There is something about camping that has always captured my imagination – the crisp nights, the aroma of meals roasting over a wood-scented fire, cuddling deep into a warmly-quilted sleeping bag and waking into cool, moist air aromatic with delicate pine. Doesn’t it sound terrific? It does to me. In theory, that is, not practice. In practice it is a cold, wet, horror show for a child of the Bronx.
When I was five I begged my mother to allow me to go to day camp in Central Park like all of the other neighborhood kids did. I was lonely during the long summer days with everyone gone; there was no one to play with except my older sister – who didn’t appreciate my constant attempts to trail after her as she finagled ways to meet her current inamorata, Joe DeFalco, in DeVoe Park – and my cousin, Carl – whose ideas of interesting places to hide during hide-and-seek included the boiler room of our apartment building, which nearly got me cooked by the heat then flayed by the building janitor in that order – so, generally, I sat at the kitchen table coloring alone. Going to day camp meant assembling with the other kids on the corner of Fordham Road and Grand Avenue in the sweet, morning air and riding a big, yellow, bus into Manhattan, singing road trip songs like “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” the whole way. It meant a packed lunch and a day spent in the big park where there was the Balto statue and the Alice clock and other amazing landmarks that I loved to see. I campaigned for permission in the same way my dad said they voted in Chicago, early and often.
“Can I go to day camp?”
“You won’t like it.”
“How do you now?”
“Because I know you, my little cherub.”
Unsure what that meant I asked.
“It means that you don’t like to be too hot or too cold. You hate getting wet and you abhor getting dirty.”
“What does ‘abhor’ mean?”
“It means you aren’t going to day camp.”
Finally, weary of my persistent entreaties, my mother enrolled me in day camp. I was ecstatic.
“It’s only for one week,” she warned.
I was puzzled. “Why?” I asked, knowing that the other kids went for the whole month.
My mother raised one eyebrow and pursed her lips as she gazed at me. “As I have said before, Laura, I know you and you won’t like it.”
Hmmmmmm, we’ll see, I thought as I trotted down the hall to my room to choose my entire next week’s wardrobe.
That Saturday, two days before day camp began, I watched as my mother took an empty Charles Chips tin and began filling it. She inserted my Fordham University sweatshirt and a small first aid kit. There was still room at the top, which she explained was for my lunch and my thermos. Then she took an old pillow and an oilcloth table covering and began to make a small, flat, cushion, which she proceeded to glue to the lid of the can. While that was drying, she pulled an ice pick from the kitchen utensil drawer and a hammer from under the sink and punched holes in the tin, one on either side, then strung clothesline through it.
“What is that?” I asked as she fitted the padded lid back onto the tin.
“The day camp counselors call it your sit-upon,” she said. “You carry it by this rope handle with you every day and it holds everything you need, plus you can sit on it for crafts, for lunch, for storytime.”
“Neat!” I was growing more excited by the minute. I ran my hand over the cool and slick oilcloth cover and felt a sudden, inexplicable frisson of concern. “Mommy, this fabric is slippery.”
My mother looked up from the kitchen sink where she was washing the glue from her hands. “It has to be. They said it has to be waterproof.”
“So it repels the rainwater.”
Rainwater? My brain started strobing like a disco ball. “What rainwater?”
She dried her hands on a tea towel and bent to hang it on the thin, chrome, rod fastened to the cabinet. “When it rains. If it rains.”
“Don’t we go inside when it rains?”
She laughed. “Of course not. It’s camp. The only ‘inside’ available is the picnic pavilion.”
I knew what a picnic pavilion was; it was a floor and a roof, no walls. It provided shade from the sun and little else. “You mean we just get wet?” I squeaked.
My mother turned to leave the kitchen. “Yup,” she called over her shoulder.
Oh. This was a new wrinkle. In my imagination there were cozy little cabins with stone hearths and merrily-burning fires like in that movie we watched where the characters went ‘camping’ in Yellowstone Park. ‘Well, maybe it won’t rain,’ I told myself. Summer in New York City was notoriously hot and sticky.
Monday morning dawned grey; the sky was covered with huge clouds that looked like a giant pile of greasy cotton balls spreading across the expanse. The upswelling plumes of hot, July, air was producing such visible turbulence in them they appeared to be boiling like dirty pasta water.
I stood on the corner with all of the other yellow slicker-clad children and clutched my mother’s hand waiting for the school bus. Now that the moment had come – and was a potentially wet moment – I was rethinking my decision. I tugged on my mom’s arm. She bent. “What if it rains?” I whispered. “Then you get wet,” she replied cheerfully. I sighed. Maybe she had been right about this, after all.
It was drizzling when the bus finally appeared. Dragging my Keds, I was the last one to climb aboard. As the bus blinked its amber lights and trundled away from the curb, I saw my mom through the window. She had popped open a bright red umbrella and was striding in the direction of Chock Full o’Nuts and Alexander’s. I could almost hear her sandals slapping on the damp pavement as she began her day of childfree fun.
I really don’t have to relay my experience. You can guess. It poured all day. Sitting in the pavilion the spin-art inks never dried because the cardboard absorbed the moisture and curled and the elbow macaroni for the necklaces sucked in the dampness and swelled up, then stained my pink t-shirt with the blues and greens I had chosen to paint it. My shorts felt like a wet diaper and my sneakers squelched when I walked. When the bus appeared to drive us home, I was the first one on it.
When the bus stopped at the corner of Fordham and Grand, I threw myself into my mother’s arms and burst into tears. “It was awful,” I wailed. “The rain never stopped and everything was wet and my top is stained and my shoes are ruined! I’m not going back!”
My mother listened then surveyed the situation for herself. I was wet; my top was stained; my shoes did indeed squish when I walked. “Oh, yes, you are,” she contradicted me coolly. “You wanted to go and I paid for the whole week.”
So return I did the next morning. I finished the week hating every moment of it, wet or dry. I hated the constant activity, the forced cheeriness of the counselors, and most of all, I hated getting dirty or wet. But I learned that in life you must finish what you begin. Oh, and I also learned to be careful what you wish for; your mother may just make sure that you get it.