I don’t know the words. But I wish I did. I’m inside a big, rustic cabin with screens for walls, bleachers for seats, and two cardboard alligators, painted orange and blue, nailed above the door. Their names: Chuck and Bob.
Meanwhile, dozens of teenage boys holler and sing a song much older than they are, and it’s as campy as a Saturday morning cartoon. They holler about being a Cabin 4 Gator, and like a pep rally before a big game, they stomp, clap, and swing from the rafters at a place that feels as old-fashioned as saddle shoes: the all-male summer camp known as Camp Sea Gull.
Three miles down the Lower Neuse River in Pamlico County, Sea Gull’s sister camp is not much different. At Camp Seafarer, an all-female summer camp, everyone stands on her seat in the dining hall and whoops it up for anything — birthdays, lost teeth, hamburgers.
At least five hours west, at the bottom of Sauratown Mountain, Camp Hanes is not much different. Counselors teach a crew of new campers a time-tested song about a love-struck elephant wrestling with a broken heart.
Louise, Louise, come out from under those trees!
Don’t give me none of that bonky bonk!
Just wanna hug your trunky trunk!
This is summer camp. We all have these memories, when our clothes smelled like mayonnaise, our hair felt like slick string, and that girl — or boy — made our heart leap when we saw him or her careering head-first down a slide covered in mud.
And like a roasted marshmallow on the end of a twig, summer camp gives us memories that stick.
• • •
Last summer, I picked up my 10-year-old daughter from her first weeklong summer camp. As I sat beside her, she stared at a picture of her with her two counselors, massaging her bracelet she made that week.
She didn’t say a word.
A few years ago, I helped chaperone 100 fourth and fifth graders at a summer camp in a southwestern corner of North Carolina. We discovered a cathedral made of carved stone, built into a side of a mountain.
It opened up to a valley, and with its cross in the center, it made the mountains and trees look like a Grant Wood painting. At sunrise, a parent chaperone stood beside me and watched the sky grow from purple to blue to pink.
As another season of summer camp begins this month, another generation will create memories full of funny nicknames, early-morning ceremonies, late-night campfires, and silly songs about an elephant.
But really, it’s about so much more.
• • •
I see him on a Sunday, standing slump-shouldered, eyes downcast, his right arm wrapped around his chest and neck like a shawl. He stands on the top row at the outdoor chapel at Camp Hanes, a slender 12-year-old boy, wearing jeans a few sizes too big.
Maleek Cheeseboro is the youngest of seven kids, raised by a single mother. He weighs 69 pounds and wears chunky, black boots. Size 4, he tells me. He’s never caught a fish, flown on a zip line, toasted a marshmallow, or seen a sky awash in stars outside of the city.
Neither has his friends, two sisters, Janaeja and Jamiya Barksdale. Jamiya is 13; Janaeja, 11. Both of them are glad to be away from their little brother with a summer full of promise.
All three call Winston-Salem home, and the landscape they know is asphalt and concrete. They come from black, working-class families, scraping by in a tough economy, and they received a scholarship to attend Camp Hanes in Stokes County, northwest of Winston-Salem.
I find them on the first day of summer camp, beginning an experience counselors call the 400-acre memory maker. When I find them, they’re quiet.
“I’m kinda nervous,” Maleek tells me after leaving the chapel, his voice barely above a whisper. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know I’m going to meet new friends ’cause that’s what I hear. At least that’s what they told me. I’m excited, I guess.”
Hours later, during the first nightly devotion inside Cabin 3L, Janaeja and Jamiya sit on a concrete floor in a room full of bunk beds. In a darkened cabin, a dozen other female campers take turns holding a candle and talking about their hopes, fears, and goals of summer camp.
Janaeja and Jamiya are the only black children in the room.
Janaeja talks about her fear of the zip line. Jamiya talks about her fear of heights. So does Noel Ellis. And Zoe Kurtz, Noel’s best friend, tells the whole cabin that she’s afraid of one thing: homesickness.
Zoe and Noel attend Forsyth Country Day School, an upscale private school in Winston-Salem, and they come from a world much different from what the Barksdale sisters see every day.
