On Camp Names

Maybe one of my favorite camp anecdotes is from a (now not so) young man named George Yetter. In one of his earliest summers, at age nine, George sat with his dormmates as they introduced themselves. As Burger explains, everyone around him had a really cool nickname—from outside of camp or previous summers—and so when it was his turn to introduce himself, he gave himself a nickname: Burger.

Burger is now fourteen, but everyone still calls him Burger. In fact, I get confused when somebody refers to him as George. He is Burger. As long as he is at camp, he will be Burger. And he is not alone. Christian will always be Christmas. Joey will always be Tank.

These camp names are peculiar. They’re endearing, but not to the romantic degree that a significant other’s pet name might be. They’re a way to demonstrate relationships, like a father’s nickname for a child, but they are far more public, more common. It’s odd to think that for certain people, there exists a physical place where they are known as something wholly different.

I ran into this phenomena at Camp Sealth today. The assistant director, Kate, walked me around as the staff deep cleaned the camp following the camper’s departure yesterday. Only, no one we met called Kate ‘Kate.’ It was always ‘Wawa.’ And as the tour went on, I met more and more oddly named people, which I chalked up to a tradition of the Pacific Northwest. Only when I met Cinnamon did I think to ask Kate (Wawa) if there were any system of nicknaming. She said yes—that each person gets to choose a “Camp Name” at the beginning of each summer with only minor restrictions.

Maybe I’m feeling sort of light headed and whimsical after camp ended for me last weekend, but in a world where names seem to mean so much (e.g., they are the markers for our identification, the verification for our purchases, weddings, and seemingly any other social or economic transaction) isn’t it sort of beautiful to know that there are places where people can unbind themselves to their given identity?

Wawa told me today that she thought the point of summer camp was to give children a place where they can confidently be themselves. And what better way to mark that difference than a new name. Because for all the self-splitting that comes with having multiple names (and when it comes to camp people, multiple homes), the more time he spends at camp, the more the best parts of Burger seep into George.