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Are You Ready For The Summer? Camp, That Is

Take a photographic journey back to summer camp in the 1980s and '90s and read parts of essays submitted by the big-haired, tube-socked campers in <em>Camp Camp.</em>
Take a photographic journey back to summer camp in the 1980s and '90s and read parts of essays submitted by the big-haired, tube-socked campers in <em>Camp Camp.</em>

It's that time of year, when children swarm to camps on lakes with appropriated Native American names and sweaty cabins filled with bunk beds and the spoils of independence.

Yes, summer camp, where many experienced their first kiss beyond the lazy patrol of camp counselors, or their first time cross-dressing for the lip-syncing competition. It's a place where Esprit rules as the Prada of adolescence, and where boys perfect pranks on their bunk mates.

Roger Bennett documents this cultural landscape in a new collection of essays titled Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies. A native of Liverpool, England, Bennett first experienced what he calls the "Petri dish" of American camp culture as a counselor in the 1980s.

"I came over when I was 19 expecting to hang out with Huggy Bear in New York City, but being whisked off to Maine to a wonderful camp," Bennett says. "And I'd never seen anything like it. ... It truly was a teenage utopia where it seemed to me kids were making the rules for other kids."

He entered a place where children first learned to swim, to take the lead in a musical and to dabble in the ways of love and aftershave. "There's probably no better prism to really look at our generation — who we are and how we got to be that way — other than through the summer camp prism," Bennett says. "So the book is about summer camp, but it is in kind of the same way as Plato's cave is about prisoners and chains."

In creating Camp Camp, Bennett spent three years collecting more than 80,000 photos and thousands of essays about the American camp experience in the 1980s and early '90s.

"We realized there's a nation of Americans who, on the surface, have been out to sculpt seemingly normal lives as lawyers, doctors, accountants and the like," he says. "But they're still waiting for the Color War cannon to go off at any second."

Bennett talks about coming of age at sleep-away camp with Scott Simon — who spent time at Camp Indianola, in Madison, Wis.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.