Yet, as the cabinmates pass around the candle and cup it close to their chests, any differences in lifestyle and opportunity vanish. Janaeja and Jamiya, Noel and Zoe realize they all want the same things: to have fun, overcome their fears, make new friends — and meet the boys in Cabin 10.
“Camp love!” the girls scream.
Finally, the candle reaches Holly Hickman, a Winston-Salem native, a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and a longtime camper at Camp Hanes. She is now a cabin counselor with her best friend, Rachel Stuckey.
“My goal is to help you all have an amazing week and overcome fears and be encouraging and help you have a summer you won’t forget,” she tells the girls she and Stuckey will work with for a week. “What am I nervous about? Really nothing. Well, I’m nervous that something might go wrong if you see a snake.”
The cabin erupts.
• • •
A picture of Henry DeHart as a towheaded 3-year-old, dressed in his camper best — camp shorts, camp shirt, and a sailor’s hat — hangs outside his office at Camp Sea Gull.
He was a kid at Camp Sea Gull. He hunted for sharks teeth and discovered a swamp guinea hog — a flipper-wearing counselor covered in mud. He’s now Camp Sea Gull’s executive director. He’s a married father of two who runs for the YMCA of the Triangle the equivalent of a small town — a camp with one wastewater-treatment plant, a $6.5 million budget, 78 buildings, 350 employees, and 250 boats between Sea Gull and Seafarer.
Sea Gull and Seafarer cover 350 acres apiece and represent two of the rarest camps anywhere in the country. They’re both single-sex camps, situated on a coastal sliver of North Carolina in Arapahoe, a tiny town named after a horse.
DeHart has had a front-row seat for the evolution of summer camp.
Nationwide, fewer kids are coming for a variety of reasons: the recession, shorter summers, longer school years, increased fears among parents about kids being gone, and a growing number of parents who are hyper-competitive about building résumés that get their child noticed by top-notch colleges.
Many times, a summer camp doesn’t figure into that competitive equation. DeHart believes that it should.
Many surveys show children and teenagers would rather sit on a couch and stare at a screen rather than throw a ball and sprint through the woods. Their embrace of technology has caused the inevitable.
DeHart is recruiting and raising money for scholarships to attract a whole generation to a different kind of visual recreation. He wants them to run, jump, swim, hike, sail, canoe, and carve a path in the sand so a golf ball can roll to the water’s edge.
And cheer about it.
When all that happens, in a place devoid of electronics and computer screens, DeHart says he has seen campers change. They become responsible, independent, altruistic, and more tuned in to a lifestyle that’s much slower than their plugged-in world.
They find new friends and rediscover old ones in a safe bubble where life never changes. And in that bubble, they always feel their best.
That’s summer camp.
I’m reminded of the camp’s mission along the walkway at Seafarer. Every dozen steps or so are quotes, and campers see these quotes as they walk to and from every activity — from sunrise to the day’s last light.
Experience is the name people give to their mistakes.
In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.
To live is very rare; most people only exist.
When you dream, dream big.
“Isn’t that our purpose in life to leave the world a better place than we found it?” DeHart says. “Our reason for being here is to do something good and have a positive impact on the community around you, and to me, that’s what it’s all about. Being a good husband, a good father, and raising children who are smart and self-confident and polite.
“What’s the point of it all if you’re not trying to make it a little better?”
• • •
Maleek Cheeseboro is one big smile, running around in a tight circle, still in his chunky boots and his big jeans.
He just got back from a hike to the top of Sauratown Mountain where he jumped at the sound of a rifle. He screamed when he saw a granddaddy longlegs and crawled to the edge of the rock to see a green ocean of trees below him. And now he’s playing GaGa Ball.
“I wish I could do this every day,” he says to his new friend from Cabin 7, a sixth grader named Wilson from Winston-Salem.
Now, with GaGa Ball, he leaps in the air to avoid the line drive of a volleyball.
“Why you all trying to get me out?” he yells.
