First Name Basis

Father’s Day is one that I throw over my shoulder. Instead, I keep the third Sunday in June as Opening Day, as it was for the eleven summers I spent growing up at camp.

In the run of all those summers, the routine for opening day changed little. The gates would open in the morning, cars that had lined up on Highway 306 would pull in, and they would be directed to the assigned cabin.

Six summers I was a camper, craning my head out the window to see where I would be spending the next four weeks and who would be joining me.

The other five summers I was a counselor, stationed somewhere around camp to make the day go smoothly.

After the initial rush, the day panned out as a series of meetings. Meeting the counselors. Meeting other campers. Meeting old friends. Then the last meeting of the day, dinner with the rest of camp in the Mess Hall.

It’s a nautically themed camp and so the day is bracketed by the presentation and retreat of colors. Before dinner, everyone stands at attention, the rank and file of sixty-some cabins standing in line, kids squinting while they watch the flags come down.

After that, everyone funnels into the mess hall, and the director of camp gets on the mic and says “Ahoy there, everybody!”

All would respond “Ahoy there, Henry!” (Remember these were my summers.)

And he would say welcome to another great summer at Camp Sea Gull. “My name is Henry Dehart, but you can call me Henry. Here at camp, everyone is on a first name basis.”

After that, the food would be blessed and eaten, and then later Henry would get back on the mic and spend a lot of time talking about other things, stuff like rules, expectations, and principles like consideration, cooperation, courage, and integrity.

But not until I was a counselor did I understand how important that first part was. The very first part, about being on a first name basis while at camp.

A first name basis helps one escape from all the connotations and associations of a family name.

A surname automatically makes you someone’s brother, son, cousin, grandchild. It means you’re from somewhere. It gives you traditions and expectations and beliefs to uphold.

Strip your last name away and camp becomes a liberating experience where you can be your own person and build your own way of thinking.

It’s not something I was conscious of as a camper, but something I bought into implicitly anyway. My favorite activities at camp were Riflery and Tower, reflected in the time I spent at each and the achievements I brought home with me.

Camp Sea Gull Alpine Tower
Yet at some point every session, counselors would seek me out. They would come by at lunch and say they worked at Tennis or Golf and if I came by and worked on hitting some balls, they’d give me a soda.

I like soda, and I usually indulged them for at least one activity period out of the summer. It was kind of strange how they would lose interest in me as soon as I showed up, though.

Once I was on staff, it all made sense. Every camper’s application has a form filled in by the parents, and on that form is the following question:

“Are there any specific activities you want your camper to try?”

Many parents leave this question blank, but if they do write something down, camp is compelled to make that kid try the activity at least once.

My grandfather played golf. My grandmother played tennis. In my family these are considered life skills, activities that should be cultivated and carried on until the body physically can’t continue them.

I don’t know enough about myself to predict what my hobbies will be when I reach the twilight. Hopefully video games or something else I really enjoy doing.

Thankfully camp knows it can’t actually coerce kids into investing in an activity that doesn’t speak to them. It’s a place for men and boys to spend the best days of their lives, not a checklist of experiences. There’s certainly no guarantee to families that their child will be anything other than safe after the summer. Once you pull out of that gate, back onto 306, all bets are off. It’s best to be a good sport about it.

Happy Opening Day, everyone. Anchors aweigh.