Note to readers: artifacts mentioned and dated references to a bygone era may confuse anyone born after the 1992. The story, characters, and incidents portrayed are true. Some character names have been changed due to the haze of memory.
My first and only summer camp experience lacked the prankish raunchiness of “Meatballs,” the bloody, murderous rampages of “Friday the 13th,” and the wild antics of “Ernest Goes to Camp,” all movies consumed during my childhood.
Who can forget the hilarity of watching Ernest P. Worrell wrestle a turtle stuck to his nose? The only way to remove the turtle’s grip was to sing to it through collaborative caterwauling of “Happy Together” by sixties rock band The Turtles, no less. This same trick could very well have saved Ernest from the bear mauling he suffered in the unreleased director’s cut, but I guess we’ll never know.
Summer camp-themed slasher flicks dominated the eighties after the surprise success of “Friday the 13th” in 1980 and its 200+ sequels that followed. Jason Voorhees, the famed hockey-masked serial killer from Crystal Lake, has since become a pop culture icon, beloved by adolescents and derided by parents. Naturally, other low-budget shockers would try to mimic his success.
For me, summer camp was ages ago. I rode there in a van with other kids I had just met to Lebanon, Missouri in the summer of 1992. It was a preliminary adventure, of sorts, with the parents of one of the kids behind the wheel. Our parents all knew each other through a church group. We were heading to Cedars Camp, a Christian-sponsored organization.
My mother had facilitated my going after the church raised the necessary funds for us to attend. I’m not sure if I had a choice in the matter, but I ultimately agreed to do something different over the summer break—a change from my usual video game binge or other time-wasting recreations.
During the drive, I befriended a boy named Josh. He sported a “surfer” look commonly seen at the time. His hair was parted and shaved underneath like mine. He was also very tan. Lots of kids embraced the beach culture in Florida. They wore Ocean Pacific, Ron Jon’s, and Big Johnson’s T-shirts. Big Johnson was a particular shirt craze, featuring some cartoon nerd with a large surfboard and busty babes surrounding him. I was into “Air Jordan” myself, desperately in search of an identity.
Josh and I shared similar juvenile sensibilities, where everything was funny. We laughed at people in cars, people inside the van, and even ourselves. I listened to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Off the Deep End” repeatedly on my Walkman portable cassette player, played my Gameboy, and read Mad Magazine throughout the duration of the trip with strangers.
Josh had a sister named Kari. She wore baggy clothes and sported blonde shoulder-length hair parted above her crystal blue eyes. I liked her but kept it stringently to myself. You never let the opposite sex know. Ever! There was another girl named Natalie. She was the daughter of the parents driving us. All three kids lived in Orlando and went to the same school. I was from Deltona, an obscure Volusia County town no one had really heard of.
Our lengthy drive took us through Florida flatlands, Georgia speed traps, and the rural beauty of Tennessee, eventually reaching the Missourian high plains with our nerves still intact. Once there, we’d be released into the camp. Excitement and relief filled the van upon our approach. The thought of two weeks without TV or video games was hard to stomach, but I remained determined to give it a shot.
Home Sweet Cabin
Orientation commenced inside a large, rustic dining hall with a vaulted ceiling. We were introduced to the camp counselors on stage and given the basic rundown. Our duration at the camp would encompass daily activities of our choice. There was horseback riding, water skiing, hiking, arts & crafts, team sports, or whatever else they could cram in two weeks. All we had to do was sign up.
Hot meals were served daily inside the hall on long, wooden picnic tables. We were also expected to attend Bible study groups throughout our stay. I didn’t care for the idea, because I was twelve and already knew everything, but it was a compromise I was willing to make. The camp had a big waterslide that ran down a hill into a large pool to further sweeten the deal.
We were housed by age group inside small cabins with bunk beds. The bathrooms and showers were located in a centralized facility outside. My new friend Josh was a year behind me in the sixth grade and stayed in a separate cabin. I made the acquittance of my roommates, eight in all, from varying backgrounds. We unpacked and acclimated to our new environment, seemingly getting along.
My bunkmate was a chubby kid with a dirty-blonde bowl cut named Mark. He took the top bunk, which was fine by me. He had a Game Gear, the new portable Sega video game system. Its color display easily rivaled the monochrome screen of my Game Boy. He even let me play it, solidifying an immediate friendship. Mark also had some strong views.
During random conversation, I brought up my desire to see the most anticipated movie of the summer, Batman Returns. He didn’t hold back his heated response.
“That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen!” he lamented. “It was so stupid. There was no story!”
“But it has Penguin and Catwoman,” I said.
“I don’t care, it sucked! Do not see that movie.”
Unbeknownst to Mark, I saw “Batman Returns” a month later and enjoyed it. Perhaps the allure of Michelle Pfeiffer prowling around in a tight latex cat suit was too much for me to resist.
Our first day at camp passed with no camp counselor murders or raunchy hijinks from prepubescent campers. There was, however, a budding romance on the horizon, straight from a John Hughes lineup.
Summer of Love
Sometime after breakfast, I met up with Josh around the waterslide. Everyone was in their swimsuits and enjoying the breezy weather under a gorgeous blue sky. He was with some new kids from his cabin, leaning against a wooden railing, people watching. I saw Mark among others in line for the slide, wearing a drenched T-shirt down to his swimsuit, the poor, shy bastard.
Josh caught the eye of a girl named Heather. She ventured over to us with her entourage and instantly struck up conversation. She was a freckle-faced girl with long black hair and wearing a one piece Hawaiian print bathing suit. Before I knew it, she took Josh by the hand and led him away. I was left with little recourse but to join Mark at the water slide.
“I’m gonna do a cannonball later,” he said, slobbering with excitement.
“Me too!” I added, with no intention of doing so.
A thrilling, though short-lived, rush down the winding slide followed with a big splash into the heavily occupied pool. I found Josh near the shallow end with Heather and her entourage giggly to the side.
He told me, “I guess she’s my girlfriend now.”
I nodded along, wondering how such a thing was possible. They had just met!
“How about you?” he asked. “You like anyone?”
I immediately thought of his sister. “Nope,” I said. “No one at all.”
I had other things to work out, like water skiing. We bobbed around the pool after Mark delivered his promised cannonball. In the increasing waves, I began to enjoy the time away from home amid a hundred screeching kids. The secluded summer camp offered an abundance of new discoveries. But there was also a terror that awaited us by evening… a terror no one could imagine.
Stayed tuned for the gripping conclusion in Part 2!