Letters From Camp

| January 4, 2016 | 0 Comments

I’ve spent the past two summers working at Eagle Springs Programs, a summer camp in Pennsylvania that served as a vacation program for adults with disabilities. Recently, I found out that, after forty years of existence, ESP is finally closing its doors. I don’t know how to even begin to talk about camp, about how much I’ve taken away from those months in the woods. And I don’t know how to explain how instrumental camp has been in my own personal narrative without playing into the societal trope that people with disabilities are just supporting characters who exist to better the lives of those around them, because that’s decidedly ableist and untrue, and it’s certainly not what I want others to take away from my bottomless well of camp stories. What I do know is that camp was an incredibly insular little world, that it was an exhausting and at times surreal experience, and that I truly can’t imagine having done anything else with my last two summers.

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Vacationers’ artwork on display for a special gallery night. [image description: 12 colorful abstract paintings, framed with black construction paper, hang on a particle board wall]

It’s midmorning on one of the last days of July. Session Five, Day One. It’s a Thursday, but I don’t know this. This is the tenth day I’ve worked in a row, and I have five more to go before I get a day off. I haven’t had more than six hours of sleep in days, and I’ve been working upwards of fourteen hours every day. I’m demonstrating how to paint with marbles–slap some blobs of paint onto a piece of cardstock, place it in a plastic tub, roll it around until the paper is covered. Very few fine motor skills necessary. Good, I say, I like how you’re putting the paint on the paper nice and evenly. To someone else: here, we don’t need to spread it out that thin; it’ll dry before we get to the marbles. Just outside the art barn entrance, a man wearing headphones is peeing in the gravel. Look, let’s try to get some paint in the corners.

It’s later that evening, after dinner. A man in a fish suit dances down a red carpet made of painted cardboard stapled to the floor. He’s accompanied by a counselor wearing a kangaroo suit. I snap pictures. People cheer.

It’s the next afternoon. I’m putting a gallon of paint away in the back closet. A ginormous insect with a tail twice as long as its body is buzzing around the bare light bulb. I snatch a homemade sword off a nearby table brandish it at the bug. Go on, you. I wonder what on earth I am doing with myself.

It’s around 8:30 PM, after evening program. A young woman named Jess is having a conversation with Chris, our program director. Sirius Black, I have WONDERFUL news! Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks are getting married! Chris nods at her. That’s brilliant, Jess, he says in his Irish brogue. Jess beams. Yes, that IS brilliant! Sirius Black, I need you to check your bank account and see how many galleons you have. I need to go shopping in Diagon Alley. Mr. Ollivander says he’ll help me find a new wand, and I also need some ruby red slippers and some cosmetics…

Fast forward a week and I’m sitting at a low table constructing a monkey head for my costume for the end-of-summer play. I use the crown of a cheap plastic safari hat for the top of the mask and work downwards, adding cardboard strips to construct a jaw, cheekbones, a forehead, adding more layers to fill out the face.  I’ve looked up instructions for how to create a form for a papier-mâché mask, but I’m mostly making this up as I go. A hollow plastic ball from the ball pit cut in half to make eyeballs, a paper clay coating, a plastic flowerpot painted and glued on as a hat. Double check the series of Abu pictures I’ve saved to my phone, adjust a detail, repeat. I lose track of the glue gun burns on my fingertips.

7:00 comes like a freight train every morning, like a brick wall to the face. I drag myself up and off to my assigned cabin, try to hold up against the weight of the long hours. The days are coming so quickly now, barreling straight through me, surging into each other. I feel more than ever like each one is something that’s happening to me, like I’m standing in the middle of a stream, or maybe an avalanche. Logically, I should be miserable, but I’m remarkably content. Camp is a sacrifice, not for the reasons most people would cite—the shitty food and accommodations, the critters in the cabins, the difficulty of the work—but because of the other things I’m missing. Time to read, time to think, people to really talk to. And yet I feel mostly happy, mostly satisfied, despite the fact that very little of this experience aligns with how I would define a happy life.  This shouldn’t be enough, but somehow it manages to be. Or maybe it isn’t, but somehow it feels like it is.

