Transcript

109:

Notes on Camp
Transcript

Originally aired 08.28.1998

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's a typical camp, all the normal activities-- canoeing, archery, sports. There are two girls who everybody calls the homesick girls, who will cheerfully identify themselves that way to anybody they meet.

Girls

She wants to go home.

Homesick Girl 1

I do. I swear to God, I want to go home.

Homesick Girl 2

I want to go home too.

Ira Glass

Because it's a pretty upscale camp, there's also horseback riding. And on the rifle range, suburban girls from Chicago's North Shore lay on their bellies in sniper position while a real former Israeli soldier barks orders about how to shoot.

Instructor

I know it's really hard for you ladies to keep it quiet, but try, OK? Aim and fire. [GUNSHOTS]

Ira Glass

The boys' cabins are all named after Indian tribes. The girls' cabins are all named after women's colleges. So perky little suburban kids are constantly informing you, I'm an Apache, I'm Mohawk, I'm in Vassar, I'm in Bryn Mawr. And it seems pretty simple, but everybody here will tell you, no one back home understands it. None of their friends, nobody. There is just a gap between camp people and non-camp people.

Girl 1

All the time during school, I'm like, I want to go to camp. I want to do this.

Girl 2

Camp is all I talk about during the year. My friends get so mad at me, they're like we don't want to hear about camp anymore. Because everything that goes on at home, you can always think of something that relates something that happened at camp. And so then you tell that, and they'll be like, camp? We've heard about camp way too much.

Girl 1

It's little stories you tell, and you think they're so funny and everybody in your cabin understands them. And then you go home and you're laughing, and they give you a look like what are you talking about? Like, that's stupid.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, we try to bridge the gap between camp people and non-camp people. We try to understand what is the cult-like, mystical connection some people feel with their summer camps. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Notes On Camp. Six different notes, some recorded at a summer camp, and some amazing stories that actually came from you, people who listen to this program and called us up to talk camp. Stay with us.

Most of today's program takes place in Michigan, not far from Paw Paw. Two affiliated camps, Greenwoods and Lake of the Woods, one is a boys camp, one's a girls camp. But they sit on the same land, they share everything. Basically they function as one camp. Producer Julie Snyder and I spent a fair amount of time there. Julie usually hung out with the girls, I usually stayed with the boys. Here then, our findings.

Note One. Mr. Popular.

Ira Glass

Note number one. Mr. Popular.

David Himmel

Let's try the chorus again, because something in that last part is weird.

Ira Glass

Counselors David Himmel and Dean Hines practice a song for Saturday night's camp show.

David Himmel

Ready? OK. [SINGING] And even Hitler had a girlfriend who he could always call. She'd always be there for him, in spite of all his faults. He was the worst guy ever, vile and despised. Even Hitler had a girlfriend, so why can't I? [SPEAKING] It goes too high there. That's the problem, it's going too high. [SINGING] Even Hitler had a girlfriend, so why can't--?

Ira Glass

David Himmel has been coming to this camp since he was 11. Now he's a counselor and a sailing instructor, a college sophomore. A boy with clear, blue eyes who actually has no trouble getting a girlfriend. Like a lot of campers and counselors we met at this camp, he says that all the best moments of his life have either been at camp or with camp people.

David Himmel

Camp, it's number one with everything I do, I guess. Camp-- it's kind of ridiculous, but it's everything. It changes people's lives. People base their life around camp. I would not be who I am if it wasn't for camp.

Ira Glass

Who would you be?

David Himmel

I don't know. I think I enjoy things better now because of camp. When you live so close to people like this-- and it's sort of like college-- but everybody at camp is just real close knit. It's like a bond that just happens. And that's why a day at camp is two weeks in real life. It's like a time warp here.

Ira Glass

And people at summer camp treat David with a deference that few of us get in real life. He and I are walking around camp one day when a group of 13 year old girls comes up to us.

Girl 1

He is the best counselor.

David Himmel

This is my fan club.

Girl 2

He's the best counselor in the world and we love him so much.

Ira Glass

What makes him the best counselor in the world?

Girl 1

He takes us sailing.

Girl 2

He takes us sailing. He's cool, we made him all this food, made him a song.

Girl 1

And we have a song for him.

Ira Glass

Let me hear his song.

Girl 2

You guys don't know it. I'll sing it. [SINGING] All across the big lake, Davey's the one that keeps us awake. We got the rudder, we got the sail. Davey [CLAP] he's our male. We got a D- A- V- E- Y. We got a D- A- V- E- Y. We got a D- A- V- E- Y. Davey, he's our guy. D-A-V-E-Y, Davey, Davey. D-A-V-E-Y, Davey's number one. Davey's number one, Davey's number one. D-A-V-E-Y, Davey's number one. Whoo.

Announcer

Time for lunch. Everyone get out of your cabins. Please head over to get some delicious food. That means stop playing ping pong right now. Let's go, go to lunch. [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. La comida.

Ira Glass

I sit next to Dave at lunch one day. In the mess hall, everybody at camp eats together, and it is constant singing. The girls have their own traditional songs, the boys have theirs. Most of the cabins have songs of their own. After the oldest girls' cabin sings their cheer-- which, by tradition, is chanted so quickly that none of the boys and none of the younger girls can figure out what the words are-- the oldest boys cabin, the Mohawks, stands to respond.

Mohawks

[CHANTING]

Ira Glass

Dave turns to me.

David Himmel

I made that up.

Ira Glass

What are the words?

