By Tommie Gardner
It was a hot and muggy day outside the mouse suit, and much hotter inside the grinning, grey rodent costume. The Velcro securing the head to the body wasn’t attached securely, which ensured the unexpected uppercut from the 13-year-old kid in my weekly camp group would pop the head off, causing the really young kids to scream out in horror at the realization of a 20-something inside a large mouse.
Just another moment in the life of a summer camp counselor in the late 1990s. An anthropomorphic mouse’s head falling off; a few scrapes and bruises on the kids from playing in the woods; some sunburn from forgetting to put on enough sunscreen; the smell of rancid pudding in their hair — dessert turned plaything, hijacked from the lunch ladies and spread all over a Slip ’n Slide.
Nowadays, I imagine, a kid comes home from camp with a scrape on his knee and the parents are immediately on the phone with their lawyer. But there are former campers now in their 20s and 30s, and camp counselors not much older than them, who remember the last wild era of summer camp, the 1990s.
There is a generation of 20-somethings who attended this particular Vermont camp year after year as kids, and they remember the gruesome story of a 1960s-era camp worker named Crazy Pete, a misfit who got his arm caught in some heavy machinery and torn off, who fled into the woods, and who liked nothing better than to steal a sleeping child. Particularly a troublemaker.
There is a generation of adults who know that if you link hands and have the first person touch an electric fence, the last person in the chain receives the jolt. They know what it’s like to walk blindfolded deep into the woods and be told to find the way out by themselves. There are city folks who know how to walk up a river by jumping from rock to rock, thanks to their time in camp. They also know what happens if they all fill the pockets of their swimming trunks with hand soap and go one by one down the pool’s water slide.
And there is a generation of still older adults, former camp counselors now in their 30s and 40s, who remember telling the story of Crazy Pete at the summer camp sleepovers, a tale that got scarier and more elaborate with each telling. It got to the point that, one night, some campers had to be taken off the mountain because they were too scared to sleep.
A lot of things we counselors did with the pre-teens and teens probably aren’t allowed anymore, even though we had impeccable records of getting every kid home safe, dirty, smiling, and tired enough that mom and dad could have some time to be husband and wife. In that way, camp in the late ’90s might be more akin to camp in the 1950s than it is to the social media era.
Those of us in charge of making sure the kids had a good time were having just as much fun ourselves. We were teaching kids from the city and suburbs how to have fun doing the things we used to do growing up in Vermont, and the overwhelming majority of them had a blast getting a little dirty and banged up.
Now, from what I hear, the legend of Crazy Pete is no longer allowed to be told. That’s a shame, because you know he’s still out there. Watching. Just waiting. For the right time to…
This article was originally published in the Stowe Reporter.