When I was eight and my brother Eric was five we crashed a school bus. Actually, he crashed the bus, I was just a passenger. It was right before the start of summer. The row of buses on the grassy ball-field that doubled as a parking lot were being cleaned and tuned up for the start of camp. We dashed in and out of them – me, Eric, and another little girl, the toddler daughter of a camp employee. In each bus the little girl and I took our seats while Eric clambered into the driver’s chair and gripped the steering wheel, pushing buttons and yanking all kinds of levers.
Eventually we came to the mini-bus, a recent acquisition deemed totally adorable by me. This time when we settled into our seats and my brother started pulling levers, the bus began to roll. For a long moment we froze. Someone must have left a parking brake off. The bus was definitely in motion and picking up speed. When my panic cleared enough for a thought to get through, it was “get off this bus immediately,” so I jumped up and leaped out the door, totally focused on self-preservation. Luckily, the other two were smart enough to jump after me. The little girl fell on the grass and for a second she lay directly in the path of the bus’s back tire, until Eric yanked her out of the way.
We watched in silent horror as the bus hit the edge of the hill and tipped forward, aimed directly for the infirmary below. Inside the infirmary two counselors were securing a bunk-bed with hammers and nails, and when the bus hit the wall with a bang that shook the whole building, it was at the same instant that one counselor’s hammer connected with the bed. He turned to his friend in astonishment and said, “was that me?”
The building made it through with just a few streaks of yellow paint on the back wall. The school bus was totaled. We got in a lot of trouble for that.
My grandfather, Coach Gordon, founded Camp Chatuga in 1956. His day job was coaching college basketball in a city several hours away; the camp was a passion project. At first it was boys only. Ironically, my grandfather had three daughters, no sons, of which my mother was the oldest.
My father grew up in the small mountain town that housed the camp; he attended as a day camper when he was young. His memories of that time aren’t the most positive. He was shy, a homebody, and the boys camp days were wild and wooly, the stuff of legend – all-camp skinny dipping in the lake, all-ages horror movie screenings in the rec hall at night. Survival of the fittest kind of stuff.
By the time my mother and her sisters were in charge, the world had changed a lot in terms of safety measures and general child-welfare standards. Camp became my parents’ full time job, and my family moved into a house on the premises. We lived there all year round, even in winter when camp was silent and empty, but it was best when our aunts and cousins moved to camp for the summer, the whole herd of us children running half-wild over the green hills, through muggy heat and swarms of gnats.
The (officially unofficial) Camp Chatuga ghost story goes like this: back in those early days Coach Gordon hired a counselor who turned out to be a bad seed. He drank on the job and beat up kids. When my grandfather found out about this bad behavior, he called the counselor into his office and fired him. The counselor didn’t take this well. He stole a camp van and drove down to the Last Chance bar at the foot of the mountain. When he was good and drunk he decided to drive back and give Coach Gordon a piece of his mind, but the road up the mountain twists like a snake, enough to make you sick even on a good day. He was weaving when he hit Dead Man’s Curve. He lost control of the van, crashed through the barrier and over the cliff, down to the valley below. When the police arrived there was no body, but they did find a charred foot a few yards from the van, and on the ground, heading straight in the direction of camp, was a set of footprints – one step one drag, one step one drag. Sometimes, at night, you can still hear him walking through the woods, hoping to get his revenge on the camp that wronged him. Listen – step, drag. Step. Drag. Step. Drag.
I thought about that story when I walked down the empty rows of cabins in autumns and winters, everything so silent. I could go anywhere, even the boys cabins that were strictly off-limits in summer. Without any campers they held a kind of melancholy, nice and spooky when a breeze hit the screens, when the wood floors creaked under my knees as I knelt to look for left-behind items under all the bunk beds. Sometimes I found notes tucked into bed-springs or knots in the wooden walls, sometimes hair-ties and pens with missing caps. All the while I’d be thinking about the ghost, The Camp Tramp, and his step-drag, step-drag, giving myself the shivers.
What was it like to grow up on a summer camp? Other campers always asked whether my family ate in the dining hall all year, like that would be the coolest thing ever. It didn’t seem that special to me. We weren’t freaks, we had a perfectly normal kitchen in our house that we used most of the time. But yes, we sometimes ate in the dining hall, even when it was just us. And yes, if I needed extra yarn I could always go to the craft hut. I had sleepovers in the cabins on my birthday. Sometimes I would take a canoe out by myself and just drift, lying on my back, staring up at the sky. But the horses went home at the end of the summer, and we never did any off-season go-karting, the stupid go-karts broke down too much for that.
When I was four, some teenage girls wanted to keep me in their cabin during rest hour. Being four, I wouldn’t be still and I wouldn’t be quiet, and the girls were afraid of getting in trouble. Hush, they said, or a boogie man will get you. I didn’t know what a boogie man was, but my imagination took over. Later, I stood in the office bathroom, a dank closet that doubled as a dark-room, staring into the depths of the toilet, convinced something bad was going to climb out and grab me in its claws.
