Anyone who has ever gone to summer camp will tell you that's where some of childhood's best memories are made. Whether telling ghost stories around the campfire, catching fireflies at dusk, or spending lazy days swimming under a hazy sun, the memories last a lifetime.
Yet for many, summer camp was more than fun and games. It was about friendships made, independence gained, and lessons learned-all in one remarkable summer. "It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience," says Frederick Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, remembering nights spent around the fire at Camp Sachem, a Boy Scout camp in New Hampshire.
Of course, the skunks under his sleeping platform did pose a bit of a problem. "I had the sleeping bag pulled over my head, afraid they were going to spray me," he says with a laugh.
The wildlife and wilderness initially proved unsettling for some city kids, like Cambridge-born comedian Lenny Clarke. Soon, however, Clarke was having so much fun, he became the camp's assistant waterfront director, a job that had him teaching other campers how to swim and canoe. "Lying awake at night in a tent in the woods, I would sleep with a hatchet," Clarke remembers of those first nights at Camp Quinapoxet, another Boy Scout camp in New Hampshire.
That wasn't half as scary as the trauma inflicted on his neighbors in Cambridge, who were so anxious to send the young, troublemaking Clarke away for the summer, they took up a collection to pay for eight weeks of camp-six weeks longer than the regular camper session.
"All the other [Boy Scout] troops would come and go and I would stay," says Clarke. "The neighbors were so happy. It was the quietest the neighborhood had been in awhile."
Restaurateur Steve DiFillippo doesn't think of wildlife and wilderness when he talks of his summer camp experience. He remembers the hot dogs. When he enrolled in Camp Kingsmont, a weight-loss and fitness camp in western Massachusetts, the owner of Davio's was 13 and eager to trim his 145-pound frame so he could play football.
"We would go to concerts at Tanglewood," DiFillippo recalled of days spent listening to Roberta Flack, John Denver, and Seals&Croft. "I would get a hotdog and go into the woods to eat it because if you got caught eating, you would get into trouble. Other kids would go into the woods and drink beer. Not me. I would eat hot dogs."
Despite diverging from the camp's strict diet, DiFillippo was down to 115 pounds by summer's end, slim enough to be named captain of his football team and today more appreciative of the performers he got to see. It wasn't food, music, or the great outdoors that lured Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton to summer camp. It was hockey.
Thornton didn't last long at hockey camp, however. "I fell into the boards the first day and broke my arm. That was the end of camp," he explains. "Mom and Dad dropped me off at camp the night before and the next day they picked me up at the hospital in a cast."
He returned to hockey camp the next year and later coached fellow Canadian and Bruins teammate Tyler Seguin before both made it big in the NHL.
"It was always hard work," Seguin recalls of his hockey camp experience, remembering the hours spent practicing on the ice. For New England Cable News producer and reporter Jenny Johnson, Camp Waziyatah in Maine wasn't about hard work or having fun. It was about friendship.
"People say there are no friends like camp friends, and for me, that's the most meaningful thing ever," says Johnson, who has remained in close contact with her best friend Erin since the two met at camp as 11-year-olds. "Our friendship is one thing in life I never take for granted and I thank the camp for it." Sometimes, its not just one camper who makes an impression. Just ask comedian Steve Sweeney, who spent several summers working as a camp counselor.
"This cloud of noise would pull up on the first day of camp and it would be all these kids," Sweeney recalled. "It would be chaos for two weeks and you would get to hate those kids but when the bus of chaos pulled away, you would say, 'Gee, I miss those little @!*&%$s.' You really get to like so many of these kids."
Sweeney called his camp experience "magical," saying he learned so much from those summers that he still looks back on them fondly. "It was such a great part of growing up." Derrek Schulman thinks so too. The regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England remembers the joy of seeing his first shooting star, catching crayfish, eels, and water bugs, playing kickball, and running relay races at Camp Sewataro in Framingham. "It's the closest I've ever come to living in an age of innocence," he now says.
Most former campers would surely agree.