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Summer camp launched my career Add to ...

I was pushing 60 when, five summers ago, a man who was close to 80 reached into his pocket, pulled out an envelope and said, "I thought I might find you here." Opening the envelope, I took out the paper that became my career.

We were both at a summer camp reunion in Maine, where I'd first gone to camp as a kid, and where Norm had been a counsellor. I think of him every year at about this time, remembering when the arrival of spring mainly meant the beginning of the long slide that would deposit me in that other, parallel world called camp.

Not that I had anything to complain about at home. Great parents. Wonderful older brother, kind of a Wally to my Beaver Cleaverish kid-brother self. My main interest in life was the not-cool hobby of puppetry. In the 1950s, this was alarmingly close to playing with dolls.

So, at 7, I was sent off to camp, where, like one of my marionettes, Pinocchio, I might learn to be a real, live boy.

Once there, I quickly distinguished, or maybe I should say extinguished, myself as the worst athlete in Cabin Four, or possibly in the camp. If I swung, I missed. If I caught, I dropped. If I threw (do you remember the seriousness of this offence?), it was like a girl.

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Which is why my life was about to change. The camp was small, about 70 boys, and the counsellors kept a close watch on the kids who were not going to pick up poise and learn self-confidence, as most boys do, by excelling at some sport or another. So it was that Norm, learning about my puppet shows back home, and figuring I must have a spark of showbiz in me, asked me if I wanted to go on the radio.

Well, not exactly the radio. Actually, it was the camp public-address system. Every morning, roused a half-hour before everyone else by a Norm-supplied alarm clock, I'd trot down to the camp office, fire up the loudspeakers, play a bugle call off an old 78-rpm record and then, for 10 minutes, go on the air. The job was, as they say today, a great fit. Like my puppet shows, I was heard but not seen. And with weather reports and baseball scores, cribbed from a real radio station, and one rock 'n' roll 45 per morning, I was a star. I had cabin cred.

While I continued to strike out at softball, and didn't pass my deep-water test till I was 11, I'd scored doing my thing. Which is the same thing I went on to do in life, picking up where I left off at the student radio station in university, and a 40-year career behind the microphone.

And the piece of paper in the envelope 50 years later? Norm, like every producer I've had since, was justly concerned about my undisciplined ad-libs. He wanted everything written down first, and what he pulled out of his pocket was my opening-day script. He'd kept it all those years against the day he might see me again.

Over those same years, I've been repeatedly amazed by how many grown-ups did their most important growing up at camp. Out from under expectations at home (especially the self-fulfilling ones), they blossomed and bloomed into what they otherwise might never have become. Their weeks at summer camp, they'll tell you, sometimes shaped them as much or more than all the rest of the year combined. Which is why, every year, I write a cheque to help send inner-city kids to camp. They may never have heard the word "epiphany," but they just might experience what it means.

These children come from families with very little money. But you don't have to be poor to suffer from what Richard Louv calls nature-deficit disorder. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Mr. Louv bemoans the disappearance of the natural world from the lives of too many children.

Anxious parents, Mr. Louv tells us, see the outdoors as something their children need to be protected from. Girl Guides' Ontario Council has announced it will be shutting down 16 of its summer camps. Provincial cutbacks in Ontario have seen four Outdoor Education Centres mothballed.

When was the last time you saw kids building a tree house, turning a rock over to see what's living underneath or, my fellow Canadians, knowing the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment in sharing with a buddy the burden of carrying a canoe over a two-kilometre portage?

In my daughter's case, these experiences led, in a straight line, through summer camp to Outward Bound, university and a career. Her doctoral dissertation examined the part outdoor experiential education can play in strengthening teenage girls' sense of themselves as achievers, collaborators and risk takers. And it all began with those summer weeks singing Land of the Silver Birch in Algonquin Park.

As it began for me in Cabin Four with that alarm clock under my pillow.

I tried to tell Norm all this at the reunion.

He said, "Well, you know it wasn't completely altruistic - before I gave you the job, I had to play the bugle call. This gave me an extra half-hour to sleep in."

"That's okay," I told him. "You earned it."

Andy Barrie recently retired as the host of CBC Radio's Metro Morning in Toronto. On April 23, at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, he'll be joining fellow former camper, The Vinyl Cafe's Stuart McLean, for an evening of camp - in the original sense - stories, music and fun, all to raise money to send kids to camp who'd miss it most ( www.kidsincamp.com/stuart_mclean.html or Ticketmaster).


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