We don't have summer camp in England, or at least we didn't the last time I looked. Our summer holidays began in July as schools broke up, and comprised six weeks of hanging out in the town square eating crisps or setting things on fire, and all the while wishing cancer on those responsible for filling the shops with back to school promotions in the middle of August, reminding us of homework, misery, and cross country runs in the freezing rain a good four weeks before we would find ourselves obliged to engage with the dreadful reality of the same. Summer camp was something which happened to American kids, usually ending with either Rick Moranis or Martin Short gibbering and tied to stakes as a bunch of whooping brats apply the flaming torch.
This was the full extent of my understanding when I first came to live in the United States. My wife explained that summer camp was fun, although when she herself had attended, her youthful enthusiasm and buoyant character had been of such apparent severity as to drive one of the camp counsellors to handing in his cards. As an institution I found summer camp difficult to imagine in so much as I'd generally hated the idea of staying away from home when I was a child, excepting visits to the homes of grandparents. Having seen Tom Brown's Schooldays I lived in constant dread of being sent away to boarding school, which I imagined to be much like prison but less fun. I never mentioned this to my parents, fearing the suggestion would urge them towards the realisation of what a great idea it was. I believed this because I knew that if I were them, I would probably have sent me away to boarding school. Had I actually mentioned any of this, I'm fairly sure my parents would have explained that our family really wasn't that well off, and that the private education of yours truly was extremely low on our list of priorities.
Junior had just turned eleven, and so this year he was going away for a week of summer camp for the very first time. He would be amongst strangers for five whole days. My wife was naturally a little anxious. I was less anxious, assuming simply that it would probably be good for him, and he would almost certainly have a great time; and his father took a similar view.
The week came and then passed slowly. Junior was at some place called Camp Capers, somewhere out beyond the town of Comfort in the Texas hill country. Each day we inspected the Camp Capers website for newly posted photographs of kids swinging on ropes or throwing buckets of water over each other. Junior looked very much as though he was indeed having a great time, particularly in those photographs wherein he has wrapped his own head and shoulders in a length of material leaving just his eyes peeking out from a narrow slit, bright blue and maniacal. Later he told us he'd disguised himself as a ninja, although his father's initial reaction was that we had inadvertently sent the boy to an al-Qaeda training camp. Somehow, this made me feel oddly proud, at least in so much as no-one could ever possibly describe the kid as dull.
Saturday came and we drove for about an hour out to Comfort, and then to the camp situated miles from anywhere, so it seemed. Most of the grounds were defined by a huge loop in the meandering course of the Guadalupe river, and the countryside was quite beautiful. Kids ran screaming back and forth with their bags, a toning down of the scene in the war movie where helicopters land as our hero journalist makes his way through the destroyed village.
'They have girls here?'
I don't know why this hadn't occurred to me before. For some reason I had assumed that summer camp would be a segregated institution. Probably I was still thinking of Tom Brown.
My wife nodded. 'I told you about my time at summer camp?'
Of course she had.
We crossed the field, passing a dried-out mud pit as we headed for the clusters of limestone huts in which the children had slept. I considered what this new detail could mean. Junior seemed to get on well with girls of his own age in a way that I never had. I had for the most part been far too shy to engage with members of the opposite sex for fear that they might take my innocent hello for a sexual advance, which it usually was in so much as such things are possible at that age. I was probably about eighteen before I managed a proper conversation with a girl. Junior on the other hand had recently made the transition from a slightly sinister boy's school to a mixed establishment and seemed to be doing much better, not least in that most of his friends appeared to be female.
At the age of five he had told his mother that he would one day marry Miss Maria, his first grade teacher. At least thankful that the child had outgrown his marital plans regarding the cat, Bess explained that Miss Maria was already married, so he probably shouldn't get his hopes up.
'Yeah but she might not be married by the time I leave school,' he replied. 'Anything could happen between now and then.'
We entered the compound, a group of huts facing each other, kids jumping and yelling and fighting over laundry in the central square. As usual I imagined Junior delighted to see us, and as usual he effected the calm of a Bond villain having only just noticed our being ushered into his presence.
I've been expecting you...
We looked into the hut, at the bunk beds lining the walls, and tried to imagine the living hell of the counsellor whose job it had been to get all twenty-five of them to shut up and go to sleep. Junior absently stuffed items of clothing into his case as though not entirely sure they were his.
'So how was it?'
'It was good.'
