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At summer camp, love is in the air

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By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / July 22, 2009

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Right about now, pubescent people are falling in love around Massachusetts, probably a bit awkwardly.

It’s midseason for summer camps, which means kids have had time to get to know one another, determine whom they find attractive, and pair off, holding hands for long walks in the woods. It’s a rite of passage, summer-camp love, and it’s no joke. Camp couples have been known to become married couples. Even those who break up remember each other forever.

If this concept is unfamiliar to you, please put “Wet Hot American Summer’’ in your Netflix queue. When you’re done watching it, read “Camp Camp,’’ the collection of camp tales published last year in which people detail their summer-camp experiences, complete with pictures of their ’80s hairdos and essays about three-month affairs. Many of the camps mentioned in the book are local.

One of my favorite anecdotes from “Camp Camp’’ comes from Sloane Crosley, who attended camp in Keene, N.H. “My first kiss was with Daniel S.,’’ Crosley writes. “He wrote me letters that were so intense. . . . We would sneak out in kayaks in the middle of the night, meet our boyfriends in the middle of the lake, and try and make out by floating alongside each other and just kissing.’’

I never went to sleep-away camp, but I grew up in Maryland around many kids who did. They were gone all summer, often to some part of rural Massachusetts I’d never heard of. They’d usually return smitten with a boy or girl who had accompanied them to a rock or some special tree. Their moods lifted in May, when they could count down the days until their return to bliss.

What seemed most important to them about camp was that their social status at school was irrelevant. At camp, slates were wiped clean. The funny kids were the most desirable. People took the time to get to know them.

“It’s like packing three years into one summer,’’ explains Jonni Hart, who fell in love with and married a fellow counselor at Camp Taconic in Hinsdale. Now they have five kids.

Camp Taconic - which I visited last week in search of archetypal camp love - is a standard high-end camp, with rock climbing, boating, silk-screening, and good-looking counselors, some of whom are European. The property looks like the set of “Dirty Dancing,’’ with ranch-style bunks and shirts hanging to dry on wooden stoops. There’s a waterfront with some type of inflatable slide anchored near the shore. There’s a theater area where campers put on plays, “High School Musical’’-style. Love is everywhere.

Hart, who at 35 is a much-respected Camp Taconic elder, now brings her family to camp every summer from Texas. She told me that camp love starts at an early age, although the younger kids basically just take walks together and call it a relationship. “Sometimes they don’t even talk,’’ Hart said, laughing.

The preteens are more obvious about their couplings, but it’s still very G-rated. They’re kept busy. “They can’t go off and make out or anything,’’ Hart says, as far as she knows.

The real love happens for the counselors, many of whom were campers just a few years ago. They have off-campus privileges, so they can have date night at the local Applebee’s. Sometimes there’s karaoke.

Lori Serling Sklar is one of Taconic’s most famous camp love stories. She met her husband as a teen camper. When they both returned as counselors, they fell in love. Sklar now accompanies her two children to the Berkshires for the summer. Her 12-year-old daughter is still a camper. Her 20-year-old son, who studies at Boston University, helps run boating activities. Sklar’s husband drives up from New York on weekends to join them. When I asked her why camp love is so real, she explained: “The relationships are lasting because of the amount of time spent here. It’s not like having dates with someone. It’s more like living together.’’

But really, it’s not just that these youngsters basically cohabitate. It’s that they share a dream world where their only obligation is showing up for meals, and their only concern in the world is that August is fast approaching.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com. You can read her daily Love Letters dispatch and chat with her every Wednesday at 1 p.m. at www.boston.com/loveletters.