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The Buddy Call

When I went to sleep away camp for the first time, at age nine, everything was new to me. Living in a bunk with other girls, sharing sinks and toilets and showers and such a small space, when I was used to having my own room, and my own door to close out the world. But one of the biggest changes was the lake. At day camps on Long Island I’d been swimming in pools, with see-through water and the burn of chlorine up my nose. At sleepaway camp we swam in a lake, with murky depths, and floating docks that moved with the water.

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Cricket is not sure about this whole swimming thing.

I didn’t do very well on my first swim test, on the first full day of camp, but that was okay with me, because it meant that my advanced beginner swim classes would be held in the shallow water by the shore, where I could touch the ground under my feet. I was willing to learn surface dives and summersaults and treading water, and basic swim strokes, as long as I could reach out and find the ground when I needed to.

We had swim classes every morning, five days a week, and in the afternoons we had free swim. For my first three summers at camp “free” swim was required, and we needed to have a buddy. The social anxiety of, every day, having to ask someone to go swimming with me, and be tied to me, metaphorically, for forty five minutes, was brutal. I did have friends at camp, in a way I didn’t during the school year, but even so, every day the specter of rejection hovered over me. “Will you be my buddy?” is as excruciating a question to ask as you might think it is, even when I was only asking for temporary friendship.

The buddy rule was to make sure that if one person started to drown, their buddy would notice and call for the life guards on the dock. And to make sure we were all still alive, at some point during each free swim period, we had to go through the torment of the buddy call.

So, some background. Depending on our swimming ability we received a buddy tag corresponding to the shallow water (red), deeper water (yellow), and deepest water (green). I had a red tag, so I could only go for free swim in the shallow water. Someone with a yellow tag could go into deeper water, still surrounded on three sides by contiguous docks, with life guards standing at regular intervals. A green tag meant you could go into the deepest water, which was outlined in stand-alone docks connected by buoy ropes. There was only one lifeguard on each of the scattered docks, so you were mostly on your own out there.

I never wanted a green tag. I was happy to be trapped in red water, even though it meant that friends with higher level tags wouldn’t want to be my buddy, because they’d be restricted to shallow water with me. We lined up at the buddy board, and each pair of swimmers would be assigned a number, in Hebrew, in red, yellow, or green water. Our tags would be placed on the board, under our assigned number, so that if, god forbid, we failed to respond to the buddy call, they would know whose body to search for.

I’d been studying Hebrew since kindergarten, but even I found it stressful to have to remember my number in Hebrew, under stress. The problem is that the number fifteen, using Hebrew letters as numbers, spells one of the names of God, and therefore can’t be said out loud. So instead of using the letters for ten and five, we had to use the letters for nine and six to make fifteen, I think. Just trying to think this through again is bringing up long buried panic.

Anyway. You’d be swimming along, splashing your neighbors (red water was always crowded, because I wasn’t the only one happy to stay in the shallow water), and then the whistles would blow, and you had to stay still throughout the buddy call. If you were in yellow or green water, and more than an arm’s length from the dock when the whistles blew, you’d have to tread water the whole time. I would stand in red water and listen for my number, reminding my usually non-Hebrew speaking friend where our number would be in the order, worried the whole time that I was remembering or counting wrong.

I always needed a nap after free swim because of the stress of it all.

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“Cricket, are you sleeping?” “Not anymore.”

Even now, I feel like I’ve spent my whole life dreading the buddy call, but now it’s the “Are you married?” “Do you have kids?” “Where do you work?” questions. The questions that really seem to be asking if I have proven myself worthy of being chosen. And if I haven’t? It kind of feels like I’m not allowed into the pool, or the lake, of life.

Cricket thinks it’s nonsense, of course. I mean, really, who wants to swim in a lake anyway? She also believes in the reject-them-before-they-can-reject-you philosophy, with lots of barking added.

 

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“I don’t always bark, but when I do there’s a very good reason, Mommy.”

I’m not sure where Ellie stands on these issues yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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When she wakes up from her nap.

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

88 responses »

  1. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    I hated camp! I spent my time longing for solitude and a book.

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  2. I can do relate! I was so shy and insecure. The pups are adorable. It’s good to know they have it altogether. 😊♥️

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  3. Oh I don’t like the buddy call either. Woof!

