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Mom claimed she enjoyed spending time with my sister and me once school got out for the summer. Truth be told, that occurred once every few weeks when we were at my uncle’s pool, or at the library. Not so much the rest of the time. Thankfully for her, she found camps.

Jewish Day camps, “sports” camps (which I had no business attending as I lacked all sport), light opera camp (because what 14-year-old DOESN’T like singing Gilbert and Sullivan before a late afternoon showing of Weird Science), and finally she gave up on our omnipresence and sent us off to sleep-away camp, the safe indication that our parents wanted someone else to raise us, for at least a few weeks, likely forever.

And what did three weeks away in the dark forests of King’s Canyon National Park offer us? Oppressive heat, sunscreen, mosquitos, avoiding the indignity of lazy teenagers, and the social media pressure of attempting to stage a better vacation than your neighbors and colleagues. Luckily, summer also means the cool refreshing delight of frozen treats like popsicles to provide a brain-freezing nirvana to the blistering heat, spongy humidity, while attracting yellow jackets to your delicious, sticky, fruit-flavored frozen feast.  (Too bad you didn’t think that through.) It also invites childhood memories to resurface and reveal who you used to be and who you became. Enjoy my adolescence-tested recipe, which will surely recreate my childhood to your delight.

1. Combine small portions of various fruits like strawberries, watermelon, bananas, grapes, cantaloupe, and apples in a blender and lightly pulse until they are consistently mashed together.

Unlike the students I chose to spend time with at school, camp forced me alongside my mortal social enemies. I was forced to face down a pack of judgmental girls with their discerning glances and their secret girl-code because I wore an unsanctioned striped t-shirt too often. Then there was the flock of bros that barely acknowledged my existence due to my insufficient lack of bro-ship. Yeah, yeah, I know. My voice cracked when I tried to tell the one clever joke in my repertoire. Yes, dude, your hair is much swoopier than mine and because I lack cool stories of driving in my uncle’s Ferrari Countach  , I’m not good enough for you. Joke will be on you when you grow up and become a pharma bro, or a predatory douche armed with a casting couch.

2. Add orange juice to the blender with a splash of lime juice, then pulse together until smooth.

The early 1980’s didn’t have global warming. Summer was simply hot. Annoyingly hot. Sweating like a tax evader on trial hot.   A refreshing swim in any body of water poisoned us one way or another, no matter the location. Pool chlorine stung my eyes like I was trying to flush Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” from my memory bank. Ocean water always got in my mouth, turned my stomach into a retching mess, and baptized my soul whether I needed it or not. I would emerge from the Pacific, coughing out Beelzebub, praying for autumnal freedom of my soul.

If I had a refreshing drink, be it soda or juice, it would likely spill somewhere on me, adding an additional sticky film to my sunscreen-slathered body. A shower or bath rendered a temporary salve only because another round of sweating would begin again, day or night, awake or asleep, regularly repeating through Labor Day. Disgusting.

3. Evenly divide the mixture between popsicle molds.

At every camp—day or sleep-away— we were mashed into temporary families that experienced everything together for the duration. In that socially awkward time, bonds were attempted, formed, broken, adjusted, and forged. Much to my surprise, the kid with the funny teeth knew a lot about Batman that I didn’t, and the kid from upstate with the exceptionally long face genuinely wanted to know more about that movie I saw eleventy billion times. Who knew I’d find peers within this social bouillabaisse ?

During my final camp-based summer, a rumor floated like a dead fly in my red fruit juice that the shy, cute chick from the girls’ camp thought I was cute. I played it cool, but inside, my brain was on fire. I arrived at camp, viewing myself as Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, but thanks to her, I strutted around with an unflappable confidence like Duckie from Pretty in Pink. As miserable as I anticipated I would be, these few surprises moved the summer along, unlike my blistering skin from a poorly managed sunburn on my back.

4. Cover the mold tray with plastic wrap. Insert sticks into molds then store them in the freezer.

I challenge you to think of a different name for “popsicle sticks.” Can’t be done. Whether it is rectangular with curved edges, enlarged on the ends to serve as a flattened spoon, or stamped with the name of the frozen treat that was once impaled upon it, you can’t call it anything but a popsicle stick. If you tried to avoid the inevitable trademark issues, you could say “treat stick,” but that sounds and feels as uncomfortable as a peanut shell shard stuck beneath your tongue.

The days were filled with activities everyone was born to excel at like swimming and canoeing, and experiences I never imagined like decoupage and winning a medal for capturing a “greased pig” (a watermelon covered in Crisco) in the official Camp Messy Games. Near the end of the summer, my fighting spirit was put to the full test when the camp was divided into two sides for Color Wars. (Blue Crew 4ever!)

It is a mortal lock that summer utilizes sticks for one thing or another. Fallen tree branch shards for arts and crafts, the aforementioned-treat sticks for arts and crafts (“Look mom, I made a cabin!”), or massive, fallen tree limbs that made awesome walking sticks on hikes. (Any kid today who doesn’t pretend to be Gandalf standing firm against the Balrog, shouting “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” obviously was denied a proper childhood.)

The final activity firmly shoved into the dregs of August brought the entire camp to a majestic campfire where everyone shared a memory or something they were grateful for from their sleep-away experience. The strongest of bros, the weakest of nerds, and everyone in-between broke down into tears, extolling gratitude for the “most amazing experience of their lives,” as they tossed a stick into the fire.  A counselor always brought a guitar and introduced a song you didn’t know before, which will trigger a shuddered breath and instant tears anywhere and at any time for the remainder of your life.

5. Remove tray from the freezer, discard the plastic wrap, and gently separate your frozen treat from the mold. Enjoy your yummy snack.

We showed up to camp as gawky, insecure outcasts, lost in the confusion of pubescence, missing our friends from school as well as the stability of a predictable daily schedule. By the time summer ended, I was still a dweeb, but I returned with glowing tan skin, shredded vocal chords, and the confidence to cry in front of anyone because of the magic of a campfire.

A foundation of the adult I was about to become had been laid in place in a mashed up combination of learned skills like how to shoot an arrow, and how to do a proper back drop on a trampoline. I gained stories from personal achievements and will repeat the fables and tales of my new friends so they’ll live on. I messaged my friends on a regular basis, most recently telling them my kids were headed off to sleep away camp for their first summer. And thirty years after that final sleep-away summer, I reconnected with the counselors who remembered everything I said and did in those pivotal weeks of my childhood. We both laughed and cried, and I thanked them for making delicious and satisfying popsicles.

Twenty-seven years after leaving Alta Sierra for the last time, here is the author being presented with a commemorative tote bag, t-shirt, and a jar of ashes from the last campfire at the most recent reunion by his former counselor, Chuck “Pugsley” Earnst.

Jay Heltzer

Jay Heltzer writes attention-challenged fiction, plays bass trombone, digs sloppy fountain pen sketches, and is in pursuit of the perfect cheeseburger.

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