I sometimes wonder if I showed up at the 4H camp again after all these years whether they’d recognize me.

I have this vignette that plays out in my mind:  I’m there in the offseason. The place is deserted. I’m walking through the camp with my wife and daughters pointing out the incredibly normal, banal areas of camp that used to mean so much to me when I was my kids’ ages.  

“Here’s the flag pole. Every morning we’d meet here before we started our day, sing songs, and learn about trees. Did I mention that our cabins were named after trees?

“Oh, look, here’s the old fiberglass kayak I used to take around the lake. This is the first kayak I ever paddled. Isn’t that cool?”

“Dad, why are we here again?”

What’s the statute of limitations on bad DJ gigs anyway?

We’d hear a screen door slam somewhere and inexplicably there’d be some ancient woman standing behind me.

“Camp’s closed.”

I turn around.

“Oh, I know.  I used to go here when…”

“Wait, I know you.  You’re that DJ.  Leave now.  And take your family with you. You should know better than to show your face in these parts. What were you thinking?”

“Really?  Wasn’t that like 30 years…”

“Now.  Don’t make me call the cops.”

What’s the statute of limitations on bad DJ gigs anyway?

It started innocuously enough. Lisa had called out of the blue and asked if I’d be willing to come and play music at the weekly camp dance. I knew she knew me well enough to anticipate the sort of music I’d play, so yeah—why not?  My first official DJ gig. Awesome!

I’d been a camper at 4H when I was a lot younger and a counselor in training (CIT) when I was a bit older than that. High school me, however, wasn’t spending my summers hanging out with little kids in the woods. I had other things to do which I’m sure were incredibly important.

Because I’d spent bug chunks of my summer there in a former life, I knew how big a deal this dance was for the kids. When you’re ten, eleven, twelve years old and you spend a week away from home, the experience is monumental. 

I think it comes down to the mix. 

For me, and others like me, it was the first time we could escape our wildly embarrassing past. 

If you’ve never been, camp is an alternate universe in which who you were in third grade doesn’t matter anymore. Growing up in a small town, that’s a really big deal.

The embarrassing event with a banana in middle school? That, my friend, will nag you through high school graduation. But at camp? Never happened.

Sure, there were cliques just like school—cool kids, nerds, jocks, freaks—we could have easily cast any John Hughes film. And just like most John Hughes films, we lived an entire lifetime in a closed microcosm with a predictable narrative arc in a compressed period of time. Though who you were that week was entirely up to you and you alone.

The dance was the culmination of that week’s transformation.  Every friendship, game played, class taken, bug juice shared—every secret smile led to this singular event where everyone from the gawky pre-teen with a distant crush to the finger-laced, hormone-filled counselors were thrown in an ancient wood paneled cafeteria and told to dance. 

I’m sure you can fill in the blanks. You’ve seen the movie.

I’d like to think it was all a lot more innocuous in the 80s, but something tells me that hormones haven’t changed a lot in the 30 years since I was in the mix.

At seventeen I didn’t have the gear for a proper DJ gig. I had a few of the pieces but there were some fairly substantial holes.  The rig I brought was surely laughable to any adult in the room.  I had an ancient turntable, two tape decks, a CD player, and an amp my dad built in college. 

I had some vinyl, but most of my music was either on CD or cassette tape. It took me a full week to cue cassettes for this gig.  

My lack of gear didn’t really concern me. I remembered dances I’d attended at the camp a few years earlier. They’d been everything from someone setting up a boombox and playing a mix tape to a counselor who’d wrangled an avalanche of  favorite song requests and un-cued cassettes over the PA. It rarely worked the way anyone intended. I knew that the bar had been set pretty low. 

I packed up the car. I drove the 45 minutes through increasing wilderness to the camp. I parked.

Standing near the path up to the center hall  were three sketchy looking guys. Lurking. 

Wait, I know those guys. 

Hope blew away all nervousness from their faces when they saw me. They strode over to where I’d parked and surrounded me as I stood by the open car door of my totally beat ’78 Malibu.

Now, while I knew these guys, I didn’t know them very well. When there aren’t more than 500 people at any given time in your entire high school, you can recognize anyone within 2 classes of your own. I knew they were friends with Lisa, who had called me for this gig but I would never call these guys my friends. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Dude, what are you guys doing here?  Are you at camp too?”

Lead Dude: “Uh, no. Um…..  You need any help?”

Me: “Uh, I guess so. Sure. I have a lot to carry.”

Big smiles all around.

Me: “Let me run up to the hall and see where they want me to set up.”

When I got up to the hall (a quick sprint up a steep hill and around the corner from the parking lot) I quickly found Lisa who made the same jump from nerves to relief when she saw me.  

“Hey, Lisa.  Where should we set up?”

“Hi Dylan.  Thanks for doing this.  Can I ask you a favor?”

“Sure, what?”

“Well, did you see Andy and the guys down in the lot?”


“Okay. Well, can you say they’re with you? Like you brought them to help?”

“Um.  I guess.”

Huge smile on Lisa’s face.  All stress is gone.  

