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The Art of Color War – 10 Ways Camp Teaches Us to Be Winners

Just the other day my old camp buddy, Waldo, sent me a link to something called, “Adult Color Wars.”

And before you could say “Apache Relay,” I was all over that website, trying to figure out how to enlist. Because anyone who has ever spent even one week at camp knows that Color War isn’t just a child’s competition; it’s a metaphor for life and a training ground for survival skills that last a lifetime.

So as your Summertime Sun Tzu — thanks to nearly a decade as a camper and counselor at sleepover camp — I bring you, The Art of Color War — 10 Ways Camp Teaches Us to Be Winners:

1) Know a Break from a Fake: In the days leading up to a Color War break, everyone is on high alert, which makes it particularly difficult to catch anyone by surprise. So the cleverest Color War captains will send out a variety of false alarms — bugles going off at the wrong time of day, two blasts from the cannon (not the required three), and misleading flyers and “clues” planted around campus that only serve as distractions.

The astute student of Color War recognizes the inherent lameness of fakes, and identifies the real deal by measure of both ingenuity and insanity. For example, I will never forget the College League (what my camp called its Color War) break when the head counselor told my all-girls camp that there was a rapist loose in our small, isolated Maine town and he’d been spotted in our vicinity. So when four girls ran into the middle of campfire, detaining a struggling perp, it never occurred to me that it would be anything but the aforementioned rapist. But it wasn’t — it was only the best-planned, most terrifying break ever! (NOTE: Telling 11-year-olds that a violent criminal is on the loose is a strategy that most would never use today… but I must say that “scared straight” works and should not be discounted.)

2) The Loud Shall Lead: Try to think of one shy but athletically gifted Color War Captain or Commander… and you’ll know what I mean by the loud shall lead. At my camp, coordination was never a prerequisite to leadership positions, but a strong pair of lungs that could belt out spirited cheers all summer long was the goods. Which brings me to….

3) Sportsmanship is Everything: While you can always achieve an athletic look with a pair of jock shorts and tube socks, you can’t fake good sportsmanship. Well, maybe you can, particularly when your teammate accidentally shoots the ball into your own goal. But an over-the-top, “That’s all right, that’s OK, we still love you anyway…” is actually the sign of a great leader. And since Color War victory often boils down to a point or two, the extra ones gained from being a good sport truly do make the difference.

4) Being Good At One Thing Ain’t Enough: Sure you can slam dunk or rip a homer, but can you balance an egg on a spoon and walk 10 feet or find a white Lifesaver in a plate of whipped cream… with your hands tied behind your back? Maybe you sing like a canary, but if you can’t recover after dropping a baton, you’re in a Color War coalmine.

5) Work With What You’ve Got: When you divide 160 or so people in halves or quarters, there’s going to be a mixed bag of talent — which is exactly why Color War is a great place to learn management skills. The scrawny kid who loses games may win the trivia contest, thanks to his depth of knowledge of useless facts. The big kid who looks like she will dominate the field may turn out to have no hand-eye coordination (uhm, that would be me), but may prove particularly useful in odd ball sports that require only a high degree of goofiness, like crab soccer.

6) Pick Your Battles: The diverse nature of Color War competition ensures that you can’t win ’em all — has there ever been a Grammy- winning Olympian who is also a Rhodes scholar? Not so much, so being smart enough to know when the odds are stacked against you, and then breaking into a loud cheer meant to both distract and also score points for sportsmanship may just be the ticket.

7) All You Gotta Do Is Sing: Nothing says Color War more than the songs written to popular tunes. From delicate rhymes (easy enough if your team is blue or gray, not so much if your team is Georgetown or your mascot a tiger) to any variation of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” — the ultimate pump-you-up field cheer — can turn the tide and win the war.

8) Sleep When You’re Dead: The most brilliant Color War breaks involve waking even the youngest bunks in the dead of night or at dawn, and then it goes on from there. The older you are, the more likely it is you’ll toil late into the night, writing the aforementioned songs and cheers, fueled only by bug juice with extra sugar poured in, cold counselor’s coffee, jars of peanut butter, and salty Lipton Cup-a-Soup chasers. But it’s always totally worth it, and those late-night memories are often the best.

9) Find Grace Under Pressure: Color War, especially when played in a condensed time period of just a few days, is the most stressful, anxiety-provoking series of events known to man (or woman). By the time you reach the final sing down or athletic encounter, you and your team mates are bunches of raw nerves. The entire outcome often rides on your last performance. And so, with military precision and earnest preparation, garbed in your colors or theme, you begin. Having been a judge of such performances, I now reveal to you the secret: the teams that emerge as winners rocket their way to victory with equal measure of determination and enjoyment — the ultimate expression of grace under pressure. Making your weakest singers mouth or smallest kids take the first hits doesn’t hurt, either.

10) Everyone Gets A Popsicle: Sure you blew the Apache relay or did a shitty job rhyming tiger with anything, but in the end, losers get the same popsicles as the winners do. Maybe it is less about the sweet taste of victory and more about soothing the sting of defeat, but it reminds you of the most important fact of Color War: there’s always next year.

So if you see me making an idiot of myself in an all-adult tug-o-war next fall, just remember, all’s fair in love and Color War. And only the truly crazy fools survive.

While you are feeling all camp warm and fuzzy (and sore and pissed off about Color Wars passed), I’d recommend you pour your feelings into whipping up a batch ‘o whoopie pies. This trendy treat has its roots in New England — Maine particularly — and this recipe comes right from the heart of it — the founding family of my camp, Camp Matoaka:

For the “pie” (more like chocolate cake) part:
2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Crisco
1 egg
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

For the filling (presumably the whoopie part):
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cup Marshmallow Fluff
1 stick (1/2 cup) softened butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350.
Beat the cake ingredients together for 2 minutes in an electric mixer.
Drop the cake batter onto an ungreased cookie sheet, and bake for about 8 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
For the filling, beat all of the ingredients together until the filling is smooth.
Allow the cakes to fully cool before slathering on the filling.

* IMPORTANT: Unlike cheering for your team, when it comes to constructing whoopie pies, LESS IS MORE. A thin layer of filling is all you need for your whoopie pies. This may sound very New England of me to say but DON’T overdo it!


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