We had a tea party recently with some friends: lapsang souchong from Jacqueline’s Tea Rooms in Freeport if you must know, with home made British scones, none of your triangular American ones here thank you, round British ones with craisins and sliced almonds, home made jam’s and not forgetting the cucumber sandwiches. We have to cheat on the clotted cream, the only way we can find it is about an hour away in tiny imported jars for about $5 a time, just enough for a couple of scones if you stretch it. So we make do with whipped topping, but it isn’t the same. We could make our own clotted cream we even have a recipe, but you just cannot find pasteurized cream, it is all ULTRA pasteurized, which won’t change to clotted. So if anyone is feeling sorry for me after reading this, CARE packages are gratefully received, can you put Marmite in also please?
After we had ravaged the meal, we were sitting around chatting, and the subject of how we all met as couples came up, we were familiar with our visitors meeting at college, but I guess they had never heard how we met, they knew neither of us had been in the military, the usual method for people of different countries to meet, as had happened to another couple we all knew, so they were curios about how we had actually met, and were quite surprised by the story. I think our current appearance of middle aged-complacency, jobs, house, kids, mortgage, cars, seemed at odds with the exploits we were recounting, certainly judging by their reaction, they had trouble relating the us as middle-aged married couple with kids mortgage and car payments to the antics of us as teens in love.
Back in the Dark Ages (pre-interwebs) 199_ I had been accepted into Marjon’s but had opted to defer actually attending college for a year to gain ‘experiences’, but with the knowledge of having a guaranteed college place in a year, to study History and Sociology. I started off rather inauspiciously changing from a summer job in a local ‘Off License’ to working at a Wine Merchant’s in Pullborough, which I suppose could be seen as broadening my horizons in some directions. Well at some point during the winter, I realized character building experiences were unlikely to just fall into my lap, i was actually going to have to go out and seek them out. Around this time I heard about an agency that places students in American Summer Camps called Camp America.
Now I was not in the slightest way familiar with summer camps, which bear no relation to Scout Camp in England, nor was I familiar with the length of American summer vacations, which tends to be from late May until early September. But having heard Camp America was having a Camp Directors Recruitment Fair in Kensington I decided to take the plunge. So one cold February Saturday I hopped on a train and headed to London. Now at the time this was happening, there was also the small matter of the US invasion of Kuwait, which had led to increased security levels for US citizens. Now the Camp Director Fairs basically fly over a bunch of Camp Directors who recruit staff for the summer, depending on their needs.
What I realized when I got there was that here was a bunch of US citizens in a heightened security situation, which meant that there were metal-detectors , bag searches and pat-downs for all these suspicious looking student-types to get into the Fair. All of this is routine now, but back then, I was pretty impressed with it all, even my Walkman was confiscated (that’s an early type of analogue iPod which used metallic tape to hold the songs which could only be played in series) in case it was actually a bomb. By accident all this combined to make me feel like this was serious, if the job fair was the important, the actual jobs must be even more so! Perhaps even enough to qualify as the ‘experience’ I had been looking for.
Once I got inside I made an initial foray around the room, most of the booths were manned by serious suit types, with dry-erase boards showing what skills they were looking for. Most of these camps are pretty heavy into the sports, needing people with life-guarding, sports education experience, which I had none of. None of this really seemed like my cup-of-tea, all very serious, no one appeared to be looking for me. Then in the far corner, I saw a camp director with his tie at half-mast, chowing down on a McDonalds sandwich. this was Greg Oulette, someone I was to come to know quite well over two summers.
Greg’s requirements were a little simpler, he ran a camp for people with disabilities, they needed a rather unique type of individual which could not be classified with simple qualifications. What they were really looking for was people who were not afraid to do some dirty jobs with compassion, and to work hard. Greg did not like to take too many chances, he offered me a job in the kitchen for the first year, while he sized me up. Working at Pine Tree Camp as a counselor could be very demanding he explained, since I did not have any previous experience with people with disabilities, he wanted to see if i could handle the environment. So I signed up for a summer in the kitchen, did a lot of paperwork with Camp America, and basically went back to my rather mundane life for another three or four months.
I already had an up-to-date passport, a nice backpack, so I didn’t have to get much to prepare, I did make a special purchase of Airmail Letters, which were postage paid from the US, which I think was the only special item I took with me. Camp America took care of obtaining my J1 visa for me, booking the airline ticket, all of which would be deducted from my wages over the summer at Pine Tree Camp in Rome, Maine (this was my first problem, neither I not any of my family had ever heard of a state in the US called Maine, we had heard of California, Florida, Texas, Washington D.C. and a few others, but no-one had ever heard of Maine). After the end of the camp season, there would be a short time for sightseeing in the US before my visa expired and I caught my return flight. There was also all sorts of warnings about if we failed to do the work which was required of us, we would owe Camp America the money for our flights, and their trouble. Then there was the warnings about things that could get us into trouble in the US, underage drinking, which seems to be a particular favorite subject for moral decay in the US, and not at all allowed as widely as it is in Europe, where the legal drinking age is much lower anyway.
I did a little research, and found that many students traveled in groups of friends to these camps, so that they would know someone. I however, was the only person in my circle of friends who was going, and besides, i was determined to have ‘experiences’. I heard tales of people who pre-purchased Delta Airline passes, and spent the few weeks holiday after finishing work at camp, before their visa expired. Or one could obtain an Greyhound Bus pass and travel around the country that way. Or buy a ticket on the Green Tortoise to travel from one coast to the other. In the end I decided to make sure I had some spending money I had saved up from work, and wait to see what developed over the summer.
So I gave my notice in at work, ‘sorry, going to the US’ and packed my rucksack and said my good-byes. this was not the first time I had flown alone, or internationally, but it was the first time I had traveled to the US. the plane was apparently full of fellow camp travelers, but since I didn’t know any of them, and was rather nervous about the trip into the unknown, I didn’t really mix much with my fellow travelers, but from what I observed, there was plenty of mixing and lubrication going on. I however wanted to arrive with a clear mind.
Back in 199_ the international arrivals at Logan Airport in Boston was quite small, especially after leaving out of Heathrow, and after navigating immigration and border controls, I came out into the international arrivals and luckily had no trouble finding the rep from Pine Tree Camp among all the other Camp reps. And so began my introduction to the US. It was hot, even late at night it was still really hot, the short term parking lot at Logan was gravel and dirt, which I found a little strange, and I and the other PTC arrivals loaded into a camp van, which doubled as a transport for campers, so had all of the needed hook-ups for wheelchairs.
As we traveled north into the wilds of Maine, a few things struck me. First how patriotic Americans appeared to be, there were US flags everywhere, little did I know I had arrived on Flag Day, when people and municipalities are encouraged to cover everything possible with US flags in a show of patriotic fervor, and it being the summer after the US had whupped Saddam Hussain in Kuwait, patriotic fervor was at a peak.
The second thing that struck me was how most houses were made of wood, and how far apart they were, eve in-town. This very much reminded me of Stockholm, perhaps even Copenhagen, with brick or stone buildings in the town centers, but peoples houses made of wood, with their own yard space. This was in contrast to what I was used to in England, where the vast majority of houses were brick built, and a lot closer together.
Of course after seeing all of this strange urban sights, we then delved deep into the woods of Rome, to Pine Tree Camp on North Pond.