He shut the case and we began to walk back towards the car so as to stow all his stuff away before the big ceremony.
'In fact I'd say out of five,' he continued in response to questions he clearly wished we had thought to ask, 'I would give it a four.'
'What happened?' A note of concern had entered my wife's voice. I recalled her fearing the worst, the sort of horror stories which emerge when people who really shouldn't be allowed to work with children get to work with children.
'Well, let me see,' - it was always best to just let Junior tell you in his own time. When asked specific questions he tends to become wordy and thoughtful, peppering his rambling response with the sort of inconsequential asides that are actually a bit weird coming from anyone who is eleven and not smoking a pipe. The story was that there had been a camp fire, and Junior had asked a girl if she would be his date for the occasion. She had said yes, and then changed her mind, insisting that she already had a date.
If what you say is true, then show me this gentleman, Junior insisted in so many words. His suspicions had been raised by a whispered conversation between the girl and her friend, concluding in giggles and her suspiciously abrupt recollection of the supposed prior engagement.
'Well, I'm just impressed that you had the courage to ask her out in the first place,' I said, doubting there was anything else I could really say. Everyone experiences heartbreak, and most of us like to think that our own heartbreak is more painful than that of our friends, so I know how it feels is never really what you want to hear because it reduces your agony to something mundane and mutually understood, like an ingrowing toenail, something you should really get over. Because of this I was additionally impressed that Junior appeared to have taken his first rejection quite well, and certainly better than I would have done had I actually had the nerve to speak to girls when I was eleven.
One of us may have mumbled something about there being plenty more fish in the sea, but my wife artfully changed the subject to what he had done during the week. His account was a little hard to follow, and at least some of it was reliant upon a working knowledge of Pokémon lore, but it was evident that he'd had a great time but for the rejection of the final evening, and had slept soundly each night following a day of exhausting and athletic activities.
We loaded the car and made our way back to the covered area beneath which there was to be some sort of closing ceremony. My wife and I sat, and Junior went off to fetch paper cups of water for us, which merits a mention because this was done without his having been asked.
'See,' my wife said, smiling.
'Wow.' Summer camp had definitely had a positive influence.
A priest appeared at a lectern at the front of the covered area, then a young man with a goatee beard, ear gauges, and an acoustic guitar. He wore a blue T-shirt upon which was made some claim regarding Jesus, probably concerning his being awesome or something of the sort. The seating area filled as other parents returned from tending to their own offspring, and a second priest began to hand out hymn books.
I recalled the pages of Jesusy material I'd been obliged to click past when looking on the Camp Capers website for photographs of Junior dressed as though ready for Jihad.
'This is going to be where we thank the man upstairs for a week of nachos and climbing trees, isn't it?'
My wife nodded, a little deflated. We had anticipated something a little less earnest, like a short play or kids singing songs or something. I at least hadn't anticipated yet another opportunity to welcome Him into my heart, and found myself slightly resentful at the assumption that it was okay to spring this sort of thing on us without some warning, and that we wouldn't mind; although that's probably Satan inspiring me to such thoughts.
'Let's blow this pop stand,' I suggested.
Happily Junior seemed to feel he'd done quite enough praising for one week, and in any case he wanted to show us the grounds of the camp. We sauntered away before anyone could thrust a tambourine into my hand, heading for the river. The kids had been out in kayaks a couple of times, and the Guadalupe river left me as speechless as it has done on previous occasions. Here, by the camp, it was relatively shallow, babbling in places, surrounded by grand cypresses with elaborate root systems on either side, very much a cathedral grown from nature and resembling a Thomas Cole painting to the eyes of one who grew up in England where so much is on much smaller scale. I thought of the memories forged here and hoped that Junior would one day appreciate them so much as I did at that moment.
Eventually we headed back to the car, circumnavigating the singing and praising still going at full pelt an hour or so after kick off. Junior settled into the back seat.
'You know,' he announced, his voice rising in pitch as though surprised to have realised any of this, 'I'm just impressed that I had the courage to ask her out in the first place.'
I repeated my earlier confession of having been terrified of girls at his age, and he seemed to consider it a second time. I wasn't going to point out that he had repeated almost word for word what I had said to him an hour or so earlier, or that he hadn't even known the name of the girl, the one that got away. He was unusually quiet for the next few days, not so much morose as simply thoughtful. This was a side of him I had never really seen before, and perhaps it had never been there before he went away to summer camp, but it suggested at least that he was heading in the right direction.