Boomer Memories: A Working Summer Camp

Woman picks up trash on lakeshore at a summer work camp

Unique Summer Camp Actually PAID Me To Go

It was the first summer after my 9th grade year. I was in a new city, a new school, and hadn’t really developed any strong friendships at that point. I had done summer camp in elementary school, and had good memories of that, but at some point during that freshmen year of high school, my mom found an ad in the newspaper for a working summer camp.

This was a unique opportunity, sponsored by the state of Wisconsin, and some administrative flavor of the Conservation Corp or something like that. The premise was, you went to summer camp for six weeks, and while you did get to do a few typical camp activities, you were there primarily to work, doing interesting jobs as they related to conservation of both land and wildlife in the state of Wisconsin.

Amazing Summer Camp Memories

For more reasons than I can count, this experience was amazing and memorable. For starters, I walked away after a summer of fun with over $300…which in 1979 was pretty good for a kid not yet old enough to drive. Even now, looking back…I can scarcely recall feeling like we actually worked hard, but I know that we did. The tasks however were so interesting and unique, it just didn’t feel like work.

I learned so much about so many things, had a brief and minor camp romance, and overall had an amazing experience. It was an interesting collage of summer camp meets boot camp, and I believe changed parts of me forever.

Weekly Job Assignments

I remember that each week, groups were all assigned to six different tasks. Those tasks were based on conservation relevant to the local state parks. One week we trimmed the low branches off trees, and on another, we worked on lake inlets to find and fill gopher holes that threatened to turn what should have been free flowing waterways into stagnant swamp.

Still another week we actually waded into streams, weaving branches into bends in the stream, again to keep it free flowing and prevent stagnation. I remember climbing a forest lookout tower, picking up trash, and doing something with ducks…chasing them or corralling them…I don’t recall which or why.

We even represented the state conservation organization at the state fair that year, working a booth for a day. I recall seeing the Beach Boys briefly that summer as we walked back to the bus.

Summer Camp Meals

Lunches during this week were simple. Every weekday we worked we brought our lunch with us, which meant sandwiches, drinks…perhaps fruit or chips. I only remember the sandwiches, and don’t recall whether they were good or bad…they just…were. Dinners were fairly unremarkable, save for the classic SOS. I don’t know if they served that to imbibe a particular tone or stereotypical lifestyle marker, or if it’s just what they had and thought should be served.

At the end of the day, I didn’t starve, and didn’t bring home any phobias or bad memories about food. As I often say now to the chagrin of my wife…it was fine.


One of the most memorable incidents of summer camp that year was the Luther incident. Lately, the memory of this event has come to my mind often, as we deal with cancel culture and woke society, this memory stands out as one of those It would never happen today memories.

So again, it’s 1979…we are well past the greaser days of the 50’s, but not so far removed from the influence of John Travolta and the move Grease. This kid, Luther, comes to summer camp and he where’s a white T-shirt every single day. I vaguely recall he rolled up the arm sleeves a bit, but there were no cigarettes rolled in…just sleeve. Luther is suave, and seems like a tough guy, but an approachable one.

3 flag poles surrounded by a circlular drive.
Mornings began with revelry and the National Anthem around the flags

Within a week, we were all sporting white tees, trying to fit in and be part of Luther’s pack, until…the event. At this point it’s best to imagine this segment in my best Jean Shepherd voice. Each morning, the classic revelry blasted us awake. Before breakfast and then work, we gathered around the flag pole sporting Old Glory, when at this point a recorded instrumental of the National Anthem was played.

One particular morning, probably within the first 10 days or so of summer camp, Luther decided to whistle along with the National Anthem. We thought it was kind of funny, but by the end of the day….Luther was gone, and he was later escorted off the property to his waiting, and no doubt disappointed parents, never to be seen or heard from again.

During my annual viewing of A Christmas Story, I often equate these events to those portrayed in the late 1940’s in the movie. Though 3 decades later, these events had the same feel, and I think about them often.

Summer Camp Wasn’t All Work

While work was the key goal and point to the whole summer camp, we had fun too. One powerful memory is the requirement of proving you could swim, so you could go canoeing. The catch was, the only place to prove your mettle was a spring fed pond on premise, that even in the summer hovered around 50 degrees. It was so cold, they would not let us jump in for fear it would stop your heart. You had to wade in and swim across and back, then you were cleared for other water activities.

The canoeing was the best, and the aforementioned state fair gig was great too. In retrospect, I don’t actually remember any other activities, though in my mind there must have been. Perhaps I just chose canoeing every time.

Canoes on short at a summer camp

We’ve Got Tonight

As summer camp came to a close, the informal dance marking it’s end arrived. By this time we had formed loose relationships and felt comfortable around each other. As a huge Bob Seger fan, I enjoyed a slow dance and a brief kiss with a girl named Kathy during the wonderful and beautiful song, We’ve Got Tonight. I thought of Kathy, and summer camp every time I heard that song for years. A few decades later I replaced that memory with a new one, as my wife and I watched Bob sing that song live, one of the three times I had the privilege of seeing him in concert.

Times Have Changed

The times have changed, and unlike many boomers it seems, I’m just fine with that. Today, I doubt insurance regulations would allow kids to traipse around through forests and streams doing God knows what. As we have learned, protesting or otherwise degrading the National Anthem is not only allowed, but encouraged. To be fair, I didn’t think whistling along was a big deal, and as any Dallas Stars fan will tell you, yelling STARS! during key parts of the National Anthem is a favored tradition.

This summer camp experience was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I have never regretted, always enjoyed, and forever cherished. I learned about hard work, discipline, timeliness, and fleeting but powerful friendships. To Kathy, Luther, & Animal…wherever you are, God be with you.

%d bloggers like this: