How Did We Not Die as Kids at Camp Low Expectations

I just drove past the sign below for the Wake Forest YMCA camp and it made me chuckle. You see I’m of an entirely different generation, the intermediate one. At 54 I fall between my parents and grandparents (80 – dead) who had to walk a mile in snow to get to school and the digital kids of today.

My summer camp should have been called Low Expectations.
My summer camp should have been called Low Expectations.

I’ll give you the 80-year-olds are sure to have more dramatic stories than mine. Summer camp for my father just meant going outside or spending some time working in a field helping his father after he got home from his day job. When I was a kid summer camp meant entertaining yourself with others without air conditioning.

Growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. the summers were brutally hot. It’s where as a third grader I learned the expression “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” In August the government in D.C. shut down to escape the heat.

But the YMCA sign I saw today made me mentally loop back to the summer camps I went to as a kid. My summer camps should have all been called Camp Low Expectation. Forget the theme camps or fancy events of today. And forget being entertained by others. That was your job.

Summer camp was held at the local county elementary school and typically involved stitching a leather wallet, playing baseball, trying not to throw up because of the heat, running through a sprinkler, getting space near a fan, but mostly just playing outside with all the other hot and sweaty kids.

A water park was a slip n’ slide. And if you slid off the end of the thing and got a grass burn, you would need some parental help to remove the dirt from the open wound.

There was no such thing as Urgent Care. You had either the Emergency Room or Bactine. Unless you needed a heart transplant or some stitches, everything cut or scraped was sprayed with Bactine. Which actually hurt more than the scrap itself. Secretly I think that was the ploy, spray the cut with Bactine to distract you from the real pain. None of that make it numb stuff.

Sure that old Bactine commercial looked oh so friendly but here was the reality as shown in a modern video.

Kids and teenagers today can’t even fathom what life was growing up in the 1960s and 70s by just learning about it from a textbook. Sure we had civil unrest, towns burning, war, and fear of riots. But at the very same time my summer instructions were to be sure to be home for dinner when the bell rang and then after dinner I had to come back in for the night when the streetlights came on.

Parents didn’t know where the kids I grew up with went in between. We avoided the major roads but we rode our bikes for miles and hours, played in the creek, did some really stupid things that probably should have killed us, but somehow managed not to die.

We didn’t have seat belts, bike helmets, bottled water, cell phones, or a generalized fear of everything. We also didn’t have pervasive liability and the assumption life was going to kick us in the ass at any moment.

We had high dives at the pool and jumped off them with terror before most were removed by insurance companies.

A text message was a note passed in class. A web browser was a window. And not a Microsoft one.

I didn’t worry when the next IOS update was coming out. We were going to the moon. Man was going to land on another planet in the sky riding a spaceship by the lowest cost government contractor. That’s still more important than the new iPhone.

When Johnny got hurt riding his bike, you never ever thought his parents would sue you. Mom didn’t worry if I was safe or keep tabs on me with GPS. Friends did things like play games we made up or sit around and bitch about how bored we were.

“What do you want to do?”

“I dunno.”

Rinse-lather-repeat for at least an hour.

Sometimes one man in a truck came around, rang his bell, and sharpened scissors. Another man with a lot more bells came around in his ice cream bearing truck.


There was no such thing as soccer except unless a girl accidentally got punched, “sock her.” We played old-fashioned games like baseball outside or board games inside. I still love Mousetrap.

Spending the summer with technology when I was a kid meant watching one of the four black & white television channels pulled in with rabbit ears (not real ears of a rabbit.). To this day I still hate clowns and I blame Bozo for that.

Or we could pull out the latest bike technology and use clothes pins to attach baseball cards to our bikes to make them clack-clack-clack in the spokes as we rode. Of course we probably trashed $20,000 in classic cards by doing that. Who knew that Mantle kid would be all that.

I hate to sound really old but we even spent a lot of time with World Wide Web version 0.5, otherwise known as books.

Somewhere in the late 1960s I even started a community newsletter which sold for five cents a copy but that ended pretty quickly. You see I had to type each copy on a manual typewriter. I think it took three editions and two subscribers to encourage me to wait till later in life to try that again.

Oh and then if you were a really cool kid you actually had a small transistor radio and could listen to this thing called FM radio that played rock music in stereo. And if you listened to AM radio at night you could hear stations a thousand miles away and you lay in a hot bed with windows open since there was no air conditioning.

But life still had risks back then. We had the creepy guy who tried to give kids candy. Long before “stranger danger” we just knew the guy in the red car was a nut job and to steer clear of him. “Don’t go down Smith Road, creepy guy is parked over there.”

The July 4th holidays brought out the worst in parents. Seriously, who ever thought opening your mouth in a bucket full of water to try and get an apple was either smart or hygienic. It’s a tub full of the spit of thirty other kids but “OK Mom.”

We used fireworks with care. The kids that couldn’t fell to natural selection or just plain bad luck. No matter how dumb I was I got the point that pointing a Roman candle at my face was not going to have a happy ending. Those Romans are a fun-loving bunch when the lights go out.

Look, I’m not saying life is better or worse today, just different. But imagine how different Wake Forest summers are going to be for kids in the year 2044. The iPad and smartphone will be like cans on a string. No matter how hip and cool you may feel now, wait for it, you’ll be an old fart too one of these days.

Enjoy your summer.

Feel free to share your memories of what summer was like when you were a kid in the comments section below.

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