2000s Archive

Free to Be Me

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"The only problem is the raisins," says Cindy, a 14-year-old camper, as we eat tuna sandwiches dotted with the wrinkled fruits. "They put them in everything, even the shepherd's pie."

I spend my days trying to soak up the atmosphere and chat with the kids. Water activities rule, either at the lake or in the swimming pool. (The tennis courts are almost always empty.) One morning, we catch a particularly raucous boys' basketball game. The kids, who look to be around ten years old, are stealing the ball from one another, randomly shooting, and generally playing their own version of the game. The counselor in charge is blowing his whistle now and then, offering instruction. "Hey, fat mess!" shouts one boy at a buddy when he fumbles the ball. "Damn, you're fat," he scolds. The other boy, a roly-poly kid from Texas, just laughs. They all laugh. "Only the fat campers can call each other fat," explains Ellerin, who's observing the game. "It's their privilege."

Not all Kingsmont campers appear to be overweight, but many are veteran overeaters. In the cafeteria, the girls casually chat about bulimia and anorexia, eating too much or too little. Everybody is refreshingly frank about their personal struggles. While I watch the basketball game, Andrew, a gregarious 16-year-old from Connecticut, comes to check me out. He's a total charmer, with an easy smile, who tells me that he's been coming to Kingsmont for four years and has lost a total of 80 pounds during that time; today, he looks about 20 pounds overweight. I congratulate him. "It changed my life," he says, beaming. "When I graduate from college, I'm going to be a stockbroker and make lots of money," he adds, letting me know that in his newfound svelte state, he's prepared to conquer the world. (He also wants to know whether I have any Coke or other soft drinks in my car.) Andrew invites me to visit his cabin, where the oldest boys live. It's an invitation I've been waiting for.

At rest hour, when all campers must be in their bunks, Gertz and I climb the hill to the cluster of boys' cabins, which is on the opposite side of camp from the girls' bungalows. I am informed that clandestine visits at all hours are par for the course, despite the distance. From the outside, Andrew's cabin looks like a bunker, guarded by two boys hanging out on the front steps. As we approach, one shouts, "Get dressed! Company!" Inside, the place smells like old sneakers and dirty laundry.

Ten boys share the cabin, along with two counselors. (There's a four to one ratio of kids to counselors at Kingsmont.) Andrew puts on some music and shows us photographs of his family. (One picture also features the dog he had to leave behind, a handsome terrier mix.) Another boy, Tony, who appears to weigh about 350 pounds, is lying on his side precariously, as if he might fall off the edge of his narrow bed. "I really miss my family," he comments, sadly. This is his first summer away from home.

Leaving the cabin, I stop to chat with a young man named Danny, who turns out to be the bunk counselor. He tells me that he, too, was a camper here for several years before becoming a counselor. After graduating from high school, he immediately joined the navy. "The day I was released from service, I came back to camp," he says. This turns out to have been just a few weeks ago. "You came here before going home?" I ask. He nods. Apparently, Kingsmont is his home.

Visiting the girls one day, I stop to talk to Eva, who is sitting on the steps of her bunk and shaving her legs. This is her first time at Kingsmont, and she is having the happiest summer of her life. "Usually I am alone all the time," she says. "I can't afford to hang out at the mall and eat junk food all night. That's what kids do. So I stay home."

Suddenly there's a shriek from down the hill, and we see a group of boys running toward us with water balloons and cans of shaving cream. I run for cover. Eva dashes inside to warn her mates and get ammunition, which turns out to be anything that can be sprayed, squirted, or tossed. It's a sneak attack—the boys against the girls. "Get him with Nair! Make him bald!" one girl shouts as they all let fly with powders, creams, and shampoos. Everyone is yelling, wiping their eyes and faces. The fracas culminates in toilet paper shooting through the air as the girls hurl rolls at the boys. The place is a wonderful, chaotic mess. When a counselor shows up (intentionally late?) to put a stop to the altercation, the boys turn and sprint for home. Later, at dinner, both sides claim victory.

Every afternoon at four, all the campers gather in a field for a mandatory snack. Today, it's frozen lemon yogurt and apples, intended to take the edge off their appetites before dinner. Three preteen girls come bounding down the hill from their cabin, arms linked; the girl in the middle has taped her mouth closed. Is this a self-inflicted punishment? An attempt to control her urges? As she approaches, I see the words "Kiss Me!" written in Magic Marker on the tape, suggesting another motive. I am amused; her counselor is not. Anne, a spunky ten-year-old, is giggling helplessly as she's forced to remove the message from her lips. A small group of boys and girls have encircled her, admiring her audacity. Anne invites me to visit her bunk later on as the girls dress for the Friday evening dance. Each week, this event has a new theme. Tonight, it's Halloween at Kingsmont.

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