David Himmel

Well, it's a radio version of the original Mohawk-- it's called the Mohawk Song. It goes Mohawk once, Mohawk twice, holy jumping, golly gee, cheese whiz, we're the best that ever lived. And it's a clean version. There's a dirty version with swear words in it. And we started singing it at lunch. We kept on getting in trouble, so I said we got to make a clean one.

Ira Glass

Radio edit.

David Himmel

And it just popped into my head. And it's kind of cool hearing that. I started all these things.

Ira Glass

Like what else?

David Himmel

When somebody has a birthday, we sing Happy Birthday to them-- and this is kind of dumb, but I get a kick out of it-- we go happy birthday to you, and last year I went, whoo. And now everybody does it. And it just kind of cool, you make stuff up and--.

Ira Glass

It survives.

David's a force. David is the one who people turn to. David is the man, at least when it comes to some things. The night of the last camp dance, David wanders the grounds, keeping his eye out for the 13 year old boys in his cabin. He spots two of them sitting with two girls, and he says to me.

David Himmel

You got four 13 year olds just chilling in a circle.

Ira Glass

Sitting on the ground.

David Himmel

Sitting on the ground Indian style. It's like a powwow. And Dan is with Amanda and he's going to try and kiss her tonight.

Ira Glass

Has he ever kissed a girl?

David Himmel

That's what I asked. I said, have you ever kissed a girl? He said, not French. I said, do you got the gall to do it? Can you do it? Do you need some pumping up? He's like, no, I got it.

Ira Glass

Which one's Amanda?

David Himmel

Amanda is the one with the hair braid.

Ira Glass

The beads in her hair?

David Himmel

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Now Dan is just sitting there kind of quiet. He's not really saying very much.

David Himmel

He's a quiet kid. He doesn't really say anything unless he has something to say. Hey buddy. He's a cool kid.

Ira Glass

How do you think he's doing?

David Himmel

In the cabin or in general?

Ira Glass

No, how do you think he's doing over there right now at this moment?

David Himmel

I think he's doing good. She's really into him. In that hair thing, she's got three beads that says A heart D, Amanda loves Dan. And I talked to her, ask how's Dan? Oh, he's fine. You like him? Yeah. So I think he's doing good.

Ira Glass

One of the things he most likes about camp, David tells me, is the constant, ongoing drama. It is a soap opera. And David is one of the people who's always making up skits and songs based on the hundred inside jokes that are at the heart of any camp humor. Later that night, after the dance, all of David's 13 year olds are back in the Cheyenne cabin, getting ready for bed. And David gets a report from each one.

David Himmel

Keith?

Keith

What?

David Himmel

What are you smiling about?

Keith

Nothing.

David Himmel

And Dan? Nothing happened?

Dan

We just talked the whole night. We were just sitting there. I don't know. [INTERPOSING VOICES] We were just talking the whole night about really nothing. And then, just after we-- I didn't get anywhere, I just hugged her at the end. I didn't really get anywhere.

David Himmel

If you'd tried, do you think you could have?

Dan

Yeah, I would have.

David Himmel

It's your fault then.

Dan

No it's her fault.

David Himmel

Why is it her fault?

Dan

Because she didn't-- I could have made a move, I guess. But she didn't-- it's her fault, because she--.

David Himmel

She's not going to make the move.

Boy

I think she likes you. You got to go for it.

Ira Glass

She's got that thing in her hair, one of the kids says. They all resolve that Dan will get another chance. David's got his back. David will see that things go OK for him.

[MUSIC - "I WISH I WAS HIM" BY BEN LEE]

Note Two. Fear.

Ira Glass

Note number two, Fear. Sure, kids today, so sophisticated. They have email and PlayStation. It is encouraging, then, to realize that if you get them living in the woods a few weeks, they can be entertained by some of the most stupidly primitive forms of entertainment available since the dawn of civilization. I'm talking about scary stories. Every camp has got them. This is so true you do not even need me to tell this to you. 12 year olds know this.

Girl

You know how every camp has a little ghost story?

Sarah

Ours is about this--

Girl

We have the story of Turtleman.

Sarah

I'll tell it.

Girl

OK, Sarah will tell it.

Boy

The Turtleman story? All right, I'll tell it.

Sarah

You help me out if I do it wrong. A long, long time ago, there was this counselor who was really mean to all of his campers and everything.

Boy

I can't remember how many years ago it was, but supposedly there was this counselor, and he was dishonorably discharged from the military. And he was real, real mean to all the campers. He always took their food and stuff, and like, stole their clothes and stuff like that.

Sarah

He would beat them and everything. And his campers were so afraid of him.

Girl

And he said if you tell anybody about me.

Sarah

He said if you tell anyone about me, then I'll kill you.

Girl

And he would read their letters so they couldn't write home and tell about it.

Boy

And one year, these campers had a foot locker filled with fireworks. And he found them and he took them from them.

Sarah

And so on the Fourth of July, the guys were like, he's so mean, we should try and kill him ourselves. We're not really this vicious here. So they put fireworks under his bed. And once he had fallen asleep, they all went up there and they like lit--.

Girl

No, he was smoking. He was smoking a cigarette.

Boy

And then I guess they could smoke in the cabins. I mean, it was many, many years ago. I guess there wasn't a law. And he took and he put the fireworks underneath his bed, and he fell asleep.

Girl

And a cigarette fell out of his hand and into the footlocker.

Sarah

The fireworks got lit and he exploded. He ran into the lake on fire.

Boy

And supposedly, he's still alive.

Sarah

Every Fourth of July, he comes back and he takes revenge on a camper and pulls him into the lake.

