Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh

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    So, it is summer, and some of you are probably planning to send your children to camp for the first time. I have three words of advice: Don’t do it.

    Summer camp is hell. Separation anxiety. Your world turned upside down. Tears. Misery. Sleepless nights.

    Parents should not have to suffer like this.

    Ben, our firstborn son, had no interest in summer camp until he was twelve. Then, out of the blue, he decided to go. Far from home. Deep into the woods. Where he knew no one. For three weeks.

    Our helicopter-parent rotors whirred into full action. We researched and got the best introduction-to-camp DVD in the world. We shopped for two of everything on the supply list. Dena and Ben packed his camp trunk. Then unpacked and packed again. And again. By the time they were finished Ben was a summer-camp commando, capable of deploying to any camp anywhere in the dead of night at a moment’s notice, provided he could slip out the window with his camp trunk on his back.

    Here’s how you get to Ben’s camp: Drive 167 hours. Turn off the interstate onto a state highway. Turn off the state highway onto a mountain road. Turn off the mountain road onto a gravel path. Ford a stream. Keep on keepin’ on until your GPS starts to smoke and your Google Map directions read, You have got to be kidding me. Cross the border into Kazakhstan and bushwhack your way to the preternaturally-chipper counselor who greets you with, “Good morning! Any trouble finding us?”

    We went with Ben to find his cabin. There, he picked out his bunk and met one of his cabin mates, who after closer inspection and checking of IDs, turned out to be his counselor. Then we were directed to a field where other campers were playing soccer and throwing Frisbee. Ben gave us a brief nod and joined the soccer action, and that was it. We were welcome. To leave.

    Camp directors harbor a secret they will only admit if you ply them with enough Harvey S’morebangers: A parent’s value is exhausted after the camp check is written. We are otherwise regarded as hovering, meddling, nagging impediments to happy camp experiences. (And by “we” I mean, of course, “all the rest of you,” because I have no idea who placed that microphone under Ben’s bunk to make sure he wasn’t crying himself to sleep every night.)

    And then the three weeks of agony began. The camp wooed us with the promise that they would upload hundreds of photos every day. What they did not tell us is that their photographers were myopic gibbons, and that the camp’s Internet connection was a piece of twine and a Cheerwine can with an upload speed of four pixels per minute. Not that this stopped us from staying up into the wee hours every night, spastically hitting refresh and debating about whether the gauzy apparition in the background was Ben, and was he smiling, and even if he was, did his body language say, “The camp guards are forcing me to smile! Rescue me, please!”

    Then he would disappear for days on end. Had he been kidnapped by insurgent bears? Fallen prey to Butterball the Man-Eating Donkey? So debilitated by homesickness that he could not lift his head from his bunk?

    We wrote him long letters. Exactly the correct kinds of letters they teach in Summer Camp 101. Full of breezy news and asking lots of questions. Nothing too heavy. Nothing to indicate that the hours passed like stiletto-tipped glaciers, incising our wretched hearts to shreds as the days stretched interminably on.

    In response we received a sum total of three letters, each full of wildly comforting News like, Dear Mom and Dad, Camp is good. I found a brown recluse on my bunk last night. Love, Ben.

    Pickup day! We arrived at four-thirty in the morning for the nine o’clock pickup. He exploded out his cabin’s screen door and leapt into our welcoming arms. Or, would have, if he had been there. A frantic search led us to the dining hall, where he apparently could not be troubled to interrupt his breakfast to greet us. After polishing off his fourth helping of waffles, he sauntered over and bumped fists. “Yo.”

    Tears and hugs were reserved for his camp friends and counselors. When he told them how excited he was to see them next summer, I assumed he was just being polite. No way was he going to put us through this tribulation again, was he?

    We took full advantage of the long drive home to interrogate him about his three weeks. We needed questions answered, for God’s sake. The extended disappearances from the photos? Multi-day backpacking excursions, where he camped with mice in his sleeping bag and summited mountains in the middle of thunderstorms. His letters? “We had to write them on Sunday if we wanted ice cream.”

    I wanted to wring his neck. Three weeks Dena and I had turned ourselves inside out with worry, and the only reason he’d written us was to get dessert? Was there nothing the ungrateful rip had missed about home and family? Nothing?!?

    “Well,” he said after some soulsearching, “I did miss Pop Tarts.”

    By the time we got home, we had extracted a promise from him. Never again would he go away to camp and leave the rest of his family behind to suffer so pitiably. And he kept his promise. Oh, he went to camp again the next year, but this time he took his younger brother, as well.

    Don’t do it.