In 1967, at the age of 10, I attended an overnight camp for the first and only time. An older neighbor girl had been going for years and raved about all the great times she had had, getting into all sorts of delightful mischief I was excited to become a part of.
I begged my parents to go. They were neither rich nor poor but scraping together the hundred bucks or so for my sister and me to attend wasn’t easy. We were not a family that camped or took vacations except to visit relatives so this was indeed an extravagance, one that I hoped would be a fun-filled adventure my first time away from home.
When we arrived at the camp to be dropped off, the accommodations seemed a bit underwhelming. The cabins were rustic complete with peeling paint, metal bunks and spider-webs draped through exposed rafters. They were arranged by campers’ age and my sister’s cabin was far away, which wasn’t much of a problem because she was two years older, bunking with friends and wanting nothing to do with me. I was assigned to a cabin with seven girls about my age whom I had never laid eyes on before.
I started feeling uncomfortable almost immediately. I had always done well in school and made friends with my teachers who enjoyed me because I was quiet, thoughtful and smart, but in the company of these seven strangers, I felt completely alone. I never felt more like I didn’t belong and there I was, stuck for two weeks, at my own request.
I knew right away that I wasn’t going to survive so after one night in the damp and freezing cold cabin, I asked to call home and be picked up. Apparently, there was some rule against this and I was told to hang in there.
I soon began wandering away from camp in search of a pay phone, which required the campers and staff to come looking for me. I never found one, but I disappeared with such regularity that the staff added it to the camp schedule – 2 p.m.: archery; 3 p.m.: tennis; 4 p.m.: look for Susie who’s trying to escape from camp. They always found me.
The only thing worse than the weather (and the activities and the other kids) was the food, but there was one thing in camp I truly looked forward to each day. It was called “Quiet Time” during which we were told to stay in our cabins and write letters home to our families and friends. It was exactly the escape I’d been looking for, a place to pour out my heart, complain and connect with the people I was missing. And because my mother saved everything, I still have those letters.
They are riddled with details about my two weeks in hell where I was forced to play “stupid games,” admissions to my dad that I had made a mistake and that “I had no one to blame but myself” and apologies for wasting his money. I wrote about anticipating packages and letters, declaring dramatically, “I wait each day longing for a piece of gum,” promising to write more letters and requesting that more paper be sent.
Reading these letters is bittersweet because I am not only confronted with my younger, introverted self, but I see that the woman I became and the path I followed was already established and clearly defined at the age of 10. A person who didn’t quite fit in and who then, as now, uses writing to express her feelings and transport herself from difficult situations.