Talk of the Town - The kiddie Archipelago July 31 2003

No rest for the weenie

No 25-cents-a-glass lemonade stand. No cul-de-sac baseball. No banana-seat bicycles. No kids.

I'm looking down the main drag of the sub-D on a balmy summer morn, and there isn't a single tyke on a trike.

They've all been taken to camp — which one I couldn't tell you. Around here we have more camps than Stalin's Gulag Archipelago. Tap camp, music camp, art camp, fat camp, Van De Kamp's pork and beans. Neighbors sent their kids to space camp. That's a bit radical — blasting your offspring, well, off.

I even saw a signs promoting a cheerleading camp for 3-to-5-year-olds. What do they cheer: potty training?

Why the fascination with camp? In an age when "quality time" is the modern mantra, when people are always leaving jobs "to spend more time with family" (a euphemism for getting canned), why are parents shipping their kids off to camp?

Because when school ends, the adults have these pint-sized aliens on their hands. Sure, the children have lived in the house, and occasionally dine there. But they're virtual strangers as far as general conversation goes. How can you get to know your kids when, all school year long, all you've done is haul them to dance lessons, soccer practice and the orthodontist? They're in the back seat, you're in front. Come summer, there isn't anything to say. So it's off to camp.

The Brits had it down to an imperial science. Take Winston Churchill's parents. First chance they got, they shipped him off to military school. Fifteen years later, the kid comes back a polished gentleman:

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Father."

"Indeed, my boy. Have you grown up?"

"Oh, yes sir."

"Measles, tantrums, acne — all done for?"

"Quite so."

"No attention deficit disorder, I trust. Ritalin won't be invented for another 70 years, you know."

"I'm simply ripping, Pater."

"Splendid. You're ready to be prime minister."

Victorians such as the Churchills had a no-nonsense attitude about childhood. It was an awkward, messy age to be ruthlessly repressed and/or ignored until the onset of adulthood. In America — in theory at least — we're far more sentimental about youth. We've got toy conglomerates and kiddie entertainment networks, Disneyland, Disney World and SpongeBob SquarePants, but we don't know what to do with actual kids. Hence camp.

How well I remember the day. I must have been 8 when my own parents asked me if I wanted to go to camp. I thought about it for perhaps a nanosecond. It would be far cozier to spend my summer reading Archie comic books, firing cap guns, ingesting pretzel rods and gallons of cherry-flavored Kool-Aid, and hanging out with my friends at any one of four candy stores — the apex of civilization — that existed within a 10-block radius of our house.

"I don't think I want to go."

"Too bad. Your grandparents already paid for it. You have to."

Why do adults even pretend it's a democracy?

And so I got sent up the river to Catholic day camp, a vast, pitiless outdoor experience dedicated to the sole purpose of making me ("Steeerike three. Yer out!") feel like an idiot. Except on days when it rained. Then it was a vast, pitiless indoor experience dedicated to ... You get the idea.

I hoped the place would be run by a wise, kind Bing Crosby-as-Father O'Malley type. Fact is, I don't recall any adults running anything. The entire operation seemed to be controlled by a gang of embryonic hooligans who resembled Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and the Dead End Kids.

Then there were the incessant activities: swimming, baseball, soccer, gymnastics, short trips, long trips, day trips, field trips. They never left a kid alone to think. My mother still recalls the day I came back from one ungodly bus voyage to Bear Mountain with my sneakers on the wrong feet.

Decades have evaporated, but I've always harbored resentment about that summer they railroaded me to camp. Umbrage was recently compounded by bafflement when, rummaging through an old box of stuff, I came across a letter penciled by my father in childhood to his parents. Postmarked from some weenie burg in upstate New York, it's a recitation of life in summer camp, circa 1942, along with frequent hints to come and get him out of there — now.

"You knew!" I spluttered to Dad. "You knew how lousy camp was!"

"Yeah, I guess I did."

"So why did you make me go?"

"Hey," he replied. "Who said life was going to be easy?"

Maybe that's the point of camp. That it's a harbinger of things to come. That during the course of our existence, we'll have to spend time with people we don't want to know, doing things we don't want to do.

White-collar office camp. Now there's a concept.


i>Glen Slattery is hiding under his bunk in Alpharetta.