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Camp Fear 

How I learned to hate spiders

Spiders freak me out. All spiders do, from the little green ones that always seem to be inside my car on the windshield to the big hairy ones that make eye contact. I freeze when I see one, and too paralyzed to kill it, I wait till it leaves. Sometimes that takes a long time. But I didn't used to be such a wuss. In younger, more naïve days, I played marbles with roly-polies and threw rocks at beehives. I lived on the edge until I went to summer camp.

Every year at my elementary school, the sixth-grade classes went on an overnight camping trip in the deep woods of Virginia. We hardly roughed it: We slept in cabins and ate in a large mess hall with a full kitchen. Though I'm sure the teachers entertained us with campfire songs, gimp lanyards or something of the sort, I remember only two things about the trip.

It was dinner as normal, clusters of kids talking with their mouths full and sitting around a few long tables. Then, a wolf spider fell from the ceiling onto my friend's arm. She didn't notice the hairy beast -- its fuzzy, lithe legs and dark brown body stretching across her turquoise sleeve. In Virginia, wolf spiders can grow to be about 3 inches long. The one on her sleeve was roughly the same size as my hand. "Hey, there's a spider on you," I said.

She freaked. She flicked her arm, which flung the spider directly onto my jaw. I froze. One of the spider's feet rested on my lip, as if shushing me. At the time I don't remember if I used curse words, but as I recall, I thought something like, "Get it off! Get it off!" However, I screamed something like "Mmmrrff!" because I was too afraid to open my mouth -- a spider was on it -- but I remember making noise. I swatted the spider off my face, and as if written in National Lampoon's script, it landed on another girl, who swatted it off onto another kid and so on. Eventually, the spider ran outside, leaving two sixth-grade classes screaming.

Later on the trip, we tramped over to a nearby creek to learn about ecosystems. "Learning" consisted of catching critters -- tadpoles, water boatman, etc. -- while standing waist-deep in water. My friend who was normally Miss Priss impressed everyone by catching a little olive-colored snake. She caught the bugger right behind its head like the Crocodile Hunter. She had unwittingly captured a highly poisonous water moccasin. Not only did she catch one, she caught a young one barely more than a foot long. It was supposedly more poisonous than the adult snakes, but our teachers didn't want to find out if that was true. They developed a brilliant plan: A) Remove children from creek; B) release snake; C) run opposite direction of snake. Nature was sending a message: Get out of the woods. We complied.

I avoided overnight camps -- and non-chlorinated water bodies -- for a couple of years. In eighth grade, I returned to the woods for a weeklong rock climbing/spelunking adventure. Turns out I don't mind flinging myself down a mountain while tied to a rope. I do, however, mind caves. I discovered the meaning of claustrophobia when my boot got stuck in the mud, my head lamp blew out and I couldn't work my way through a tight spot. I hyperventilated until I pulled my foot free and escaped. Defeated and mud-covered, I grabbed my backpack and didn't realize it was covered in wolf spiders (wolf spiders again!) until a couple of them crawled onto my hands. I screamed and tossed my backpack into the air; unfortunately, dozens of spiders rained down on me and anyone else nearby.

The only thing more terrifying than a spider on the face is the potential to have many spiders on your face. Nature won. I never went to another camp. And as for my kid, he's going to day camp, indoors, preferably with air-conditioning and a pool.

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