While I enjoy being in the water, backyard swimming pools mostly, I’ve had less success being on it. This is probably attributable to the fact I never went to sleep-away camp as a kid. In fact, when I learned that my son, Jonah, got up on water-skis last summer, albeit briefly, while he was at Camp B’nai Brith in the Laurentians, an hour north of Montreal, I was surprised the apple had fallen so far from the tree. Of course, I blame my camp-free childhood on my parents. I like to think the reason my parents insisted on keeping me around was because I was so much fun, but as a parent myself now, I know that can’t possibly be true. In retrospect, I can see that the reason my parents never sent me to sleep-away camp was because they’d already gone to so much trouble – like so many Jewish families of their era – to move us out of the big city and into the suburbs that they convinced themselves suburbia was nature enough for any kid, theirs included. After all, we had a park down the street, a lawn. There were trees and birds chirping. There was, eventually, a swimming pool in the backyard. To be fair, I agreed with them at the time. I had no desire to be shipped off to camp. Woody Allen once said that he was at two with nature and you can double that for me. Never comfortable in the great outdoors, I still get a little antsy when I am more than a half-hour drive from a shopping mall. The way I looked at it back then was: who needs camp?
Now, I’m thinking I did. Take my ineptitude with water craft, for example, which has plagued me for as long as I can remember and which led to one of the worst fights my wife, Cynthia, and I ever had. Also, one of our first since it happened on our honeymoon. We were staying at a swanky hotel up north, not far from where my son now goes to sleep-away camp, and Cynthia rented a pedal boat for us so we could leisurely make our way around a nearby lake. Once on the water, though, it became apparent that I couldn’t steer the thing. “Really?” Cynthia said. “It’s like driving a bike with training wheels. A six-year-old could do it.” At which point, I grumbled something about having never gone to sleep-away camp and then angrily announced I was going back to the hotel to sit by the pool. A premature announcement, as it turned out, since I had to wait for my wife to steer us back to shore.
We never mentioned the pedal boat incident again. But a few years ago when we had the chance to take a canoe out on the lake near Cynthia’s parents’ cottage it looked like we were headed for another fight. It’s been said that “a true Canadian is someone who can make love in a canoe without tipping it” and by that measure I was barely Canadian at all. As a matter of fact, I was in my late 40’s at the time and had to admit to Cynthia that I’d never stepped foot in a canoe. Coincidentally, the first lesson Cynthia, who attended sleep-away camp all through her girlhood and was also a counselor for several years, had to teach me was that you don’t step into a canoe, at least not the way I was about to do it, like I was stepping onto an elevator. Instead, you stay low, hold onto both sides of the boat, centre yourself, and proceed with extreme caution. Evidently, canoes tip. As it turned out, there were a lot of instructions and I grumbled through all of them. But then a surprising thing happened once I was in the canoe: I stopped grumbling. I loved it. Nature was in evidence everywhere and, for once, it wasn’t bugging me. It was a crisp fall day: the air was light and the leaves were turning. I watched the dragonflies skid over the surface of the water and even spotted a beaver working away at a dam. My wife showed me how to paddle but even that effort felt, well, effortless. It felt like we were defying gravity, gliding across the lake like it was frozen. The experience was at once exhilarating and serene and a little sad, at least for me. For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing I’d gone to sleep-away camp. I also wondered how I might go about asking my son to take me with him this summer when he goes.