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Monday, February 19 Opinion

In Other Words / Not in step with the flock at Camp Red Wing

As we inch slowly toward summer, my thoughts turn to sleep-away camp when parents and kids separate for two months for what is supposed to be a blissful time in a child's life.

Looking back on my own "blissful" summers, I am ashamed to admit that my camp experiences were fraught with what I referred to as "doing time." I used that expression because, for me, camp meant leaving my friends for what was hyped as clean, wholesome living, fresh air and sunshine, and being exposed to a myriad of activities. All this was guaranteed to turn me into a highly functional sports-minded girl, who would excel at tennis, swimming, archery and boating. (The word "boating" still rouses terror from when I capsized my canoe on a routine outing.)

Those supposed halcyon days, were, in fact, my nemesis. Even though my parents' intentions were to expand my horizons, I wanted no part of it.

The camp where I did time was Red Wing, nestled among the green and purple mountains of the Adirondacks. As far as natural beauty goes, it was unsurpassed. Even now, looking back, it's hard to imagine more idyllic surroundings, as I sat on an enormous rock overlooking Schroon Lake, bemoaning my fate and wishing to be anywhere else but there. Complaining about such a privileged existence must have made me seem ungrateful and spoiled. And, because complaining came so naturally to me then, its memory evokes sporadic pangs of guilt reminiscent of a time when I took it all for granted.

What I disliked most was the forced regimen to which we were relegated daily, including an active curriculum that sent us from the seclusion of our bunks out onto the archery field, tennis courts and waterfront. There, a host of unimaginable perils awaited, such as diving off the high board while a sadistic counselor blew her whistle, demanding we try again.

The ultimate nightmare apparel of those summers was the wool swimsuits, so absorbent they dried almost instantly as we stepped from the lake. These dark brown atrocities were so itchy that I broke out in red welts every time I went swimming. I spent my summers waterlogged and damp, Calamine lotion smeared across my body. To top off this fashionista look, we were further subjected to pink plastic nose plugs that hung around our necks, keeping our nostrils so secured they were impervious to water while simultaneously cutting off our air supply.

The degree of my discontent and restlessness was never more apparent than during those summers when I was groping to find my identity. Camp was supposed to facilitate my evolution and teach me to be a team player, as our voices rang out with, "We Are the Girls of Camp Red Wing."

But I never did graciously embrace the challenge, and spent most of my time devising a plan for avoiding activities. My friends, who sported the same apathetic demeanor, and I hid on the bunk rafters to avoid attending sports. Marching out onto a soggy field with bows and arrows wasn't my idea of fun, and while some of the more enthusiastic campers enjoyed hitting bull's-eyes, I was too busy scouring the ground for snakes, one of which made an appearance, wriggling past me as I cowered in fear, proving, yet again, that I was simply not Camp Red Wing material.

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But I did have one thing going for me: hospital corners. Excelling at this was no small feat. During our weekly bunk inspections, the head counselor, Selma, who, until I was 15, I thought was a man, paused at my cot, extending her sweaty palm in a congratulatory handshake.

"Best hospital corners I've seen all summer," Selma belted out in her deep, husky voice.

When I later relayed this to my parents, they seemed bewildered.

"We didn't know that you could even make a bed," my mother said.

Years have past, and now, decades later, my Red Wing memories, slightly blurred, resonate still. A few years ago, a camp friend who lives in Greenwich Village phoned me with the news that she had had a Selma sighting.

"I was buying flowers at an open-air market when a vaguely familiar-looking person sauntered by. As she turned the corner, I suddenly realized that it was Selma."

"Our Selma?"

"Is there any other?" she asked.

For us, there was only one Selma, the bane of our adolescence, who made us quiver whenever our paths crossed. Except for that one summer morning when she stood by my cot, inspecting my hospital corners, our hands clasped in mutual respect. I still savor that moment and the glory associated with it, and the pride I feel each morning when I make my bed knowing that Selma would definitely approve.

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com.