“It’s a Hard Knock Life”—an excerpt from Camp Camp

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

By Molly Rosen

An excerpt from Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies, a big book of essays, photos, and braces edited by Roger Bennett and Jules Shell. Read more about the people behind Camp Camp here.

“We filed into the mess hall. I looked hopefully for the rebels. There they were, sitting like sisters at a long table in the back of the dining hall. A buzzing cocoon of crinkly perms, heaving breasts, heavy earrings. My heroes.”


All I ever wanted was to be cool. I idolized my big sister. Her bushy hair. Her Huey Lewis and the News rhinestone pin and her Magic-Markered mix-tape covers, her layered black and pink scrunch socks and her Stage Three areolas. I was nerdy and pale. I had blue braces and blue glasses and one corn kernel nipple. Don’t ask about the other one. I liked Patrick Swayze and Inspector Gadget and lox. I longed to grow up, to find my wild side.

Camp CampBut my big sister Becca was too busy to mentor me so I needed to find surrogates. The solution bolted up my back over a rice-and-beans family dinner like electroshock. My sister had been a devout camper for years and had regaled me with great tales of canoe trips and making fun of fat girls with headgear. I realized, in a flash, that I needed to replicate this experience and go to summer camp to study the older girls. There, among an erotic landscape of blueberry pancakes and pine perfume, I would learn to French inhale, have abortions, and do complicated dances with damaged men in the lake. I quickly became obsessed with every camp in the Great Lakes area. I watched every promotional video every day after school, right after watching my favorite taped episode of Family Ties, the one where Jennifer got busted for hosting a beer party behind Elyse’s and Steven’s backs. In the videos, girls romped around wooded hills and made lanyards while John Denver sang about West Virginia. They wore long T-shirts and seemed in on the secrets I, too, wanted to know. I settled on Birch Trail in Minong, Wisconsin. The camp’s video gave me the sense it contained plenty of ne’er-do-well suburbanites eager to corrupt me with Kool cigarettes, Lee Press-on Nails, thick wads of rubber bracelets running up their forearms and Harlequin Romance–worthy tales of getting to third base with skateboarders and Robert Smith.

It took one day at Birch Trail for me to realize this was not to be the case. My counselors were portly girls with side ponytails who played “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens on repeat as we unpacked our bags. They were not a paragon of cool like my sister. Rather than resembling Jennifer’s hip friends on Family Ties, they looked more like the kind of women who would date Dudley on Diff’rent Strokes. My bunk mates were hairless and newtlike. Their names were Polly and Lucille and Muffy and they brought with them no makeup and only one bottle of pink Pert shampoo. From within the inner folds of their monogrammed bags emerged grapefruit vagina spray, peachy armpit spray, and rosy powder for their preteen Camembert labia. They paid no attention to my temporary black hair dye, or my provocative announcement that I had once given a hand job to a Korean man named Jake Ryan on a trip to Niagara Falls. The worst was yet to come. Before dinner, Side Pony Number One emerged from behind her tapestry with a banjo and a triumphant announcement: According to camp tradition, our cabin was to be called the Upper Maples.

We filed into the mess hall. I looked hopefully for the rebels. There they were, sitting like sisters at a long table in the back of the dining hall. A buzzing cocoon of crinkly perms, heaving breasts, heavy earrings. My heroes. A girl with a jiggly cantaloupe ass and Umbros stood defiantly atop a chair and belted an ironic line from Yentl. Her adoring onlookers hooted and high-fived. I pictured their Stage Five pubic patches growing proud pea shoots and curly jungles beneath their palmetto short shorts. My own neglected mons was still bald as a baseball. All of a sudden, my calling in life became clear as a crystal: all I needed to become complete was to be accepted into their pubic-hair tribe. “Those are the Tamaracks,” said a fellow Newt. “I can’t wait until I can be one. It will only take five years.”

A corpulent man named Stan with a beard and a pair of turquoise Jams stood at the microphone. He was the camp director. He wore water socks and a shit-eating grin. His wife, Bobby, wore Tretorns and a dinosaur T-shirt. She stood by his side beaming as he opened proceedings with the camp’s signature welcome. “How, campers, how!” All the girls obediently replied in unison.

Camp Group Shot“Welcome back, ladies. I know in previous years, we have sung with gusto in the name of good, clean fun. But Bobby and I have attended many a conference this winter, and we have learned that that kind of rabble-rousing behavior promotes anorexia among our youth. So do us all a favor and let us all refrain from that age-old Birch Trail tradition. In the name of health!”

“HOW!” Cantaloupe Ass snorted. I tried desperately to make eye contact with her, even going so far as to waggle my spirit fingers in her direction with hope in my heart that she might storm over to me and teach me a secret handshake, forever cementing our solidarity and sisterhood. No such luck. She never even looked in my direction. I waggled my fingers harder toward a pretend fly circling around my hair. Her breasts were at Stage Four. A tear slid down the inside of my aorta.

