Tent caterpillars joined us for dinner. They dive-bombed our bug juice, formed letters on top of the cornbread and settled in our hair. Dragonflies took readings and droned off. In the family dinner theater production of Dinner at Our House, my wife or I will ask: "How was your day?" and our daughter answers, "It was a normal day." Scene. At camp, a place where boredom did not seem to exist, I didn't have many chances to ask questions.
"He's a good leader," she said of the camp director, "because he's willing to do the work himself." Returning from the chow line, she brought me a napkin I needed but hadn’t asked for. "That's something I've gotten good at. Noticing when people need something and getting it for them." I wasn't a conversationalist so much as a backboard against which she was pinging thoughts. "Opportunities are like fireflies. You have to catch them or they'll fly away."
When the kids get sick, they become extra-grateful and loving. This is also how they behave when you appear in the camp bubble. Did I have enough carrots, she asked? What did I want to see first? How was the flight? She was afraid she wasn't showing me and telling me enough. She reached over and brushed my hair off my forehead. "I do the same thing too now," she says brushing her short hair off her forehead.
We had reversed roles. She was in command, and I was the one visiting. I'd been there before and little had changed in 40 years, but I let myself be led by the hand—over the exposed roots I'd tripped over and down to the pier where I'd lost my breath jumping into the frigid water.
If camp is a place where you can create an essential part of yourself, perhaps you can reintroduce yourself to that part of your character by stepping back into its grooves. It's as close as we get to going back in time. The location contains intense memories, and there are triggers everywhere that can pop them out of the subconscious. The split logs where we sat for vespers Sunday at twilight were still there, the open field seemed no smaller than it had when I pedaled my stick legs across it in Jimmy Connors shorts, and the dining hall smelled antique as always.
But my daughter seemed so much more in command and unburdened than the young John Dickerson. When I went to camp, I was the same little person transported to a new place. She goes to camp to be someone different. That's why she's so keen to get there. That's what the short haircut was about. It had its downside, of course. On the first night, counselors doing the quick sort sent her and her bags to the boys’ camp.
In the back of the dining room, we found the younger me, sitting in the front row in the 1977 camp photo. I'd never seen the picture, but I look almost identical to the boy in the official picture they had sent home to my parents. My mom never had a cellphone when she was alive, but that photograph—now my Twitter avatar—had been on her desk for the last 20 years of her life. I'm bright-eyed and happy, smiling like I could win the lottery any day I wanted. It’s the face my daughter is wearing.
We became separated briefly, and as I tried to remember details about skits I’d performed and conjure the smell of the canvas tents, counselors came to tell me secrets. My daughter showed other campers how to make their beds. She got up every morning to swim in the freezing lake. She was a top competitor in the ad-hoc potty humor competition on the boat ride to one of the islands. (When you get in the outhouse, you're Russian, when you're going, European, and when you leave, you're Finnish.) At the talent show, she'd sung and played the guitar after being nervous about even stepping onstage. It was an inspiration to the other campers, I was told. She was the kind of kid who was game for anything.
This is a different girl than the one I remember. I wish I had been that way. I wish I were that way now. This was the unexpected wonder of the trip. It was fun to observe the new her, but the surprise was listening to other people describe her. They didn't have my fuzzy lenses mucked up with emotion and memory and duty. She told me that Annie, the counselor who taught her the ukulele, said, "You have great things ahead of you." "Didn't you think that already?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "but it was nice to hear it coming from her too."
The drip of the tent caterpillars sticks with you for a while. You think you feel them crawling even after you've brushed the last one off and you are headed to the airport out of town. It's like nature's phantom BlackBerry vibration. We turned in our rental car at the Minneapolis airport and rolled our bags to the escalators. She got on one. I got on the one next to it. We talked across the black rubber rails, moving in unison, plotting out how much time we'd have before leaving and where we could get a bite. She wanted to get a gift for her brother. As we talked the parallel escalators split. Mine was going to a lower floor. Hers above. She gave me a stage face of mock doom. (Escalator wit.) "I'll meet you up there," I yelled as I glided in the wrong direction. I was delivered to some stupid baggage claim level. My daughter, temporarily returned to the Unaccompanied Minor status, piloted herself to the ticket counters. I looked for a way to get up. All the escalators were going in the wrong direction.