By Scott Buckner
When you’re kid, summer is the best time of the year. Endless sun, endless sunburn, endless knees skinned by sidewalks.
When you’re a parent, though, summer is an endless dilemma: What to do with your kids all day so they stay out of your hair. For those of us who grew up on Chicago’s far southeast side a generation or two ago, the solution was day camp. This wasn’t go-away camp with a hokey native-sounding name like Camp Wegotnomore, which was where wealthy parents in other places packed their kids off to — presumably by yacht, or at least a really swanky school bus — for a huge chunk of the summer. No, city day camp was an all-day affair run by the park district in our own neighborhoods, so it was generally the equivalent of your mom sending you out with a sack lunch and locking all the doors and windows behind you until dinnertime.
Of course, the difference between going to day camp and just playing out in the alleys all day dressed like vagabonds was the official camp T-shirt you were expected to wear every day so someone would know who you belonged to in case you wandered off or burned something down, and “structured activities” supervised by counselors. In our neighborhood, “counselor” was simply an official way to say “local big-kid bully.” It was a stroke of hiring-strategy genius, because there’s no better way to keep a small horde of 7-year-olds in line than by taking a crew of overgrown, surly teenagers with questionable home lives and making them authority figures.
Summer day camp was a nice deal for us — mostly because more sooner than later, even the best of alleys run out of interesting things to do in them, and they don’t encourage many skill sets beyond hunting for empty soda bottles and investigating trash cans for anything unusual inside. Arts & Crafts Day (otherwise known as “whenever it rained”) developed our ability to construct a vast variety of things with glitter, popsicle sticks, and Elmer’s Glue-all. Softballs chucked at us by counselors on the ball field built quick reflexes. Swimming in thick clots of algae and seaweed encouraged a curiosity in marine biology, since you never knew what sorts of hidden surprises may have drifted in from upper Michigan or fallen off some ore ship from Czechoslovakia.
However, nothing was more memorable than The Great Lake Michigan Alewife Die-Off of 1967, a true event in Chicago history. The alewife is a slim, silvery fish best described as what you’d get by feeding a sardine too much growth hormone for too long. Virtually every single one of them in Lake Michigan decided to pick the exact same day to die all at once and drift landward belly-up until there were enough of them marinating to high heaven in the blazing July sun to carpet a walk across the water between South Chicago and Gary, Indiana, if you wanted a better way to beat holiday traffic out of town. We, of course, recognized the momentous and rare event this certainly was, and thought swimming with the fishes — dead as they were — was a rare and great gift. Best of all, when you’re a 7-year-old with a secret crush on a girl in your camp, a bloated sardine lofted her way creates its own special Hallmark moment.
Ultimately, summer day camp was a win-win for everyone: We found plenty of new and interesting things to do that weren’t as likely to result in the need for tetanus shots, and our parents got the peace and quiet they probably deserved. It was a golden time for everyone.
A Noah’s Ark Animal Workshop is the perfect summer camp activity — and an excellent alternative to anything involving popsicle sticks and glitter. To find out more on having a Workshop for your camp or organization, contact us at 866-484-6624.