At age 29, Seth Davis returned to summer camp. The year was 1999, and Davis, then a reporter at Sports Illustrated magazine, pitched a story "that would explore the cultist phenomenom of summer camping in America." For eight weeks he researched his story proposal as a counselor at his childhood camp, Equinunk, an all-boys camp located in the Pocono Mountains of northeast Pennsylvania. On a whim, he talked his girlfriend into joining him on this adventure; she worked as a camp counselor at Equinunk's sister camp, Blue Ridge. What seemed like a simple story idea that would "perhaps shed a little light on the human experience," turned into the charming memoir/exposé, Equinunk, Tell Your Story.
In the book, Davis captures the usual components of the summer camp phenomenon: the homesick woes of the first time campers, the spirited rivalry of the senior campers during Color War, the teenagers behaving badly and not so badly (the Web site says, "Boys Will Be Boys-Especially at Camp Equinunk."), the silly customs, the comraderie, all the potential lifelong lessons and memories one expects from camp. But Davis's candid journalizing about the challenges he faced being a counselor to a bunch of rambunctious, hormonally-charged adolescents (especially in his determination to win over the boys' respect) provides the "human" element that makes the book more than just another Hollywood camp tale.
Davis, now a staff writer for Sports Illustrated and contributor to CBS Sports, was asked by annabelle to enter our "sacred counsel ring" and tell us his story.
Q. In Equinunk, Tell Your Story, you admit that instead of going back to camp to write a book, you really wrote the book to go back to camp. What were your expectations going back to camp and were they met?
A. The only real expectation that I had was that I would have a blast, and that was certainly met. Beyond that, I really didn't know what to expect, which was part of the appeal. I didn't know how the kids would respond to me, what role I would play in the tapestry of the summer, what I wanted to find out and what I wanted to write about. Interestingly enough, in the proposals and treatments I put together for this project before the summer began, I made little to no mention of myself. I actually went in thinking I'd be a detached journalist. The book ended up being much more personal than I originally intended.
Q. In your opinion, what makes this camp so special? Have you been to any other camps to compare it to?
A. I think there are literally hundreds of camps that are like Equinunk, but though I am of course partial, I'd say the traditions and history of Equinunk (and the girls' camp, Blue Ridge) is very unique. I also think Equinunk has, as a business, been as successful as any camp, because of the philosophies of the people who founded it and who run it today. Many camps have gone out of business over the last few decades, but Equinunk has not only survived but prospered.
Q. There are so many details in the book and so much dialogue that seems almost word for word. I'm curious to know how much of the book is fictional and how much is the real deal?
A. There is not a single word or name in the book that is fictional. I filled up over a dozen notebooks during the summer recording what I saw and heard. Most of the stories and quotes in the book I witnessed first-hand, and the rest (for instance, the details of the drinking scandal in chapter four) I got from the participants who re-created them for me. Hey, if it works for Bob Woodward, it should work for me.
Q. Your love affair with the camp definitely comes across in the book. Was this something you tried to avoid in the beginning, something that you grappled with and in the end gave up on?
A. As I said, this is a work of non-fiction, so in the end it was my job as a journalist to write the truth. Inasmuch as I became the central protagonist, there was no sense in denying how much I truly love this placethat was, after all, the whole point of doing the book in the first place. The challenge, though, was to put that affection in its proper context. I didn't do a very good job of this in my earlier drafts, but I think I eventually arrived at a pretty good balance between deep affection and clear-eyed criticism. Not everything about camp is sweet and beautiful and I needed to be able to write about the downsides as well as the upsides.
Q. You write, "Yet, the further removed people like me get from our camping days, the less we recall the bad times we spent there." What did you forget about camp that you were quickly reminded of when you returned?
A. That's definitely something that came more to my mind as the summer went on. I had plenty of unhappy experiences in camp; it's just part of the deal. I got picked on by other kids and counselors, I failed in sports, I got rejected by girls, and there were plenty of times where I just felt alone and unliked. We tend to whitewash those memories as we get older, but if you stop and think about it they're not hard to recall. You can still look back and laugh at stuff, though. I remember when I was 13, I was pitching during a softball game and some of the kids in the bleachers were teasing me (I don't recall about what). The batter was in their bunk and he chimed in, and in a fit of momentary rage I whipped the ball underhand at him and tried to hit him. To everyone else it just looked like an inside pitch, but he knew I was trying to hit him so he charged the mound. He tackled me and we threw punches until the counselors pried us apart. You might say we put that incident behind us, because 18 years later he was the best man at my wedding.
