How I Spent My Childhood Summers in New Jersey
Summers are often a magical time, where you take a break from the pressures and schedules of school and just get to be lazy for a couple months. Unless of course your parents made you go to day camp, in which case you still had to catch the bus, take on a full schedule of activities and deal with the drama and struggle of fitting in, just like at school. Such was the case with my childhood summers in the Armpit of America, where I would count down the days for school to end, only to start camp soon after (and then count down the days until camp was over).
Though this may seem like a vicious cycle of misery, camp was never that bad….much like Ronnie and Sammi from “Jersey Shore” (speaking of which, I toured the infamous house, in case you missed it), I just had a complicated love/hate relationship with camp, as described below.
I went to three different day camps during my childhood, but it was only the third that had a significant impact on my life. That camp was Pine Grove Day Camp, located in Wall Township. It was run by a guy who looked like a cute old Jewish man like Mel Brooks but who managed a children’s day camp like a concentration camp. Seriously, the guy could make you wet your pants with one harsh look. But still, he knew what he was doing. Aside from sunburn and mosquito bites and all the times I wished I didn’t have to go each summer, that camp gave me a lifetime of memories from eight summers.
Pine Grove touted itself as a camp “as complete as a sleepaway camp” and pretty much lived up to that description. Sure, it had a few pools, sports facilities, arts and crafts and all that standard stuff, but what set it apart more than anything is that it served lunch. Not just peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but real food cooked in a real kitchen – fried chicken (or as the camp menu called it, “honey dip’t chicken”), meatball subs, grilled cheese, hamburgers, etc., complete with sides and dessert. In fact, the only meal that sucked where those days every two weeks where the option would be tuna and egg salad platters. But any day you didn’t like the main course being offered, there was a range of substitutes you could order – bagels, turkey sandwiches, yogurt. Hell, even if you kept kosher, they would accommodate you. Needless to say, the food was one of the best parts of Pine Grove, especially if you were a fat kid like me.
If you were one of the fat kids, it made camp a lot more complicated, mainly because you were constantly forced to play sports at which you sucked. And with a daily schedule that consisted of having to play football, baseball, soccer, basketball, volleyball, etc., there were a lot of sports going on. While the shame of being picked last was nothing you didn’t go through in gym class during the school year, there was an additional source of embarrassment that never happened at school. Any other FFKs (former fat kids) know what I’m talking about – the dreaded division of teams into “shirts” vs. “skins.” Needless to say, you’d always pray to whichever god would listen that you get put on the “shirts” team. Otherwise, there’d be a lot of sunburned blubber flying around. As you can imagine, both instructional and free swim periods were just as awkward.
But aside from all that, there were still periods of downtime, where you could just hang out or do what I always considered my favorite camp activity – playing cards. Yep, my parents would spend a shitload of money to send me to this top of the line day camp, and the thing I liked most about it was card games. Among the most popular were Egyptian Ratscrew (which involved no screwing of rats and likely didn’t originate in Egypt), Asshole (before we knew it was a college drinking game), and Bloody Knuckles (where we willingly subjected ourselves to have our knuckles scraped until bloody and then show off our mangled hands as a source of pride). Psychoanalyzing myself, I’d say I liked cards so much because unlike sports, in which one’s physical prowess determines whether you’ll be celebrated or ridiculed, in cards, everyone is equal. Fat or not, you have just as equal a chance of getting dealt four 2’s in Asshole as the skinny athletic kids.
Anyway, these are things that can happen at any day camp – I’ll get back into the specifics of Pine Grove. One of the things I always found weird was how they named the various age groups. The youngest kids are called Freshmen – simple enough. But then the next age groups are divided into Lower Sophomores, followed by Upper Sophomores, Lower Juniors, and Upper Juniors – just imagine a bunch of six-year-olds trying to say the word “sophomore.” Sadly, it got even more complicated from there, with the older groups divided into Sub Seniors, Lower Seniors, Upper Seniors, and Super Seniors.
And even after you “graduated” from being a Super Senior, you were still a camper; for the next two years you would in the CIT/CA group (CIT being Counselor in Training, CA meaning Counselors Assistant, and both meaning the same thing, but they needed a way to separate the two age groups). During these two years, you spent the mornings as a counselor in training for one of the aforementioned younger groups, while the afternoons you could pick whichever activities you wanted to do. And though I have a mix of some good and not so good memories from each year I attended Pine Grove, those two years as a CIT/CA were by far the best. For one, the camp pretty much kept boys and girls separated for the entire day. But once you reach the CIT/CA group, you’re all thrown together. And as you’re about 13-15 years old at the time, there is that blossoming of hormones that makes those interactions even more exciting and awkward and something you can look back on and laugh. These years also had the best trips – a day trip to the beach at Point Pleasant and an overnight to Wildwood. And being the oldest camper gives you a certain level of coolness, even if you were fat and awkward.
Remember that whole spiel a while back about the food? Well, I neglected to mention that the Pine Grove cafeteria had its own waitstaff of former campers. In what was a pretty sexist policy, girls who had been CAs the previous year had to do their time as a waitress before becoming a counselor the following summer. Meanwhile, guys would automatically graduate right from being a CA to being a counselor the next summer. But by the time I reached that age, Pine Grove had decided to be more egalitarian and everyone graduated from being a prestigious counselor’s assistant to serving grilled cheese to bunch of brats. But pay your dues, and you would eventually reach the pinnacle of summer day camp experience – being a counselor at the same place you were a camper.
I did just one year as a counselor, and though I wish I could say I enjoyed, I really didn’t. During my first summer as a Sub Senior, I was one of 40-something boys in my age group. By this particular summer, I was the only one left. On top of that, given the heavy emphasis on sports, I was now in charge of leading those activities – having to pick team captains, watching the fat kids get picked last, trying to cheer on whichever kid had the ball, and being a referee for certain sports for which I didn’t fully understand the rules. (First downs vs. touchdowns? Still don’t know the difference.)
So after eight summers, I decided to call it quits at Pine Grove, and took on the much more esteemed job of assembling low-grade beef tacos and working the drive-thru at Taco Bell. But Pine Grove has definitely left a mark on me (and left me with a drawer full of camp t-shirts) even though the sunburn, mosquito bites, bloody knuckles and the occasional purple nurple (or titty twister, if you prefer) may have gone away.
There isn’t a day that goes by in which I don’t recall some memory from my summers there. And almost every time I see my siblings, one of us will bring up Pine Grove – whether something jogs our memories of those magical summers, seeing a former camp person on Facebook or just reminiscing.
But perhaps the biggest way Pine Grove impacted my life was giving me my essentially lifelong nickname. It happened the first day of camp my Upper Senior year, when a friend I hadn’t seen since the previous summer started calling me by the final syllable of my clunky three-syllable last name. The name caught on that summer, but I didn’t expect it to last after that. But when that summer ended and I got on the bus for my first day of middle school, I heard someone shout out my nickname – the very person who started calling me it! Everyone in school soon called me that, and it carried over into high school as well. And since I – and half of my high school – went to Rutgers, the name accompanied me to college as well. Hell, it’s been more than 20 years at this point and everyone, including my wife and her family, still call me it. And to the guy who created this persona for me so many summers ago, assuming you’re reading this, thank you.
So ends my 1,600 word soliloquy about the day camp I used to go to.