Campers, Your Parents Are Storming the Gates
By Robert Andrew Powell
Published: July 29, 2005
AT a little before 7:30 on a recent Saturday night, the street outside the main gate of Camp Blue Ridge began to resemble a livestock holding pen. A herd of parents, a strange breed dressed in polo shirts, sandals and khaki shorts, waited for the gates to open. A lone father considered how to break the news that his son’s grandfather had passed away. A mother from Florida wiped away tears as she waited to see her daughter for the first time in four weeks.
In the growing crowd were Andrew and Susan Brody, who had driven up 750 miles from their home in Weston, Fla., to visit their daughters, Pam and Samantha, at the midpoint of their eight weeks among the maple and oak trees of northeast Georgia.
When the gates finally opened, and Pam, 10, appeared, the Brodys assumed the position instinctively. As Pam ran toward them they crouched with knees bent like they were fielding ground balls, their arms spread wide as airplane wings. Pam, who hadn’t seen her parents for four long weeks, hesitated for a split second while she decided whom to hug first. Then she leaped into her father’s arms, locking her hands around his neck.
”Daddy!” she said, swinging her legs around his back for stability. Pam’s mother reached over to join the hug.
”You look good!” Mrs. Brody exclaimed. She grabbed on tighter. ”I missed you so much.”
The Brodys — including Pam, obscured in the huddle somewhere, and then later Samantha, too — were observing parents’ visiting day, a tradition at summer sleep-away camps across America. Visiting day is and has always been a day when parents, however briefly, are allowed a glimpse into the cloistered life of summer camp. They meet counselors, sample camp food and inspect exhibitions of plaster of Paris art projects. It is a day for homesick kids to reconnect to lives they’ve temporarily abandoned.
Almost all sleepover summer camps feature red-letter days that punctuate the campers’ seemingly endless round of swimming, boating, archery and art classes. At Camp Blue Ridge, there are the three days of color wars and the mid-session expedition to Six Flags Over Georgia. That trip to the amusement park might be more exciting to a young camper, no matter how homesick, than a parents’ weekend.
But for mothers and fathers, ”parents’ visiting day is huge,” said Mickey Black, who runs Camp Pine Forest in Greeley, Pa., and two other nearby camps with his wife, Barbara. ”It means less to the campers than it does to the parents. The campers are settled in with their friends and a regular pattern of life. As great as it is to see their parents, they’re usually just as happy to go back to their friends. It’s a pretty good life at camp.”
But try to convince the anxious parents of 400 girls and boys from ages 7 to 16. Indeed, despite the fact that parents can now view updated pictures of their children on Camp Blue Ridge’s Web site nearly every day and receive special e-mail from them every other day, rising parental anxiety has forced changes in how camps handle visiting day.
At Blue Ridge, for almost 30 years, visiting day was held on a Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Parents came for lunch, spent a day watching their kids water ski or volley through tennis exhibitions. Lunch was a feast that surpassed the normal camp meal of, say, nachos and ice cream. But, increasingly, on visiting day, parents were slipping onto campus hours early, rousing counselors and barraging them with questions. So six years ago, Joey Waldman, who owns and runs the camp with his wife, Lori, shifted it to Saturday evening.
Still, he said, he had resorted to putting a traffic cone at the entrance in an attempt to prevent parents from driving their S.U.V.’s straight up to the residential cabins. ”I’ve got a poster on the main gate asking parents to please come back at 7:30 p.m. Yet, even still, I’ll be in the shower getting ready when I can hear the cars driving up the road.”
At Mr. Black’s camp in Pennsylvania, which still begins visiting day on a Saturday morning, parents are so apt to sneak onto the property hours early that Mr. Black strings yellow plastic tape across the main gate, taking it down only when the official moment has been reached.
On visiting day, camp directors face greater challenges than merely overeager parents. For one, they must navigate changes in American society. ”When visitors’ days started in the early 1900’s, divorce was not as prolific as it is today,” said Jeff Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association, ”so these days camps have to be somewhat accommodating on visiting day. They make it flexible for two parents possibly visiting separately. Make it much less formal than it has been in the past.”
Just before the gates opened at Blue Ridge, Pam Brody was talking about how quickly the previous month had flown by. She cracked a knuckle as she thought back on the dance classes and tennis and archery and the field trip to Six Flags. The last three days had passed in a blur, what with color wars and all. ”When parents come I’m so anxious that day,” she said, tugging on a pink nylon hair band that she likes to wear as a choker. ”Usually when I’m anxious time goes really slow. This month has gone by really fast, but when the day comes to see your parents, it seems so long.”
