When my sister and I were young, my parents sent us to day camp every summer. Not a fancy overnight camp--day camp. Camp Massasoit was affiliated with Springfield College, where my dad was the Assistant Athletic Director, and was situated on what was known as the college's "East Campus," nestled between the Monsanto plant where half of my old relatives worked, and an on-ramp to the Mass Pike. Despite it's urban location, we campers enjoyed several varieties of trees, the requisite lake, a ball field, even a pueblo (in which we sat on rainy days, making God's Eyes and chucking empty chocolate milk cartons at each other). My mom drove us to camp in the morning, and Dad would pick us up after work.
Camp Massasoit was a repository for sons and daughters of Springfield College employees and Pioneer Valley's population of borderline juvenile delinquents. Most of us had parents that worked blue-collar or low-paying professional jobs. Even as a young girl I knew where my camp landed in the pecking order of New England's many camps. I imagined that the overnight camps, situated deep in the Vermont woods or on a sprawling farm in northern Connecticut, offered their campers miniature log cabins with gingham curtains sewn by woodland creatures, breakdancing instructors, acting lessons from Michael J. Fox, and a selection of gentle, fawn-colored horses.
The summer I turned 11, it was my fifth year at camp. Campers were divided into age groups, the most envied of which were known as "Oldest Boys" and "Oldest Girls." You didn't know what group you were in until the first day of camp, so I was taken by surprise when they called my name for Oldest Girls--technically, I was on the border between Oldest and Second Oldest. I left my pack of 10-year old friends, turned bright red, and walked my bright red shorts and basketball T-shirt across Council Ring toward a mob of long-haired 13-year olds wearing fluorescent short shorts and spatter-paint sunglasses on lanyards. Holy shit.
The first day or so, I did my best to never speak. I hoped the triumvirate of power, Vicki, Cathy, and Michelle, would skim their eyes over my head, never to rest on my pale and petrified face. (I figured this would happen naturally, as they were all about a foot taller than I was.) These three teenage girls represented the most powerful regime I had ever encountered; fueled by hormones and boredom, they ran Oldest Girls with an iron fist wearing a lacy fingerless glove. Vicki, the leader of the pack, sported a Woonsocket, Rhode Island teased blond mullet, a scowl, and a penchant for doing whatever the fuck she liked. Her sidekick, Cathy, looked not unlike the then-hugely-popular cartoon character after which she was named. With her huge glasses, brown curly hair, and mouth full of metal, she seemed destined to be unlucky in love, dotting her i
's with plump hearts until she died surrounded by a few dozen tabbies. Rounding out the group was Michelle, an exquisite, six-foot-tall black girl, who I think was recruited mostly for her looks but also to balance the power structure with a bit of sweetness.
And then there was me. On day three, as I silently sat on a picnic bench, waiting for our group to go to archery, a shadow passed over my outstretched legs. "You need to shave your legs." My heart froze. I might have peed a little. Standing above me, were the Big Three, Vicki in front, arms crossed. I squinted up at them, partially blinded by the sun that seemed trained on their every movement. "Um, yeah," I managed. Until that moment, I had honestly never considered the subject of shaving. "Yeah, and why are you wearing those baby clothes?" I think this came from Cathy, her head sprouting from Vicki's left shoulder. "Uh...I..." As I searched for an explanation to another phenomenon I had never thought about, the deafening bullhorn that signaled a change in activity period sounded. I stood up, eye-level with Vicki's training bra, stepped around their formation into the throng of campers headed to boating or riflery. I had been recruited. And if I was to get the job of Number Four, I knew had to make some serious changes.
Through a series of feigned illnesses, I managed to avoid the girls for the rest of the day. When I got home that night I ran a bath, stealing my mother's disposable razor from the medicine cabinet. I examined each downy hair on my shins, and began soaping them with Camay until the bar crumbled in my hands. Terrified, I held the razor over my right leg, eyes tearing up and hands shaking (the best way to start your shaving life, I know), and practiced the motions I imagined I was supposed to do in order to free my Neanderthalish limbs of their matted outer covering. "What are you doing in there? Dinner's ready!" My mother's voice thundered through the bathroom door. "Nothing! I'm almost done!" I screamed, dropping the razor into the sudsy water. I knew she was coming in. My mother was always coming in.
"What are you doing?" she yelled. I burst into tears. "I'm shaving my legs these girls at camp told me I had to and they are so ugly I can't go to camp tomorrow with hairy legs all the other girls at camp are shaving" I blathered. My mom came over to me, helped me out of the tub, wrapped me in a towel. I blathered on. I dried off, got changed, and sat down to dinner with a promise from my mother that she would teach me to shave my legs after we ate the hot dog casserole that was getting cold. My father and sister chomped away, oblivious of the mother-daughter ritual that was soon to take place. After our lesson, I rummaged though my dresser drawers, looking for the most grown-up campwear I could find, including the shortest shorts I owned. I settled on a pink and purple ensemble, pink shorts with a stripey shirt. Collar up. No socks with my Keds, hair sprayed up into a kind of souffle. Sunglasses. I was SO Number Four.
Later that summer, I was the proud owner of my first "boyfriend," Jamie--he of the painter's cap with a mudflap at the back. When he took it off, his hair was the exact same shape. We were devastatingly cute together, which was why Vicki picked him out for me. I shared my first dance with him at the Picnic Grove to Berlin's "Take My Breath Away." All that and we had exchanged about 13 words. We broke up the day camp was over via Cathy communique. She decided I didn't like him, and told him so. And she was right, so it all worked out for the best.
It was a summer of firsts, a summer of transformation. Being part of the Oldest Girls gave me a taste of arbitrary power and coolness that was easily recognized in many social situations to come. I never saw or talked to Vicki, Cathy, or Michelle after that summer. Come to think of it, I don't really remember talking to them much at all.