Week One. After singing my eyes out during the audition, I am cast as Miss Hannigan in Annie. My delight is short-lived when I learn that the Tamaracks do their own play, an awesome rendition of Oliver, that us Maples are excluded from. Does that mean they are similarly excluded from our performance, meaning Cantaloupe Ass won’t be there to witness my deft, scene-stealing performance? I learn to tie-dye a pillowcase.

Week Two. Shaman, a jack-of-all-trades who watches the waterfront with a smear of zinc oxide on his nose, takes our bunk into the woods for an afternoon of trust-building exercises. An endomorph with an acid-washed fanny pack stands on a log and trembles for forty-five whole minutes while we make a nest with our arms behind her. Shaman loses it and starts yelling, I make erotic eye contact with him, and Lindsey Leigh, a Dallas vixen who is eleven, sprays an entire bottle of Salon Selectives hairspray into the air in an act of protest. Side Pony Number Two catches her, starts to cry, and says the ozone is going to disintegrate and she is going to get fired. I tie-dye all my hankies.

Camp MollyWeek Three. We go into town. I buy suede-fringed Minnetonka moccasin ankle boots. They are the same shoes that Cantaloupe Ass has. I learn that her name is Dana. She is Oliver in the Tamarack play. All the boys surround her at every social as soon as she descends from the bus in her scrunch socks. Her voice is deep and her legs are bowed and her hair is bright blonde. Her younger sister is named Lucille Bernstein and she is in my bunk. I hate Lucille. She’s a redhead and her areolas are inverted. Once she put a goldfish cracker on her flashlight after lights-out and giggled for five minutes about the large shadow it made on the ceiling like it was the wildest thing a woman has ever done. Yesterday during free time I wrote “red pubic hair” on Lucille’s hairbrush in pink nail polish in the secret hopes that Dana might hate Lucille, too, want to know who defiled her horrible sister’s possessions, and take me under her wing. No such luck. Lucille cried to Dana, Dana yelled at me, and now all the Tamaracks officially hate my guts. I tie-dye every T-shirt I brought with me.

Week Four. I am going home on Sunday. My play is tomorrow. My parents called the camp to see if they could drive up and watch my moment of glory but Stan said Birch Trail is a sacred space and any disruption from the outside world is upsetting to the youth. I hate Lucille more and more. I blame her for everything including Mary’s blindness on Little House on the Prairie. My worst-case scenario came true. Although the Tamaracks were not excluded from our performance of Annie, not one bothered to show up for my crowning glory. I was predictably devastated and in a desperate last minute bid for attention, chose the last night’s campfire and a sing-along as a stage from which to regale my fellow Newt campers with tales of my sexual escapades. The reptile penis I once fellated in the projects of Cabrini- Green. The ballsac I cupped in my palm while fending off a mugger in my public school playground. I am eleven years old. I have never kissed a boy. But my older sister Becca’s collection of V. C. Andrews books have muddled my mind with enough incest and insanity to last a lifetime. I talked loudly in the hopes Dana might stop by my storytelling session, realize I was secretly in need of a hug, and drop everything to sweep me up in her blonde embrace. But she was too busy French-braiding Lucille’s red hair, singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and writing down her wishes for the year, throwing them in the fire, and beating her bosom while she wept. The morning before I leave, I tie-dye my sheets, shorts, socks, and scrunchies in a fit of rage and frustration.

I then returned to Chicago and quickly became a different girl. The corn kernel became a gently steamed patty pan squash. The other breast blossomed into a tender frozen pea. A faint downy cobweb of pubic hair emerged one day like a miracle. I discovered Interview magazine and Axl Rose. Doc Martens boots. Mood rings. Janis Joplin. Baileys. Black lights. Spin the bottle. That you could pierce your ears three times with the same safety pin and shred holes in your jeans with a simple set of scissors. Sun-In and a straightening iron flattened any fear I had of a Jewfro. Stan and Bobby materialized in a hotel conference room for a reunion wearing winter coats some months later. My hair was bright blonde and bone straight. I looked like Hitler’s honey. Pocket T’s were in that year, perfect for concealing my smaller breast beautifully. This summer, I would be a Lower Linden. My Minnetonkas were worn just right. I had successfully tie-dyed every item of white clothing in our house, including my father’s business shirts, which I belted and wore with my cleaning lady Carla’s rosaries. I left the reunion with Birch Trail’s latest promotional video in hand. To my sheer delight, three seconds of my Miss Hannigan debut had made it onto film. I ran home from school every night to watch it on repeat, after a taped television-friendly version of The Breakfast Club. I now had a role in history. I mattered. I meant something. One day I was certain to be a star.

Molly Rosen’s novel, She’s Dead, I’m Not, I’m Yours, will be published by Grove/Black Cat next summer.

Reprinted from Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies (Crown). Copyright 2008 by Roger Bennett and Jules Shell. Photos courtesy of Camp Camp Book.

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