I finally went to summer camp! Well, I sort of did anyway. I mean, the whole thing was sponsored by Shock Top Beer and I was already in my thirties, but hey, your inner child can keep a solid secret. And sure, the camp technically took place in autumn, but in California, summer pretty much just wears three disguises to last the year. The entire weekend was beautiful and surreal. Naturally, I felt compelled to write about it like I kept a journal again, because Camp Shock Top gave me back my youth for a strange spread of days and nights.
Here’s the story of how I lived out my childhood dream as an aging drunk.
It all started when my editor Richard "Reach" Guinto texted me to call him when I had a chance to talk. I of course assumed the worst. I always do. I'm forever under the impression that if an editor wants to talk to me, it's because I somehow copied over a thoughtful article with an open threat I've written, and will continue to write, to Arby's. But that wasn't the case — not even kind of a little bit at all, hell no!
"Hey," began the guardian angel posing as my editor, "so Shock Top's putting on a summer camp for adults. You wanna go?"
My brain spun. I put down the beer I was drinking on the other end, under the delusional impression that this action would sober me up enough to understand the shining question just put to me. I responded in my most articulate manner.
"Wait, who's doing what for why?"
“It's somewhere around Los Angeles. You'll stay in bunks and they'll have activities like kickball, archery, rock climbing, that sort of stuff."
"Plus, there'll be beer."
"Yeah, it sounds like a lot of fun actually."
At this point, I was kind of just yelling incoherently at Reach, as one does when he finally gets to go to summer camp (wholly forgetting his age and narrowing social skills). You see, as a kid, I never went to summer camp, but goddamn, did I ever want to go! Instead, I lived vicariously through the lucky little loons in Meatballs, Ernest Goes to Camp, Addams Family Values, Camp Nowhere, and Heavyweights. But, alas, it was never me gleefully losing my mind in the woods.
And that was sure as shit about to change.
Alerted that I was promised a plus one, I hit up my siblings and a handful of friends to find out who could manage some days off in the near future. My old friend Tony, who I regrettably don't see often enough these days, was in it from the get-go and responded to my text like it was a shared destiny. Even through text messages, it sounded like he was already packing and asking his roommate which shirt was most becoming.
In fact, he was more prepared than I was for any of it, which eventually took a toll on him. One night while working on an article, I received this question from him: “Are you kind of nervous/excited in a fun first day of school kind of way?”
I hadn’t considered this, but now that Tony had mentioned it, I was. I mean, I've showed up to weddings where the number of people I knew was less than the total count of folks that have stepped foot on the moon, but this was different. This was days away from reality, where, unlike a wedding, I wouldn't be able to simply blackout drink and lie about how many jet skis I own to the tallest bridesmaid before calling a cab to "ta-tay-take meee toooo theneareztakobell."
This was a legitimate scenario that would require small talk and random comradery, the likes of which I hadn't faced since the first day of fifth grade when I actually did wind up at a new school. But then my inner child thought of zip lines and stargazing and my outer child dwelled on free booze and wilderness — and then both of them thought of arts and crafts and the crowd went wild.
So a delirious smile crept up my face, the likes of which haven't been seen since the Grinch planned to violently murder all those Whos down in Whoville.
Editor's Note: I honestly don't think Jake's ever seen How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
Author's Note: The only thing I'd eat at Arby's is a gun.
Editor's Note: Jake, can you call me when you have a chance to talk?
Author's Note: Shit!
On Thursday night, I scooped Tony up at his pad in Costa Mesa, where we caught up over beers — and somehow wound up discussing The Punisher at length, specifically his killer portrayal in Netflix’s Daredevil — and then we were off on our adventure!
Much of the drive was spent further dissecting pop culture while periodically weaving into personal subjects, as we would have to explain the rise and fall of entire relationships and jobs. Like I said, I don't see Tony that often anymore, which naturally led to us figuring out why that is, which has long been nobody's fault. You know, you just start dialing certain numbers less and don't realize it until you use the words "catch up" instead of "hang" in text messages you have to read over several times before sending.
