Cabin Fever

Summer camp’s time for rain-dance routines and popsicle-stick art. Unless you’re a counselor. Then it’s time to realize you’re not a camper anymore.


By Susan Anspach

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli


How’s everyone holding up out there? Staying hydrated? Keeping cool? Bearing in mind that, while in equal parts tempting, margaritas and fro-yo are summer staples best enjoyed separately. (For the record, everyone, like paper to rock, lime beats milk. Lime beats milk every curdled time.)

How that’s summer commute treating you? That summer intern? Anyone excited for next month’s beach vacation? How are the kids?

I feel especially obligated to ask after the kids.

This time of year, I felt equally obligated to build up to asking about the kids.

Like mixed drinks and dairy, summer in combination with kids can yield, let’s say, less than cloudless results. No one’s saying those results aren’t exciting—I’d venture to say flavorful, even, for a few select palates. And certainly no one’s saying they love dairy any less, or mixed drinks any more. It’s just that sometimes, dairy’s prolonged exposure to mixed drinks runs the risk of taking a nasty turn, like this metaphor did at some point, to the degree I now feel compelled to clear up that I’m in no way condoning any contact between children and alcohol.

Camp. For the love of craft popsicle sticks, I’m trying to talk about camp. And I’m not even close, so hopefully that’s some indication of what pressures three months’ uninterrupted child supervision can do to a person. This is my extension of sympathy pains, albeit one that eschews introductions, moral codes and everything I was ever taught about writing or the ethics of humanity.

This feels like the right time to tell you I was once employed as a camp counselor.

Up front, the thing we should all make a point to agree on is that camp, by and large, is a very good thing. It’s an opportunity to calibrate social awareness, push yourself to try new things, and forge a sense of independence. Better still, you get to cram your face with marshmallows, do raindances in mud, and dare anyone—I mean anyone—to pry you from your new best friend on the last day because nobody understands you like Jessica F. from Missouri, and nobody ever will.

As far as sweeping generalities go, camp is the greatest! You work and you play; you eat and you make crafts out of the conveyors of the things you eat! Definitely you should feel good about sending your kids to camp. It’s good for them. It’s good for you.It’s good for sanity-restorative efforts the Northern Virginia region over.

All agreed? Excellent. Now I can tell you that when I was hired to supervise two dozen 14-year-old girls for eight weeks, I was only 19 and had not even the faintest scrap of an idea what I was doing other than, you know, cramming my face with marshmallows and doing raindances in mud.

To my mind, this was an obvious non-issue. I had no leadership experience, but I’d always considered myself a leader at heart. At home, I often picked very excellent TV shows as well as the accompanying brand of popcorn—a snack lauded by both parents and siblings alike! I led them to eat that popcorn. That was all me.

Besides, there was a week of orientation before the campers’ arrival. Surely I would learn everything I needed to know then.

Here’s what I learned at counselor orientation:

Which boy counselors were attached to girlfriends.

Which boy counselors were not.

Which boy counselor names looked best in my Trapper Keeper doodled with small hearts and tiny cartoon chains of daisies.

Whether or not I still had it in matters of Chubby Bunny. (You bet your fat chalky cheeks I did! Why the boy counselors didn’t fight over me is anyone’s guess.)

The seven days came and went. I was ready as I’d ever be.

The night before our campers were to arrive, my (18-year-old!) co-counselor Monica proposed that we adopt the role of cool big sisters, not authoritarians. She herself had once had a cool big-sister counselor, and her memories of that summer were nothing but fond. She thought we could pull it off.

I like to think here is where some neuron in my post-but-just-barely-adolescent brain fired off a warning flare. That some cell-level part of me heard this and registered the potential for calamity. That a single sensible vacuole in me at least existed, even if I did snuff it out in favor of big sisterhood, or paid heed only to the much bigger and brighter flares alerting me to triple-check that my  Trapper Keeper was safely in my trunk, under lock and key.

Oh, cool sisters, I agreed. Definitely.

Which is how, by the end of our first week with campers, our bathroom came to be strewn with more candy wrappers and glitter than a Willy Wonka-themed techno rave. Our girls: the “What Not to Wear” archetypes of the camp uniform. Our cabin: missed Reveille four days out of six, on account of never getting to sleep before two.

My eyes were bloodshot. My voice was gone. Nobody would play Chubby Bunny with me.

By now Monica and I had realized our mistake, but things were much too far gone. If you’ve ever wondered where the wild things are, it’s northeast Michigan, south of Sleeping Bear Bay, in the immortal summer of 2003. They feed on Skittles and angst, worship at the temple of Posh Spice, and communicate with an alphabet consistent with dolphins’.

This was our baseline. This was what we were working with on the best of days.

Our worst of days befell a Monday, which happened to be my single day off. I had taken up journaling that summer, circumstances necessitating an outlet of expression more sophisticated than name doodles and chain daisies.

On that particular Monday, I remember sitting down in a bookstore a few miles away and turning off my phone. I turned it back on one hour later and had six new voicemails. All of them were Monica, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying past the high-pitched pops and bleating.

Monica had gone pure dolphin. Whatever she was calling about could not be good.

Back at work, my employer headed me off at the gate. It turned out two of my campers had contracted lice, a condition the rest of them must have understood to be terminal, the only explanation I can come up with for what

I saw when I arrived at the cabin and swung open the door.

In the middle of the room was a heap of clothes. So many clothes. Clothes of a quantity I couldn’t have guessed a single cabin could contain. Beyond camp uniforms, the room was erupting with bathing suits, stringy tops, jeans—I think I glimpsed a rogue platform heel in there somewhere. (The camp, you’ll recall, was in the rural Midwest. Where did they think they were wearing platform heels?) There were sheets. There were my clothes. There were some of Monica’s clothes.

Meanwhile, every bed had been stripped. Every hanger swung empty. Every camper was frozen in her tracks, most clutching still more clothes, although one stood by the sink, clutching a pair of scissors split open around an alarmingly large hunk of hair.

Here is what happened:

While Monica stayed with the two infected girls at the infirmary, the uninfected determined among themselves that the best preventative measure was to burn all exposed fibers and hack off their hair. They knew it was drastic, but they thought we’d be pleased.

The weird thing about it is, after confiscating the scissors and firmly ordering the redistribution of sheets, the ever-so-tiniest part of me was pleased.

You know why?

Because nobody understands the summer my campers almost burnt down our cabin and cut off their hair, not the way I do. Not the way they do. And nobody ever will.


(July 2012)