Boy 2

Every Fourth of July, he comes out of the lake and takes someone in for his next victim. But what really happens on the Fourth of July is either a counselor or one of the Mohawks, without asking anyone, goes into the lake and comes out and scares the heck out of everyone.

Boy

Some of them really believe it, so it's cool.

Ira Glass

The older kids are funny in how they handle the ghost stories with the little kids. When producer Julie Snyder was interviewing a group of girls about Turtleman during arts and crafts one day, there was this moment. 12 year olds Rebecca Stern and Sarah Turkisher were talking about how they used to believe in Turtleman a few years ago when they were little, when suddenly some of the younger girls sitting around, Jenny Mayer and Nicole Horn, piped up, asking, well is it true?

And then the older girls, unsure of what to say, in the course of 17 seconds take every possible position on the issue. Here's the tape.

Sarah Turkisher

And then you tell all the little kids, but you're kind of cautious--.

Jenny Mayer

It's not true, it it?

Sarah Turkisher

No.

Jenny Mayer

You said it was true.

Sarah Turkisher

It is true.

Jenny Mayer

You made it up, though.

Rebecca Stern

It's a legend. There's always a legend of camp.

Jenny Mayer

So is it true or isn't it true?

Rebecca Stern

You'll never know.

Sarah Turkisher

Time does not tell.

Rebecca Stern

You'll find out.

Ira Glass

The 10 year olds seem to sit on the cusp of belief and disbelief when it comes to stories like this. For them, talking about these stories is just part of the process of trying to puzzle out, how does the world exactly work. When you're 10, remember, people are constantly telling you scary stories, of murders, of kids with guns. And the thing is, a lot of those stories are true. So you're still figuring out where is the line between fiction and nonfiction. One Saturday night, Aaron Etchler had all of his fellow 10 year olds in the Sioux cabin completely worked up by telling them the story of Candyman.

Candyman, if you know this story, appears and kills you if you say his name 10 times. Aaron said that a friend of his had died this way.

Boy 1

He said his friend died from Candyman. He was crying last night because of Candyman.

Boy 2

I was this close to killing myself because it was so scary.

Boy 1

And that freaked me out hysterically. We had to leave the bathroom light on last night, because I keeped on saying, turn on the bathroom light on man, I'm so scared.

Boy 2

We kept our light on the whole night because we were so scared.

Ira Glass

What could be more fun than getting scared like that? Nearly all of them had trouble sleeping. So much trouble that they were not allowed to tell any scary stories Sunday night at lights out. So instead, they tried something else, an experiment. I joined them after dark, after evening activity, right before lights out in their cabin.

Boy 1

Who's ready?

Boy 2

Let's do it.

Boy 3

OK guys, ready to be chantful. [INTERPOSING VOICES]

Alex

I'm Alex. and we're going to do a little seance over Bloody Mary. We're going to go into the bathroom. I think our whole cabin's going to because this is going to be a great time. What you're going to probably see is a bloody face when you say Bloody Mary forty times.

Boy 1

You'll see the bloody face of Bloody Mary.

Ira Glass

In the mirror?

Boy 1

Yes. Face in the blood, very ugly. It's going to be scary.

Ira Glass

I squeeze into the tiny bathroom with 12 10 year old boys. Some of the boys hold their arms as if they're cradling a baby.

Boy 2

If you act like you have a baby in your hands and you say Bloody Mary 50 times, then you will have actually a dead baby in your hands.

Ira Glass

And why a baby?

Boy 1

It's Bloody Mary's baby they say. She threw it up in the air and she didn't catch it and it fell.

Ira Glass

That's the story? [INTERPOSING VOICES]

Boy 2

It's called Blue Baby. It's called Blue Baby.

Boy 3

Baby Blue, not Blue Baby.

Boy 1

It's time to do this Bloody Mary bloody thing. Turn off the lights. Let's get scared. Ready? One, two.

Boys

[CHANTING] Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.

Ira Glass

They're 10. In a couple of years, there'll be cynics in the bunch, and they'll all be competing to prove they're too cool to believe in stuff like Bloody Mary. But for now, we all watch the mirror.

Boys

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.

Boy 1

Stop. Crap, it doesn't-- how many times did you do it?

Boy 2

40 times.

Ira Glass

They're so ready to believe that when the face doesn't appear in the mirror, their first explanation is that maybe you need to chant 50 times, not 40. And then--.

Boy 3

I felt a baby in my hands. I felt a baby in my hands.

Boy 1

It worked.

Boy 3

I felt a baby in my hands.

Boy 4

So did I. You're supposed to go like this.

Ira Glass

So did it work?

Boy 4

Yeah, it worked in a different way than we expected it to, but you felt Baby Blue in your hands.

Ira Glass

It took a while after that for them to settle into their beds. When I left half an hour later, it did not seem like anybody was going to be falling asleep very quickly.

Note Three. You.

Ira Glass

Notes on Camp three, You. A few weeks ago, we invited your stories about camp, and you responded. So many of you with so many great camp stories, here is a selection.

Woman

When I was five, my parents got divorced. And my father remarried the day after. In fact, he eloped to South Dakota, because in Minnesota, you had to wait six months between your divorce and remarriage. And then when I was eight, my mom died. And we were adopted by a nice, young couple, my sister, brother, and I. And I remember one year, we went to a long weekend type of religious camp that was sponsored through our church. But it had counselors there from a lot of different churches.

And there was this one guy there that looked just like my dad. And I must have been, I don't know, 9 1/2, 10. I was convinced that that was my father, and that he had realized the error of his ways. I had imagined that there must be some prohibition on him contacting the kids after he put them up for adoption, and I just thought this was his way of checking on us. And I would say things, like leading statements like, do you remember when I was little and you fixed my dolly Peaches? Of course he just looked at me like I was nuts. He must have thought, what an odd little girl.