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  4. I can SO relate to your feelings of insecurity! Thank God I never went to a camp like that, because nobody would ever have wanted to be a buddy with me

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  5. Don’t worry about the “pool of life”. Make up your own! I have. We are so tied up with conformity and what we should be doing at a certain age/stage in life. I ditched that idea long ago and have found personal and emotional freedom in my life as a result of removing the chains of conformity. Celebrate diversity in your life and celebrate your life for what it is. I try to make the best of what comes along and I am thankful every day I wake up to another day. I’d give you a big hug if you were here right now:)

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  6. Amazing how sometimes measures meant to increase safety (or questions that are hoped to have been proffered as an efforts at friendly conversation) can backfire and decrease the overall value of the experiences.

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  7. It sounds like a nightmare to me, who would rather swim alone or read than find a buddy for an hour or less. And yes, there are questions that often get asked that I would rather avoid altogether, the answers to which would also make me feel diminutive. Hopefully, reading all the comments makes you feel not alone and will help.

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  8. Once in some misguided exercise we were asked at camp who was our favorite cabin mate! I have no idea what they were thinking. After that, no one got along! At my camp,they built a pool after some “mishap” in the river where swimming used to take place. So I felt pretty safe.

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  9. Oh Rachel! This is one of your best – and most profound – posts! Such a beautiful childhood story that I know many of us can relate to on some level, that then packs a huge punch to the heart and mind. I’m keeping this one favourited for sure 💕

    My camp story with my lost rubber boot at the bottom of the lake, although it still remains burned in my psyche to this day 40 years later, pales in comparison … 🤦🏼‍♀️

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  10. I’ve never been in yellow, green or red water. Just hot water.

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  11. The pictures of Ellie and Cricket make me smile. I am so happy for this new family member for all of you.
    Being chosen…I had similar anxieties on the playground softball games when I was in elementary school.
    I consider you “chosen” for the person you are today – and we are the better for it.

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  12. Oh man sleepaway camp, those were the days!

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  13. I was always chosen last, but somehow that has rolled off me now!

    I LOVE this post and how I remember those days through your writing. Thank you!

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  14. What a touching post Rachel, I can relate. Funny how my five year old has no problems asking another child at the park to be her friend and for a short while they become the best of friends. As we get older, our fear of rejection starts to kick in.

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  15. Very sorry to read this recollection of your time in camp. I’m sure the exercise was meant to familiarize you with the Hebrew letters or numbers. What a shame that it caused you insecurity. No matter what we learn, it’s much better to learn from someone who loves the subject and can transfer that love to his or her students.The pictures of the dogs are beautiful, and I wish you nothing but pleasure and freedom in these days of ‘end of summer’.

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  16. Well I have to say that I never learned to swim. I had opportunity to many times, but I never took them up. I almost drowned twice – one at a swimming pool when someone pushed me in the deep end and I had to be rescued: and once on camp at Loch Earn, when my cousin had to swim out and rescue me. You’d think I would learn – but no, I never did. Besides, I consider myself a mountain person, not a seaside or beach person.

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  17. I felt for you when reading this. Such a seemingly small thing that has stayed with you for so long. And I bet you weren’t the only one feeling it either.

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  18. We didn’t have such camps here, and I think I am pleased about that. However, at least you learned to swim. I never did.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  19. I discovered recently that I can’t ‘swim’. I’ve lost the flexibility for getting in and out of water, without a ladder and something to grab onto too. Your vivid imagery of the lake reminded me of this recent adventure of mine, especially the “I can touch the bottom if I need to” part. I don’t think I’ll try lake ‘swimming’ again, but stick to the pool(s) where things are safer. Ellie looks happy and contented and her sleeping on her back with her belly exposed like that? Means she’s very secure. Good job ! 🙂

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  20. Fab blog – we don’t do camp in UK unless in Brownies etc. How come you are not to say a name of God’s outloud?

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  21. Insightful, as always Rachel. Love your new woofer too!

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  22. You are an individual, Rachel, creating your own path in life. Keep on making your own way and enjoy the journey! If anyone objects then let Cricket talk to them. 🙂

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  23. I enjoyed your story. There is nothing in my past that relates to your experience at all but I enjoyed a dip (hehe) into your world. For what it’s worth, Max hates water and thinks Cricket is pretty smart.

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  24. Ugh, I hate those questions too. My answer to “What do you do?” has been reduced to “Survive”.

