One of the books that I have started writing — and will be finishing very, very soon, as soon as I get the free time — has a working title of “Strategies for Scaring Children.”
The name comes from the moment that really drove home the fact that I was no longer a professional horse racing publicist in New York City, that I had passed the length of time that felt like I was only on vacation in the Czech Republic, and that I realized that a new phase of my life was starting both personally and occupationally.
In other words, I found myself standing in a dark forest hiding behind a tree and waiting for summer campers to come near enough so that I could scare them on this Trail of Courage (stezka odvahy).
— Should I suddenly rattle a container of stones?
— ShouId I wait until they pass and then jump out?
— Should I start at the side and run at them?
— Should I slowly follow them without responding to any of their questions or complaints, just follow them, quietly, menacingly.
This was my first job in the Czech Republic. Summer camp counselor. I interviewed over beer in a bar in Prague. Two weeks later I was the English-speaking leader of a group of 24 teenagers, constantly trying to keep them entertained and busy.
No longer would I have to answer questions about why Thoroughbred horses break legs and need to be euthanized. No more would I have to serve as a corporate shill and clean up controversial posts on the message board. And never again would I have to deal with the server being down or an online contest malfunctioning.
Now I had a 12-year-old girl walking alone up a dark path. She occasionally sang a few quavering lines of a song to bolster her confidence. It sounded at times as if she was weeping. Was it for real or was she trying to immerse herself in the fantasy of the adventure?
I decided she was faking.
* * *
Fear and summer camps go together like mosquitos and hot August nights. Sometimes it is abject terror — like the movie Sleepaway Camp — but more often it is the awkwardness of the first day or homesickness. Or, as an adult, it is the discomfort of being thrust in front of 150 teenagers and trying to introduce yourself in an interesting way.
Summer camp is where, I would argue, kids make major steps forward in the development of their characters and adults reevaluate their lives. Both are very scary things.
Summer camps in the United States, especially in the Western United States, are mostly connected to larger youth organizations, like the Boy Scouts or the Mormon Church. The East Coast and Midwest have a longer tradition that draws many unaffiliated children out into the woods for a week or two, much in the Czech style.
I went to summer camps every summer of my youth. I was a Boy Scout. (Side note: even today, I have trouble admitting that fact. Whereas scouts in the Czech Republic are respectable and even have a tinge of historic rebellion against the Communist state, most scouts in the United States are nerds on par with band geeks, which I was, too. I took several precautions to hide my uniform at the bottom of my school bag during junior high lest a girl discover that I had a scout meeting that night.)
My Boy Scout troop was activity oriented. We backpacked and rock climbed and shot bows and arrows. Every year, we went to summer camp to get as many merit badges as possible in order to qualify for a higher rank. I went to a leadership camp, I went to a pseudo-secret Order of the Arrow initiation, and then I was a leader at a few camps. The problem, of course, was that Boy Scouts camps lack of girls.
Czech summer camps are a powerful mix of genders. My camp was near Tábor, south of Prague. It had seven groups of roughly two dozen boys and girls from age 8 to 18. Each group had a Czech/English speaker and a native English speaker. The daily routine was: breakfast — activity — snack — activity — lunch — nap — snack — activity — break — dinner — activity — camper bed time / leader staff meeting (read: leader time to drink beer, play cards, and smoke cigarettes).
The activities were the classics I remembered from childhood: volleyball; pétanque; rafting (10 to a boat, fun going downstream, struggle to get back upstream); 70-on-70 Capture the Flag on a large field; Duck Duck Goose (Chodí pešek okolo) for the little kids; and a lot of Frisbee. Karaoke was surprisingly sweet. Kids really like to sing — who knew? There was usually a bus trip to a local castle, which was often paired with a chaotic stop at McDonald’s, where 150 kids packed into a fast food restaurant that could not produce food fast enough.
We spent a lot of time walking around the countryside, following colored ribbons as part of a larger game, and stopping to learn, for example, parts of London, to prepare for that evening’s part of the weeklong group competition. It was hard not to get involved with your group: I was always disappointed when another group was better in using English to guide a blindfolded teammate through a maze, or I felt excessive pride when my group put the British monarchs in correct order only hours after I taught them.
The kids slept four to a cabin on bunk beds. The leaders were in the building that had the bathrooms and showers on the ground floor and dormitory style rooms on the first floor. There were big meeting rooms at either end of the upper hallway that served as a camp meeting space, a movie theater, and the place to retreat for indoor activities when it rained.
The usual problems existed among the guys in my room — snoring, errant morning alarms, loud drunken stumbling into bed — but then there were also the camp-specific problems. One evening the windows to our room were left open and the light was left on. When we finally returned from the staff meeting, millions of bugs were buzzing around the light bulb. I hate insects. I spent the next three steamy-hot nights with my face buried under a blanket and still awoke looking like I had chicken pox.
The food was decent high school cafeteria-style meals. The vepřo-knedlo-zelo was good and the svíčková was all right. The soup at every lunch was the best, even on hot days. Buchtičky s krémem, little sweat rolls covered in cream, were disgusting for the leaders but catnip for the campers. We had risotto at least three times each week. It didn’t matter: you were so hungry that you would eat anything. Case in point: I like tomatoes, but not so much; yet, after a busy morning I actually ate a tomato like an apple. Some things can only happen in a summer camp.
Much like expats in Brno, the expats at summer camp were as varied as could be. A middle-aged artist from Texas. An art teacher from Australia. A world-traveling pair of friends from Portland, Oregon. An Indian from Dubai. A classically trained violinist from England. And, me, a horse racing publicist/journalist from Seattle by way of New York.
No one made much money. There is always a time when, after a long day, someone would calculate the pitiful per-hour wage. But, the key was that you didn’t spend much money. You could order things from the store but the system depended upon the schedule/whim of the camp handyman, and it was not advisable to hold your breath for that good piece of chocolate you ordered or come close to running out of cigarettes. Oftentimes, experienced leaders would plan a move from one apartment to another in order to save money on rent while at camp.
* * *
The discos were another experience all together. Twice a week, a stereo system would appear and the dining room would be converted into a dance floor. From somewhere, the kids who had worn the same clothes for three days straight and smelled the way you would image, suddenly appeared with fashionable clothes and a lot of makeup.
Once the initial shyness dissipated, the dance floor filled with dozens of sweaty teenagers. It was equal parts hormones and sweat. The I-would-never-have-imagined-I-would-be-at-a-school-dance-again nature of it all made it actually fun. It is hard to take yourself too seriously if you are dancing in a big circle with kids.
Alcohol, of course, was never far away. The leaders mostly rotated from the dance floor, to outside where the kids cooled off in groups, and then to the staff room for beer and cigarettes. Then it was back to the dance floor.
Predictably, the first slow dance briefly cleared the dance floor. The two leaders who had already become a couple in the first three days of camp were left alone, but their example eventually pulled more couples out, including a 12-year-old couple dancing with chaste separateness who, by the end of the night, would be close enough so that the boy would cup his hands under the girl’s butt. Very cheeky, these Czech boys.
It brought back memories of my own junior high dances. I had hoped that they were buried forever in my subconscious, yet, now, as an adult, that prepubescent social awkwardness seems so long ago and so laughable. Why, after so many of those dances, was I so convinced that my life would end alone and without love.
Summer camp puts lives in perspective.
* * *
On the last day, as everyone was tearfully saying good bye, I saw the girl I had scared on the Trail of Courage. She was happy to be going home, sad to see her friends for the last time, and smiling for everyone. I asked her what her favorite part of the camp was.
She said: “The night game. One of the leaders scared me really well.”