March 22, 2007

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Nashua Publisher's Note: Camping and comic strips

The cover story of this week’s Hippo is all about summer camps. Check it out — you can choose from theater camps, horse camps, science camps, and on and on. There’s probably a summer camp for kids who don’t want to attend camp.

Most camps aim to create lifelong memories. That was certainly true in my case, as the scars from my single experience of summer camp are still with me.

What happened was my mother, bless her heart, didn’t think it was right for her kids to spend the entire summer in urban Nashua.

Me, I would have been happy watching television or reading comic books. But she had other ideas, one of which was summer camp.

My brothers and I knew what she meant, sort of. We’d seen how Charlie Brown and other kids in the comic strips got packed off in buses each summer, but that’s all we really knew about it.

Unfortunately, options for summer camp were more limited back during the Nixon administration. We didn’t have Hippo to list dozens of options. Instead, my mother went down to the Boys’ Club (which was still on Main Street then) and signed us up.

What she didn’t realize, however, was that she’d picked a camp for underprivileged urban kids — a program at Fort Devens down in Ayer, Mass., populated mostly by the toughest kids from Boston’s bad neighborhoods.

So one June, with school just ended, I remember being put on a bus in Nashua with a bunch of other kids who I recognized as not being from my neighborhood. Off we went to Fort Devens, where the “counselors” ran the program drill-sergeant style.

We were marched from one activity to another, everything governed by shouting and whistles and threats of punishment. A pecking order was immediately established, with a dopey kid from New Hampshire (me) at or near the bottom.

At one point, we were ordered to go for a swim in a green lake. I remember some big kid from Boston thought it was funny to hold my head under water, and showed other kids how easy it was.

Thank God it was a day camp, and the bus would take us home each night. After the second day, I delivered my first successful ultimatum to my mother: if I had to go back to camp again, I would kill myself.

Thus I spent the summer as originally planned — watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island and reading comic books.

I got over my one summer camp experience, and later realized it harbored an important lesson. Afterward, I was never quite able to trust the comic strips to provide an accurate picture of what I could expect in the real world around me.

Unfortunately, I’m still searching for a substitute, even at this late date. Maybe there’s a summer camp for people like me.