WHEN THE prospect of summer camp was first raised, our son Jonathan, 8, was not thrilled; he'd been away from home overnight only a few times. But when he saw the brochure describing the wonders of Camp Airy in Thurmont, Maryland, his attitude changed. "It has wrestling and karate!" he shouted. "I want to go!"

That was the high point of what we came to call Phase I of Jonathan Goes to Camp.

Phase I took a bad turn a few weeks later (just after we had paid the fee), when he announced at dinner that he was not going. "I'll get homesick. They won't have any food I can eat," he sobbed. "I'll starve. I'm scared."

Guilt-stricken, well aware of his finicky dietary demands (burgers, burgers and more burgers, rare only), we tried reasoning.

"I know it will be different to be away for two weeks, but you'll have a good time," said Barbara, his mother. "Remember the brochure? Karate and wrestling?"

"Besides, we've already paid the fee," I added, hopefully.

These arguments didn't work.

"I'm not going -- and that's that," Jonathan said, and began sobbing again.

Phase II began after we were advised that a young first-timer's fear of camp is normal, and that we should ask Jonathan about his specific fears and questions and then try to answer them -- in short, to handle the issue in a mature, reasonable manner.

We came prepared. Brother Clayton, 12, gave a pep talk. "You'll love camp," he said. "You won't have Dad around telling you to turn down the TV and to clean up. You can eat all you want, have pillow fights, and go to bed whenever you want." This provoked broad grins from Jonathan. Obviously, the mature approach was going to work.

Barbara and I told him that concerns and fears were normal and that, as well-meaning, nurturing parents, we were there to help soothe his fears and answer his questions.

"Do you have any questions now?" his mother asked.

"Just one," Jonathan said.

Success! we thought. We had moved from all-encompassing fear to a single unresolved question. "What is it?" we asked.

"Why do I have to go?" Jonathan shouted, and began sobbing anew. His parents would have joined him, but that wouldn't have been mature and reasonable.

Phase III. The week before camp opened, I drove Jonathan up to Camp Airy for a visit and tour. This, we thought, would put his fears and questions to rest. But as we turned into the long road leading into the camp, Jonathan began muttering, "No, no, no, no . . ."

These last fears faded, though, as we approached the recreation cabins.

"Look, Dad, the wrestling emporium! And look, there's the woodworking shop," he said. "I want to take woodworking and build a Lamborghini."

The trip seemed to replace Jonathan's fears with a cautious but positive attitude. The fears appeared to have vanished.

When we arrived at Camp Airy on Monday, the first camp person we met was a counselor to match Jonathan's dreams. "Look, he's wearing a survival knife!" Jonathan chirped, paramilitary training dreams filling his G.I. Joe-indoctrinated mind. "Maybe I will learn how to shoot a rifle."

His military musings were interrupted as we went through registration, where Jonathan ran into a friend, David Shulman, 10, a three-term veteran of the camp.

"What cabin have you got?" David asked.

"Thirty," Jonathan said.

"You got the best cabin. All the bathrooms are inside," David told him. "If you get 29 or lower you're dead."

The time came. We went to Cabin 30, where I unpacked Jonathan's clothes, his flashlight, addressed envelopes and stuffed animals, reminded him softly again that he could talk to his counselors about anything, and then took him to meet his cabinmates.

He began talking to them right away. He turned just once to say a curt good-bye, and then spun around again to resume chatting.

For weeks we had feared this moment -- that there would be tears and they would be Jonathan's.

We were half right.

Postscript: Last week, a letter arrived from "Jonathan, Camp Airy, Thurmont, Md. Bunk 30" -- scrawled all the way across the envelope from the upper left corner to just under the stamp.

"Dear Mom," it read.

"I think I'm going to throw up.

"Love, Jonathan

"P.S. Ha Ha Ha!"