Letters from camp show sons were wise young guys


Good advice, I have found, often turns up in the strangest places.

Recently, for example, I found the following piece of good advice in an old suitcase:

"Hooray! This is the fourth day I've been here at camp and I finally got my trunk today. At first it was awful because I only had what was in my dufflebag. But then it turned out I didn't need as much of that stuff as I thought I needed."

This wise observation -- and who among us has not learned the hard way that we don't need a lot of the stuff we think we need -- comes not from Thoreau but from Camp Deerwood, circa 1979.

Or, to be more precise: from a letter found along with dozens of others that record the thoughts of a son while away at summer camp. Hidden away in the suitcase for several years, the letters -- along with those of his brother -- turned up during a housecleaning binge.

But first, a word of caution: Do not -- I repeat, do not -- ever sit down to read letters written from camp if you are not prepared to spend most of the afternoon careening back and forth between laughter and tears, between happiness and sadness.

Actually, those feelings did not surprise me. What did surprise me was this: The feeling of how much I missed in reading these letters the first time around. Of course, back then I was looking for signs that the sons were doing OK at camp -- that they were physically healthy and emotionally happy.

But now, from this distance, the nearsightedness of parental vision has given way to a clearer view. And what leaps out at me from these Popsicle-stained letters is how much good advice lies in the unself-conscious observations of kids.

"Things are pretty good," wrote one of the sons from a camp in New Hampshire. "Swimming class started today. I am taking 'Survival' which is so hard because you have to swim in your clothes with your hands and feet tied. That comes later on though. So I will wait to worry about it then."

Meanwhile, his brother was writing home of a rather rocky start at his camp in North Carolina:

"The 4:50 plane did not leave until 6:35 because of brake trouble. Then due to an electrical storm, our plane was rerouted to Kinston so we arrived at camp really late. This morning it's already 90 degrees and raining hard. But that will give me a chance to work really hard in ceramics class on the striped whale I'm going to make."

Note to reader: I still have the striped whale. And, in my opinion, it was worth the rain delay.

Moving on to another letter, I see this bit of advice folded into a report from New Hampshire:

"We hiked 2.4 miles up a steep, tree-lined trail and then we broke above the timberline. It was spectacular! All the trees get gnarled until only lichen grows on the rocks. It's funny what looks beautiful to you when you look at things differently."

Of course, reading this letter reminds me that its writer always had an eye for spotting a different kind of beauty. Particularly in nature. And, I might add, in his choice of ties.

Happiness is the subject of a letter from a camp in West Virginia. Its young author wrote:

"Today we saw the 'Muppet Movie.' It was about Kermit who followed his dream to go to Hollywood. But on the way a man named Doc Hopper wanted Kermit to do a commercial for his company, selling frog legs. He even threatens Kermit. But Kermit sticks up for his dream. And because of that he is one happy frog at the end."

And speaking of ends, I am particularly struck by the insight built into this observation:

"Yesterday we had a big campfire to celebrate the last Sunday of camp. Actually, we always have a campfire on Sundays, but this one was special. You know, the way the last time you do anything always seems special."

Time was also on the mind of the other son in the following letter.

"I think today is the 12th of August," he writes. "But I'm not sure. It's not like regular time down here. You don't think if it's a school day or the weekend. Because when you don't have to be somewhere on time, it doesn't matter very much."

After reading this, I drifted upstairs into a son's old bedroom. Not much has changed since he left: The ski posters still line the walls; the astronomy books remain stacked on his desk. But in the afternoon light, the room suddenly looked beautiful to me.

Funny, isn't it, what looks beautiful to you when you look at things differently.

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