This sort of thing happened because our parents were fully occupied with camp for three months out of the year, and that meant huge amounts of freedom and a certain lack of supervision, especially for me, the oldest. After the first few kids an extra counselor was hired each summer as a nanny for the younger cousins.
For eight summers that person was Mary from Russia. Mary was calm and poised. She had a PhD in languages and a great deal of patience, so she took on the project of teaching me French. I was into this idea because it seemed very romantic, and I was a kid with a strong sense of romance. Mary checked out an old-fashioned picture book of basic French vocabulary from the local library. She sat on the white dock and dangled her feet in the lake while I floated in the water. She pointed to the pictures and I repeated back words that were silk in her voice, not so much in mine, “je fume, tu fumes, elle fume, nous fumons.” I smoke, you smoke, she smokes, we smoke. So romantic.
The camp lake is just big enough for a swimming area, some canoeing, and the small motor boat that pulls water-skiers in tight circles. In the winter my dad turns a valve on the dam and the water drains. The lake gets drained for dock repairs and to kill intrusive plants, but the best part for me and my siblings was going mudding. We put on boots and clothes we didn’t care about and stomped around on the putrid floor of the lake, looking for lost treasure. Most things we found were predictable, like whistles under the lifeguard stands and lots of broken watches in the swimming area. More surprising were the batteries I kept finding, bunches of loose double-As, all along the edges of the bank.
One quiet afternoon at the end of summer my family was floating on inner-tubes in the swimming area when my mom said to my three-year-old sister, “Tessa, what would you do if your tube drifted away?” Tessa said, “I’d do this,” and leaped into the water, kicking her inner-tube behind her, a perfect self-taught swimmer. That year a counselor from Slovakia named Igor stayed at camp for a few months after summer was over. There were lots of counselors we semi-adopted this way, twenty-somethings who lived at camp for a while, like extra older siblings. Every day, far into October, Tessa dragged Igor to the lake to watch her swim. She wasn’t allowed to go alone and he was the only one with the patience for it.
The counselors were the best part of camp and also the strangest. A counselor from Germany swallowed tiny frogs whole just to freak out campers, although he was perfectly pleasant otherwise. Frog swallowing turned into a bit of a fad that summer. Another counselor would take out a canoe at night and club bullfrogs on the head, then fry their legs up the next day. Like Mary, he has a PhD in languages. Once my brother Eric killed a rattlesnake and Ronnie, the camp chef, cooked it up for him in a tinfoil pouch with carrots and potatoes, but turns out, snakes aren’t that delicious.
Most camp animals did not get eaten, like Oliver, the llama who hung out on the dining hall porch sometimes. He liked to spit at kids who got too handsy. For the talent show a cover of Wonderwall was rewritten in his honor. There was a series of fawns named after characters from summer blockbusters – Maximus, Amidala, Trinity, Fiona. The deer were tame and liked to frolic with the dogs. There was a pony named Gin who held her breath when she was being saddled, so her unlucky rider would end up completely upside down halfway through a trail-ride.
Every summer I signed up for advanced horseback riding, which meant extra time at the barn with the horses and the saddles and Petra, another of my favorite counselors. One summer the ground stayed too wet for trail-rides, so as a special treat Petra arranged for our advanced group to follow a local vet on her morning rounds. First thing she took us to a fancy golf course in the next town over. There was a small donkey there – I honestly could not tell you why there was a donkey there – but the whole clump of us tween-aged horse-girls leaned on a wooden fence and watched her flip him on his side, sedate him slightly, and clamp his balls down. I would like to say that was the only donkey castration I’ve ever observed, but sadly it was not. At least that time we all got ice-cream afterward.
Not every counselor was comfortable with caring for her boss’s kids. I was eight the first time I was allowed to go along on a camp out. I went barefoot and wore a fuzzy pink dressing gown because I didn’t know any better. Our counselor chose the newly erected teepee for our camp out, which was very exciting, as every other camping spot was just a bare place on the ground. She brought along powdered kool-aid and poured it into our water bottles. In the dark, we girls huddled together and told scary stories and dirty jokes (“I’d like to put my pinky in your belly-button,” the little boy said, and the little girl said okay. But the next morning the little boy said, “that wasn’t my pinky,” so the little girl said, “that’s okay, it wasn’t my belly-button.”)
Sometime in the night we woke to discover puddles on our sleeping bags, a full-blown storm roaring overhead. We cried, we begged to go back to camp, but our counselor said we couldn’t because I was with them, which meant she’d get in trouble. So I sat there, wet and miserable, convinced that this was somehow my fault. The next day, when we were dry and safe, the counselor pulled me aside. “I’m so sorry about all the things those girls were saying,” she said, nervously, “about, you know, the jokes. I know your mom wouldn’t be happy, and I need you to know that I don’t endorse it.”