But I was sure, and I told my sister, Tracy, isn't that Dad? And she said, no, of course not. But I was sure. Somehow it made me feel better, as strange as that seems. For that long weekend, that was my dad.

Woman

My mother emigrated to the United States from Germany in the '50s. And her understanding of American culture and traditions wasn't always quite clear. And one of her confusions was about summer camp. She knew that kids should go to summer camp, but she didn't realize that it usually involved 24 hour adult supervision. So one week she drove us up to a campground on the coast of Malibu and set us up in this tent, and left us some groceries, and then she drove home to go back to work.

So I was left in charge of my brothers, and I was 12, and my brothers were 10 and 7. And we were at summer camp. We played in the ocean. We played in the little stream that ran by our camp site. We picked things and tried to figure out whether they were edible. And the only problem that we had, really, was that we had to keep it a secret that our parents weren't there. And this involved lots of stealth and subterfuge. We would notice that campers were looking over in our direction at some point and kind of wondering where our parents were.

So in the morning, when we got ready to go to the beach, I would unzip the tent and yell into the tent, bye Mom, bye Dad. We're going to the beach, see you later. And hope that we'd be overheard doing this, and my brothers kind of picked up on this. One of them, when he would see a man in the car driving out of the campground, if he was alone, he would yell after him, bye Dad, don't forget the Popsicles, as if the guy in the car were going to get us some groceries. We were pretty obsessed with groceries.

And a week later my mom came back. We had called her and told her how much we hated summer camp. And she thought that we were extremely spoiled, because we didn't appreciate this great outdoor experience that was obviously a big part of American life.

Adina

The first year I went, I was 10 years old. And that was a kind of a fluke, because my parents were very committed left-wingers, and they wouldn't let me join the Girl Scouts because my mother called them a bunch of little brown shirts. And they wouldn't let me go to a fashionable summer camp, because they didn't believe in fashion. So my father asked a friend where his kids went, and his kids went to this very left wing, Zionist camp. And so they got me in.

But we had one day at lunch time, a rock came through the window of the dining hall, and it landed in my soup, and there was a note wrapped around the rock. And it said, we don't want no Jew camps in Wisconsin. And so of course, being a highly political group of people, they got together and they had discussions and they went on and on. And they posted guards. We had to paint our faces black so we wouldn't show up at night and so on.

And so a bunch of us were sitting in the dining hall, and somebody said, look, out on the lawn. And there was this large cross burning out on the lawn of the campgrounds. And these people came in, and they were all wearing white sheets, and they had these white things over their heads like pillowcases, and they made us all go outside. And there was another guy in a white sheet and a white pillowcase riding up and down on a horse. And they started to yell at us that they wanted the lousy Jews out of Wisconsin, and that they didn't want no Jew camps in Wisconsin. And they said, don't bother trying to call the authorities, because in this neck of the woods, we are the authorities.

And everybody was just petrified. And we all stood around shaking in our boots. And all of a sudden, one of the counselors said, I'm an American citizen. You can't treat me like this. So two of the guys in sheets grabbed him by the arms and marched him away. And another counselor said, I'm an American citizen. You can't treat us like this. And pretty soon, all the counselors were being marched away, and we were all left there. And I got really frightened.

So I went, I'm an American citizen too. And somebody came over in a white sheet and took me down towards the beach. And as he was marching me down to the beach he said to me, Adina, couldn't you have kept your big mouth shut? And it was all a political lesson that we were supposed to be learning.

Woman

Anyway, I was seven, and it was church camp. And several men dressed in black holding machine guns entered the chapel at different areas. They immediately tied the hands of the four pastors on stage and held a gun on the main pastor. I think as soon as the man said, if you're a Christian stand up, the devoted stood and the rest just ran off. There were kids running all over the woods.

And as we walked to our cabin, we saw counselors with flashlights and bullhorns proclaiming it was only a play. We heard kids yelling and cursing and crying. It was pretty bad.

Ira Glass

Thanks to everybody who called. Thanks to everybody who wrote.

Note Four. Ritual.

Ira Glass

Note number four, Ritual. Down by the lake, some of the Bryn Mawr girls explained it all to me. Every year it's the same, same songs, same ceremonies. There's Circle and Olympic Days, there's Color Days, there's Mohawk privileges and cabin nights. And there's the dance where the girls choose a boy who they'll marry for one day. And there's the powwow.

Girl 1

Last year, first session they took powwow away from us because it was politically incorrect or something. And we were all really upset because powwow is one of our biggest camp traditions, because we have a little song or whatever in the beginning.

[SINGING CHANT]

And you do different hand motions and everything to it, and it's really fun. And then you like challenge other teams. It's fun. But then second--.

Ira Glass

Before you continue, can I just say that it's really interesting that you can't even tell the story without suddenly bursting into song.

Girl 1

Our camp sings a lot.

Ira Glass

Besides the singing, powwow includes a talent competition. One girl, her talent, she crosses her eyes.

Girl 1

Jolie can like snap her belly button. And I can sing all the vowels in Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. And you just do weird talents, and you challenge other teams.

Girl 2

And at the end, if your team's the best, you get a peace feather.

Girl 1

The reason it got taken away last year was because a lot of the counselors felt that it was politically incorrect, because the speeches that the Indians make are derogatory towards Native American culture, if you look at it that way.

Ira Glass

I ask for examples. A few of the girls hold their palms up in the air and say, how. They launch into these fake, Pidgin English sentences where they drop lots of verbs and add um to the ends of the words.

