Oh, if I were on camp staff

Ok – so sometimes the song is ‘If I weren’t on camp staff.’ But sometimes its a great way to poke fun at one another.

And as we know, poking fun at one another is how you survive camp staffer-ing. (sure, its not a word. But I just used and you understood it, so pfftht).

Every summer, I get a little nostalgic for camp. I think this is the case for most people who have worked as part of a summer camp staff – and in my case refers to my two summers working at the Howard H. Cherry Scout Reservation for the Boy Scouts of America. Well, technically it was two years, but I volunteered part time a third year, and then somehow ended up Commissary Director 16 years later.

I am not sure what summer camp stories you heard – but its definitely not like the movies. There’s no rival camp across the lake. There were no dance-offs. While I was there, there wasn’t even any nudity (although stories abound). So, here is my top-10 list for things its good to know about being camp staff. I’m not including any photos in this post because photos are ‘evidence.’ We are proceeding as if this whole list is simply fun, purely hypothetical situations.

10. The food can be pretty bad. Camp’s don’t have huge budgets. Don’t be too hard on the kitchen people – they are doing the best they can! That being said, the words ‘taco meat’ can still evoke some pretty strong reactions from anyone on camp staff circa 2000-ish. (shudder). Always befriend the cook. It may just net you baggies filled with chocolate chip cookies to stash away. (Thanks Barb!)

10 (Part 2). Befriend the ranger. Our ranger was a bit gruff and grumpy – but was also an amazing guy with a huge job to do. Generally, the best way to befriend the ranger is to do your job and not be an idiot. Some people do better at this than others. Give as good as you get. You’ll do fine (unless you are an idiot, in which case, this summer is going to be hard).

9. Speaking of befriending the cook – the best way to do that is to pitch in. If you have a few minutes and no pressing duties, give a hand in the kitchen (or wherever is needed). Camp kitchens are usually bottom choice for incoming staff people. Who wants to work at a camp, only to be inside all day? No one, that’s who. Its also a sweat lodge, but who doesn’t want to be nostalgic for a bead of sweat running down their butt crack? There are always a few places in every camp desperate for a little extra help. Give a little extra help. Not only is it the right thing to do, it gets you brownie points to counteract whatever trouble you may get into, as well as contacts to assist you later on.

8. Speaking of assistance later on. You know what camp kitchen people can get you? Kool Aid. Not the stuff we serve the campers – that stuff already has the sugar mixed in. We needed the pure Kool Aid that. Purple Kool Aid. Why? Because obviously the sugar would have drawn flies, and the flies would have bothered the horses. Purple Kool Aid, it turns out, does not bother horses. Fun Fact: A purple horse will turn first red, then pink, as the purple fades. It usually lasts just long enough for the ranger to panic about returning a pink horse to the owner. You know, like a month.


6. There are generally a lot of volunteers helping a camp to stay afloat. This was certainly true of our camp – the mowing alone took a small volunteer army. Volunteerism can go wrong, however. Like, for instance, if a certain volunteer decided to meddle with MY POOL. And if that volunteer decided to turn off the circulation pump to check something, and then neglect to turn it back on, and also leave the acid pump running. And let’s say two days go by and you don’t notice the pump is off because you didn’t turn it off and you expect it to be on. And let’s say the ranger checks it and (after yelling at you for not noticing) turns it back on. Let’s suppose that suddenly orange-brown jets suddenly shoot into the swimming pool from every circulation vent. Just picture a whole pool turning brown in a matter of 2 minutes. Then almost black the next day. Then (after much draining, refilling, pumping, hyper-chlorinating), green but opaque. Then turquoise, but still opaque, then blue, and finally, clear. Just in time for scouts to arrive. Its only 95 degrees all summer long, no one is going to want the swimming pool – right?

5. Working on camp staff is long, hot, and hard. Staff tend to get creative in now to blow off steam. Since Fight Clubs are frowned upon, this typically results in pranks. Good rule of thumb: don’t hurt anyone and don’t destroy property. Oh, and make sure they person you are pranking isn’t a total tool. Most camp staff’s have a resident prank officiant. He/She is the one with good ideas who generally knows how to keep their own hands clean. Let’s call him Paul. Befriend Paul, but don’t let your guard down. Ever. And Paul won’t be the only one. Its everyone. Basically working on camp staff is the pranking equivalent of the Hunger Games. But what would I know? I’ve never put copious amounts of cayenne pepper in chocolate cookies, or garlic powder in Banana Bread. I definitely was not involved with the purple horse.

4. Camp-fires are the best. Skits and songs and laughter, all under the open sky with a big-ass fire behind you. Make a mistake? No one cares. Sure, now they are laughing AT you instead of WITH you, but no one (including you) seems to mind. A word of caution: if you decide at age 36 to revisit a skit you used to do all the time when you were 21 – just remember YOU ARE 36 AND YOUR BODY DOESN’T DO THAT ANY MORE. Always remember – at camp fires you must sing the CORRECT versions of songs. Not the wildly inappropriate versions you made up with your follow staff members.

3. Always make up wildly inappropriate versions of the camp songs.

3 (Part 2). Quotes. Any self-respecting camp staff should keep a running list of the best quotes of the summer. And then put them on a t-shirt. How else am I supposed to remember ‘I gave a beaver a poncho today!’ ‘Ranger 1 to Ranger 2 – leave the girls alone and go do something.’ ‘If I wanted to be hot, I’d light myself on fire.’

2. You can’t shirk the work. There is simply too much to do, and all hands are needed. That being said, it is totally appropriate to help young camp staff members feel included by giving them very important tasks that you do not want to do. Need someone to rub lard on a watermelon? Sounds like a job for the young people! That stuff will NOT come off. Hey, young people, go catch that snake swimming across the pool. Put it in a bucket and take it to the Ecology people.

The last one. Number 1. Cherish it. The long hours, the sweat, the blood, the tears, the fights, the exhaustion, the sunburn, the mosquitoes. Everything. Camp was the first place I really felt like I belonged (I was 20). I still feel that every time I drive onto the property. There is something joked about every year at the end of year party. If you ask staff on the last day of camp (typically after they have been working for 3 days straight to clean and close) if they are going to return, many are reluctant. ‘I don’t know.’ Fast forward 4-5 days to the party. Everyone has eaten a few regular meals, slept in their own bed, and is starting to decompress from the constant fear of impending prank. Ask them if they are coming back. Yeah, of course. They already miss it.

Camp Staff is a family. A big, messy, blended family. A family where whether you are 20 or 60, you are counted as a friend. Going back after 16 years was strange. It was great to be back, but also bitter sweet. I was only there in the mornings, and only in the kitchen. I loved seeing the new staff continuing to carry the mantle. Sad because I wasn’t truly a part of it anymore. Except that every time I step foot on camp, I know there was a time I belonged. And in a way I always will.

If you remember your own camp staff experience (or something similar) like and share and drop a comment!

One Comment

  1. Diane Naaktgeboren said:

    Love this Kim!! So many camp staffs over 40 years but one family that continues on. For us that family always means Scouting, forever linked. Love going back, immersing myself in the sounds and smells and feels of what was our life…but, of course, it’s not the same. Nor should it be. But I carry it in my heart. Thank you for this reminder that this amazing place touches others as well!

    July 30, 2019

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