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Summer camp

07/14/06 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) Shortly before camp season got underway this summer, commentator Caleb Daniloff spent time exploring an empty sleepaway camp in Sharon. He found the presence of campers past almost palpable.

(DANILOFF) The biggest change in sixty years at Camp Downer in Sharon is the pending relocation of the swimming pool. Otherwise, the dozen or so plain wooden structures dotting this patch of state forest in southern Vermont have remained untouched. Some of the bunks are military-issue from the 1950s.

Last month - a few weeks before the first session - I met up with Downer board member Steve Ertle. We stood for a while in Cabin thirteen reading camper scribblings on the bed frames and walls, some of which date back decades. My stepdaughter attended Downer and adored it: the archery, the skits, the canoe trips, the bonfire, the songs and friendships. I'd only seen the rustic camp from the long registration line on opening day. Steve, whom I happen to work with, invited me down for a tour. The years of accumulated cabin signatures and declarations of who rules and who's hot read like diary entries.

Steve started coming to Downer twenty-nine years ago, first as a camper, then as a counselor. He met his future wife here, a fellow camper-turned-counselor. Their eight-year-old would start his first session in three weeks. During the off-season, Steve's often found at Downer, strapped with a toolbelt, checking for damage. As we strolled the paths and fields, he worried that having his son walk the empty camp with us might ruin the mystique for him.

When Steve talks about Downer, he actually gets misty. His devotion first struck me as odd. I mean don't you outgrow summer camp? You're thirty-eight years old, dude. But Steve's not a goopy, sentimental guy. He loves his family, plays in a regular poker game, and hits the bars every so often. Work takes him from Montreal to China.

In one corner of the cabin, Steve spotted a name from his counselor days. "I still run into Honeybunkles," he chuckled. He sometimes finds his own youthful markings in the boys' cabins.

"Nothing gets erased," he said.

And there it was. With those words, Steve had captured the heart of this place and why it draws campers from all over Vermont and the Northeast, and why parents like Chris and me mail back completed applications the day they show up in the mail. The bonds formed here somehow carry forward from summer to summer, from childhood into youth, and often beyond.

Camp Downer is refreshingly low-tech and stripped-down, with few clocks or signs of electricity. It's not that time has stood still. It's more like it looks the other way for the summer. The director when Steve was a camper is still the director. Steve now votes on his salary.

Because the rates at Downer are well south of the four figures many summer outfits charge, it attracts a wide range of camper, and social status is usually left on the interstate. The simplicity of activity and lodging puts everyone on equal footing, and, when kids are pared down to their common denominators, a space opens up where the unforgettable can happen. The final night is usually a tear-filled affair.

My stepdaughter once slept in Cabin thirteen. I searched for anything she might have written. But the more I scanned the walls and ceiling, the more I felt like an intruder with all my adult, societal baggage. I decided to stop. Downer belonged to her, not me. I took a last look around, and it struck me that despite the generations of scribblings, there was still room for another kid to leave her mark. Countless stories yet to be written.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist.
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