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Cabin fever
Like most male camp counselors, I was really just in it for the chicks

At first, I don’t think it really occurred to me that children would be involved.

Which I know is odd, given it was a summer camp. But like most American men between the ages of 16 and 20 who answer the call to watch over our nation’s preteens from June through August, I was really just in it for the chicks. The average summer-camp staff is 60 percent to 70 percent female. In a related fact, I worked as a summer-camp counselor for six straight years.

It was a Jewish camp, but we filled our days with the same kind of generic summer-camp activity that I imagine secular camps have — albeit probably with a lot more shouts of "Be careful!" We did have the occasional religious service, though. These were held in the chapel — a secluded clearing off a dirt road, surrounded by large pines and oaks and filled with wooden benches resting on concrete slabs. As the morning sun broke through the trees, it would filter down in distinct rays. It was indeed a spiritual place.

It was also where I first felt a girl up.

Yes, unfortunately for God, the chapel was the best make-out spot at camp. Second-best was a giant menorah sculpture overlooking the ocean. Never since has Jewish symbolism proved such an aphrodisiac.

It amazed me that parents left their kids with a bunch of hormone-driven teenagers all summer. We weren’t there to care for and nurture their children. We were there to care for and nurture each other — preferably under the bra. At 16 and 17, we were still just children ourselves — children past puberty, the most impetuous children of all.

Going through the day — teaching archery, leading nature hikes, supervising arts and crafts — a counselor’s mind is constantly indexing spots: "That haystack looks soft, this rock seems secluded, that lanyard — well, that’s just disturbing." The campers were, at best, an afterthought, something to endure, cared for with the same enthusiasm a child has for his Brussels sprouts when there’s ice cream for dessert. Because once our charges went to bed, it was a free-for-all — in an awkward teenagers-at-Jewish-camp kind of way, which is to say a lot of heavy-handed groping, fumbling with bra straps, and bad guitar playing.

But I quickly learned that taking a dismissive attitude toward the campers was all wrong. The children shouldn’t be ignored — they should be used. As it turns out, 11- and 12-year-old girls are instinctual matchmakers. Fueled by fairy-tale endings mixed in with Brady Bunch reruns, they want nothing more than to set up their counselor-cum-single-mother figures with nice, eligible bachelors. So if I wanted to date the counselor from Cabin Seven, my best bet was to charm her kids.

Using kids as pawns in post-pubescent courting had other benefits. I wasn’t exactly a confident, suave player at 16, so some of my best summer flings wouldn’t even have happened without a feisty sixth-grader egging me on: "Dude, I think my counselor likes you, likes you."

And eventually I learned that the real secret to being a great summer-camp Romeo was actually to be a good counselor. Yes, parents can rest easy. As it turns out, young men at summer camps across the country are all led by economist Adam Smith’s "invisible hand" — promoting the greater good by pursuing their own self-interests. Because in the end, we all realize nothing will get the Cabin Seven counselor to undo her bra faster than a man who is good with children.

Alan Olifson can be reached at alan@olifson.com

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Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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