Pam arrived at camp in early June, with Samantha, who is three years older, and who had a few more years of camp under her pastel tank top. Pam and her sister are among a minority of campers — at Blue Ridge and nationwide — who stay the full eight weeks. Many of their fellow campers went home the day after visiting day.
”Thirty years ago, 80 percent of our campers stayed the full eight weeks,” Mr. Waldman said. ”In the mid-80’s, the trend changed, probably for economic reasons, or maybe because families started taking more trips together.” Nationally, only about 20 percent of camps remain full-season only, and those are mostly in the Northeast, said Mr. Solomon of the camp association.
Having attended Blue Ridge last year, Pam already knew how to make her cabin feel like home. She set out her frog squishy pillow and a stuffed yellow star, autographed by her cabin mates last year, with an empty side remaining for this year’s crew. On a shelf over the top bunk where she sleeps, she placed pictures of her mother and her father, which she kisses every night at lights out, saying, ”See you soon!”
”I wasn’t as nervous because I’d already been here,” she recalled. ”I was much more excited than I’d been last year. I didn’t feel bad. Like, I miss my parents, but I don’t, like, cry about it. So it’s much better than last year.”
Mr. Brody, a C.P.A. in South Florida, attended a camp in Massachusetts that to his astonishment still exists. He said that he had missed his parents, too, back then, but that he loved making new friends. He liked solving problems on his own for the first time in his life. ”It was a great chance to taste independence,” he said.
Mrs. Brody, a former corporate marketing executive, said that she appreciated the way camps have modernized. When she attended camp in upstate New York, there was no e-mail contact with her mother. When she wrote home, her letters took a week to arrive.
By design there are still no accessible TV’s, phones or computers at Blue Ridge. Yet parents can send e-mail messages, which are printed out and distributed every day. The campers reply using a system that scans written (or drawn) messages and forwards them to parents as e-mail. In her mail home, Pam dutifully answers her mom’s questions. Did you get the care package? Have you broken your eyeglasses? Are you keeping track of your swimsuits, which you tend to lose in the laundry?
Mrs. Brody goes online reflexively, three times a day at least, just to check if there’s a new posting of camp pictures or new letters from her daughters. Pam, especially, worries her. ”It’s good because last year she’d be sending home letters saying how lonely and homesick she was, but then I’d see some random pictures posted on the Web site, and she certainly looked like she was having fun,” Mrs. Brody said. ”It’s reassuring.”
Last year, Mr. and Mrs. Brody flew up for visiting day. This year they decided to make a week’s vacation of it. It was their first road trip as a couple in 15 years of marriage. From Blue Ridge they continued to Myrtle Beach, where Mr. Brody played several rounds of golf. At the start of the trip, on the drive up from Weston, as their S.U.V. passed the flat citrus groves of Florida into Georgia and then up the rising grade of the Appalachian foothills, they wondered if Pam and Samantha had grown. They wondered how much fun Pam was having. They admitted they missed their daughters terribly.
”The house is so quiet,” Mr. Brody said. ”We’re not used to the quiet. At first it was peaceful, but after a while there’s an emptiness.”
At 7:30 p.m., when the main gate officially opened, Pam was in her cabin, caught up in a conversation with a friend. When she realized what time it was, she bounded out, skipping down concrete steps to the main path.
Walking quickly, she passed the boys’ cabins, the tennis courts and the caretaker’s garage. Her gait accelerated with every step. By the time she reached the swimming pond, which is only a hundred yards or so from the gate, she broke into a sprint. She ran past a table stocked with cups of cranberry juice and cellophane-wrapped banana moon pies, then slalomed through a gaggle of teenage girls in much less of a hurry to reach their parents.
Music blasted from the gym, where a group of boys played pick-up basketball. On the great lawn outside the gym, teams of campers and their parents sat cross-legged, swatting at the first fireflies of the evening.
Reunited for a weekend, the Brodys visited a Wal-Mart to stock up on shampoo and makeup. They ate Mexican food, caught a movie and all four spent the night in comfortable hotel beds. Mrs. Brody told Pam that she was talking differently, more maturely. Monday, the girls returned to camp, where they remain for the second month.
”It’s hard to leave them,” Mr. Brody said before heading on to Myrtle Beach with his wife. ”But it’s also good to know they’re getting out in the world.”
After her parents left on Monday, and after night fell on the Appalachian foothills, Pam gathered with her friends on the lawn near the tennis courts. It was the Fourth of July. Near the gate where her parents had waited for her, counselors ignited a line of fireworks so long it took 40 minutes until the finale soared skyward. Lee Greenwood and Bruce Springsteen recordings accompanied shimmering gunpowder explosions. Away from her parents, at home with her cabin mates, Pam celebrated independence.
Articles in this series look at the ways Americans spend their leisure time and the traditions that have grown up around the weekend.