Girl 1

We go to Lakeum of the Woodsum Campum.

Girl 2

I liveum in Vassar Eastum. I teachum camper naps how to walkum on waterum.

Girl 3

It's like inside jokes they like put into-- like with adding stuff that like Indians or whatever.

Girl 1

It's so funny that it's not like even-- no one even really thinks about it like that.

Ira Glass

In fact, fake Indianness has been a part of camping in America since organized camping began a century ago. One of the co-founders of the Boy Scouts of America ran a camp in 1901 in which he organized boys into a make believe tribe called the Sinoways.

The Red Man is the apostle of outdoor life, he wrote back then. His example and precept are what young America needs today, above any other ethical teaching. Indianness and a real connection to nature, an appreciation for all that was being lost with industrialization and urbanization. Just one generation after Custer's Last Stand, fake Indianness was an integral part of the early Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts organizations in this country.

By 1910, camps with names like Camp Minawawa, Camp Miramichi, Camp Poconoket were springing up everywhere for middle class and upper class children. It is still a big part of camping all across America. And after a year without powwow, Camp Lake of the Woods brought the powwow back.

Most of this simply has to do with tradition. The special songs and ceremonies are a part of so many American camps and it's not just because they're fun. A camp director in Wisconsin told us as we were putting together today's program that financially, you cannot run a camp without lots of repeat customers. These traditions bring kids back year after year.

You have the kids singing constantly about their loyalty to their cabinmates and their camp. You let them know about all the extra rights and privileges and honors they're going to get if they return as older campers. It is part of making the business run. And in addition, it's part of what makes camp thrilling. It is using all of the stagecraft that all the world's religions have always used. The ceremonies, the chanting, the repeated words, the official honors and offices, but for an entirely secular purpose-- to thrill children, to make them feel part of something big and special.

Girl 1

I think it's a really important part of camp. I personally like the traditions, because it's like, you know what's going to happen, and you can trust things like that--

Girl 2

You expect it. I come back for the traditions. I expect everything to be here the way it was last year, because that's the reason I come back. If everything changed, I don't think I'd like it any more.

Ira Glass

Well, coming up, war. What is it good for? Answers. Also, the second mention of the Israeli Army in one radio show. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Note Five. How The Israeli Army Is Just Like Summer Camp.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Notes On Camp, summer camp. A lot of the pleasure of being in camp is the pleasure of being part of this team, this group that you just feel loyal to, which also happens to be one of the pleasures of being in the military since ancient times.

Well, Adam Davidson is half Israeli, grew up in America. And when he was 15, he went to a camp run by the Israeli Army in Israel, on their own training facilities. The campers ran the same drills. They shot M-16s. It was all designed to convince these American Jews to move to Israel and join the Israeli Army someday.

Adam Davidson

It's so exciting, because you really feel-- I mean, you know that at that age, when you're 15 and you're in Israeli Army summer camp, there's no one in the history of the world who is cooler than an elite army unit soldier. I loved the fact that we would go the bathroom, and the toilets wouldn't have a seat, because that's a place where terrorists could put a bomb. And it felt so macho crouching on top of the seat, and showering in this freezing cold water. Because what? A Sayeret Matkal would need hot water? Why?

Now for me, for the first few weeks, what was tough about this was that I was really a nobody there. And I'd always be bringing up the rear, I'd always be kind of slow. And I wasn't showing myself to be macho, even though there were so many opportunities in a given day to prove yourself macho. I mean, we were always, for no apparent reason, running like crazy from one tree to another tree, or up some mountain. Every few minutes there was something you could be the best at. And I was never the best.

But all of this changed. My geek status was completely transformed. One night, the different units would put on plays. And we were supposed to do take offs of fairy tales. And this was some kind of a competition, there was voting over who did the best job. So my group, [? Plugat ?] [? Barach, ?] our fairy tale was Steve White and the Seven Dwarfs. And I would be Steve White, this fabulous gay man who lives with these seven dwarfs. And the prince who comes to rescue me would be Rambo.

This was one of those moments where I just knew that I was in the zone, I was in my element. I mean, I was from Greenwich Village. I'd been an actor all through my childhood. My dad was an actor. But more than that, there's a way that Americans can be very free that Israelis can't be, precisely because they have to be macho. And no matter what they're doing, even if they're mocking themselves, they have to maintain that studliness. And I had no obligations in that area.

I dressed myself just-- I tried not to be too outrageous, but I had to be kind of outrageous for them to get it. So a little bit of rouge, a little bit of eyeliner, my hair kind of slicked back with mousse, and sort of ridiculously short shorts. And so I'm lying there, and I hear a knock on the door. And I just stand up, and I remember the entire crowd is howling, just howling. And I just do the most awful, mincing, gay voice, just who is it?

And my friend, who was a skinhead from Toronto, whose parents happened to be Israeli says, it's Rambo. And I said, oh Rambo, you sexy beast. And everyone is freaking out, just laughing like mad, like maniacs. And of course, throughout it all, I'm making jokes about the camp members themselves, like saying, oh, I think Commander Oloney is just the thing. And everything I say, the entire crowd is just with me, is just laughing hysterically.

And what happens is Snow White to Steve White. I eat the apple, I pass out, and I need to be resuscitated. So Rambo comes to kiss me, and what we'd worked out is he put his hand in front of his mouth, and I put my hand in front of my mouth, and we just touched hands, and we're kissing our mouths. But from a distance, it looks like we're making out. And at this point, the camp is standing up, they're howling. I mean, I have transgressed every boundary that the Israeli man sets for himself. And they are loving the other side.

