He goes on to draw the comparison between today’s camp activities and how he spent his summer days: “They have rock-climbing walls and zip lines. When I went, they used to just give us a field and a ball, ‘Have fun!’ It’s a little different now.” Keren is quick to point out those changes are not only great for the kids but for parents, too: The world Joshua and Samantha are growing up in is very different from the one she and Jeff experienced at their age. The huge range of activities at camp makes up for that.
“When we were young, our parents did not structure our playdates for us. We went outside in the front yard, we got on our bicycles, and we went where we went,” she recalls. “Now everything is more planned and more restricted. We’re all worried about our kids now. Worries our parents didn’t have.”
She concedes that, worries or not, her kids are having far more fun running around West Hills than they would be tagging along on a trip to the grocery store.
This is the perk parents get from sending their kids to camp. Of course, there are plenty more when you’re a kid. Tracy lists them: Making midnight escapes from her bunk and trying not to get caught (“We snuck out, we did all of that”), ulterior motives for playing sports (“Sometimes it was because we genuinely enjoyed the sport and sometimes it was because the instructor was cute”), being enlisted as a Color Wars general (“There was a whole laser show, you got to see your name in lights”), finding kids making midnight escapes from their bunks and trying not to get caught (“Guys, we did a much better job than you when we were younger; like c’mon, if you’re gonna plan it, plan it better”).
But the conversation always comes back to her friendships. Hypothetically, if she were in jail and could make one phone call, would it be to a friend she met at camp? No, she says after a long pause, but only because both her sister and roommate are attorneys. Were she not flanked by a mini-legal counsel, any emergency call, to get out of the slammer or to say goodbye during the Apocalypse, would be to Monroe alum.
“These are the friends I’ve known since I was 8 years old,” she says. “We lived together. I still have some of their clothes; they still have some of my clothes. It’s almost like a blood brotherhood. If all hell—Armageddon—breaks loose, and you need someone’s help, you call a camp friend. They will be there.”
Those Were The Best Days Of Our Lives
“I’m always for camp; I think it’s a good thing,” Jeff says. “I have great memories, made good friends; I still have a very good friend of mine who I know through camp. I really don’t see the downside to it.”
There is one downside: It has to end.
Long Islanders love to joke that summer takes forever to get here and is gone before they know it. Weather turns from hot with a chance of rain to cold with a likelihood of snow. Bathing suits and sandals are packed away to make space for heavy jackets and boots. Midday drink choices change from ice-cold lemonade with an umbrella to hot chocolate with marshmallows.
For campers, the end of summer means the start of another school year and another 10-month wait before the school bus takes them somewhere they want to go.
For Samantha Koukoulas (not to be confused with Samantha the 8-year-old waiting for the bus, although it’s hard to say who is more excited about camp), summer camp was the first page of a new chapter in her life. At age 6, her family moved from Plainedge to Rockville Centre. Looking to make friends before the school year began, her parents signed her up at Rolling River Day Camp in East Rockaway. She went on to meet her best friends there, girls she calls her sisters and says she’s inseparable from.
Now 18, her group spends every summer at Rolling River, first as campers, now as counselors, and as who-knows-what in the future.
“They say we’re gonna get buried underneath the pools,” she jokes. “I want to stay forever, but my parents say I need to get a real job and I’m just trying to delay that as long as possible.”
She has plenty of memories from her years at Rolling River: Surprise trips to Dorney Park, playing every sport known to man with energetic first-grade boys (“Just like a blast”), an overnight trek to Boston complete with whale watching and seats behind the Green Monster at Fenway Park, daytrips with fifth-grade girls (“They’re more independent; they just want to do whatever they want”). But what sticks out in her mind more than anything else is the final day, the last time she will see all those faces, play all those sports and ride on that yellow bus.
“The one thing I remember most is always my last day at camp. It’s just signing shirts and going over memories, and it’s that one time where you just remember how great the whole summer was and how you don’t want to leave it behind because you’re leaving part of your family.”
Tracy puts it more succinctly: “When we left, my mom cried. When we came home, I cried.”
The tears will subside eventually, and as the leaves fall and are covered by snow, and the snow melts and flowers start to bloom, the anxiety and excitement will build, not just for campers but for counselors, staff members and parents. The final school bell will ring and the bus will make its final trip to drop kids at home. The next time it pulls up outside, it will be to whisk them back to camp, and things will pick up just as they were.
“The first day of camp, you’d see these people and it’s like you never left,” Samantha says of the first day of a new summer. “I think that’s the best feeling: reuniting with people after months and months of not seeing them and feeling like you just left off from where you started.”
Camp is in session for two months each year, but the friendships (Tracy: “I know people who’ve gotten married because they met at camp”), lessons (Samantha: “I always wanted to explore teaching, but now I realize I love kids and I love working with kids”) and experiences (Keren: “They come home glowing”) never end. This is the essence of summer camp: A place where a casual “Want to go on the see-saw with me?” can turn into a lifelong friendship, a 10-year-old and a 20-year-old can act the same age, and stories parents will tell their kids before their first day at camp are written.
“You look back on it and go, ‘Those were the best days of my life.’ I mean, that’s camp,” Tracy says. “I know it’s corny but it’s so worth it. And that’s the best way to put it: It’s corny, but I wish everybody had the type of experience I had.”