Berger’s Burg: Sleep-away camp becomes a learning experience for children

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Summer affords many options for children. One could be spending part of their summer at a sleep-away camp, with its friendship and camaraderie, songs around a roaring campfire, overnight field trips and sobbing on a sagging bunk bed with a flashlight and picture of Mom and Dad.

But parents, do not fret if your child writes, “Dear Mom and Dad. Camp stinks. I want to come home. Your flesh and blood, Milton.” Yes, campers get homesick and some devise escape maps for planned breakouts, but that is just a painful part of becoming an adult.

A camper was asked what was the best thing he liked about camp. He answered, “Wearing eyeglasses. They keep the guys from punching me and the girls from kissing me.”

Therapists tell camp counselors to expect 100 of 100 kids to be homesick. This is no wonder, since most children experience some kind of separation anxiety during their first forays away from home. They worry whether people at camp will like them and how they will survive without their toys and own bed. Inevitably, in most cases, children adjust and cannot wait until they return the following year.

A camper returned home with 23 unmatched socks, 23 unmatched shirts and 23 rotten raspberries he picked to present to his mother.

Me? I loved camp. Every summer, my mother, with eight children, sent all of us to sleep-away camp. We started at 6 and continued until we reached 13. My brothers and I went to the all-boy, no-frill Camp Recro and my sisters to the all-girl, no-frill Camp Mikan. Both adjacent camps were located in Bear Mountain’s Harriman State Park.

The counselor told his campers to pick a buddy to be with throughout the day. “Sarah, did you pick a buddyi” he asked. “Yes,” she said, “I picked Karen, but I hate her.”

Camp teaches young boys many useful things, such as how to catch salamanders and the correct way to pack them in your suitcase for the trip home; mark a trail so you can never get lost; finesse the cook into giving you a piece of cake between lunch and dinner; avoid the Saturday night dances with the girls; and, most importantly for the 6-to-8-year-olds, the secret of winning the prestigious long-distance watering contests by drinking lots of water, sprinkled with pepper. Contrarily, it teaches girls to be girls.

A camper found himself bothered by mosquitoes during the first day at camp. At night, he saw a firefly and said, “Now they’re coming after me with a flashlight!”

I particularly enjoyed sitting around the campfire at night with my bunkmates as Counselor Bob entranced us with cowboy and Indian stories. Then we would sing the sentimental camp songs I still hum to this day.

A camper spent all his time in camp making knots. When he returned home, he invented the pretzel.

Since our primitive cabins had no electricity, we used lanterns to light our way. Most disconcerting was the lack of indoor plumbing. At night, whenever necessary, we had to “rough it” to a wooden outhouse hidden in the woods. One cowardly 10-year-old, who shall remain nameless, never bothered to tread through the forest for relief. He watered a nearby tree whenever nature called.

A parent: “My returning son’s laundry wasn’t hard to clean once the Roto-Rooter man got the stuff separated.”

I remember the time when “Shorty McGurk,” the nickname for a mischievous 7-year-old, caught a frog and carried it with him to the outhouse. The frog inadvertently fell into an adjacent toilet hole and Shorty jumped in after it. Fortunately, the head counselor was passing by and, without hesitation, jumped in to rescue Shorty. How many of us would have done the same thingi

At 7, I was the third-baseman in a crucial softball game. It was the final inning and my team was winning by one run. The other team’s slugger was at bat with the bases loaded and two outs. He hit a whistling line drive in my direction. For protection, I covered my face with my glove, and, when ball met glove, it nestled into it. I was a hero.

Upon returning from camp, my neighbor’s son seemed to have grown six inches until his mother washed his feet.

Here are instructions for parents who may be interested in camp for their child: Choose one carefully, preferably one equipped with electricity and indoor plumbing. Then, stress to your son the importance of making friends, taking part in activities — and for the mature set, 8 and older, to drink lots of water sprinkled with pepper. He will thank you.

Sleep-away camp or Camp Grandma? Ask a camper.

Contact Alex Berger at

Posted 6:33 pm, October 10, 2011
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