And from that point on, I was no longer the unknown American bringing up the rear of the obstacle course. I was like a movie star. The Israeli guys, particularly the machoest, toughest Israeli guys constantly wanted to do this make out thing where we put our hands over our mouths and make out. We'd be relaxing after some really long hike in the Negev Desert or something, and Nehtyu or Shaoul or whatever would come up to me and say, it's very funny the way you do this make out thing. Show me do it. Let's do it.

And the first few times I would do it, I guess part of me was like flattered that the macho, future Sayeret Matkal guys were into me in any way. But after a while, it was just so weird. I'd just be like, look Shaoul, I'm just not going to do that. I don't do that anymore. I'm just not going to do that. And they'd be like, why not? Do it. It's very funny, that's all. It's not for anything, but just the funny.

Now I've been to plenty of camps. And in every camp, you're somehow a part of a team. I remember in Boy Scout camp, when I was at horse riding camp, it was the people who rode horses in the morning versus the people who rode horses in the afternoon. And I just loved my guys. And I would look in the lunchroom at the other bunk and I just didn't understand how you could even live in that bunk. But Israeli Army summer camp is the purest distillation I've ever seen of this joy in being a part of the group.

Every week I would do things that I wouldn't have thought I could possibly do. And that was so incredible, and I knew that was because of the group. I knew that was giving me the force. And there was never a moment where I had to ask myself, can I do it? It was just, we're doing this. Plugat Barach is going to do this.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson is now a member of our Planet Money team. Although he intended to join the Israeli Army when he was 15, it never worked out.

Note Six. Color Days.

Ira Glass

Note on Camp number six, Color Days. It is impossible to overstate what a big deal Color Days is at the camp in Michigan Julie Snyder and I visited. It is like any Color Wars at any camp, except that it's three days. And once you're assigned a team-- a blue team or a white team for girls, black or red for boys-- you will stay on that team all your years at camp. There are legacies. Your brothers and sisters will be on the same team as you are.

Being named a captain of the Color Days teams is considered such a big deal that many older campers can name all the captains of all the Color Day teams going back years. Two girls and two boys are named as captain each year for each team. Only campers from the oldest bunks can be captain. Bryn Mawr is for girls, Mohawks and Blackhawks for boys. Counselors who were once named as captains, if you talk to them about it, they get all choked up when they tell you about the moment they were chosen. Even Dana Hardin, the 29 nine year old owner of the camp, went into this long explanation of the ceremony with me at one point, her voice cracking, ending with--.

Dana Hardin

I'm almost in tears right now. I really am, because it was the biggest honor in my life.

Ira Glass

Julie Snyder watched the girls Color Days this year.

Julie Snyder

Just to give you a sense of the intensity of Color Days, a month before it all begins, an 11 year old Blue team member tells me Color Days isn't all that competitive. I mean, she'd talk to a girl on the White team and everything. And all I could think was, if you have to say something like that, you know there's going to be trouble. The speculation about who will get the honor of being captain of the Color Days team, the biggest honor at camp, is so intense that weeks before Color Days begins, Lindsay Sayowitz and some friends in Bryn Mawr East decide to consult Lindsay's Ouija Board.

Lindsay Sayowitz

Is anyone here?

Girl 1

Hello? Who's this?

Lindsay Sayowitz

B-L-A-I-R. Blair, our old friend. We talk to her a lot. Do you know who the Color Days captains are for girls? Could you name one of them? OK, A- L- I- S- S- A. Alissa.

Girl 1

Alissa Strom. She'll get it, I bet.

Julie Snyder

Everyone thinks Alissa's a shoe-in. And the Ouija Board also picked Jamie Stream, another favorite, and Lindsay Sayowitz, who coincidentally had her hands on the Ouija pointer at the time. Two weeks later, in the middle of the night, all the girls' counselors snake through the cabin area with lit kerosene torches and wake up the girls for the opening ceremonies of Color Days 1998.

Counselor

Girls, it's time to wake up. Everybody up out of bed. Get a pair of pants on, shoes on. Wake up [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Julie Snyder

Little girls stumble out onto the sidewalks, rubbing their eyes, wearing mismatched shoes and looking confused. Across the way, the Bryn Mawr girls have never even gone to sleep, anticipating this moment when they find out which one of them will be named Color Days captain. They stand with their faces pressed up to the screen door of their cabin, holding hands and silently crying. Counselors with torches lead 120 girls. They march down to the lakefront and surround an enormous bonfire 10 feet high. It looks like some cross between a debutante ball and a Klan rally.

Counselor 1

We are here tonight to usher in our three days of competition known as Color Days. I call forth the first spirit. Do you hear me, oh spirit? Come forth and tell us who you are, and why you're here.

Julie Snyder

Like a summer stock Grecian play, one of the counselors dressed in a white toga comes out of the forest and stands behind the fire.

Counselor 2

I'm the spirit of the white. I represent the clouds of a summer's day, white caps in the water, and the dove of peace and purity.

Counselor 1

What is the message you bring, oh white spirit?

Counselor 2

It is a difficult thought to convey, but rich in meaning in every way. One can't find peace in a world of dream, each person is a fraction, a part of the team. We have no choice, everyone must belong. If no one is weak, can a team be strong?

Counselor 1

I call forth the next spirit. Do you you hear me, oh spirit?

Julie Snyder

The spirit for the blue team, another counselor in a toga, appears before the fire and talks about blue and blueness. Candles are lit, and the girls vow to abide by the camp's seven virtues during Color Days. Those virtues-- friendship, determination, sportsmanship, tolerance, enthusiasm, patience, and unity.

