"He bit you?" "He really bit you?" "Right there?"

Boys at summer camp can spread a rumor faster than a Washington lobbyist. So here was 11-year-old Patrick Brown -- his "posse" beside him -- "spinning" about his snake bite.

According to Patrick, a huge copperhead had attacked his right sneaker during a hike the previous evening. Or maybe it was a black snake. Or maybe a garter snake. Patrick hadn't waited for a formal introduction.

"It had a big mouth, like this," Patrick said. He fastened his fingers around the face of 7-year-old Quacy Smith. Quacy wriggled away. The five other boys listening to the story shuffled uneasily.

"But I wasn't scared," said Patrick. "It did bite, but I kicked it."

That led to a major inspection -- by five boys, of Patrick's scuffed Nike. They couldn't see tooth marks. Still, the boys had collected a lasting memory.

So it goes each summer at Camp Moss Hollow, near Markham, Va., where we help send hundreds of needy children through our Send a Kid to Camp campaign.

Levey spent the day at Moss Hollow last Wednesday. He came away bug-bitten, sweat-stained and smile-infested. It's clearer than ever that sending underprivileged kids to the countryside for part of the summer makes for wholesome experiences and big-time fun.

A major reason is Moss Hollow's new director, Samuel Gatewood. He is three parts Vince Lombardi and two parts drill sergeant.

As he wanders around in a red T-shirt with camp monogram, blue basketball trunks and sneakers, Sam picks up trash whenever he sees it. He encourages reluctant swimmers. He makes sure that lunch begins at 12:30 on the dot.

But he also dives right in when a homesick child needs bucking up. A right arm across the shoulders, a few calm words, and the child is more often than not back in the swing of things.

One of Sam Gatewood's recent successes was a 13-year-old camper who spent part of his first day at camp "crying to his mom on the phone," Sam said. By the last day, "it was like, `Mr. G., can I come back?' "

Under Sam's leadership, Moss Hollow has a new stage, a greatly expanded computer lab and a well-stocked reading room. It will soon have a softball field and tennis courts. It already has spirit.

Just before lunch, about 20 boys had collected on the steps of a cabin. They were chanting about their home away from home:

Mama, Mama, can't you see

What Moss Hollow gonna be

And everyone had a Max story.

Max is the arts and theater counselor, Max Goldblatt. At a recent talent show, he swallowed fire. That got tongues flapping. But the car finished the job.

Max drives a shiny black 1948 Plymouth that's equipped with a sound machine. He can send fake machine-gun fire crackling. Or a song. Or an old-fashioned ah-OOH-ga. "The kids love it," Max said.

Camp Moss Hollow almost always has an international flavor, and this summer is no exception. Counselors are on hand from the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and England.

Meanwhile, Sam has instituted an incentive system to keep the place clean. If you pick up trash, you get an extra item at the canteen.

"I've never met so many kids who remember a cup they picked up days before," Sam said.

There are still a few campers who don't find camp to their taste. Earlier in the summer, two 10-year-olds asked Sam if the place is equipped with cable TV. No television of any kind is allowed at Moss Hollow.

But creativity is. Seven-year-old Yusef Roy, of Northeast Washington, proudly recited a poem he had written the day before. It was called "Fat Cat." The last stanza goes like this:

Fat Cat went to the gym

And asked for his money back

Instead, they gave him honey

Yusef said he had never written a poem before. "That's why I like camp," he said.

And that's why I like seeing children like Yusef go to camp. They make new friends, they do new things, and they mellow out in a way that isn't easy (and may not be possible) at home.

We are getting closer to our 1999 goal, but we are still well short, and our campaign ends on Friday. If you'd like to support snake-bite spinners and the occasional poet, we welcome your support.

Our goal by July 30: $550,000.

In hand as of July 21: $316,274.81.

CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.

VISA OR MASTERCARD:

Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S, or 5437, and follow instructions.