Aladdin cast photo  [image description: a group of people dressed up as the characters from Aladdin stand in front of a wooden stage]

Aladdin cast photo
[image description: a group of people dressed up as the characters from Aladdin stand in front of a wooden stage. In the center of the frame, the Genie poses with an oversized lamp]

Then it’s session seven, the week of the play. The whole program team has been eating, sleeping, and breathing Aladdin for days. Hebert, the Bolivian guy who has been given the title role, is struggling to read his lines. Everyone is getting tired, irritable. It’s LOAF of bread, not LOVE of bread. All of the dialogue has to be prerecorded because we don’t have microphones. We manage to get the audio for all but one scene. The next morning, the phone we were using to record it all slides off a chair and onto the floor, doesn’t turn on again.  We start over.  That night at cookout, we’re standing around with our food, finally getting to eat after serving nearly 200 impatient vacationers and staff.  Hebert holds up his hot dog bun, grins a little. All this, he says, for a loaf of bread?

And then it’s over. We put on the play, we stay in our sweat-soaked costumes long enough to take photographs. We sing, badly, giddily, at the top of our lungs. But when I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear that now I’m in a whole new world with you. I wake up the next morning feeling like I have been hit by a bus, like the whole summer’s worth of exhaustion and anxiety has come down on me all at once. I throw together the final slideshow, sort the last art bags, stand and wave my goodbyes to the vacationers. It rains. We decorate for the last night party. It rains some more, downpours for a while before finally trickling off. I spend most of the night standing around outside in fuzzy glow of the porch-light with a shifting group of people. We talk in circles, pass around a Black and Mild cigar. It tastes like camp last year, which doesn’t feel like a year ago at all. The people who walk by are increasingly drunk. I go to sleep at 3:30 AM, wake up at 7:30 to see the staff departure bus off. It’s a beautiful morning. I walk down from my cabin via the shortcut between the two ponds, which are gray-green and perfectly still. The grass is very wet. It’s all so abrupt. The buses leave. I sit around for a bit with some coworkers who are staying for cleanup, collect my things and my final pay, which if divided by the time I’ve actually spent working would come out to about $3 an hour at best. A last round of hugs and goodbyes. Quickly, because I don’t want to keep my father waiting, because it’s all happening too fast and I can’t process it and I’m terrible at these open-ended leavings, at not knowing which of these people, if any of them, I’ll ever see again.

And then I’m home again. It’s all very vivid still, but not for long. The whole sprawling summer will boil itself down into a little capsule of memory, which I can take out and look at as camp, but it won’t really be, not exactly. The whole is more than the sum of the parts, so the parts all blend together and get a little lost, a little distorted. And it doesn’t matter how much of it I write out, how much of it I try to document—there’s still too much that I can’t quite figure out, too much that I’ll never quite be able to capture.

Last Departure Day of summer 2014. [Image description: a large group of young adults wearing purple staff T-shirts. They’re standing in a line with their arms around each other in front of a rustic dining hall building in the woods. There are also some staff members sitting on the ground or standing on the dining hall porch.]

Last Departure Day of summer 2014. [Image description: a large group of young adults wearing purple staff T-shirts. They’re standing in a line with their arms around each other in front of a rustic dining hall building in the woods. There are also some staff members sitting on the ground or standing on the dining hall porch.]

It’s a Monday evening in late November when I get the news that camp is closing for good. Within a few hours, my Facebook feed is flooded with a bittersweet outpouring of memories and photographs and fond farewells from generations of former staff members from all over the world. This past season marked ESP’s fortieth year. Forty years of magic became the slogan of the summer; none of us knew at the time how much more poignant the phrase would become. Camp wasn’t always a perfect place—at times, I was frustrated with the lack of resources and I couldn’t help but wonder if we could do better by some of the people we were serving—but it was a well-loved place, by vacationers and staff alike, and I’m not quite sure where I would be without it. So thank you, Eagle Springs, for forty years of magic, and for letting me be a part of these last two.

All photos belong to author. 

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Category: featured, Poetry, Prose and Comedy

Emily Hurd

About the Author ()

Emily is a special education major from a tiny town in southern Pennsylvania. She's a firm believer in the virtues of art-making, rambling discussion, and consuming excessive amounts of both coffee and tea. Her other interests include reading and writing poetry, poking around in abandoned houses, and procrastinating indefinitely. Her proudest moment involved replacing the word "oil" on construction signs with "fish" so that the signs in question read "fresh fish and chips."

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