August 28, 1998

Notes on Camp

People who love summer camp say that non-camp people simply don't understand what's so amazing about it. We attempt to bridge this gap of misunderstanding between camp people and non-camp people.

Michela Buttignol

What we’ve posted here is the version of "Notes on Camp" that ran in 2022. The first broadcast of the episode was in 1998. In revising for 2022 we trimmed out a quote where campers spoke in fake Native American dialect and we added a few more sentences to the part of the show that lays out the history of fake Indianness in American camping. We also made adjustments in Adam Davidson’s anecdote about Israeli Army summer camp. You can download the original show as broadcast in 1998.


Camp kids explain how their non-camp friends and their non-camp loved ones have no idea why camp is the most important thing in their lives. Most of this hour takes place at a pair of camps in Michigan—Lake of the Woods, a girls camp, and Greenwoods, a boys camp. The two camps share facilities and activities and essentially function as one camp. (3 minutes)
Act One

Mr. Popular

David Himmel is a college sophomore and a former camper who became a counselor. He says all the best experiences of his life have been at camp or with camp people. We follow him around and discover why. He creates songs that become camp traditions. He has his own fan club of four thirteen-year-old girls. He coaches one of the boys in his cabin when the boy wants to try and kiss a girl he likes. David is the author of A Camp Story: The History of Lake of the Woods & Greenwoods Camps. (7 minutes)


“I Wish I Was Him” by Noise Addict
Act Two


Sure, kids today are sophisticated. But get them living in the woods for a few days, and they revert to some of the most stupidly primitive forms of entertainment known since the dawn of civilization. Specifically: they love scary stories. Every camp has a camp ghost story. We hear one. And we go with the Sioux cabin of ten year olds as they try an experiment in fear, in the dark, in front of a mirror in their cabin. (7 minutes).
Act Three


We asked listeners to call and write with their camp stories. Hundreds did. We hear a selection. (7 minutes)
Act Four


Camp Lake of the Woods holds a fake Indian powwow during the summer. This kind of fake Native American-ness has been a part of camping in America since organized camping began a century ago. And ceremonies like this are just part of making the business run for any camp. By having traditions and lots of songs in which campers sing about their loyalty to their own camp, camps create repeat customers. It's an economic imperative. Of course, it's also really fun. (5 minutes)

Read more about the history of Indian "traditions" in summer camps in Philip Joseph Deloria's Playing Indian.

Act Five

How The Israeli Army Is Just Like Summer Camp

NPR's Adam Davidson tells a true story from his own childhood. He was sent to a camp run by the Israeli army at its own training facility. He shot an M-16, sure, but in other ways, army life was amazingly similar to other summer camps: It was all about loyalty to your group, loyalty to your team. Adam is one of the founders of NPR's Planet Money. (7 minutes)

Act Six

Color Days

This American Life producer Julie Snyder reports on a three-day competition called "Color Days." It's most kids' favorite time at camp — despite the fact that the girls, at least, spend most of the three days crying and screaming. It's thrilling to be part of a team at this level of intensity. (18 minutes)

Original harmonica music throughout the hour by Howard Levy.