Finally, he’s hit. He sits on the side of what looks like a big sandbox beside the tennis court at Camp Hanes. He’s still one big smile.
“This doesn’t feel like a Monday,” he says.
On the other side of the tennis court, Janaeja and Jamiya wear their bathing suits. The sisters are covered in mud.
So are the two best friends, Zoe and Noel. Zoe has a brown bathing suit that once was white. Feeling homesick, she says, is so yesterday. She’s having a blast in her brown bathing suit.
Noel, well, she looks like a friendly mud monster. Arms up, smile wide, she’s walking up the hill, watching her cabinmates flee like dogs from a cloud of bees.
“Who needs a mud hug?’’ she says. “C’mon, who needs a mud hug?”
They slide down a 30-foot plastic slide, slick from dishwashing liquid, and one after another go headfirst toward a mud pit at the bottom. Jamiya slides. She is one long scream.
“More soap!” counselor Rachel Stuckey yells.
Holly Hickman, Stuckey’s best friend, obliges. The comments come from their girls.
“I’m all mud!”
“My teeth are mud!”
“I’ve got a mud burn!”
“I’ve had a mud bath!”
“Hey, don’t you think our counselors need a hug?”
Stuckey, hose in hand, turns from counselor to mother in a second.
“Nope! Nope! Nope!” she yells. “Girls, straight line. And, girls, don’t throw mud!”
“And don’t worry,” Hickman adds. “We’ll hose you off.”
• • •
Camp is the place for nicknames.
At Sea Gull, I hear about Fish Face, Potbelly, and Land Lizard. But my favorite is the one I hear — or really, see — in Sea Gull’s dining hall. Tim Whitehouse, a YMCA program director, stands, raises his arms over his head, and makes his six-foot-six, 300-pound frame look like King Kong.
I hear this back-of-the-throat growl ripple like waves in the dining hall. It slides upward and reaches a crescendo that reminds me of a fourth-quarter touchdown scored in a close game. The sound is deafening.
“Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeti,” campers yell. “SMASH!”
Whitehouse is known as Yeti. He earned the name three years ago at Sea Gull. He’s always been at Sea Gull in the summer. Whitehouse first came as a camper at age 8. He arrived from a farm in Vermont and became the third generation of his family to attend Sea Gull.
He’s now 28. He once taught history at a boarding school. But he tired of teaching and came back to camp, the place where he grew up and made friends he still keeps in touch with today.
He now works in an office with his own Yeti over his desk — a big German movie poster of an Abominable Snowman, encased in ice. And when he rides around Sea Gull in a golf cart, he passes campers, and they know him by one name.
Camp is also the place for traditions.
The songs. The counselors. The activities. The gatherings at dusk around a campfire.
At Sea Gull, tradition centers around the brass plaque at the boathouse. It’s the color of caramel, smudged from countless fingertips touching it every time campers pass.
At Seafarer, the tradition is the candlelight ceremony at the summer’s end. Campers gather in the dining hall, wearing the sailor shirts known as “middies” on the last night before they leave. The dining hall is dark, except for the candles held by the campers. The candles cast an ethereal shadow across a room nearly as big as a football field. And at Camp Hanes, it’s Bill Hutchins who embodies the camp experience.
• • •
Hutchins first went to Camp Hanes in 1951. He was 9. He carried his clothes in a cardboard box because he couldn’t afford a suitcase. He was a poor kid from Winston-Salem — a “real red-headed stepchild,’’ he says — given up by his mother and raised by his aunt. He called his aunt Momma.
His aunt wanted him to go to camp, and she rounded up $5. That’s all she could afford. The YMCA of Northwest North Carolina, which runs Camp Hanes, covered the rest, and back then, a 10-day camp cost $27.50. That’s how the boy nicknamed Bootsy went to camp.
He went for seven summers, eventually becoming a junior counselor, a senior counselor, and waterfront director. He was hired as the camp director in 1967, and for eight years, he ran summer camp.
Stories of that time flow from Hutchins. He’s a camp historian, and he can talk in detail about the camp that opened in 1927 beneath Sauratown Mountain just north of King.
