CAMP MINIWANCA, Somewhere in the Trackless Wastes of Michigan -- There having been no letters home, the father visited his son's summer camp to ascertain whether his 11-year-old was still in residence or had perhaps moved on to Monte Carlo.

From a distance, the father spotted the son's familiar costume: purple and chartreuse and orange Jams -- an unspeakably unshapely brand of shorts -- and black Bruce Springsteen "Born in the USA Tour" T-shirt. Children who attend a school that has a strict dress code use the summer for retaliation against aesthetic standards.

The son's skin is a Jackson Pollock canvas of scabs and abrasions that testify to an 11-year- old's refusal to be intimidated by life's sharp edges, and life's refusal to be impressed by 11- year-olds. The tender moment of reunion began with this exchange:

Father: "Hi, Geoffrey, your mother sends her love and says she is going to kill you."

Son: "No, really, dad."

The son's three-word riposte disconcerted dad because it disrupted the familiar rhythm of such exchanges. The "No, really, dad" usually comes at the end of a particularly imaginative fabrication, after dad has rolled his eyes heavenward. This time the sincerity gambit -- "no, really, dad" -- came even before he launched into his explanation of why he had not written home. The explanation was this:

"I wrote letters but I put them in my fishing- tackle box but I lost my tackle box but unfortunately I didn't loose my fishing lures because they were stuck in my towel, I'm not sure why, and I caught an eight-inch large-mouth bass right over there, and you remember those good pants I brought, well, someone left a pen in his clothes and it exploded in the laundry, and don't worry about the books I'm supposed to read for school because I have read one almost, and do you want to go canoeing?"

Camp builds character in campers, but not irreparably. Camp builds character in parents, beginning with the off-to-camp farewell at the airport. When their children show signs of reluctance to leave, and there are flickers of human feelings in the children, the parents learn to their astonishment that their children like them.

Geoffrey was planning a video-games orgy at Chicago's O'Hare airport while waiting for the flight to Muskegon. United Airlines had a better idea and clapped him and other minors in a room with a TV and guard. This, says Geoffrey with a bitterness that time will not assuage, was the summer's foremost airline hostage outrage. He says United is run by Shiites. I do not know where Geoffrey learned the vice, but he is forever editorializing.

He has high regard for the young men who superintend him at camp. One of them, he notes pointedly, "is a halfback and has not broken his neck." This is an oblique editorial comment on father's opposition to son's playing football. The leader in another cabin is vastly admired because he has "a Rambo knife and a Rambo bow that can shoot an arrow through two people." I do not ask Geoffrey how he knows that.

Breakfast begins with a sung grace and a short Robert Frost poem, but it is hard to keep the tone so high when tamping food into creatures whose preferred mealtime diversions include one table shouting "Tastes great!" and another responding "Less filling!"

Camp Miniwanca has a liberal parole policy, so I am allowed to whisk Geoffrey down the road to teeming Whitehall, which numbers among its metropolitan pleasures a Pizza Hut. The pepperoni fix is a foretaste of the great coming-home banquet of carbohydrates: Pizzas with a side order of McDonald's french fries. That is just the menu to nourish the metabolism and maintain the emotional equilibrium of my modern American boy who praises Camp Miniwanca for the selection of candy bars in the store.

"The candy," he says with the measured judgment of a fledgling pundit, "is the only contact with the modern world." When his father asks, as any correct thinking father would, "What is so great about the modern world?" the son, who is used to his father's quirkiness, resorts to an unsatisfactory evasion: "Well, okay, not 'the modern world,' but 'civilization.'

He is learning to make distinctions and moccasins. It is a summer well spent. But the father feels, as fathers will, a pang that is an alloy of pride and regret. It comes with intimations that the world is calling his children, and they are acquiring competencies and independence and are outward bound.