The Importance Of The Camp Best Friend

by Melissa Kirsch
Originally Published: 

I was Patient Zero in the lice epidemic at Camp Laurelwood in the summer of 1983.

You know how it goes: Sprawled on the lawn with the rest of my bunkmates, waiting for my turn to rotate in for volleyball, an eagle-eyed counselor noticed I was scratching my head a lot. A quick trip to the infirmary confirmed that it was neither a bug juice allergy nor the poor hygiene we rising third graders were infamous for. I had lice, and it would not be long before I efficiently passed it on to every other girl in my cabin, before the whole camp was lining up to get doused in Kwell and deloused with that ultra-fine-toothed metal comb that took with it giant clumps of our snarly, chlorine-crisped camp hair.

That first night after my diagnosis and subsequent nitpicking, I arrived back at the cabin after lights-out. All my clothes and linens had been confiscated, to be boiled and disinfected in the industrial laundry. I was left with a size-XL Camp Laurelwood sleep shirt and a new brush from the canteen. I glumly slipped into my bed, scratchy with lost-and-found sheets and a too-hot acrylic blanket. My bunkmates, usually so chatty, so game to play Truth or Dare or sit around a flashlight telling secrets, ignored me. I could hear the whispers in the dark, and I knew they were talking about me. I had brought pestilence to the community, I was the Typhoid Mary of Bunk Five. I was a pariah.

The only person who talked to me in those early, lousy (pun intended) days was my best friend, Amanda. Amanda was from Florida, and we’d been going to slumber camp together in Connecticut for two years at that point. She had a bowl haircut and a pink shiny roller-skating jacket, and she introduced me to Duran Duran. Amanda loved Michael Jackson and had a keychain of his famous sparkly glove that she’d strung up over her bed as a little mobile. Amanda was the one who held my hand from the next bed as I whimpered in confusion that first lice night, the one who told the other girls to chill out the next day because lice could happen to anyone. She stayed by my side long after my lice had cleared up, through her own bout with it, and as the rest of the girls were felled one by one by the creepy crawly plague that is a rite of passage for every child who spends eight weeks a year in close quarters with a bunch of other kids, a good 80 percent of that time in the round robin petri dish of a French braid circle.

More than the pipe-cleaner and lanyard arts and crafts, more than the co-ed socials or ghost stories or Color War, the memory that’s more vivid and more precious than any other from my seven summers at camp is Amanda, my camp best friend. The camp best friend is of an entirely different ilk from the rest-of-the-year best friend. The home best friend is a day-in, day-out exercise in devotion, of notes passed in math class and petty slumber party slights. The home best friend is a full-time job that requires tending and maintenance and protection from the elements of gossip and shifting allegiances and who-sat-with-whom at lunch. And the home best friend can be a rotating role—one fall it’s Jenny, then Jenny starts hanging out with people from orchestra and you are on to Molly, until you and Molly get in a fight over who gets to be the dog in Monopoly, and you are on to Kelly and Lisa.

The camp best friend, however, is a constant. Typically, you meet her in your first summer at camp. She’s the one you’re sitting next to that first nervous night at the big welcome barbecue, or she’s the one who you hand off the baton to in the relay race. The circumstances of your meeting don’t matter—you’re 8 or 9 and making friends is not a rational thing. For whatever reason, you click. If you’re lucky, you click so totally that you go back to camp year after year to see one another. You trade plastic charms from your charm necklaces (Amanda gave me a tiny bottle of perfume; I gave her skis because she’d never seen snow). You share miniskirts and Keds and Polo shirts and you curl each other’s hair before make-your-own sundae night. You lip synch and do an intricately choreographed dance together to “The Reflex” in the end-of-summer talent show. And you cry like you’re losing a limb at the end of the summer when you have to say goodbye.

At home, no one really gets your camp best friendship. Your friends who don’t go to camp regard her warily: She’s an interloper, a cooler and worldlier fiction with whom they can’t compete; she’s the friend equivalent of a “boyfriend in Canada.” Except she’s real. “Mom, can I call Amanda?” I’d ask at least once a month during the winter and spring, back in the days when I had to get permission to make a long-distance call. Calling Amanda was exhilarating. Amanda was the one person who understood camp, who understood the complicated social structure that was constructed and dismantled for two months every summer. She could gossip about the girls in the bunk, the CITs who were secretly dating, the camp songs and camp in-jokes, and the camp memories that are so incredibly mind-blowing to a kid, that are so significant and so dreamlike for 10 months of the year.

Having a best friend who I only saw for eight weeks each year, to whom I sent breathless letters on fold-up Snoopy stationery, but who was totally divorced from my day-to-day life at school, was invaluable. She wasn’t just my partner in crime when I was at camp—she was the person whose opinion of me didn’t waver when I did or didn’t make the school play, who didn’t care if I was a queen bee or a drone, who didn’t know my teachers or my coaches or my grades and didn’t care. Every summer, we’d pick up with our summer selves, the same ones we’d left at camp last summer, still intact. Whoever we became in the off-season, when Amanda and I had our ecstatic reunion every summer at Camp Laurelwood, our friendship was right back where we left it, with our mutual love of Garfield, our mutual love of stirrup pants with ballet flats and pasta with cottage cheese. No matter what happened from September to June, I had someone who adored me and got me every summer.

Amanda and I eventually stopped going to camp, went to high school and college, kept in touch in those pre-social-media years by letter and occasional phone call. She stayed in the south, became a doctor, got married, had a baby. When I published a book, she found me on Facebook and told me she’d read about me in an in-flight magazine and got so excited, wondering was that me, was that “Missy Kirsch,” her best friend from camp? Yes, yes it was Missy, even though I hadn’t gone by that nickname for decades. When I got that message from Amanda, I was exactly the same girl I was in the summer of 1983, the girl lying in the dark rubbing her sore, deloused scalp, and she was the same girl she was—still my biggest cheerleader, still keeping an eye out for me, no matter where or how far away our time away from camp took us.

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