Monday, August 04, 2003

The Drop Zone

It is a hazy Sunday in Los Angeles and we are dropping off our eleven-year-old son Amir for his first overnight camping experience: a month at Camp Ramah in Ojai, CA. We have come all the way from Israel for this, only amplifying the anticipation.

As we pull into the designated drop zone – the parking lot of Valley Beth Shalom - I am suddenly overrun by memories of my own sojourns at summer camp.

Except that this time I'm on the other side.

It’s been thirty something years ago since I attended El Rancho Navarro, a funky non-denominational Jewish camp just outside of Boonville, most notably known at the time as being the Northern California headquarters for the Moonies.

I think we shared a tennis court.

Moonies notwithstanding, it seems like nothing has changed since then.

There are the campers - some noticeably nervous, others greeting old friends with all that pre-teen bravado I’ve lost track of over the years.

And there are their parents, treading the unenviable line between already-missing-you and halleluiah - a whole month without the kid!

There are the sleeping bags and the oversized duffle bags, no doubt stuffed with a month’s supply of Cutter's, the requisite metal canteen and fourteen pairs of underwear and socks, each of which has been painstakingly labeled with the camper’s name (a process that causes no end of embarrassment for the child the other eleven months of the year).

About the only thing that's out of synch with my memories are the cars the campers came in. As I look out over the parking lot, I am confronted by a sea of mini-vans and SUVs, each more ritzy than the next.

I see Beemers, Acuras, and Lexi (the plural of Lexus I suppose), in shapes and sizes my parents' generation would have ascribed to nothing short of a future built by George Jetson and the Spacely Space Sprocket Corporation.

We, on the other hand, have arrived in the 1988 Chrysler LeBaron station wagon with faux wood paneling my wife Jody’s parents keep for us to use during our annual visits to the “old country.”

"Park it in the back, away from the A-List cars," I whisper to Jody as we scope out the scene.

It’s not just the cars. Things really do seem different from the parents’ side. It started months before when the forms arrived bearing Serious and Important Instructions. Did my own parents receive similar directions?

For example:

"Do not send clothing that advertises alcoholic beverages or drugs or that expresses racist or exist opinions."

Well, I guess my circa-1972 Nixon-on-the-toilet t-shirt probably would have been banned.

"Please do not send lounge chairs with your children."

Since when do campers bring furniture?

"Campers may not have cellular phones at camp."

My kids don't even have cellular phones at home.

"Do not bring weapons, pocket knives, water guns, valuables, walkmen, discmen, boom boxes, game boys, laptops, or beepers."

Hey, how about my Johnny Quest secret decoder ring?

And then there was my favorite:

"Please do not attempt to smuggle food for your camper into the camp. Although comic at times, our staff has seen a variety of creative attempts by friends and family to sneak food into the camp including sewing candy into stuffed animals."

And no nail files hidden in the Boston Creme pie either, you hear!

I can only imagine how an Israeli summer camp would present its version of the rules. Something more like “yalla, leave your uzis at home and bring a bottle of water. Chevre, we’re going on tiyul!”

Still, I am impressed by the thought and effort that goes into ensuring our children have a safe and unforgettable all-American summer. Without getting too sappy, it really does give me a more inside appreciation for the efforts my own parents made in getting me prepared for summer camp. That we have come all the way back from Israel to California, to where it all started for me, only emphasizes the connection.

Here at the drop zone, though, I am more concerned about a much more immediate subject: the girls. Tell me now, were they really that scantily clad when I was eleven? Maybe it's not such a good idea to let Amir run wild for a month without us…

But he has already made a friend and is ready to board.

"So soon?" I ask, but he's already heading up the steps.

"Wait - picture time!"

"Abba..." he protests.

And then, in the blink of a shutter, he is ensconced in the bowels of the bus.

"It's time to go," Jody says.

Yes, time to let that eleven-year-old man-child get started with the time of his life.

And time to...embarrass him one last time!

I run around the side of the bus looking for him through the window. I catch his eye for a moment and wave garishly. It's every camper's ultimate nightmare - the overly demonstrative parent…in front of the scantily clad girls.

And then I see it. The faint wave of his hand. And a wisp of a smile.

Now we can go.

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