Counselor 1

In order that you may have time to consider carefully the meaning of these next few days, we ask that you now take a vow of silence. Please repeat after me. I will be silent.

Campers

I will be silent.

Julie Snyder

Finally, the camp director Dana picks up four whistles, two on a white string and two on blue. This is the moment everyone's been waiting for and guessing about, the moment Dana remembers so well from 16 years ago when she was a Bryn Mawr. She walks behind all the girls to the last row where the Bryn Mawrs sit and silently places the necklaces over the heads of the girls selected to be the captains of Color Days, 1998.

Girls

[CRYING]

Julie Snyder

The chosen girls stand up, sob, and cling to each other. The other girls stay seated, sob, and cling to each other. It turns out the Ouija Board was only right about one of the captains, Lindsay Sagenreich. Alissa and Jamie look shocked and heartbroken. There's so much crying, some of the girls can barely walk straight as they stumble back to their cabins after the ceremony. Because of the vow of silence, there are lots of sniffles, gasps, and blowing noses. Color Days hasn't even started yet.

Jamie

For those who don't know yet, I'm Jamie.

Lindsay

I'm Lindsay.

Beth

I'm Beth.

Jamie

We have an awesome team. I'm so excited.

Julie Snyder

It's the next morning, and the White team is gathered for their first team meeting. The veteran campers are dressed entirely in white, white shoes, shirts, socks, bandannas. Their faces are painted white. Their hair is painted white. Lindsay and Jamie, the White team captains, are in charge of organizing all the girls, raising their spirits and motivating the team. But it's difficult to hold your first pep rally within the confines of a vow of silence. Under the vow, only team captains are allowed to talk.

Jamie

OK, are you guys excited? Just nod your head.

Julie Snyder

After the flag raising on the first morning, the vow of silence is lifted, and then you realize why it was instituted in the first place. What follows are three days of solid wall of sound screaming. The girls cheer at the individual and team competitions. They cheer while standing around and waiting for their events to begin. They cheer on the way to the mess hall, they cheer outside the mess hall, and they cheer on the way back from the mess hall. They have constant team meetings where they talk about the importance of cheering.

Jamie

You guys, cheering tonight is the most important night to cheer.

Lindsay

Cheer so loud. It is not normal if you don't lose your voices.

Beth

White team listen. This is really important.

Jamie

This is really important you guys. Trying your best is the most important thing right now.

Lindsay

You run your butt over here as fast as you can, because it is so important that you guys help with any of our meetings.

[CROWD CHANTING AND CHEERING]

Julie Snyder

But some of the girls, the older girls, are having a hard time cheering.

Lexie

It is really hard to get in on it, because I'm telling people to be louder, because I know they're not being loud enough, but yet, I can't do it myself.

Julie Snyder

Lexie's on the White team. She's a Bryn Mawr, was eligible to be a Color Days captain, and spent the last night crying. Because if being chosen for Color Days captain means you're a leader, an intelligent and caring person who looks out for other people, what does it mean if you're not chosen?

Lexie

I didn't expect it, but I really, really wanted captain. And I mean, it is a disappointment, because it's something that you're eligible for, and if you don't get it, then you think about-- or at least I think about what I did to not do it, and what I did wrong, and how I'm not as decent as a person as other people. And it's just-- I mean, it's a letdown, but it's not everything. And that's what a lot of people lose grip of. That's what I always lose grip of, is that it's not everything, as much as it means. But it means a lot.

[CROWD CHANTING, CHEERING, AND CLAPPING]

Julie Snyder

Over the next two days, it's basically what you'd expect an all camp competition would be like. The younger girls and older girls split off. They do track and field events, swimming and boating events, scavenger hunts, and an all camp song fest. Both teams seem pretty evenly matched, and for the most part, the girls win and lose with grace. Most of girls I talk with all say Color Days is their favorite part of camp. They like the cheering. They like the games. They like feeling a part of the team.

[CROWD CHANTING]

But one night, after an intense capture the flag game, where Blue team pulls it off by one point, one of the White team girls doesn't take the loss too well.

Girl 1

White team, can I talk to you for a second? You guys, the Blue team is playing very dirty, and none of us should play like that at all. They knew I was already over, yet they still felt that they needed to trip me.

Girl 2

But just don't complain about it, we're just going to kill them tonight.

Girl 1

I say we get them back right now by screaming so loud that they will have to plug their ears, because that is how upset I am right now.

Julie Snyder

The climax of Color Days is on the last night at camp, the obstacle course relay, where every member of each team takes part. Usually whoever wins the relay wins the Color Days. The Blue team gathers at their meeting spot on the go-kart track to organize all of the team members for the race. Certain things are clear. Alissa Strom does the longest run, Carley Siegel always does the math problem, Rebecca Stern rules the pie eating contest. But there are some open spots, which require careful consideration.

Girl 1

OK, first person--.

Girl 2

Shh, you guys, quiet OK?

Girl 1

This is really important you guys.

Girl 2

This is really important.

Girl 1

First person is at the flagpole, and they have to eat one peanut butter and jelly sandwich as fast as they can and sing [UNINTELLIGIBLE] like so fast.

Girl 2

You guys, you are up against Lexie Gore. She is the fastest eater I've ever seen. Yeah. She can shove it in her mouth. It's crazy.

Girl 1

Who's got a big mouth who can eat really fast?

Jamie

I can eat really fast.

Girl 1

Jamie, do you want to try that?

Girl 2

Can you eat really fast?