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  25. During late grade school, my parents signed me up for Bible Camp, a couple hours away by car, for a week during the summer. Cabins for … I don’t even remember how many beds there were. Excruciating. Swimming and canoeing, religion lessons and crafts. People I didn’t know, and I never figured out how to make friends, what to say to anyone other than answer questions. I did better during junior high school at the girl scout camp that I attended, one year, because there was horseback riding. I didn’t tell anyone I’d never ridden a horse before, and so I had a nice time riding a horse with some unpredictability. Great fun! Still no friends, but horses! I would not have handled more than a week at a time in that environment. Totally unnerving.

    Then I started signing up for a week of band clinic during the summers, also far away from home, and worked to earn money to pay for the clinic and private lessons. I finally started talking to people. I still am in contact with one of the trombone students, 55 years later.

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  26. Love that picture of Ellie! Sound like it was a traumatic experience for you; I would have a fear of swimming and the water after that.

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  27. I didn’t learn to swim till I was in college and still am not comfortable in water – I nearly drowned as a kid and it kinda stays with you. So I will sit on the shore with Cricket and you can take Maverick into the shallow water and we’ll be happy. 🙂 Also – I dealt with all the “why aren’t you married yet? (because no man suits me) Don’t you want kids? (No, thank you, I don’t) questions, for ever, it seemed! People just need to mind their own business.

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  28. Nora Edinger JOY Journal

    Childhood wasn’t really as simple as we adults often pretend, was it?. I was a cabin counselor at a church camp where my daughters were camping this summer. Even in that Jesus-is-your-forever-buddy atmosphere, mixing with new “kids” was tough at times. 🙂 Good writing!

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  29. Children can be scary en masse! I should be doing school visits to promote my books, but even now I get twitchy at the thought of facing a classroom full of strange kids.
    So glad Cricket has a new buddy! Ellie is gorgeous! 🙂

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  30. Sounds like they would have been better off just making everyone wear life jackets. Safer than making people out in deep water stop and tread and a lot less stressful than the buddy thing. The summer camp I went to didn’t do anything like that, but they did make everyone take a salt pill every day which was supposed to keep people from getting dehydrated. They’d check our mouths to make sure we swallowed it, but I always hid it under my tongue so they thought it was gone and then spat it out after they checked.

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  31. Always happy to have news.
    Cricket and Butterfly are so cute!

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  32. Poor Cricket, Sam hates swimming too… he just barks at the swimmers!

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  33. This vividly reminds me of the agony of 4-H camp when I was 10. I had been looking forward to it very much (after reading so many kids’ chapter books on summer camp!) but once I got there I felt so painfully alone because I was terrified of having to interact with the other kids. The biggest difference was that I really wanted to swim in the deep water, but my cabin’s test time had been rained out, so I was forced to stay in the crowded shallow end and simply stand there and try to avoid being hit by other, more boisterous children.

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  34. I recall reading books about kids that got to go to camp.. I was not one of them and I think I used to day dream about it..

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  35. That sounds horrific. We never had Summer camps here (UK) except guides and scouts, where we did activities with people we met every week. Having only heard of Summer camps through movies and books I always thought they were fantastic adventures so it’s interesting to hear how they could really be quite different.

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  36. So true — the things that frightened us in childhood continue to haunt us in adulthood. Summer camp was the pits.

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  37. Rachel, I wonder how many people have been that kid terrified of not being chosen? Surely, even back in the day, adults must’ve known they were putting kids through hell waiting to be chosen. Just awful and clearly you were not alone.
    xx Rowena

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  38. I don’t have the fondest memories of summer camp and swim lessons! LOL. I remember we were taught the sink or swim method. Yikes! I guess it worked though … 😉
    One thing I do remember is that we were made to go off the high diving board and I was/am afraid of heights. I did it, but upon surfacing in the water, as I was getting out I noticed everyone laughing at me. Come to find out my top came off and all was exposed. Ugh! I will never forget that. Thanks for sharing your story, I always enjoy reading your post.

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  39. Very insightful! Love your blog!

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  40. If you watch Susan Cain’s TED talk based on her book Quiet, you may laugh at her issues with summer camp. (In the first 5 minutes). It does sound a torment but I bet you could swim like a fish after that “holiday”.

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  41. Ugh ! The stress if forced socialization. I’m soon to be 58, and I still need a nap after a period of socializing.

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    • Yes. It seems to me there’s a problem with forced friendship. I’m fairly sociable (but happy with being alone too) and apart from the fact that “buddy” doesn’t exist in British English, I’d find it far more difficult to ask someone if they’d be my buddy (or friend), with the implication that if they accepted they’d be somehow committing to me beyond one swim, than to ask, “Could you come down with me to the lake?”, which is simply asking for help without implying closeness.

      Reply

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