If at First You Don’t Succeed . . .

Marcia Ellett
September 2016
campers in lake by dock

When I was six or seven, my parents decided I needed to do something structured a couple days a week during the day in the summertime. They ended up sending me to a gym camp, a local day camp that focused on outdoor physical activity — archery, horseback riding, swimming, etc. — something they thought would wear me out a little and make me less of a handful at home. I’m guessing at the reason, of course, but I’m the youngest of two, the one who cried constantly as a baby, the one whose mood didn’t need a reason to swing; if I’d had a younger sibling, they would have called it classic middle child syndrome, but my behavior probably stamped the desire for a third child right out of my parents. So camp was the shining hope for our household — a beacon of light after a typical night full of tantrums and tears.

But I wasn’t going to make it easy.

I somehow managed to fall off a horse on the trail around the perimeter of the property. The reception I got from the pricker bush below was less than inviting. Needless to say, I wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of getting back on the horse.

Then there was the food. I fell squarely into the picky eater category, and the consistency of the camp fare was often an issue. I found the greasy Tater Tots and soggy sandwiches about as appetizing as a trip to the doctor’s office for a round of shots. To make matters worse, milk was the only beverage option, and milk and I just didn’t mix.

The evil that trumped them all was the lake. I couldn’t swim, and thanks to a scary moment at the pool when I’d jumped from the edge into my mother’s waiting arms only to slip through and sink like the proverbial stone to the bottom before she could reach me, I was deathly afraid of the water. Add in the fact that I couldn’t see my own feet through the murky water of the lake and there were real, live, slimy fish in there with me, and I was set for a freak-out of epic proportions. The camp staff worked patiently with me, two of them flanking me each time I put my face in the water trying to learn how to float on my stomach. And though other kids splashed around me, their laughter echoing off the surrounding trees, the lake remained a sinister character in my day camp experience.

It was a long summer. Probably longer for my parents.

I have to give my parents credit though; they didn’t give up on the camp idea. The next summer they enrolled me in a day camp program on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I was prepared to protest. I had a set of lungs and I fully intended to use them to let my mom and dad know just exactly what I thought of spending my summer at yet another day camp.

And at the end of my first week what I thought was, This is heaven.

We made our own paper out of recycled materials. We made working cameras out of Quaker Oats boxes, roamed the gardens to find just the right foliage for a perfect shot, and then got to develop our own photograph. We put on our own theatre production, drawing names from a hat to choose roles. I got the lead, an opportunity that birthed a lifelong love of the theatre. The food was even decent, and they had a healthy supply of orange juice for the milk snubbers among us.

Much to my dismay, that summer flew by. My imagination was ignited; my soul was fed.

If I didn’t say it then, “Thanks, Mom and Dad.”

Marcia Ellett is the assistant editor for Camping Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Camp Kamaji for Girls, Cass Lake, Minnesota.