Girl 3

You can sing while you have food in your mouth. You can be like--.

Girl 2

Jamie, don't eat dinner.

Jamie

But it's pizza night.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Julie Snyder

After dinner, the captains and the two peanut butter and jelly sandwich eaters gather at the flag pole to begin the race that will last over an hour.

Counselor

On you mark, get set, go.

[CHEERING AND CLAPPING]

Girl 1

Jamie, amazing. Absolutely amazing. Do you have any idea how much it takes to keep up with Lexie?

Julie Snyder

The relay race goes all over camp. One camper has to wait for the runner with the baton, then jump in the shower, wash her hair, get out, and passes the baton to the next runner, who goes to the waterfront, where a little girl will do 25 jumping jacks with a life jacket on, who then passes the baton to another girl, who goes all the way back to the other side of camp to a cabin where a camper unmakes and makes a bed. All along the way, the girls are yelling for their teams, jumping up and down, and trying to control their nerves.

Girl 1

I am so scared right now. I'm like here, but I'm not. I'm like somewhere else. Go Blue.

Girl 2

Yeah.

Julie Snyder

As an outsider, watching three days of all of this, I have to say what was shocking was how gung ho everyone was. Camp is this unusually safe bubble, where kids can let themselves go, crying and screaming and singing. They all buy into this. None of them stands back. Nobody thinks they're too cool for it. Back at school, the rules are completely different. Everywhere the rules are completely different.

[CHEERING AND CLAPPING]

Down at the waterfront, the White and Blue teams stand side by side with dueling cheering, waiting for the final leg of the relay race. When the last baton is passed, the two captains from each team have to build a fire under a rope that's suspended between two sticks about three feet off the ground. The first team whose rope catches fire and burns all the way through wins the race. Some Bryn Mawr girls have been saving wood for the burn the rope since the second day of camp.

Tonight the Blue team has about a full two minutes on the Whites as the runner hands off the baton. The Blue team captains, Carley and Dana, drop to their knees and begin with the kindling. They get only one match a minute as they add twigs and sassafras to the fire.

[CHEERING]

Soon the white team starts on their fire. The captain's hands are shaking. Both teams are jumping up and down, cheering and hugging.

The first pile of sticks to become like a real fire is the White team's, and the moment it catches, tears start streaming down Carley and Dana's cheeks on the Blue team. Both look close to hyperventilating as they lie down on the dirt, their cheeks on the ground, blowing on their fire, crying and frantically moving sticks around. But the White team's fire rises, their rope starts burning, and once it snaps, the race is pretty much over.

[CHEERING AND SCREAMING]

Girls are jumping up and down, collapsing into each other's arms, sobbing and laughing. The younger girls, it's almost as if their little bodies can't take all this emotion. I watch one girl, about eight years old, who stands off to the side, begins to tremble, and her face gets redder and redder as tears pour down her cheeks. A teammate tries to comfort her. It's OK, she says, we won. It might seem strange standing in the middle of 100 crying girls that most of them will tell you this is the best day of camp. But it's the best day of camp precisely because it's 100 girls all crying together.

If the point of camp is to feel this camaraderie, to feel like you belong to something, that feeling is at its most concentrated during Color Days. This is also the last day of camp.

Lexie

It's strange. This whole thing, there's so many things to deal with. It's just all jumbled in at once, and it's confusing. I don't know.

Julie Snyder

I talk to Jamie Stream and Lexie Cowurtz. Jamie's been here for seven years and can't come back as a camper again. Lexie starts high school this year, and for her, this isn't just the last day of camp, her last day living in this safe little bubble. In a way, it's her last day of childhood.

Lexie

One camp summer has never meant so much to me now that we're getting older. I'm so frightened of going into high school that I don't want to leave here anyway, but I'm so secure here. It's such a haven for me that I can't imagine going home.

Jamie

Also I think it's hard, maybe not for you, but for me, since this is my last year, these are my last three days of ever being a camper. And it's so weird, it's like this is my last Tuesday at camp. This is my last dinner with my cabin. This is my last time ever being in a cabin with my friends. And it's like, that's what's so weird about it, because you're just thinking about the last this, last that.

Like, I'm kind of scared to go home in a way, because my friends at home are so different from my friends here. And it's going to be scary.

Lexie

They're so dull. I don't mean that as in like-- I mean, I love my friends to death, but when you think of the things that we go through here, we're not really living at home. We go to school, and we go out, and it's not their fault, but the environment is so different that it's dull living at home.

I'm perfectly content here just sitting here getting mail. I don't really care as long as I just-- it's so strange. And I'm going to miss walking-- I was just talking to Laura [UNINTELLIGIBLE] about this, I'm going to miss walking down the path. I'm going to miss the doors slamming. I'm going to miss the overflowing bathrooms. It's unreal that we have to leave.

Jamie

Just stupid little things is what you really miss.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Senior editor Paul Toff, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Markie Rocklin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Harmonica music throughout our hour today by Howard Levy. Thanks to the staff and campers of Lake on the Woods and Greenwood camps in Michigan. Our program today was recorded there in the summer of 1998. Thanks to historian Philip Deloria, whose book Playing Indian details the history of fake Native American culture in American summer camps.

Special shoutout today to Emily Bernstein, whose stories about summer camp a few years ago in the New York Times were an inspiration as we put together today's program. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can get our free weekly podcast or listen to any of our old shows online for absolutely free. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who calls our contributor Adam Davidson at least once a day to demand--.

Adam Davidson

It's very funny the way you do this make out thing. Show me do it.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Adam Davidson

It's very funny, that's all. It's not for anything, but just the funny.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.