Q. Explain the culmination of the eight weeks at camp, the Color War. Why is it such a highly emotional, intense few days? I mean, I never imagined boys could be so fraught with anxiety and despair. All that crying? Do the boys really act that way over Color War?
A. Actually, the boys cry a lot more than what I described in the book, but after a while if you keep reading page after page of kids crying the reader thinks it's all silly. Color war IS silly at its core, but not to the kids. On the face of it, Color War is just a big contest where the camp is divided into two teams (in our case, Red and Gray) and the two sides compete in various sports for three days. But there is so much tradition and history involved that it takes on an unbelievably outsized meaning, which is capped off when a plaque commemorating that war (and listing the main participants) is made up at the end of the summer and hung in the social hall. You can go in the hall and read the plaques going all the way back to 1942. That's just one way the young (and impressionable) camper comes to understand that at Equinunk, Color War isn't everything, it's the only thing.
Q. One of the campers in 1985 set a record for eating 29 tacos at dinner. What on earth possesses boys to participate in eating and other "Who's More Macho?" contests?
A. Actually, it's worsethat was a counselor. To think, it was his job to take care of young boys for the summer! And that was a pretty benign story. You might recall that during the section on sex and masturbation, I mentioned that years ago a kid won a masturbating contest by finishing himself off in eight seconds. His name was Sammy, and for the rest of the summer the campers cheered "Sammy in Eight!" in the mess hall. I also had another counselor (who today is one of my best friends) who had a diabolical habit of catching and maiming frogs for entertainment. He literally once ripped a frog apart by the legs and then kicked it like it was a football. Cruel, I know, but boys will be boys I guess.
Q. Based on your camp experiences, what do you think of kids these days? Are they growing up too fast? Or are they the same as they ever were?
A. Kids are definitely much more promiscous now than they were when I was a camper. The girls especially are much more overt about availing themselves for things that I never imagined doing when I was 14 or 15. Of course there's a part of me (and you can guess which part) that wishes I had that same opportunity at their age, but I also think there's something to be said for not losing your innocence so early. It makes me sound like a fuddy duddy to say that, but compared to these kids I guess that's what I am.
Q. Hollywood is interested in making your book into a movie. Are you afraid it might become a Meatballs for a new generation? Or would that make you proud?
A. I'll be honest, I'm just looking to get paid. I had a very, very difficult time selling this book to the publishing community, which I still think made a mistake by passing it up. The book only sold a few hundred copies, but one of them went to a guy named Kevin Misher, who went to Equinunk and eventually became president of Universal Films and now runs his own production company under Universal's imprint. Kevin envisions the movie to be very much like Meatballs, including casting a recognizable actor in the lead role, which I think is great. Everybody remembers Meatballs as Bill Murray going crazy and shouting, "It just doesn't matter!" If you watch the movie, though, it's really a very sweet coming of age story centering on Murray's relationship with a young boy who feels like an outcast but wins the big race at the end of the movie. That's not a bad concept to reprise.
Q. Your father was a Camp Equinunk camper; your mother was a Blue Ridge camper; you talked your then girlfriend, now your wife, into going to Blue Ridge, you went to the camp throughout your adolescence and teenage years. Does your new baby boy, Zachary, stand a chance if he doesn't want to go to Camp Equinunk?
A. Well, I would never force Zachary into doing anything he didn't want to do, but by the time he's old enough he'll be so excited about going to Equinunk that I'll have to chain him down. The brainwashing has already begun. After Zachary was born four weeks ago, and the nurse handed him to me for the first time, one of the first things I did was sing to him a few bars from the Equinunk alma mater. I didn't plan on doing that, but it felt exactly right.
-Interview By Sarah Thurmond
Equinunk, Tell Your Story is available on Amazon.com.
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