My mom was the oldest of the sister directors and the strictest. Other campers would say, “Kelly is your mom,” in wide-eyed awe, and I demurred, embarrassed. Sometimes I would see how long I could go without saying my last name, so I could be just another camper like everybody else, but that only worked when I was staying in a cabin. For most of the summer I slept in my house and spent the days doing activities, eating in the dining hall, hanging around with the cabin of girls my age like a kind of mascot.
In one of these cabins somebody had a toy snake, and when the other girls waved it in front of their crotches I laughed along. You’re not like we thought you’d be, they told me, and I was proud. We lay on the cabin floor and closed our eyes, took turns rubbing each others’ temples and telling a story about the devil and his pitchfork, chanting: scratches and scratches and scratches on your back. When we sat up and looked at each others’ backs, sure enough, there were long red lines.
To prove how much of a not-snitch I was I watched a girl from my cabin steal a liter of coke from the camp dance and hide it under her bed. She kept a contraband discman under her pillow and every night she asked me if I could hear it, and I told her no. It made me jumpy to keep her secrets, because I hated the thought of being in trouble. No sneaking out in the night for me, like Eric might. My strong fear of authority stayed in constant competition with my strong need to be liked, but however I tried to balance the two, I sometimes ended up on the wrong side.
When I was sixteen, my last summer as a camper, I went white-water rafting for trip day. My brother Kevin was on that trip, and the guy I had a crush on, a guy who actually payed attention to me. He had bright blue eyes and in the raft he touched my toes, picking at my flaking nail polish. It was a wonderful day.
We rode in two vans, one for girls, one for boys. On the way back to camp we were giddy. As the vans passed each other we took turns doing silly things like turning our heads in unison and nodding at the other van. This quickly escalated, until eventually the boys passed us with their bare butts pressed to the windows. We collapsed in fits of giggles. To retaliate, two girls stood on the back seat and pulled down their shorts. It was silly and weird and after we got back to camp I forgot all about it, until a few days later when my mom summoned me to her office.
When I sat down in a chair across from her, she asked about the trip. I wasn’t sure what to say, or what was happening, until she told me she got the whole story on the back of a postcard some kid sent home to his parents. “How could you participate in something like that?” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me immediately?” This went on for a very long time. When she was finally finished, I slunk back to my cabin, humiliated. I didn’t do any mooning, I didn’t even see anything wrong with it, why should I be in trouble? Of course, it was really about the postcard. She was my mom, but this was her job, and it was hard when the two collided.
One more memory: when I was very young, before we lived at camp full time, we had a house about three miles down the road. My grandparents lived at camp then, but my mother and her sisters had already taken over as directors. Some days my mom and I would walk to camp so she could get some work done in her office, while I sat at my little plastic desk, scribbling on sheets of paper, just like her.
On one of these days we took a break in our summer cabin, just a little nap, my mother said. We lay together on the bed and I listened to the sound of her breathing, but I wasn’t tired. I leaned over her, whispered in her ear, “Mama, I’m going to go visit GG,” and she mumbled back something that sounded like yes.
I slipped out of the cabin and walked down the hill to my grandparents’ house, which would be our house in just a few years. Camp was completely empty. Maybe a goose flew overhead, calling out. My grandmother greeted me at her door with open arms, and soon I was coloring pictures on the floor of the living room.
Then, out of nowhere, my mother is there, a tall shadow blocking out the light. She bends over me, agitated, furious. “Where were you?” she says, grabbing my arms. “I couldn’t find you anywhere.”
My mother was strict, but she was also beloved. She called all the square dances – swing your partner, circle of four, put a little birdy in the cage. She’d call, “swing your opposite partner,” and we’d switch partners and dance with somebody new until she said, “and now back to your own honey bun, your own cold can of RC Cola.” Sometimes we’d make a big circle, then run to the middle and holler. Sometimes we’d make a big circle and she’d ask a counselor to wind it up, which meant we kept a tight grip on each others’ hands while that counselor led us in a spiral through the middle of the lodge, then out into the ballfield in the dark under the stars, all of us running and holding on for dear life.
When I was eighteen my mother died. My father gave out an open invitation: come to camp and visit us, and people did. For one long week they came and sat with us in the dining hall. On the Saturday of her funeral we had a cook out, like we always do on the opening day of camp. It was a beautiful day in March. A thousand people gathered on the hill above the lake, many of them former campers and staff. Eric played a song on the guitar. Everybody cried.
Camp stays with us. Campers grow up to be counselors, marry each other, have babies. Counselors from around the world end up in America to stay, or disperse again, leaving open invitations for visits. Unlike a lot of people I can always go back, because camp is my blood family and my childhood home. On Facebook when old pictures get passed around with so much longing, I get a little jealous, because they all think it belongs to them, but it belongs to me the most, doesn’t it? Still, I look at their pictures and read the stories, see them ask each other, don’t you wish you were there? Do you miss it? Are you camp-sick? And my answer is usually yes.
Leanna Moxley is a writer and a teacher, but she spends most of her time waxing nostalgic on Tumblr.