In the late 70′s and early 80′s, there were two states a child could exist in. At school and outside. In summer, the only activities children engaged in indoors were eating, sleeping and using the bathroom and our parents encouraged us to do those things outside whenever possible. Back then, on any given summer morning I’d wake up, brush my teeth, run a comb through my Dorothy Hamill haircut and maybe finish my cereal before being told to go outside and play. So, I’d find my best powder blue running shorts, striped tube socks, sneakers and t-shirt, which usually had a picture of either a Pegasus or Lief Garrett on it. Though at the time the two creatures were indistinguishable, both winged and majestic, they would later prove to be completely different animals. When I was dressed, I would head outside to meet the neighborhood kids and we would exchange bad ideas. We could play in the strip of woods that began behind our houses and ended at the mouth of the Connetquot River or we could play ring and run and drive our parents and older siblings nuts. Both possibilities provided an air of danger and a story we could regale sitting on the curb, licking the melted ice cream from our forearms. Most often, we chose the woods. The woods provided us the opportunity to spy on the teenagers who gathered there to drink and smoke and sometimes we would stumble on to a few adult magazines we could pour over in an intoxicating state of titillation and disgust. The bad idea my neighbor Jannine would offer up one summer morning would force me to make a decision I would regret for years to come.
“It’s girl scout camp,” she announced with enthusiasm. “It’s sleepover camp and you can choose different programs. I chose acting.” I wondered if the experience would be more of a Little Darlings experience or a Meatballs experience and hoped for the latter, understanding even at the tender age of 10 that time spent with Bill Murray was far superior to time with Matt Dillon. Had I seen Friday The Thirteenth, I might have been better prepared for the horrors of camp – or opted out completely – but instead, I made the decision to leave behind the games of Manhunt and the Oui magazines and join Jannine for a master class in regret.
When we arrived at camp, less than 10 miles from my home, it appeared rather welcoming. Camp Edey served girls from 1st through 9th grade on 95 acres of wetland preserve. It claimed to provide a wide variety of activities like swimming, boating, fishing, arts and crafts, nature exploration, ice cream socials, and talent shows but instead provided fear, alienation and enough insects to leave you both physically and psychologically scarred for life. Most campers slept in large tents, set on wooden platforms, guaranteed to provide the best possible climate for mosquitoes, snakes or any other woodland creature seeking innocent children to scare the hell out of. We were lucky enough to stay in a dilapidated home purchased by the camp in what I can only assume was a social experiment, run by a coven of teenage potheads. The girls barely allowed us time to unroll our musty sleeping bags before announcing the brutal murders that occurred upstairs. This, obviously meant that only they should enter that space, refusing to be held responsible for what might happen if we dare break this rule. No one broke that rule. Not only did we never venture upstairs, we didn’t look in that direction, for fear something would be walking, floating or dripping down. I was only there an hour when I realized this would be the greatest challenge I’d face in what would surely be a tragically short life.
Once settled in and thoroughly terrified, we set out for lunch which was to be eaten on splintering picnic tables beside a festering lake. I looked around at the younger children smiling and laughing and thought, these poor kids. How innocent and naive they are. Completely unaware of the horrors that lie ahead. We’d all get through this together, I thought. Like soldiers we would huddle together and fight the snakes and the bugs and the condescending, dismissive teenagers in their Van Halen shirts and their earth shoes. We would be victorious, I told myself but deep down I was all but resigned to defeat. Our lunch was being prepared in the distance in a lobster pot the size of a hot water heater and was being stirred by an unenthusiastic chef with a shovel. Every so often a teenager would walk up with a steamer tray of chopped hot dogs and dump them into the vat of mac and cheese as the chef stirred, stone-faced. The camp leader welcomed us to camp and assured us our stay would be a fun-filled adventure we would never forget and that phone calls were strictly prohibited. They assured us we could write letters if we wished and they would be mailed at the end of the week, the day before we were to leave. She announced that every morning, the camp would inform us of all the things we were missing on the outside, to keep us up to speed and to keep our homesickness at the highest level possible. The breaking news, that day, was that a caveman was discovered frozen in ice somewhere in the Antarctic and had been shipped to Stony Brook University just a few miles away to be examined by scientists. “Isn’t that exciting?” they asked their prepubescent inmates. I imagined my friends back home, eating their lunches, watching Captain Caveman perhaps. While I was off in the wilderness, fighting to survive.
As I scraped hot dog mac and cheese from my metal camping plate with my Swiss Army fork I wondered if I would fall prey to starvation before I was murdered by a ghost or accidentally drowned by a stoned teenager. We finished our awful lunches and headed out into a clearing to get down to the business of acting. We were asked to sit in a circle while the coven had a brief but important gathering just out of our sight. When they returned, happier and bathed in a familiar earthy perfume, we were asked to improvise any number of abstract concepts. “Be a lonely alligator,” one Witch suggested. “Be summer, sad to see fall arriving,” was another prompt. Then came, “Be disappointment.” This one was the easiest, though it might have come across as lost and terrified. This would be the only acting exercise I’d remember at camp so it’s no surprise neither Jannine nor I have been awarded a single Oscar.
Jannine handled camp rather well, as I recall. Rising above the challenges of bad food and water snakes to find humor in my constant dread. By day two it was clear Bill Murray wasn’t coming and while passing a letter, pleading for help to a boy through the chain link fence that surrounded camp, I prayed I’d be rescued from the place I’d looked forward to staying in. It wasn’t Meatballs or Little Darlings and I racked my brain for a movie I could compare it to. Papillon, I decided. Definitely Papillon. I returned to my haunted cabin and managed to sleep, but not well.
