THIS SUMMER, MILLIONS OF AMERICAN CHILDREN will leave their homes in the cities and suburbs and embark for the nation's hinterlands. Following the seasonal migratory patterns of summers past, they will travel along crowded interstates and thruways, down winding rural lanes and over dirt roads that lead through piney woods to the shores of quiet lakes. They will arrive, at last, at that peculiar province of American summerhood known as sleepaway camp.
The custom of sending kids off to camp is not exclusively American. The French and the Russians, among others, embed large numbers of their youth in the woods each summer. Even in the United States, the tradition is not all that widely observed. According to the American Camp Association, enrollment in summer camps is about 10 million, a fraction of the nearly 74 million Americans under the age of 18. But it was in America that camps first took root, and it is here they have flourished for nearly 120 summers. If camp attendance never became universal in this country, as some early promoters hoped it would, the lore of camp, at least, is inescapable.
Camps today come in an extraordinary variety, but their taxonomy can be divided into two basic branches. One includes the many species that focus on single pursuits, from old standbys such as "fat camp" and sailing camp to newer venues such as rock'n' roll camp, debate camp, and--pity the child--math camp. Such camps no doubt benefit youngsters and satisfy parents, but what goes on at these places is fairly obvious and requires little in the way of explanation.
My interest is in the other genus of summer camp, referred to in camp literature as "general" or "traditional" Anyone who has ever attended one--and many who have not--knows the drill: the rustic cabins named after dead Algonquians or furry animals, the reveille bell clanging in the misty chill of morning, the vats of oatmeal steaming in the mess hall. Arrows twang at the archery pit and canoe wakes lap the dock. Children play epic rounds of capture the flag, hike mountains, roast marshmallows, drink bug juice, and learn new skills, such as knife handling and fire building.
It was these last two, the knife handling and the fire building, that started me wondering about camp. My sons had returned from a month at camp looking as if they'd spent their summer scouring chimneys in 19th-century London rather than roughing it in 21st-century Vermont, but under the grime and sunburn they glowed with pride in their newly acquired woodsman skills. They were also proud of the Leatherman they had somehow managed to snag in bosky barter with a fellow camper. This pocket-sized tool combines pliers, screwdrivers, knives, and other assorted gadgets, all of which tuck neatly into its gleaming handles. A step up from the Swiss Army knife, the standard camp tool of my own youth, the Leatherman is a cunning fusion of multiplicity and lethality. There is more than one way to skin a cat, but the Leatherman's stainless-steel blade is a good place to start.
I was delighted that my sons had returned from the maw of nature with a little mountain man know-how under their belts. But in two city boys who live in a highly flammable wood-frame apartment building and attend a New York City public school, were fire building and knife handling really skills we wished to encourage?
The question occurred to me again last winter, when it was time to send in the first payment for this summer's four-week, four-figure excursion to the woods of New England. I paused to consider what we were purchasing. Just what were my wife and I giving our children by sending them to camp?
To some people, summer camp is a fundamental rite of childhood, its virtues manifest in every aspect of camp life. Independent from parental expectations and school-year pressures, liberated from hi-tech paraphernalia and status-defining accessories, children at camp forge true bonds with fellow campers, commune with nature, build self-confidence, and eat s'mores. …