I’ve read that smell is one of the strongest associations we have to our memory. Just take a whiff of playdoh, Old Spice aftershave, and Tropicana tanning oil and you are sure to be playing in the back of the car on a beach trip with your Grandpa. Today, it’s me in the driver’s seat taking my 7-year old daughter Hannah to camp for the first time. She is chatting incessantly and my motherly instinct tells me she feels a mixture of nerves, sadness and excitement. We have driven from Utah and she will be staying at a girl’s camp in North Carolina for 2 weeks. This is quite a large accomplishment for a girl who has spent less than 10 nights away from home up to this point.
“Mom” she asks, “what was your favorite thing about the first time you went to camp?”
Normally when posed this question, a person would think of their favorite counselor, an exceptional game of “capture the flag,” the great friends they made, or even the dusty old camp horse named Chief. As I pondered her question, I began to laugh at the weird realization that my favorite thing about the first time I went to camp was a smell.
When I was three, I went to YMCA day camp in Atlanta. Normally, you weren’t allowed to start camp until you were four but I was able to go because my mother had a friend on the inside. It’s amazing the true power the Camp Secretary can wield. To this day I don’t know who the burden of dishonesty truly fell upon, but just to make sure my secret wasn’t discovered, my mother taught me that sometimes it’s okay to lie about your age. For the entire year of 1972 when asked “How old are you?” my response was “At camp I am four but really I am three”. This proved to be a valuable skill I was able to take to college and will soon put into use again.
Each camper at YMCA Day Camp is issued a vinyl drawstring bag. In this marvelous bag you are to bring your towel, lunch, sunscreen and swimsuit every day. To me it was a rite of passage to own one. I’d jealously seen my two older brothers Hal and Mac with theirs. It meant you’d been to camp and even more importantly. you were a Big Kid!
I wanted one. Once I tried to use Hal’s bag for carrying my Jane West doll to the grocery store. “Moooooom, tell Holly I don’t want her stinky old doll in my bag! It’s MY bag – see it says HAL on the side!” Of course this interaction and others like it only served to make the vinyl camp bag even more valued and treasured in my little kid eyes. Perhaps this was an early form of a consumer disorder as I began to beg my mother to let me go to camp so that I could get a bag. And she, being the tired mother of three, began to think perhaps sending Holly packin’ for a week was a really good idea.
Finally, my day arrived with continued thanks to Miss June for pulling those strings on my camp registration forms and my ability to set honesty aside. I was sent to spend a week at my Grandmother’s house while I attended camp. I wasn’t worried about being homesick, I wasn’t thinking the older kids would tease me, I only looked forward to being a Big Kid and receiving my marvelous Standard Issue YMCA bag.
I was so excited when they handed out the bags as the first item of business, on the very first day! The bag was an amazing yellow combined with pea soup green color and had the YMCA logo on the front with a white line for my name to be written in permanent ink. I loved it immediately. I knew my brothers would be jealous because they only had the plain old white bags with blue letters. The tune of “Nyah Nyah!” was already playing in my head.
They broke us into our camp groups and I carried my marvelous bag with me throughout the day. It could be that I bonded to it because I’d wanted one for so very long or maybe it was because I was a three-year old thrown in with the five and six-year old wolves. And like those who survive traumatic experiences, I emerged with an unusual attachment to a yellow and green vinyl bag with a drawstring.
Either way, on that first day I was also introduced to the world’s greatest songs, “Down by the Banks of the Hanky Panky” and “Nobody Loves Me Everybody Hates Me, Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms.” We played Duck Duck Goose and went to the swimming pool where I began working on my Tadpole designation. I was officially a “Big Kid” and it was the all time greatest day of my life thus far.
Grandmother arrived at 4pm in her green Pontiac Thunderbird. I crammed myself into the window space above the backseat and told her every detail of my first day at camp. Upon arriving at her house, I immediately packed my marvelous bag with my swimsuit, Coppertone sunscreen and towel for the next day. Sometime around 6pm, I fell fast asleep, worn out from all the fun of my first day of camp.
Swim time the following day treated me to the most wonderful aroma that remains my favorite to this day. I was so happy and having a second perfect day at camp as I went to change with my new camp friend Allie. I opened up my marvelous bag. I am now convinced there is something magical about the mixture of chlorine, vinyl and sunscreen when baked at the perfect temperature of the baking sun in the back of a Pontiac. I put my head in my marvelous bag and took a deep breath. It was intoxicating – perhaps it was the chemicals (maybe I dipped too many times) but I like to think it was camp magic. Like Kramer’s “Beach” cologne on “Seinfeld,” for me “Vinyl Bag Swimsuit” would be quite an attractive scent.
Upon telling my daughter Hannah that my favorite thing about my first experience at summer camp was the smell of my bag she responded, “Ummm, Mom, do you remember anything else?”
I smile, drive her into the camp gates and wonder what her favorite smell will be.
Holly Colson has been enjoying summer camp since 1972. While working as Waterfront Director at Camp Ridgecrest for Boys, she fell in love with Black Mountain where she now lives with her husband Andy and their three children.