This One Time...

Part-time Tucsonan Thomas C. Adler shares his love of summer camp in 'Campingly Yours'

For young people fortunate enough to attend, summer camp can become a sacred place: somewhere with special friends and secret traditions, where they can forget school, routines and rules.

There are plenty of camp proselytizers around the world, but Thomas Adler is an unabashed apostle. In Campingly Yours: A Heartwarming Journey of a Lifetime at Summer Camp, Adler has crafted a passionate, if rambling memoir about his youth and adulthood at summer camp, weaving in nostalgia, introspection and touching anecdotes from his family life.

His account begins in the '60s, when two camp owners, Lou and Renee, came to visit his family and recruit his older brother to attend camp in northern Wisconsin, hours from their Kansas City-area home. His brother returned two months later, full of stories and anointed with a new nickname, "Flash," enough evidence of time well spent that an intrigued younger sibling followed along the next year.

Tom's first few weeks were tough: He was teased and ridiculed; he had to learn to swim; and his parents weren't able to visit. He made just one friend, affectionately called "the Bulk," and got on the wrong side of an older counselor, appropriately nicknamed "Snarl." Soon, though, Tom learned how to use his baseball skills to impress his fellow campers, grew used to routines like campfire conversations and even came to like the cobwebs that hung over his bed. Eventually, he, too, had a nickname, "Kid Flash," which he would retain well into his teenage years, as he returned to camp again and again as a camper, counselor-in-training and staff member.

But Tom didn't just think of camp as a place to escape; he loved coming home, too. He always looked forward to his mom's quiet inquiries and his dad's curveball--and the small grin he offered when Tom caught it. For a few summers, he didn't go to camp, opting to work in his father's junkyard instead. But camp always beckoned, and its allure became particularly pronounced when a teenage Tom, facing the prospect of either college or a tour in Vietnam, emerged into adulthood without a clue as to what he wanted to do with his life. He married, became a teacher and coached sports, but kept thinking of ways he could make camp the centerpiece of his life once more--until he found a girls' camp up for sale in Wisconsin. Instantly smitten, he forked over his savings and, with a little encouragement and financial help from his doting parents, became head of Chippewa Ranch Camp for Girls.

Of course, running a summer camp is a job, and Tom found, with some dismay, that the difficult tasks of management often overwhelmed the easy enjoyment of canoe rides and campfire gatherings. Over the course of his career, he found himself dealing with campers who were bulimic, mentally unstable or who'd sneaked out to go drinking--not to mention their concerned and angry parents, whose checks he depended on to stay afloat. Worse still, his wife, Toni, struggled with camp life, becoming so isolated that their marriage deteriorated. Adding to the personal strife was Tom's parents having pronounced health problems as they aged. Still, Adler made it work: Now remarried, he manages the camp in summer and spends the "offseason" in Tucson.

Campingly Yours is not a masterpiece; Adler's writing is frequently repetitive and disorganized. But the zeal and passion behind his words are enough to keep you reading on. This book will appeal to anyone who has experienced the particular thrills and challenges of attending sleep-away camp: the initial fear, the quirky routines, the lifelong friendships--they're all there. The book might also prove useful as a camp crash-course for a young person considering a trip, and it will also appeal to the charitably minded: Adler is donating the book's proceeds to programs that help send disadvantaged children to summer camp.

Readers might be surprised to learn that on the front cover of the book, the main picture is of young Tom with his mother, father, brother and dog. Seeing this, you realize that Campingly Yours really isn't about camp--it's about values, values Tom was lucky enough to learn from his loving parents, and which camp gave him an opportunity to put into practice. As he grew older, camp became a place where Adler's family, the thing he loved most, could grow bigger and bigger each year.

Even if you have horrid memories of food fights, early-morning marches and an embarrassing game of softball or two, it'll be hard not to sense the warmth of a campfire emanating from these pages.