This summer my friend, Gloria, is sending her son to space camp at Moffet Field and then hauling him off to Europe to visit distant relatives and musty cathedrals. Another friend’s child is going to music and dance camp, and a third is being coached in crew, lacrosse and golf. I know a kid who is attending an exclusive private camp in the mountains above Santa Cruz where he can rock climb, mountain bike, study Spanish and learn to program a computer.
The summer activities for kids in my North Oakland neighborhood aren’t quite as exciting or global in scale. Michael, who lives down the street, is hanging out at the Boys Club on Shattuck Avenue. DeShawn is watching television on his grandmother’s living room floor. My nine-year-old friend, Victor, is sitting on my front stoop, counting the cars on the street. No one has made any particular plans for Victor this summer. He’s bored and frustrated and getting a little testy.
Twenty-six years ago, at the age of 25, I attended summer camp for the first time. I found employment as a counselor at a private all-girls camp in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Six miles down a windy dirt road, the main lodge of Camp Tamarack was nestled among giant Douglas Firs. Rustic tent cabins clustered around a pristine lake. Campers rode horses and played tennis. They paddled canoes lazily across the mirror-smooth water, dove off the dock, hiked in the woods and told ghost stories at the evening campfires. On Sunday mornings the counselors and their charges gathered in a wide, sunny meadow and listened as the camp directors gave inspirational talks. I can still remember gray-haired Vera, Camp Tamarack’s fiery founder, pounding her fists on a picnic table and saying softly but firmly, “You girls can be anything you want to be: doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, pipe fitters, teachers. You can raise babies, chickens, daschunds and llamas. You can learn to speak French, build a house, throw a pot, fly to the moon, knit a sweater. Follow your dreams; reach for the stars; go out into the world, and make it a better place for all of us.”
The other day, when I found Victor again perched and idle on my front porch, I remembered my care-free, privileged afternoons at Camp Tamarack. “Come on,” I said. “I’ll take you some place.”
We went to Lake Temescal, a surprisingly bucolic lake set incongruously beside Highway 24 on the edge of Berkeley and urban Oakland. I put on my bathing suit and Victor stripped down to his red and yellow plaid boxer shorts. We raced across the hot sandy beach and waded into the cool brown shallows. We could hear, see and smell the cars whizzing by on the freeway, but if I squinted my eyes and let my ears fill with water I could imagine Camp Tamarack and Vera’s rousing speeches.
When Victor and I got out of the water we found ourselves covered in a thin coat of mossy slime, not unlike the neon glob that appeared on every swimmer at pristine, perfect Camp Tamarack. “Suzy,” screamed Victor with genuine terror in his voice. “I’m covered in gross green stuff!”
“Don’t be scared,” I replied. “It won’t hurt you.” Sensing that Victor was in a vulnerable place, I decided to make my camp counselor pitch, just as Vera had done every Sunday morning at Camp Tamarack. “While you’re covered in that goop, Victor, I want you to listen up. You can be anything you want to be: doctor, lawyer, airplane pilot, policeman, hamburger flipper, fisherman, circus clown. Just do the best that you can, kiddo, and make the world a better place for all of us.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” said Victor as he played with the slime on his thin arm. “But you gotta get this stuff off me. I can’t do nothin’ about the world until it’s gone.”
Lake Temescal is located off the Broadway Exit of Highway 24 and is open for swimming seven days a week, May 24 to Sept. 1, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information about it and other places to swim contact the East Bay Regional Park District, 510-562-PARK.
Susan Parker lives in Oakland near the Berkeley border. She is the author of the book “Tumbling After,” a memoir published last year by Crown Publishing.