Eric Dregni is the dean of the Italian Concordia Language Village, Lago del Bosco, and the author of In Cod We Trust, By the Waters of Minnetonka and You’re Sending Me Where? Dispatches from Summer Camp. He is a regular contributor to Lake Minnetonka Magazine. In this excerpt from his newest book, You’re Sending Me Where?, Dregni remembers his first—reluctant—journey to camp in Mound and the summer that got him hooked.
Nationwide, more than 14 million kids attend summer camps annually, and growing up, I was determined not to be one of them.
I knew that camp took place in the woods, away from all the creature comforts we have at home (especially today, when kids can’t tear their eyes from mesmerizing rectangular screens). When I was a kid, pretty much my only option was YMCA wilderness camp. My mom had been a counselor in the north woods, so her 6-year-old son could at the very least go to a comfy day camp for a few days. I wanted nothing to do with it.
Despite my refusal, she signed me up. On my first day of camp my mom hugged me good-bye, and I refused to get on that damn bus. No way. My arms and legs splayed out and grabbed the frame of the door as she shoved me forward. Why should I give up the safety of our suburban home to be shipped into the jungle with ferocious beasts eager to eat me?
I screamed, and the entire busload of kids watched the scene in horror, perhaps thinking that they would be tortured as well. Tears trailed down my cheeks as I banged on the door trying to escape, but the bus driver jammed the stick shift into gear, and a cloud of smoke puffed behind the bus. My mother had abandoned me as the bus whisked me off as a prisoner to Camp Christmas Tree in Mound.
This first day of camp was the worst experience in my life. I expected to be eaten alive by bears, wolves or cougars. If they didn’t eat me, I’d surely have my blood drained drop by drop by buzzing mosquitoes puncturing my sunburned skin. Then there were bats, spiders, ticks, poison ivy… What did I do to deserve this?
When the bus returned me later that evening, I chose not to remember the scene I had caused in the morning that made my mom feel ill for the rest of the day. I was transformed, brainwashed. Hooked.
I loved the supposed danger of camp, but I also did activities that today we don’t do. We climbed enormous dead elm trees (with no ropes), practiced archery and shot BB guns (remember, I was 6). We went happily on “swamp stomps” through nearby bogs to cover ourselves with sludge and thoroughly destroy our clothes. The finale was the 2-foot-deep mud pit to see who could be completely covered in filth before jumping into the lake.
Just like millions of other little campers, the worst day of my life had become the best one. I no longer dreaded the outdoors, but knew that if I put on enough bug spray and sun cream, I would survive and thrive at camp. I remembered the mirror lakes reflecting the puffy rabbit-shaped clouds, and the pair of loons who crooned just for me. I longed to be filthy from rolling down hills, dizzy from climbing trees, fearless when starting campfires, and dangerous with my big stick ready to take down any bears that attacked. Ever since that first painful day, I knew that camp was for me.
You’re Sending Me Where? Dispatches from Summer Camp is published by the University of Minnesota Press and is available at the website here and at local bookstores.