How we didn't spend our summers

This is the time of year when we dig out our khaki walking shorts, our monogrammed T-shirt, and the old Boy Scout knife with the built-in compass, and settle down to reading summer camp ads.

Why? We never went to summer camp. We're definitely past the stage to qualify even as a senior counselor.

Perhaps it's the sense of the dirt road not taken. We remember when childhood friends returned from camp at the end of the summer. They were Columbus. We were the stay-at-home who never left his corner table at the village cafe.

Our camp chums sang their ghastly fireside songs and told their really awful jokes. Never mind. They had traveled to frontiers we had not yet known. They had , for instance, eaten tapioca pudding.

A little later everybody went into the service - the Big Summer Camp (and spring, fall, and winter, too). That should have made up for the lost mystique of barracks-and-bunk-beds. But somehow it didn't.

About that time, every young novelist, it seemed, was writing about summer camp. Even Herman Wouk, before he got around to the winds of World War II, got around to the breezes of summer camp. A coming-of-age ritual - there you are! - and we had missed out on it. Those heroes and heroines were never the same after that summer by the shores of Gitche Gumee or whatever. But we were.

And so, like an armchair tourist leafing through travel brochures, we flip through summer camp ads, wondering what exactly we missed.

1983 is a banner year for the ad-section camp-goer. There are, of course, more computer-camp ads than ever before, showing those kids who used to play at being Indian, now pale and wan and wired up to the latest in terminals.

In '83 the whole idea is to be ''Not Just Another Camp,'' in the words of one ad. The specialization would do credit to a graduate school. There are camps for the performing arts. There are camps for dieting. There are sailing camps. There are figure-skating camps. There are not just music camps - there are chamber-music camps. There are not just soccer camps - there is the Hubert Birkenmeier Goalkeeping Camp (''for Goalkeepers Only'').

There are camps with ''an international flavor'' - they don't quite say which. There are camps with ''that something extra'' - they don't quite say what.

There are camps whose counselors all have ''creative personalities.'' Every last one. We think we know some kids who went to those camps.

And when these invitations have your head spinning, like your old Boy Scout compass, there's an ad that asks: ''Confused by all these ads?''

Not us. We could read on forever. For people like us, it's an academic pleasure - like scanning the dessert menus of restaurants that no longer exist.

All of us who missed out on summer camp must wonder what else we missed out on. Would we have discovered an unknown species of black fly and gone onto become a Nobel prize-winning biologist? Would we have been the first kid in camp to water-ski on one ski, and gone on to become . . . who knows what? Would we have formed a friendship with a tent-mate that could have lasted the rest of our life?

Or would we have been one of those who, at the end of the first week, write a letter home in the desperate block letters of a ransom note, saying ''Get me out of here''?

We'll never know. But each spring, as we browse through the summer camp ads, these unanswered questions keep our nose pressed against the outside of the mosquito net.

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