“Norm”!!! This raucous greeting was given to the character played by George Wendt as he entered the Cheers bar season after season. Day after day, year after year Norm returned to his ‘home’, as he sat atop the same bar stool joining his mates in interesting encounters and endless conversation. I imagine Norm would feel strange if he walked in years later and no one knew his name-but if his peers returned to the same place at the very same time-it would be just another day at Cheers!
Jon Bon Jovi sings “who says you can’t go home- there’s only one place they called me one of their own” and my friends and I are among those who count ourselves lucky that we too, share such a special place. Although not Bon Jovi’s New Jersey, ours is a little spot on the east end of Long Island known to us as, camp (Dorothy P. Flint 4H Camp). To those who have ever experienced the wonder that is sleep-a-way camp, you know the feeling. The place itself holds so many memories and stories of your youth that if those cabins could talk they would divulge the most trusted secrets.
This Memorial Day weekend (late May), I returned ‘home’. At a Memorial Day event designed to recognize those who gave so much of themselves to camp-that feeling of ‘old home week’ was ever-present. There were four of us (Jill, Jackie, Erin and myself) who traveled in a pack for many years (and still do today) and two of us were able to be there for the weekend (with our partners) along with many with whom we shared those special years at camp. Erin and I shared in the dedication of a tree planted for Jackie’s mom who had recently passed away and then took part in an overnight stay that felt like a scene taken straight out of the movie Indian Summer. We grew up at camp and those who helped us and grew alongside us were there to share in the occasion. The sign above the boy’s lodge fireplace says it best. “He who enters is a stranger but once” and if you’ve ever been to camp, you know that to be true.
Almost thirty years after my first chicken barbecue, my husband and I got to participate together (although I’m no longer eating chicken). Sean, who was the boy’s waterfront director when I was at camp, cooked the meal and his wife Carolyn (girl’s waterfront director) who led us in so many council fires sat directly opposite me at dinner. She, who taught me to swim and wowed us all with her ability to make a one-match fire, is now a mother of three grown boys (who attend or work at camp). Our counterparts from boy’s camp sat at the next table with their spouses and children reminiscing about all of the ‘trouble’ we used to get into in our younger days. There were stories of raids, cabin nights, counselor days off and oh so many songs (to which thirty years later we still knew all of the words and the hand motions). Erin’s parents, Don & Millie, who were the camp manager and director for most of our camping experience broke bread with us all weekend. These are truly the people who ‘knew you when’.
If you’ve been to sleep-a-way camp or know anyone who had a similar experience, you understand. For some it might be returning to university that evokes the same feeling; but, for me, it’s camp.
It’s this time every summer that the last council fires are being lit, giggle fests after final patrol continue till dawn and every possible contact detail is exchanged so camp conversations and friendships can continue all year long. The goodbyes are tear-filled and although happy to see your family, there’s that ache in the pit of your stomach the entire ride home.
Your room is clean but quiet. Your bathroom your own yet lacking the chatter of the friends who rarely left your side these last eight weeks. As you close your eyes to that first night of silence you find tears streaming down your newly signed pillowcase as you yearn to know that there’s someone awake in the next bunk. Those first weeks after camp ends, before school starts up again find you looking at your watch thinking ‘I would be at swim right now’ and ‘I wonder what the girls are up to?’ So many campers (and counselors) return home and within minutes of dumping out their trunk’s contents start counting the days till the first reunion or even still the start of camp next summer.
From one camper to another, know that even years after what you believe to be your last night of camp-you can always go home again. You can return to the place that holds your summer heart and there will always be someone there to greet you who will understand exactly why you’ve come to this place where everybody does know your name.
By: Stacey Ebert