I was 12 years old the summer of 1980. It was my fourth year at Phantom Lake YMCA Camp in Mukwonago, Wis., and for the first time I had finally moved from the younger Indian and Western units to the large screened platform tents on the side of the hill… the Mythical Unit. And I was in the tent closest to the lodge… Olympus.
Just when I thought things at camp could never get any better than that, I met our counselor. His name was Ron Anderson. Originally from Madison, Ron had spent his past school year in Texas. As a result, he talked with a slight cowboy accent.
Also, his speech was full of colorful Western words and phrases that just added to his general aura of greatness and camp color.
I cannot remember the exact day it happened that session, but I know it was at a meal. Out tent group was excitedly sharing details of the morning free activity period when a lull in the conversation changed my life at camp forever.
Out of the blue, and for no particular reason at all, Ron looked across the table at me, smiled his cowboy grin, and asked, "So, how's it goin', Slim?"
Having been a camper at Phantom Lake for four years, I knew quite a few of the counselors and camp staffers. I also knew that some of them were special in that they had camp names that set them apart from the general crowd.
While it was easy to meet and then forget the name of the ordinary -- and often multiple -- Janes, Mikes and Joes who worked at camp, it was virtually impossible to ever forget the unique one-of-a-kind individuals whose names stood out: Mountain Mike, Sir Gerald, Fuzz, Cha-Cha, Crazy Dan, Fozzie, Indo Joe, Joe Mama… The list goes on and on.
I knew I wanted to be one of those folks who had a camp name. I had no idea how to go about getting one. And now one had suddenly been thrust upon me.
That was 25 summers ago, and now as I am preparing for my 26th summer of YMCA camping, all my co-staffers, junior counselors and campers at YMCA Camp Benson in Mt. Carroll, Ill., still know me to this day as Slim.
As the co-director of our camp's Staff Development Program (SDP) -- which you can read about in more detail in the April 2005 issue of Camp Business magazine, and on the Camp Business Blog (blogspot.campbusiness.com, where you can read about our program and interactively discuss yours) -- many of the SDPs (our camp's term for junior counselors, ages 14-17) who I work with ask me about how they can get their own camp nicknames, especially ones that will stick.
They also ask if they really need a camp nickname or not. I encourage our SDPs to use camp nicknames. They are important for two reasons… First, they add a great deal of camp color to camp. Secondly, they make it a lot easier for campers to remember you. A camp may have many Bills and Sues, but odds are good that you'll only find one Kit-Kat, Crackerjack or Chetro.
I tell our SDPs that there are basically two ways to acquire a camp nickname. You can either make one up for yourself, or wait for someone else to do it for you.
If you have a nickname in mind that you would like to start using for yourself, or if someone has come up with one that you like and want others to use, the simplest way for it to catch on is to just start using it all the time. Don't make it an afterthought.
When you introduce yourself, for example, just use the nickname: "Hi, I'm Freezepop." Just the one name is given. It's interesting, unique, fun and memorable. Compare this to the following introduction: "Hi, I'm Rob Thomson, but everybody calls me Freezepop."
Now the camper has three pieces of information to remember (first name, last name, camp nickname). This may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind, especially in the case of a new camper, it's more information to add to the growing list of details such as the cabin or tent name, where the dining hall is located, how to find the bathrooms, and so on and so forth.
One mistake some camp people make that always makes me cringe is when they decide to change a camp nickname but never abandon the old one. At almost every introductory circle I've ever sat through at a camp staff orientation, there seems to be at least one person who introduces himself or herself like this: "Hi everybody. My name is Tyler. But some people call me Peaches [one small group of staffers giggles] and some people call me Bubbles [a couple others laugh] and some people call me Snuffy or Buford…"
Who cares? I say just give us one name that you like and stick to it. Let the other ones go.
I usually tell my SDPs that a nickname based on some kind of inside joke among a small group of people, and is really only funny to them, will rarely last in the long-run. Once that small group of people has moved on, the basis for the nickname tends to disappear with them, so I suggest they think big picture and remember first and foremost that camp nicknames are really for the benefit and fun of the campers, not other staff or SDPs.
That isn't to say that good camp nicknames can't come from good stories. Some of the best ones are ones that have a great story to go along with them, and a story that can be appropriately told to a group of campers… capeche?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, I have also seen camp settings where nicknames were required of all staff and junior staff, and they were just arbitrarily made up on the spot without any real rhyme or reason to them: Leaf, Twig, Sunshine, Rainbow, Gluestick, Lugnutz or Whatever. Some stuck and some did not.
I think a lot of it has to do with the personality of the staffer and the amount of camp color he or she is willing to show.
In any camp setting, the whole key to the successful use of camp nicknames is to always remember that they are used just for fun. They are not secret identities that should be guarded like national security information. Never refuse to give a camper or parent your real name if asked. Don't lie and tell them that your first name is really Goober either.
Finally, don't forget to include the campers when it comes to coming up with camp nicknames. Whether it's done as an individual cabin/tent group or camp-wide, fewer things will incorporate campers into the very fabric of a camp more tightly than to give them a way to join the "insider" level by giving them camp nicknames that become part of their camp identity.
It happened for me just that way when a lull in a table conversation provided me with an identity that has remained intact for over 25 years.
Conservatively, in those 25 years I have probably met and known over 2,000 people by name through three different YMCA camps. I'll bet far more of them remember me by the name Slim than would have remembered me as John had I used my own first name instead.
John "Slim" Gillin is head counselor and SDP co-director at YMCA Camp Merrill M. Benson in Mt. Carroll, Ill. In the off-season, Slim teaches middle school in the remote Yup'ik Eskimo village of Hooper Bay, Alaska.