When I was 10 years old, my parents sent me to summer camp in upstate New York for a month. I was a weird kid who loved books, was by turns standoffish or overly-friendly, and tended to be bullied at school. At first, I wasn’t too happy about being sent to an unfamiliar environment without the comforts of home, where I’d have to share a cabin with 7 or 8 other girls I’d never met and who probably wouldn’t like me anyway. To be completely honest, being sent away for an entire month felt like a rejection, though I didn’t dare tell my parents that.
But the camping experience wasn’t anywhere near as awful as I expected. It had its good points and its bad. The good: the hikes in the woods, the lake, the campfires, arts and crafts, nature walks, an hour of free time at the end of every day before dinner, the letters and gifts from home. The bad: almost all the mess hall food, getting up early every day, the bugs, the lack of privacy, the uncomfortable cheap plastic covered mattress on my bed, no TV, and the endless rules. As for friends, well, I wasn’t exactly Miss Popularity, but I developed close friendships with a couple of other girls who were as quirky and weird as I was.
One of the girls was named Janie. Janie was a year younger than me, but looked about three years younger. She was like my adopted little sister. She was angry a lot and used to yell at the other girls for silly reasons or for no reason at all, but she never yelled at me. In fact, she seemed to look up to me, which was pretty flattering for someone who wasn’t used to ever being looked up to by anyone. I think she was just homesick. I liked her hair — it was short, thick, stick straight and a pretty bright golden brown — and at night before lights out I liked to comb it and play with it. She wore thick glasses and liked to read as much as I did. She was sort of a tomboy too, shunning girly things. She was always dressed in striped polo tops and black or dark blue shorts and sneakers. Like me, she loved nature and didn’t mind getting dirty.
The previous summer, a sort-of-friend (who only seemed to like me sometimes) who lived in a house behind the grove of thick spruce and maple trees that divided my backyard from hers, had come over every day during one hot July week when we dug a huge hole in my backyard. My mother wasn’t happy about the hole or the mess it caused, but she tried to ignore what we were doing and let us be kids, as long as we didn’t dig anywhere near the lawn. We had chosen the far back of the yard, under some large old trees, where it was shady and no grass grew, for our hole. We spend hours digging to see just how deep we could dig that hole. Could we dig it as deep as the deep end of a swimming pool? Maybe deeper than the earth’s mantle? Could we dig to the center of the earth? Maybe even all the way to China?
Several times it rained and the hole filled with water, collapsing its walls and ruining much of our work, but once it dried up again, we’d be back out there digging. After a few days, I’d brought out some plastic play plates, saucepans, and cups from a toy kitchen set, and we set up a sort of “kitchen” inside our hole, which was now large enough to hold both of us without our heads protruding above ground level (as long as we remained in a squatting position). My friend brought over an old black umbrella that had belonged to her dad, and we used that as a roof on our underground “house.” We made makeshift “stairs” out of large flat stones stuck in the mud walls on the side (the stairs didn’t really work but they looked nice). At the end of every day, we’d both be filthy, sweaty, and covered head to toe with mud. My mother, horrified at the sight of me, always sent me immediately to the bathroom to take a bath before I’d be allowed to go anywhere else in the house.
Finally, when the hole was approximately the size and depth of a grave, my mother had enough and made us fill in the hole. But by that point, the novelty had worn off and I was covered with mosquito bites from spending so much time wallowing in the stagnant water that was constantly filling the bottom of our hole. So my friend and I didn’t mind spending a few hours shoveling the dirt back in the hole. Away went the dollhouse plates and cups, and her dad’s big black umbrella.
So getting dirty was never much of a problem for me, and when I met Janie at summer camp, we immediately hit it off. At home and school, I tended to be too obedient and docile, not having the courage to speak up about anything, but for some reason summer camp was a different story. Janie was freespirited and she hated following rules. Although I was generally in the big-sister role, Janie’s willingness to break rules rubbed off on me and I found myself breaking rules too — and not really caring whether I got in trouble or not. After all, what could the camp counselors do to us?
The way we broke the rules was to disappear during certain planned camp activities we disliked. Every day there was a schedule of activities and except for an hour of free time at the end of the day, our time wasn’t really our own. Although I liked most of the camp activities, two I hated were Archery and Softball. Janie didn’t like them either. So those became the times we’d disappear and go off on our own to explore.
There was a stream that ran through our side of the camp (the boys had their own side) , and along its banks were wonderful areas with slippery clay-like gray mud. We loved the look and feel and smell of this mud, which smelled sour-earthy and squished satisfyingly between our fingers, making squicky noises as it squeezed through. We spent hours building little clay animals and people and whole towns out of this magical mud, then squishing them all into oblivion between our fingers again. Overhead, the tall trees whispered softly in the warm summer breeze and dragonflies flitted about, their wings shimmering in the patchy sunlight that filtered through the green canopy overhead.
There were lots of small toads in the rocky stream and the clay-rich estuary-like area in which we spent so much time. One day Janie climbed up from the banks of the stream, cupping a minature toad in the palm of her small hand. He was the cutest thing I ever saw, and she said she was going to keep him as a pet. Of course, he escaped within minutes, but we kept finding more tiny toads. They were everywhere! I caught a larger toad, and soon toad-hunting became our obsession. We imagined the toads had their own personalities and we gave them names. They were our friends.
We’d always forget the time, and arrive back at the cabin late, during the middle of Quiet Time. The first couple of times that happened, our counselor punished us by telling us we had to read during Free Time. But for us, that wasn’t a punishment at all, since we both loved reading and would have chosen to do it anyway.
So Janie and I continued to play in the stream during Archery or Softball, arriving back at the cabin late. Finally, our counselor had enough and sent us to the Camp Director. He threatened to expel us from camp early if we didnt start obeying the rules, so after that day, our frog-hunting adventures finally came to an end.
On the second to last day of camp, there was a special ceremony in which awards were given out to the campers. I didn’t expect to receive anything, but I did receive an award for “Most Improved Swimmer.” I was sure I’d be getting nothing else, but when the ceremony was almost over, Janie and I were called up together to receive an award. Smiling, the camp director handed us certificates. I looked down at my certificate, and printed in pretty calligraphy was my name and under it, in smaller calligraphy, it said, “Best Frog Hunter.” I looked over at Janie’s. Hers said the same thing. We gave each other knowing looks, and sheepishly sat down while the entire camp cheered and clapped for us.
That was a good summer.