S'More Than a Feeling

A New Book Proves That Campers May Grow Up, But They're Never Out of the Woods

Photos from the book "Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies" recall the acid-wash-George-Michael haze of a certain, brief era.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008; Page M08

Having thoroughly plumbed the joys and pains of the suburban Jewish coming-of-age scene of the 1970s and '80s ("Bar Mitzvah Disco"), the people at the so-called Academy of the Recent Past have turned their curatorial eyes to a book project so heartbreakingly rendered that it almost hurts to look too closely at the results.

But look we must. Stare, readers, into the woods deliberately (apologies to Henry David Thoreau) and come back with us to summer camp, in the acid-wash-George-Michael haze of a certain, brief era. Come do your hair and suffer through crushing puppy love and trade mix-tapes. Come for forced participation in sports; come fight the end-of-summer tribal color wars (or any variation of capture-the-flag); come for the mind wedgie. At 12, you get sent off to camp and feel homesick. At 36 (or 38 or 41), you'd do anything to go back to camp. This is a book about that longing.

"Camp Camp: Where 'Fantasy Island' Meets 'Lord of the Flies' " is being shelved in the humor section of your friendly big-box bookstore and on that one "wacky books" table at Urban Outfitters stores, because, sure, it is funny.

And yet, a few pages in, you start to wonder if there isn't some whole other category to which "Camp Camp" belongs. This is the real stuff, going deeper than any VH1 '80s nostalgia trip or a squandered Saturday afternoon watching a cable rerun of "Meatballs," Ivan Reitman's seminal 1979 summer camp comedy -- which gets big ups in "Camp Camp." (Reitman pens a brief foreword, honored that anyone still watches "Meatballs" and saying that all summer camp experiences are universal -- "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," and so on.)

But: "This is a book about summer camp in the same way Plato's 'Cave' is about prisoners in chains, or 'Hungry Like the Wolf' is about the animal kingdom," co-authors Roger Bennett and Jules Shell note in their introduction.

Sociology? Jewish American studies? Anthropology?

"We treat it as if it's all going in the Smithsonian, because to us it is that serious," Bennett, 37, says from his apartment in New York. He once spent a summer in Camp Kingswood in Maine -- but he came there from Liverpool, England, on a sort of counselor-exchange program.

Ah, camp. The memories are not all good, but they are forever, Bennett says: "For many people, camp is a perfect storm of awkwardness and of leaving behind the world you were growing up in, and entering this . . . this whole other place that existed all on its own. It's very powerful for people. There's this massive nation out there of former campers, people who are seemingly normal on the surface, working in their careers, raising their own families. But not very far down, they are just waiting for a color war to break out at any moment."

With personal photographs and assorted ephemera (patches, letters to and from home, lots of bubble writing by surehanded, magic-marker-wielding girls), "Camp Camp" ruminates on loneliness, herd mentality, class distinctions and the power of ritual. At least one of the accompanying essays deals with the fraught subject of boys who refused to go Number Two all summer, or tried not to. ("If they can do it, so can you, I told myself. Just get it over with . . . ") There are many tales of boy-on-boy torture: "Gary Gersh . . . got duct-taped into the shower stall for an hour. He got covered in mousse and shampoo as he slept. . . . [T]he counselors would dunk his face in jelly and then start a chant for everyone to look at him. One time, a letter from his mother was intercepted and replaced with a fake letter saying that Grandma had been hit by a blimp . . . "

On Page 22, we encounter a photo of Jenna Fallon and a friend at Camp Edward Isaacs in Holmes, N.Y., in the summer of 1987, their bangs sprayed and teased into leonine, Tawny Kitaen grandiosity, the girls seeming like two magical sylphs in the woods. The photo, blown up, belies the haunting, flat fuzziness of the camera that made it: the Kodak Disc. (That cheap camera, first introduced in 1982, gets an acknowledgement from the authors, for being "the weapon of choice for 95 percent of the thousands of photographs we received. The graininess and poor definition of your photographs are much missed and deeply mourned.")

A few pages later, there's a photo of three girls in tie-dyed T-shirts at Camp Walden in Cheboygan, Mich., in 1988, waiting for the white bleach on their upper lips to take away any trace of dark hair. "We were CITs that year," explains one of the girls, Debbie Shell (sister of co-author Jules; a "CIT" means "counselor in training"). "[We] spent the entire time at camp in the beautiful backwoods of Michigan beautifying ourselves as if we were in the city."

After the success of "Bar Mitzvah Disco" in 2005, Bennett and Shell decided summer camp seemed like a natural next step. (Future projects for the Academy of the Recent Past include a book on teenagers who formed their own bands in the '80s and another on what teenagers hung on their bedroom walls.) They started asking people to send their pictures and other keepsakes from sleepaway camps. Fanning out from a neurotic network of New York and Los Angeles creative types (writers, filmmakers, bloggers), Bennett and Shell eventually amassed some 80,000 photos.

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