the entire perimeter of the mess hall carrying my tray while the manners lesson continued.
Since then, I have attended dozens of summer camps—from a weeklong log-rolling program to living for a month in a tent studying Colorado's ecosystems—and even host my own program for college kids every July to teach them media skills. But no, my first camp experience wasn't fireflies and 'smores. SWSummer Guide directory: Read the rest of our Summer Guide "Firsts," HERE.
CampFireUSA hosts weeklong day camps in Tumalo including music, science (learn to make a volcano) and outdoor activities (camping, animal tracking). June 17–Aug. 16, (541) 382-4682.
High Desert Museum south of Bend holds day camps for 5- to 10-year-olds to teach them how to be the next Indian Jones.
RAD Camps takes kids to secret swimming spots and climbing at Smith Rocks. Meeting each weekday at Harmon Park, (541) 771-3988, firstname.lastname@example.org