"Hey," Tony sparked with a pause, "I've been meaning to ask... but I didn't know if it was weird, because I am crazy excited for this and it's good to see you, but...why did you invite me?"
"Oh, 'cause we don't see each other that often?"
"Yeah, I know you've got your core group of friends that you see, so I wasn't sure what made you hit me up."
I rolled this over in my head and dwelt on it like a hard candy. Finally, I answered.
"Honestly, I wanted someone who I could stand for four days, can legit drink for several days straight, and would put all their energy into this without getting too competitive.”
"Yep, I can do all that. God help me, I’m going to do all of that.”
Cruising up the dark mountain road, with less and less cars whizzing past us, we made jokey camp predictions, like pranking other cabins or getting to second base with a girl for the first time — even though, by now, as two dudes in their early thirties, we’ve done enough to be assuredly unable to make eye contact with our morning mirrors.
Upon arrival, we cruised into camp and found no one alive (or dead either, I guess). It was the perfect start to a horror movie narrative I never had to worry before about as a young non-camp-attending spaz. But here I was, two decades later with bum knees and a vacationing hairline, suddenly considering all the evils lurking in the lake or prowling around the trees. How many murderers could’ve strayed from the mean streets of Los Angeles to go wicked, wild, and weird in the woods surrounding the ironically dubbed City of Angels?
“I think we go over there,” Tony calmly interjected.
I shook my bulging eyeballs into a steady place and brought the car around. We parked by the swimming pool as fellow (fashionably) late guests wandered from the mess hall. I wondered if that’s what the dining room was called or if that was just in the military. I realized I know very little about America’s military and even less about our summer camps.
We found check-in and met a counselor named Nick, who would immediately gain and hold a reputation as the counselor in short shorts (who as far as I could tell wore them both ironically and religiously). He gave us our bunk assignments [shoutout to Sunset #2] and then instructed us to write our name on a tag, along with our favorite ‘90s sitcom. I turned to Tony, already seeing the pending issue.
“Are we both putting Seinfeld?”
“I mean, I’m putting Seinfeld.”
“Well, shit, what-”
“Done! I put Seinfeld. I did it, it’s here, I put Seinfeld,” he boasted with the slap of his chest, as if it was a state fair blue ribbon.
“Damnit! Alright, I’m putting Cheers.”
“Was that a ‘90s show?”
“Both ‘80s and ‘90s. Series finale was in ‘92...or wait, maybe ‘93? You think anyone’s gonna quiz me?”
“No one’s going to give a shit. Plus, it looks like a greeting.”
“You know, ‘Jake,’ then handshake. ‘Cheers,’ and you clink glasses or something. I don’t
know. This isn’t rocket science.”
Settled up with name tags (and confident in the fact that Cheers does count as a goddamn '90s show), we dropped our gear at our Sunset #2... which had six bunk beds, all called for but one. I immediately nabbed the top bunk because I grew up as the older brother and Tony instinctively took the bottom bunk because he grew up as the younger one.
“Jesus, this looks like where they kept the coal shovelers on the Titanic," I said, surveying the room.
“I was just thinking that! Shit, I guess that makes you Leo and me his ethnic friend.”
“What was his name?”
“I don’t know. No one knows. He probably drowned before the ship even sank.”
Then we noticed some of the bags and outfits draped on the beds. There was a long pause and Tony asked the question skating around my mind too.
“Are these bunks coed?” he asked, having stumbled upon a conspiracy. “There’s no way they’d do coed bunks.”
I shrugged, as intrigued as I was perplexed.
“Or, actually, nevermind," he continued. "I guess we’re adults."
My immediate reaction was along his: My word, the scandal! But then, upon Tony’s follow-up, I instantly died down. Well, of course it doesn't matter, as some of us are going to be older than the damn counselors. This isn’t actual summer camp. This is just going to be a lot of adults with different roles to play. It's not like our parents are paying for this.
