Camp Is In-tents

By Carol Band

Fear, guilt, and loneliness are just a few of the feelings associated with a childís first overnight, away from home, summer camp experience. And thatís only the parents...

It was getting late. Most of the other parents had already said their goodbyes and were headed home. Boys were starting to settle in, claiming the best bunks, unpacking their duffle bags and whacking tether balls while they waited for the swim test.

But not my son.

It was Nathan's first time at camp. A week in the woods with no mommy had seemed like a good idea when we signed up and paid the deposit in February.

Now, he leaned against a tree and looked miserable.

"We can't leave," I whispered to my husband. "He looks too sad."

Nathan's best friend, Dylan, was supposed to be there. They were going to bunk in the same tent, sign up for the same activities and together vowed to not bathe for the whole week. But, as we were loading the car with my son's sleeping bag, backpack and Ninja Turtle pillow the phone rang. It was Dylan, who, whether actually sick or merely suffering from cold feet, said he wasn't going to go to camp.

"Whaddaya mean you're not going?" I barked into the receiver. "Let me talk to your mother."

"What can I do?" Dylan's mother said. "He doesn't want to go."

I wanted to throttle him. I wanted to throttle her. I was furious. How could they do this to my kid?

"That's OK," my son said. "I still want to go."

"You do?" I was surprised, proud and, frankly, a little worried.

I thought of my kid alone and friendless for one whole week at camp. Then I thought of the nonrefundable deposit, the cancellation fees, the already-loaded minivan and the prospect of him moping around for the house for seven days.

"Great," I said. "You'll make new friends. Let's go."

Nathan was quiet in the backseat as we drove along the highway.

"Are you excited?" I asked as we pulled onto the gravel road that led to the camp.

"Kinda," he replied.

We unloaded his gear, handed in the health forms and got in line for the head lice check.

After my son was declared bug free, we brought his stuff to his tent, checked out the canoes at the lake, and walked to the archery range.

"Wow, this looks great," I gushed.

Nathan shrugged.

We stayed for the hot-dog lunch and lingered, waiting for our son to show some enthusiasm about being at camp. But he just looked unhappy.

"Maybe we should just take him home," I suggested to my husband. "Maybe this whole camp thing was a bad idea."

"Let's wait a few more minutes," he said. "Maybe he'll perk up."

We sat at the picnic table and watched our son kick at the dirt with the toe of his sneaker. What was I thinking? He was only 9 years old. There was no reason that he had to spend a week in the woods without electricity, indoor plumbing or me.

With each minute, he looked more morose. We tried not to hover. We tried not to notice the hurt look in his eyes as he glanced over to where we were waiting for him to join in a game, to crack a smile, to give us some sign that he'd be OK.

I cornered a counselor, the camp director and the camp nurse. They all assured us that our son would adjust.

"Just say goodbye," said the nurse. "He'll be fine."

"Swim test starts at 3 o'clock," the counselor said. "Parents are usually gone by then."

"Maybe we should talk to him," I said to my husband. "Maybe we should take him home."

Nathan was standing a few feet away, picking at the bark of a tree. He looked like he was about to cry. My heart ached for the little guy. I wanted to whisk him out of the woods and take him home to bask in the glow of the TV set.

"What's the matter, sweetie?" I asked tenderly.

He looked at me with tears welling up in his eyes and said, "Aren't you guys ever going to leave?"

And so we did.