Fresh Air

A week spent at a summer camp for asthmatics

In the summer of 1978, when I would turn 11, I went to Camp Superkids, a woodsy getaway specifically for children with asthma, where even the most bronchially challenged could run and play with the assurance that our rescue inhalers were just a short breath away.

Though I don’t really remember what it’s like to have an asthma attack, my mother’s memories of rushing me to the hospital, wrapped up in a wool blanket and struggling for breath, are vivid. Consequently, she was a cautious parent: I was not allowed to visit homes that had a cat; sleepovers were mostly out of the question; and I could not swim outdoors until the end of June, when the Minnesota lakes were sufficiently warm.

Our family allergist, Dr. Cushing, had been instrumental in founding Camp Superkids, and he encouraged my enrollment there. The camp had plenty of medical specialists on hand, as well as nurses who dispensed our medications. We spent some time in classes, learning about our disease, but other than that we got to joke around and act just like “normal” kids.

My sister and I had spent previous summers at half-day camps. Our mother would drop us off at the Chaska High School parking lot in the morning, and some dude singing along to Seals & Crofts would pull up in a school bus and cart us away for the day. We made tie-dye T-shirts, poured hot wax into the sand to make candles, and sang “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” We dressed up for the wildly inappropriate “Hobo Day,” wearing our dad’s old slacks and army boots and carrying bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. What must our mothers have thought that morning, watching us shuffle onto the bus?

I attended asthma camp with Suzy, a girl from my small town. We joined a whole group of kids from all over Minnesota who knew the powdery taste of those early inhalers, the crazy buzz of Prednisone pills, and the hovering nature of over-protective mothers. We took sailing and swimming lessons in the warm lake. We made God’s eyes and lanyards. We had a softball tournament.

We also wrote letters home. After listening to American Top 40 on the radio in our cabin, I sent my sister a postcard that she still has: “Andy Gibb’s ‘Shadow Dancing’ was number one again this week!!! Awesome!!!”

We watched movies, too. One night in the lodge, there was a screening of the Beatles’ animated movie Yellow Submarine, a psychedelic journey that, it occurs to me now, would have been vastly improved by inhaling something other than asthma medication.

And we fell in love. That summer, I had my first romance with a boy, another scrawny asthmatic named Michael. Like me, he had dark circles under his eyes. Like me, he was allergic to pollen, ragweed, and dust. We shared our first kiss on a bench overlooking Lake Independence. When I recently told my 10-year-old niece about him, she clutched her chest dramatically and said, “So, like, when you were around each other, did you get excited and have trouble breathing?”

What I remember most about camp, however, was coming home on the day I turned 11. The Ihduhapi bus dropped Suzy and me in a parking lot somewhere, then her mother picked us up and brought me home. I had missed my family and expected festive signs and balloons and presents, but no one was home, except the cleaning lady. She came huffing through the kitchen with a sloshing bucket of suds and a mop. “Happy birthday,” she said, and hurried off.

Shannon Olson is the author of two novels, Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling. She lives in St. Paul.