"People are probably married, got kids, maybe a dog or two at home," Tony added.
“Not us though.”
“No,” Tony laughed. “Not us. We’re steerage.”
“More like wreckage.”
“True. Speaking of which, let's hit that open bar and campfire."
"That's one hell of a sentence."
"And it's only night one."
At the crowded amphitheater that surrounded the impressively ablaze campfire, three (exceptional) servers tended table with the wild darkness of a night in the canyon behind them. I wasn't sure what the hell my pace was supposed to be, given that I was here on detail, so I let Tony order a Dewar's and ginger ale and followed suit.
Tony and I kept to ourselves, largely to continue catching up. Eventually, by sheer proximity, we struck up a conversation with the camp DJ, Mike. We asked him what we should expect, as if this was some kind of haunted house and we wanted to prepare our nerves. But instead we got the sweetest answer imaginable.
“I’ve never been to a camp where people didn’t make friends for life."
For Tony and me, DJ Mike's words sputtered through our brains like new colors.
“You show up strangers and leave lifelong friends," Mike padded.
“So it’s like real camp," I added, sort of dreamily.
DJ Mike nodded and part of me wasn't sure how that was possible. I’ve only made my friends through four avenues—school, work, mutual friends, and the internet. Even that last one is relatively recent. I’ve never been the type to befriend someone out of singular events. I don't have friends I made from seeing repeatedly at the same bookstore, bar, coffee shop, or anything like that. The only places I’m a regular are at take-out joints and they still think I’m ordering for two people, bless their hearts. But then again... I'd never been to summer camp.
Full of hope and empty of drink, Tony and I hit the refreshment table where he struck up a conversation about baseball and suddenly we had friends. This brought around someone new.
“Hey, I’m Karen.”
“Oh, so you're from Foodbeast.”
As much as I want to believe my screwball rants on this site are well-respected, super beloved pieces circling the online masses, I'm not entirely delusional. So her immediately knowing who I was confused me.
“I know Reach," she explained.
And thus I had made a camp friend! However, I suppose this could be chalked up to camp as much as mutual friends and work.
The night glowed on, the moon spooking out nerves and the campfire rising to the occasion by quietly exiting the party. Tony and I settled around the heat with folks who turned out to be our roommates. They had already teamed up to make a horror flick by way of one of their phones. We discussed story structure and then Tony went down the self-appointed path of storyteller. I had seen him do this before, as recently as last year at our friends' camp wedding. At that event, after he and I blew out our livers on whiskey, I witnessed Tony tell a crowd of wedding guests one heck of a ghost story about a mysterious piano played on the night Tony Romo fumbled harder than ever before or since. This wasn’t it though.
“On a night just like tonight…”
The story began that way a few times, each distraction leading him to once again look slowly and suspiciously at the sky with his hand gesturing to it as if it were a cabinet of curiosity — and then he'd restart the story. I don't remember what happened in the wild tale, but I'm pretty sure a wolf-like maniac attacked the heroes.
And soon we were in bed.
Or kind of. The dude next to me in our bunk was a snorer, so I went for a walk sometime after midnight and before sunrise, stopping by my car for ear plugs. Scattered counselors were out and about, and while taking in what I could of my shadowed surroundings, I caught sight of the moon. It glistened like a lighthouse in the sky, to navigate souls off the dirty realm. It was other-worldly, as if a translucent pool had been skipped across with smooth stones, sprinkling the wet stars around it.
Light pollution is one of the most masochistic thing we do to ourselves, I thought, clicking my tongue and pushing my hands into my sweatpants to head back.
And then I thought of Tony's story and I moved quicker.
I was already falling down my heart like a drunk down some ballroom staircase and we hadn’t even started up activities yet. Summer camp was coming for me, or me for it; it was too hard to tell yet. I was rooting for a win-win.
To be continued...