The next morning, at breakfast, we were told that the caveman had thawed during a freak power outage and escaped. The teenagers seemed alarmingly elated by the breaking story but I had bigger concerns than a rogue savage. I was being held captive by the Girl Scouts of America. We may have done some acting exercises on day three but the only thing I recall was swimming. We were warned for what felt like an eternity about everything from staying inside the roped off areas to the fish and snakes we may encounter while wading in ice-cold water. We hesitated but decided any activity that didn’t involve choking down gruel or sleeping in a crime scene was worth a shot. In less than 5 minutes, Jannine emerged from the lake with two small holes in her thigh, leaking tiny streams of blood. “Something bit me,” she announced to our unmoved chaperons. “Oh yeah, looks like a water python, right Cathy?”
“Totally,” Cathy replied, “You better go to the nurse and get a band-aid.” I sprang into action. “I’ll walk her there,” I offered. The Witches fell for it and Jannine and I walked at a snail’s pace to hatch our escape plan.
“I’ve had it, this place sucks,” she told me.
“This is nothing like Meatballs,” I replied. Jannine decided she would inform the camp that she would need to leave early for a critical dental appointment and that they should have her mother’s note on file. “Nope,” they said, “She didn’t mention anything about leaving early. Sorry.”
“But you must have it. Please look again, ” Jannine begged, tears welling.
“We don’t have a note but if it’s important, you could call home and ask your mother,” they said. It might have been sparrows but at that moment I believed I could hear angels singing softly in the distance. Jannine dialed, waited for an answer and when her mother picked up she was hit with a barrage of pleas that would either convince her we were in serious distress or had quickly acquired some serious acting chops and should stay the course to complete our training. Before she’d finished, I begged her to relay the message to my mother that if not rescued, I would surely die in this God forsaken place but instead, she casually handed the phone over to the powers that be. After a terrifyingly brief exchange, the counselor hung up and told Jannine her mother would be arriving the following day to pick her up and we should promptly return to camp before our tormentors started to worry. As we walked back to our house of horrors, Jannine strode confidently with her freshly bandaged thigh and I walked back determined that she would not leave without me.
That night, Jannine slept like a baby as I lay awake, imagining her riding off into the sunset to happily join the gang for a game of Manhunt. I ignored the ghosts and the witches upstairs and got out of bed to pack. While I’d never again use my Swiss Army fork or my canteen, I was sure that packing them safely in my duffel bag would send a clear message to the others that I was as good as gone. In the morning, when our hard partying chaperons awoke, I could sense something about this day was different. There was a lightness, a joy that could only mean this would be my last day in captivity. The girls led us to breakfast with an enthusiasm we hadn’t seen before. They were eager, energized. As we sat and waited for our gritty oatmeal, scratching our bug bites, we were reminded of the missing caveman, still roaming Long Island like a hairy madman, confused and hungry. Hell bent on the idea that I would soon be leaving, I ate, discovering a new-found appreciation for the outlandish story of the thawed caveman on the loose. I smiled as I spooned the slop into my tired face but before we could finish, a roar echoed from the woods around us. Dozens of girls turned in horror to find a loincloth covered Neanderthal with a club running full force toward them. The girls screamed and scattered in all directions as the counselors ran after them, calling their names and begging them to come back. It was mayhem. Children were crying, children were screaming, teenagers were doubled over, laughing hysterically, wiping tears from their red, evil faces. I sat frozen. Partly because I was doubtful a person could freeze and thaw like a TV dinner but mostly because I refused to let anything get in the way of my early parole. Someone in charge finally found a bullhorn and announced everything was fine. This was all a stunt, a practical joke they concocted to make our experience at Camp Edey a more pleasant one. As the children emerged from the woods, still sobbing, the caveman pulled off his fake beard and tried to reassure the youngest campers that he was just an ordinary, heartless man and not a bloodthirsty beast. None of them bought it.
When we could account for all the girls in our group, we headed back to our cabin. As we walked inside both Jannine and I were asked to gather our things and return to the main office. We were going home. I don’t remember gathering my things. Likely because I was somewhere else. Somewhere with friends and family and games and pornographic magazines. Somewhere wonderful. When we arrived at the main office both Jannine’s mother and mine stood waiting. Despite looking somewhat annoyed at our early release, we hugged them as if we’d been lost at sea for a year. “How did you know I wanted to come home?” I asked my mother. “I got your letter,” she said. I thought of the little boy who was instructed to ask his mother to please mail it and tell no one else. A hero, I thought. If only I knew his name, I would hug him too. For years I looked at strangers, wondering if they were the little boy who saved my life.
We drove home, laughing at the horrors of it all and telling our disbelieving mothers all we endured. When I finally arrived home, 10 minutes later, I ran to the fridge to stare at all the food but stopped when I saw my letter stuck to the fridge with a magnet. How dare she find humor in my pain. Such betrayal. I took the letter and threw it in the trash. I decided then, there would be no more talk of camp… ever. My mother has assured me she saved my letter, though she can’t find it. I’d love to read it again now that the scars have healed. I sat at the kitchen table and ate all the junk I could find then ran to my room and jumped in my bed, ecstatic to feel the warm soft comfort of home. As I closed my eyes, my door opened and my father said, “What are you doing? Go outside and play.” After all I’d been through, I happily obliged and ran off to tell my friends a harrowing tale of hardship and survival.
Author: Rachel Zimmerman lives on Long Island with her husband, two children, a cat and an immortal Hermit Crab named Stephanie.