By Josh Raymer
It was the summer of 2012 and VAMPY was winding down for first year camper Simon Heimbrock. Leading up to that final Friday, Simon had only heard rumors of a VAMPY tradition that would take place after classes dismissed for the day. “It was my last day of Chinese class and I heard this hubbub that we weren’t going back to Schneider Hall,” he recalled. The mystery, he explained, was intentional. “Your first year, they don’t tell you the traditions. They want you to be surprised.”
What happened next was both surprising and unforgettable. As he neared Margie Helm Library, that hubbub became a dull roar. “I came down and there’s just a cascade of kids running through this fountain,” Simon revealed. “I was sitting there taking off my socks and shoes so they didn’t get wet. Once I had those off, my friend Mason Strange, who was a big fourth year, and my brother pick me up and carry me through the fountain. I’m laughing and having a great time.”
Harry Chalmers attended VAMPY in 2005 and 2006, and was a counselor from 2009 to 2012. Like Simon, his fountain run memory resonates years later. “Running through the fountain after the last class always seemed to me to represent what a wild ride we’d all had together,” he said. “As we carried other campers and counselors through the blasting jets, I couldn’t help but feel that the water was symbolic of how everyone was overflowing with camp spirit. It was a dramatic moment that made the perfect prelude to the festivities of the last night.”
The fountain run that final Friday is one of the dozens of VAMPY traditions that have been handed down year after year, from one generation of campers to the next. These beloved experiences have become so engrained in the fabric of VAMPY that they’ve come to define the camp in the minds of campers. From straightforward traditions like the fountain run, dance, and slideshow, to those with cryptic names like Cryfest, “VAMPY Pie,” and Paper Theatre, hardly a day goes by during those three weeks that doesn’t include some time-honored activity or experience.
Like anyone who helps build something before passing it on to a new group of torchbearers, current counselor and VAMPY alumnus Kayce Hyde hoped the VAMPY traditions would endure even after she left. She needn’t have worried. “Coming back as a counselor, it was so refreshing to see that these traditions had carried on, and even as an alumna of the camp, I could still see our legacy was intact,” she said. “These traditions are what make VAMPY more than just a summer camp. They’re the reason it’s so hard to explain why you can’t wait to go back to ‘nerd camp’ next summer.”
Even the way campers are identified reveals a tradition. Take fourth year, fourth year Eileen Price for example. The second “fourth year” reveals she just finished 10th grade, the last year students are eligible to attend VAMPY. The first “fourth year” designates her as the rarest of VAMPY campers – those who attended all four years they were eligible, from 7th to 10th grade. Eileen and the seven other fourth year, fourth years at camp this summer display their veteran status through another tradition – collecting Schmoes, the nickname given to the Big Red pins campers are given each year, and displaying them on their nametags. Counselors have nametags, too, and campers traditionally start VAMPY by claiming a counselor’s nametag for the final day.
VAMPY campers grow so accustomed to these annual rituals they become second nature, like eating or sleeping. Eileen couldn’t live without the customary VAMPY songs, an eclectic blend of tunes that has evolved throughout the decades and can summon powerful memories in alumni. “To this day there are numerous songs that will immediately take me back to being at VAMPY,” admitted Hank Zimmerman, a former camper, counselor, and member of the VAMPY Alumni Association. “I think more than anything, the traditionally played songs at VAMPY are forever intertwined with my summers spent on Western’s campus.”
Matt Beasley, a VAMPY alumnus and founding member of the Alumni Association, vividly remembered singing a particular tune at the talent show with his fellow campers. “I enjoyed singing ‘Friends Are Friends Forever’ by Michael W. Smith,” he said. “To this day, every time I hear that song, it brings back fond memories.”
The camp classics that lodge themselves in Eileen’s head get sung whether she’s at camp or back home. “I love ‘VAMPY Ignition.’ A few years ago they revamped ‘VAMPY Pie’ and I really like that song a lot,” she said. “I have memorized both of those songs and sing them all the time. I sing them inside VAMPY, outside of VAMPY, pretty much everywhere. I love teaching them to the first years.”
Harry relished his experiences in Paper Theatre, a tradition that incorporates storytelling, newspaper, tape, and lots of imagination. “Before my first year of camp, I had never seen anything quite like Paper Theatre,” he said. “It was such a simple idea, yet it somehow managed to combine acting, arts and crafts, and storytelling so seamlessly. But most of all, it was a wonderful chance for my fellow campers and I to be silly and creative together.”
One tradition that would typically terrify 7th through 10th graders – a dance – is made less intimidating thanks to the culture created by everyone involved with VAMPY. “Everyone at VAMPY is accepted for who they are and can partake in the numerous traditions,” Hank explained. So when it comes time to cut a rug, everyone is equal and expected to get down on the dance floor. “It was important for all of us to experience a dance,” Matt said. “For many of us, it was the first such experience, and I still think back fondly to those moments.”
Held during the final week, the second dance of camp heralds the end of VAMPY and is followed by another tradition, the aptly titled Cryfest. “It’s all really sad but I find Cryfest to be a good part of camp,” Simon said. “VAMPY for a lot of people is more than just a three-week sleepaway camp: it’s home. You come here, and you’re around a lot of like-minded people. When it’s time to leave, it’s good to have a place where you can get all those emotions out instead of bottling them up.”
Whether it’s singing, dancing, acting, or crying, campers take pride in passing sacred VAMPY traditions on once they “graduate” from camp. “These traditions can be passed on in part due to the great pride campers take in returning for multiple years,” Kayce said. “This allows them to teach the traditions to the new campers, preserving the special nature of VAMPY.
In Eileen’s mind, it’s her responsibility as a camper to ensure traditions survive. “I think it’s the kids. I think it’s us. I think it’s the fact that when I was a first year, the fourth years taught me. Now as a fourth year, I teach my first year friends,” she explained. “Traditions keep going because we impress upon each other the importance of keeping them alive.”
It might seem strange to first year campers, but Hank said the rituals of camp soon become cherished memories. “A first year camper will see how emotional the older campers get during seemingly silly traditions,” he said. “That first year camper may not grasp why the tradition provokes such a response at the time, but in just a few more summers, they’ll be guiding first year campers in those same traditions.”
In many ways, running through a fountain can be seen as silly. But when you’ve lived and breathed the traditions of VAMPY for three weeks, those jets of water blasting high into the air represent everything you love about your new home. “There are plenty of camps where you can sleepaway for three weeks, take some classes, and get smarter,” Simon said. “There aren’t many camps where, on the last day, two of your best friends pick you up and carry you through a fountain.”