Write of passage

Letters from camp tell the stories of skinned knees, homesickness and a need for candy.

July 25, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

David Krause was scared, but this 11-year-old wasn't dead yet: He slathered insect repellent on his arms and legs and, with his bunkmates' help, shut tight the cabin's doors and windows.

Just minutes earlier, a counselor had rushed to the campfire: A giant bug called a "needle-finch" is coming this way! Run! If it bites you twice, you'll die!

The boys and girls sprinted to their bunks.

Although 4-H summer camp had unexpectedly put his life in mortal danger, Krause did what any level-headed camper does when suddenly confronted with free time: He wrote a letter to his parents.

"July 7, '75. Dear Mom, Dad, and Kelly [his older sister]," the letter began in Krause's practiced cursive.

After informing his family of a recent meal (including hot dogs and "coal" slaw), swimming "leasons," and the campfires, he wrote of the imminent threat: "did you here [sic] about the ... a bug that is 500 mi away. the bug can kill you if stings twice."

"P.S.," the letter concludes. "If you can not read this wait till I get home. David."

A quarter-century later, the two-page note -- creative spellings, dropped words, deadly bug stings and all -- remains a treasured family memento, a reminder of a little boy's first overnight summer camp and the unparalleled thrill-ride that is pre-adolescence.

"Wow. I can almost recite the lines," Krause, now 35 and a married Aberdeen father of three, recalls with a chuckle. "Maybe 20 minutes later, somebody told us it was all a joke. I would have written more about that, but I ran out of paper."

Ah, summer camp. It is the quintessential American experience and rite of passage. By the time Labor Day rolls around, an estimated 8.8 million children will have spent an eventful week or two at one of the nation's 8,500 summer camps.

Probably 8,799,999 will have sent a letter or postcard home. (That one that never writes -- he's probably yours, right?)

Even in the age of e-mail, the Internet and laptop computers, summer camp communications are strictly retro. With few exceptions (computer camps, perhaps), letters are written the old-fashioned way -- with a pencil, paper and the pre-addressed, stamped envelope Mom slipped in the suitcase.

"Most camps barely have telephone capability," says Jen McCormick, spokeswoman for the American Camping Association, a nonprofit organization representing the camping industry. "Camps are not in the cyber age. Paper and pencil are still the way to go."

" I hate this crummy place. We can't do anything, and all they do is yell at you. ... I consider this a waste of a week."

Bill Cunningham -- former camper

Earlier this summer, The Sun asked readers to mail in copies of their favorite letters from summer camp. Whether written in the 1960s or just last month, they differed little: Homesickness, scraped knees, bad food, outdoor sports, cool counselors, and a plea for money or candy were common themes.

"I would have wrote sooner, but a lot happened," Sara Feldman, 10, of Reisterstown informed her cousin Stacie Pollack of Owings Mills while attending camp in Western Maryland this summer. "Yesterday, we were eating candy and all of a sudden a bear came out and Ali, who is in our bunk screamed 'Bear'!

"Our counselor said it was a boy or counselor from Camp [Airy] who came to scare all the girls at Camp Louise, but he ran away because girls have cooties. We do a lot of swimming too!!"

Emily Pagano, 9, of Columbia, who attended the same camp, wrote a letter to her 5-year-old brother before she even left home.

"Dear Noah," the letter begins. "I will miss you very much. I love you but somtimes you are anoying. But even though you are anoying I will write to you! Love your sister, Emily."

After she arrived at camp, her younger brother -- and his shortcomings -- were still in her thoughts. She wrote Noah again on the butterfly stationery she had carefully packed in her bag:

"Dear Noah," she wrote. "This is my first letter to you. Even though you are anoiying I still love you and miss you a lot!! Love, Emily."

Complaints are a common theme in letters from camp. From skinned knees to snoring cabin-mates, there is generally no shortage of gripes.

When Bill Cunningham, a 12-year-old from Baltimore, went alone to Boy Scout camp in Harford County, he was none too thrilled with the experience, and let his mother know it.

"I hate this crummy place. We can't do anything, and all they do is yell at you," he wrote. "All we do is work. We get up at 7:00 am and go to bed at 10.00 o'clock. We got to the pines through a sticker path. I consider this a waste of a week.

"The Scout Master says no visitors, but please come up this coming Sunday. Please come up this Sunday after church. Love, Bill"

"P.S.," the letter concludes. "Please write me a letter and don't let Dad see this letter."

That was 1962. Erma Cunningham never showed the letter to her husband, but kept it in her jewelry box for 37 years. Her son survived the experience and was eventually elected to the Baltimore City Council.

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