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Oregon Family Magazine

Drama Rules at Summer Camp

03/30/2017 20:57 ● By Sandy Kauten
Our middle daughter, Sally, warned us not to expect much. A camp counselor, she had seen many summer-camp musicals. But this would be her little sister’s debut. Wendy, 13, had landed the part of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”

My wife and I showed up at the Program Lodge and secured a couple of the scarce chairs before a hundred noisy campers surged in. They sat down in front of the low stage, polishing the dusty floorboards with their restless behinds.

Wendy looked great in a blue-checked dress and her own dark-brown pigtails. Early on, she belted out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on-key at full volume and it sounded pretty good. Without musical accompaniment, her voice wandered a little bit, but she never lost hope and always found her way back. Members of the audience, while not really attentive, put their personal business on hold after Wendy’s song to clap and yell.

It was a big moment for her. In fact, the whole camp experience was wonderful for her, and the choice of “The Wizard of Oz” seemed fortuitous. When Wendy had arrived in camp two and a half weeks earlier, she was like Dorothy leaving her drab existence to enter a world of vivid Technicolor.

Camp is a slumber party supervised by college kids. Although there are intervals of swimming, candle-making and archery, the main activity is real-life drama.

It’s a PG-13 soap opera that is all about flirtations over unappetizing food and furtive kisses that everyone in the camp knows about within 30 minutes. Most of the kids are only there for three weeks, so there’s no time to waste. On the first day, Wendy picked out boy named Ryan. But her claim was contested by a pretty redhead named Erin, and they spent the ensuing weeks in an exciting tug-o-war. Erin also auditioned for the role of Dorothy, but had to settle for Wicked Witch. She took up with a Winged Monkey, but anyone could tell she was just keeping busy when she couldn’t be with Ryan.

Another source of stimulation is the camp’s horror legend. Every camp has one. At Wendy’s, it’s the story of Awful Annie.

Back in the dim past (maybe in the 1980s), Annie worked in the camp kitchen and was dumped by a counselor while she was grinding meat for hamburgers. In distress, she ground up her hand and then drowned herself in the lake. But Annie comes up from the depths every so often seeking her hand and leaving bloody daisies on campers’ pillows.

The story is made-up, but the ketchup on the daisies is real – and so are the ensuing nightmares and bed-wettings. A gag order has been issued to the counselors, but the campers tell it to each other in whispers. Sally, now a staffer, remembers that when she was 10 a counselor told the story so well that all eight girls in her cabin tried to sleep in the same tiny bed that night. It is a cherished memory.

And now here’s Wendy, on stage making her own memories. The seemingly unrehearsed play stumbles along right up to the Witch’s death scene. The Witch gives the cue for the fatal dousing. Wendy looks around wildly for the bucket of confetti, but someone has lost it. In desperation, someone shoves a clumsy, wheeled industrial floor-mopping contraption in from the wings. Including a bucket of dirty water, wringer and yellow wet-floor signs, it must weigh 40 pounds. It rolls up to Wendy, who grabs it but can’t heft it off the floor.

Improvising, she turns back to the girl in the pointed hat, yells, “Die, Witch!” and swings an open hand at her face. SMACK! The audience is shocked into silence.

The Witch, mortally slapped, collapses to the floor and gasps out her dying words, “Ryan thinks you’re a pig!” At camp, Life beats Art every time, and as the Witch lies still, the audience cheers and pounds the floorboards with their fists.

The rest of the play is anticlimactic. But the nadir is reached when Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home.”

No line was ever delivered with less conviction.

Rick Epstein can be reached at [email protected]