Summer camp is a beloved American institution, as old as the Catskills.
It is yearned for by every child for its promise of adventure, proximity to nature and a respite from the stress of city and family life.
It is appreciated by every parent for its blessed release, if only temporary, from parental responsibility.
There is no doubt that it helps children to grow up self-reliant.
But let's face it. Sometimes it can be hell.
My 9-year-old granddaughter, Alison, has just had a traumatic experience with summer camp.
Alison is a Girl Scout, and a week or two ago her parents packed her off to Camp Lakota, the Girl Scout camp near Frazier Park in the Tehachapi Mountains.
She had never been away from home before, except overnight at her grandmothers' houses, and she was naturally excited but uneasy.
The leaflet had promised: "Adventure--that's Camp Lakota! Swimming, hiking, arts 'n' crafts, sleeping under the stars and memories are waiting for you. . . . "
Alison left with her troop on a Saturday morning, climbing into a bus with her sleeping bag and other necessities.
She wrote her first letter home that very day. She wrote her second letter on Sunday. Both arrived on Tuesday.
The first one said:
"Dear Mommy, I miss you very much. The only problem at camp is that I don't understand the lodge rules. My cot is right under a tree and I didn't know it and I got sap on my sleeping bag so I put the tarp on my sleeping bag. Smart thinking.
Her parents weren't too worried. She would of course adjust to the rules, and she seemed to have solved the problem of the dripping sap.
The second one was more alarming:
"Dear Mommy, right now I am crying. I hate camp. All I can do is work and horseback riding. The pool is so cold that when I get up to my stomach I can't breath." (Everybody has trouble with breath and breathe .)
"I'm telling the truth every time I take a breath I never get any air. My bead bracelet came apart and I couldn't find the beads and there weren't any left. I get scared to death at night. The only good thing is that I met a friend named Daisy. And it's cold at night with patrols. They made us move pine cones and I cut my finger on one. Love, Alison.
"P.S. I want to come home now."
That is an anguished piece of prose.
Of course Alison has always had a warm home, with two loving parents and two younger brothers whom she can tolerate, and her parents thought it might be good for her to experience some of the hardships of the wild. Besides, Alison's mother had gone to that same Girl Scout camp 25 years before, and she had been homesick the first day, but she had gotten over it and she treasured the memory.
Later that day the phone rang. It was the Girl Scout Council.
Her mother's heart sank. She was afraid that Alison had completely lost her nerve and they were going to have to drive up the mountain and fetch her home.
But it wasn't that. They had had to abandon camp. There had been an electrical storm in the area and a flash-flood warning. Water coursed through the camp a foot and a half high. The girls were all put on buses and sent back to the Girl Scout center in Chatsworth. Their sleeping bags and other gear came later.
Alison's parents picked her up at 10 o'clock that night. She was very happy to be home.
It was the first time in the history of the camp that they had ever had to flee.
I told Alison not to feel too bad. I had gone to summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains when I was about 12, and my father had had to come up and get me because I got sick.
"Were you real sick?" she wanted to know. "Or just homesick?"
It was a very shrewd question.
What I had was a sudden high fever, but when I got home the doctor couldn't find anything organically wrong with me, and after I spent a day in my own bed the fever went away.
It wasn't until years later, when I was in the Marine Corps, that I found out what I had had. In the Marine Corps it is called "cat fever." It is a sudden high fever that has no discernible cause, and the standard cure is to take the man off duty and put him in sick bay until his temperature is normal for three days. By the time you have spent three days in sick bay, healthy, bored and barefoot, you are ready to go back on duty.
The first time I got cat fever was on a 15-mile forced march under full pack. I am not physically constituted to march 15 miles under full pack. I was in sick bay five days. The second time was when we got back to our base camp on Maui from Iwo Jima and I found a letter from my wife saying that our first son had been born.
To tell the truth, Navy doctors have no doubt that cat fever is psychosomatic, and is, in fact, a symptom of acute homesickness and rebellion against the system.
Maybe I'd have liked it better, that summer in camp, if I'd met a girl named Daisy.