And when he does, he pulls out pictures nearly 80 years old and talks in detail about the wooden boats, the wooden diving boards, and the barefooted boys on the front porch.
“They weren’t wearing any shoes because they didn’t have any,’’ he says. “They were happy to get three square meals a day. And you know, when I look at these pictures, I can hear them, and I think, ‘What kind of noise is happy? What kind of noise is joy?’”
Hutchins lives at Camp Hanes in the same cabin he stayed in as a waterfront director back in 1962. It’s one big room with a kitchen, a bathroom, and a front porch with the “Ye Goldbrick Manor” sign.
Six years ago, at the request of the new camp director Val Elliott, Hutchins returned to Camp Hanes to create an alumni group and raise money to help financially strapped campers come to camp.
The alumni come. They come to see Hutchins. Campers come, too.
Every summer, the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina provides money to help send at least 500 kids to Camp Hanes.
Campers just like Bootsy. And he can spot them.
One Sunday afternoon in July, I watched him do it. We sat on his front porch, his old camp pictures splayed out in front of him like playing cards, when he saw a clutch of kids walking past his cabin.
He noticed the swagger, the ill-fitting shirts, and the jeans worn in the afternoon heat. He stepped outside and nodded his big coffee cup toward them.
“How many first-time campers we got?” he says. “Well, I want you to find 50 feet of shoreline and take it to a counselor before supper.”
He turned back around and headed toward his cabin.
“Poor kids,” he told me. “They probably don’t know what a shoreline is.”
• • •
Aaron Harrington knows what a shoreline is. But he had to learn.
He came to Sea Gull in 2003. He was 11, and like Maleek Cheeseboro, Harrington came from a big family — a family of nine. His mom was a school administrator in Durham County; his dad, a sanitation worker.
Like Maleek, Harrington came to Sea Gull with the help of a scholarship. And like Maleek, he felt different.
“I got in my shell because of the difference in the races,’’ Harrington says today. “It was a predominantly white camp, and there were a handful of us, and I was a little bit nervous. I’m not going to lie. But you know, right away the kids reached out to me, and I learned that when the lights are turned off, there is no difference in any of us. We all have a common purpose.’’
And what else?
“It made me realize there are more fortunate people out there,” he says. “I was saddened and amazed by what people threw away. Like a flashlight. Or wearing something they didn’t need anymore. I’d see [someone discard something] and think, ‘You need that.’ Anything felt necessary.
“And class still exists. It’s still there. You can’t get away from it. But that’s the way it is. You learn to turn the other cheek and find out who people really are because you get to know them in a quick amount of time. Friendships are everything. And those friendships last.”
Since 2003, Harrington has spent seven summers at Sea Gull — three of which came courtesy of a scholarship. Here, along this wide stretch of the Lower Neuse, he’s learned to sail, drive a motorboat, and shoot a rifle. And he overcame his fear of swimming in water that was dark and murky.
He’s a student at Shaw University now, majoring in mass communications. He turned 20 in March, and he’ll be back at Sea Gull this summer as the camp’s assistant camp counselor. With the help of Sea Gull, he’s blossomed.
We stand on the long dock at Sea Gull, and I listen as he rattles off the friendships he’s made and the experiences he’s had here. Handfuls of campers walk past us. It reminds me of a school hallway, filled with students changing classes. A kid who’s no more than 9 spots Harrington.
“What’s up, Chocolate Chunk,” he says.
Harrington smiles. He’s 5-foot-10, 245 pounds, and that’s his nickname.
“This place is a part of me now,” he says. “It’s like my family, and I look forward to coming back every summer. To me, it’s a family reunion.”
• • •
Sea Gull’s Henry DeHart gave me homework.
He told me to read Michael Thompson’s book, Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help A Child Grow, to get a handle on the importance of summer camps. In those pages, I discovered statistics about our 21st-century America.
Children spend an average of 53 hours a week on computers, cell phones, or video games. They send anywhere from 50 to 80 text messages a day. Meanwhile, 66 percent of Americans eat dinner in front of the TV and spend 45 percent of their annual food budget on restaurant and take-out food.
