Kids' summer camp has come of age and out of the woods


June 09, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

Summer camp . . . boy, has it changed. If you're a parent in the right income bracket these days, you can send the little monsters off to computer camp, bicycling camp, drama camp, even environmental-awareness camp, where they can pal around with legions of other insufferable tree huggers.

I don't know how it was when you were a kid, but there was a vapid, cookie-cutter sameness to summer camps when I was a boy in the '60s.

Every camp had a goofy faux-Indian name like Camp Little Feather. And every camp was run by some old, grumpy guy named Gus and his wife, Betty, who supervised a platoon of counselors with the same sense of fun once held by the Hitler Youth Corps.

The camp itself generally consisted of a fetid lake surrounded by run-down cabins, a mess hall and a "rec center" that hadn't seen a new coat of paint since the Warren Harding administration.

Our days were spent playing ball, swimming amid water snakes the size of culvert pipes and working on arts and crafts, which mainly consisted of making these ridiculous leather bracelets for your mom that she wouldn't wear even after three martinis.

The only "specialty" camps back then were the weight-loss camps for fat kids, only the fat kids did the same things as any other campers, except they ate a little healthier.

The fat kids couldn't wolf down four hot dogs and Twinkies for dinner, on account of some counselor would grab the kids by the ear and have them run to Vermont and back to work off the calories.

The fat kids had to eat stuff like carrots and cottage cheese. You had to feel sorry for the fat kids.

As I said, summer camp sure has changed. The age of specialization continues to flower. Now there's chess camp, field hockey camp, marine biology camp and zoology camp.

Or, if you don't want your kids learning to slop the rhinos, you can send them to the Baltimore String Orchestra Camp Ltd. for children who play violin, viola, cello or bass.

The camp is run by Anne Lane Vosough, now in her 21st year as founder and director.

Ms. Vosough seems like a pleasant woman, but after a couple minutes on the phone with her, you decide to cut the chit-chat.

OK, Ms. Vosough, spill it: What kind of kids go to string orchestra camp? Are we talking nerds, geeks, girly-men with fish-belly white skin and Coke-bottle glasses?

"These are kids who like being in an . . . atmosphere where they play good classical music," she says.

Yes, well . . . er, thank you very much for your time.

Of course, if string orchestra camp is a little too la-dee-da for your kids, you can send them to the Atlantic Aikido martial arts camp in Baltimore, where they'll learn how to bust some heads.

Well, not really. Actually, the camp stresses practical self-defense in its three-week sessions. Plus aikido is a Far Eastern discipline that encourages brains over brawn.

Owner Brian Sutherland is a fourth-degree back belt in aikido, a second-degree black belt in judo and a first-degree black belt in karate.

Therefore, you don't ask about the girly-men quotient at his camp, as you don't want him storming into the newsroom and cleaving your desk in half with a karate chop.

For the kid uninterested in learning how to sever someone's windpipe with a roundhouse kick -- I didn't know there were any such kids left -- there is always sailing camp, specifically one near the Inner Harbor run by Getaway Sailing ("Professional Instruction in a Relaxed and Supportive Atmosphere.")

Ironically, owner Dick Mead says he can't really relate to the concept of summer camp, since he spent his summers as a boy running a hay combine on a farm.

But instead of picking hay out of their teeth or worrying about losing an arm when the combine jams, Mr. Mead's campers spend their time on 23-foot sailboats. The cost is a reasonable $185 for a one-week basic sailing or racing course.

So it's not just for rich brats, huh?

"Yeah, that's right," Mr. Mead says. There is a pause, and then he adds: "Well, the majority of our kids are from the wealthy parts of town. But we're trying to reach other kids, too."

Still, you figure it'll be a while before kids in the projects are walking around in Docksides and polo shirts with little anchors on the breast pockets.

Another camp with a slightly, um, different theme is the Japanese language and culture camp in Baltimore sponsored by the Yokohama Academy, at which Japanese and American high school students spend a week together engaged in "bilingual activities."

Program coordinator Kei Gilbert says: "The students go to Ocean City, go to an Orioles game, do line-dancing, exchange CDs . . ."

Excuse me? Line-dancing?

"Yes, line-dancing," she repeats.

Kei, Kei, Kei . . . line-dancing could set the Japanese culture back thousands of years. Look what it did to Branson, Mo.

Getting back to the different types of camps, there is even -- stay with me here -- a Career Explorer Camp for rising seventh- and eighth-graders at the Howard County School of Technology ("Campers will learn to give facials and manicures, make creative designs with fruits and vegetables, do automotive checkups, make personalized printed materials . . .")

It's funny, back when I was at Camp Little Feather, I made a locket for my mom with a personalized poem about nature.

Of course, she never wore that, either.

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