At the same time, adults born between 1946 and 1964 are the last American generation to think of the outdoors as a place of recreation.
Yet, the outdoors — particularly summer camp — provides critical skills needed in the 21st-century workplace: teamwork and collaboration; ethics and social responsibility; and oral communication.
Martha Cox knows what it means to develop those skills. She’s standing on Seafarer’s long dock, on a second-floor platform known as the Bridge. She’s wearing her summer-camp uniform: bathing suit and pink toenails, with daily reminders written in ink on her left hand.
She’s been coming from Raleigh to Seafarer for 15 summers. Not this summer. She has a job. Yet Seafarer is not far from her heart.
She learned how to water-ski and wakeboard at Seafarer. Because of her July birthday, she got to run around the dining hall hearing a big room full of girls singing, “Round the mess hall, you must go, you must go, you must go.”
At age 22, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she spent her last summer at Seafarer as the camp’s motorboating chief. She learned how to manage 40 people all summer.
“People think summer camp is teaching kids how to ski, but that’s an outsider’s perception,” she says. “There is a lot more to it. We’re learning hard skills, and here, my work has given me a real-world context. I’m not just playing with kids all day.’’
For three months, Cox lived on the Bridge. It overlooked the Lower Neuse and gave her an unobstructed view of dozens of summer camp girls learning how to ski, fish, sail, drive a motorboat, and discover who they are under a rising and setting sun along the North Carolina coast.
“There are moments I get frustrated. Then I step back, and there are not a lot of words to describe what I see and feel,” she says. “I’m at summer camp, boats are all around, anytime I put on clothes is when I go to a meal, and then I sit back and listen and realize kids all around me are having the times of their lives.”
• • •
At Camp Hanes, Maleek Cheeseboro jumps off a diving board into the lake, with a life jacket and a rope holding his baggy swim trunks in place, so they don’t drop past his knees. Janaeja Barksdale jumps in behind him, life jacket around her neck, bobbing like a top to the surface.
“I’m not touching the bottom!” Janaeja yells. “I closed my eyes when I jumped, and I can’t see nothin’! Nothin’! All I see is black! Is my hair messed up?”
Maleek laughs. He’s all teeth. He climbs a ladder at the dock and yells to Janaeja, whom he calls Na Na.
“Na Na! Na Na! I’m gonna jump off the diving board for real. Y’all watch me!”
Near the lake, Jamiya is heading off to the shooting range, to cradle a BB gun on her shoulder. She’s breathless.
“You know, I’ve made a lot of new friends, and I got a chance to get away from home a little while,” she says. “There’s nothing at home to do. We go outside, jump rope and stuff. But that’s it. Here, I got on the zipline, played GaGa Ball, and I got to be around girls my age. I learned some things.”
“Succeed in life. Set some goals. Conquer my fears. And keep my head up. Yeah, keep my head up high.”
Jamiya is a different kid. So are Noel Ellis and Zoe Kurtz.
They’re both at the climbing wall. Noel is sweating. Zoe, her friend since third grade, is urging her on.
“I don’t like heights,” Noel says.
“You can do it,” Zoe says. “I’ll give you a candy bar.”
“No, you won’t,” Noel says.
“But I’ll tell you I will,” Zoe says back.
Noel stands at the base of a climbing wall at least 30 feet high. She tries twice, and twice she drops to the ground and says, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
Then, Zoe and all of her new friends around — that includes Jamiya Barksdale — start to chant and yell.
“C’mon, Noel. You got this, girl!”
Noel starts back up the wall. She looks like an awkward spider. She gets to the top and comes back down.
“It was scary, and my arms are shaking, and they’re still shaking,” she says. “It was so high, and I could hardly look down. I didn’t want to look down.”
“But I did it,” she says. “I did it.”
Camp Seafarer (for girls)
2744 Seafarer Road
Arapahoe, N.C. 28510
Camp Sea Gull (for boys)
218 Sea Gull Landing
Arapahoe, N.C. 28510
1225 Camp Hanes Road
King, N.C. 27021