“Awesome!  Thank you soooooo much!”

A large, important looking woman was coming our way.

Lisa introduced me. Important woman told me where to set up.  She was pleasant enough. I thanked her and went back out to the car to start grabbing things.

“There’s a table for us on the right as you go in the far right door.  Everything except the speakers goes on the table.”

There were nods all around and we got to work.

A few hours later we were making lots of noise. I’d been playing the greatest non-hits of the 80s to a crowd of campers who were either completely into it or leaning against a wall, glowering. 

Greatest non-hits of the mid 1980s as 17 year old me would have played them? Depeche Mode, The Cure, REM, U2, The Dead Milkmen, The Smiths, Sting, Howard Jones, The Violent Femmes, Tears for Fears, New Order, and a bunch of other stuff I’m probably too embarrassed to remember I was listening to back then.

I wasn’t cool at 17 and I’m not cool 30 years later. I’ve never been cool, and I’m quite confident I never will be. And I’m totally ok with that. Occasionally this fact will mortify someone I’m hanging out with, but I don’t let that bug me. I went through a decade when I tried.  Wasn’t worth it.

Back then, I was on the varsity soccer team, though since it was summer I was somewhat softer around the edges than I’d be in a few months. I had thick wavy brown hair and the demeanor of a well intentioned rock.

Now you can properly picture average-height, usually quiet, me cursing at a home-brew amplifier as the circuit breaker pops every time the cassette tape that little shit gave me peaks. 

It’s my take that what I’m trying to play is not only the shittiest song of the summer but that what I currently have in my tape deck is the shittiest recording of the shittiest song of the summer. Whoever made this tape had no idea what recording levels were for.  The entire song clipped (even the quiet parts) and it was overloading my system.

The tape in question had come to me from one of the more aggressive glowerers in the room. He’d approached and asked for at least 10 songs through the evening and I didn’t have a single one of them. With each request, his shoulders would sink lower and he’d shuffle back to his friends to say even more terrible things about the crappy DJ the camp had hired for the dance. On the final request, he looked at me like I was an idiot, and made sure I understood that this was THE SONG OF THE SUMMER and he and his friends absolutely HAD to hear it.  Even though they’d been listening to it non-stop since they got to camp, it would be the perfect end of the the week if I would play it for them. 

That clicked with me.

I knew this kid.  Not in the way that I knew the guys in the parking lot, no—this boy was me. He just had different music tastes. 

At the age of seventeen I’d been to plenty of school dances. Most of them had the same recipe: a few pop songs mixed with way too much classic rock, always ending in Stairway to Heaven. At these events I was this 12 year old kid—standing on the sidelines with my buddies, cracking jokes, and singing “hang the DJ” aping our best Morrissey when the song selection was particularly egregious.

I asked if he had a copy of the song.  

He looked surprised.  

“Yeah—in my cabin.”


“No, tape.”

“Ok. Bring it.”

Kid moved faster than I’d seen anyone move all night.

10 minutes later he was back, breathless, and hopeful.  


He handed me the tape.

“Is it cued up?”

He thought for a second.



I pulled the cassette out of its case.

“Which side?”


I flipped the tape, dropped it into the loading bay and snapped the door shut.  I pulled my headphone plug from the cd player and slid it into the tape deck jack. I rewound the tape a few seconds and hit play so I’d know we were starting in the right spot. My ears lit on fire.


I hit stop.

“This tape is way too hot. Is this all you have?”

Concern on the kid’s face.



“All right.”

I cued the tape.   told him it would come up after the next song.

He beamed, turned and ran off to his friends.

It was time. I hit play.  

Across the entire dance floor people’s hands went up to their ears.  Too loud.

I backed off the volume a bit. 

Surveying the room, the dynamic had completely changed. Where seconds earlier, my peers and the older campers had all been joyously bouncing along to what was playing, most were now looking at me like I was nuts. The kids around the room who’d spent most of the dance up until that point staring at their feet or giving me evil looks were joyously jumping up and down and singing. 

And then, inexplicably, silence.

All eyes on me.

I don’t often panic. I’m not a panicky sort of guy. But I didn’t have a backup plan. I had one amp, and it had just gone out. The power light was dark.

I grabbed my flashlight, pulled the cover off the amp, and looked into the circuitry. Nothing was obviously wrong.  Nothing blown, nothing unseated, nothing smoking.  I looked at the dark box in panic.  

A memory from long ago came unseated in my mind—a conversation in which I’d asked what the button on the front of the amp was for.  The button my dad told me not to press.

It was a circuit breaker reset button.

The home-brew amp I was using had an overdrive protection circuit breaker that could be reset with an unlabeled button on the front of the panel. 

I pressed the button.

The music came back.

Smiles and dancing.

That lasted about 15 seconds until the song peaked again.  The breaker popped. Silence. But now I knew what  to do.  I pressed the button.

For the remainder of the 3.5 minute song, the audio cut out about every 10-15 seconds—I was determined to get this damn kid’s song finished. We’d been through too much to give up now.

And I did. And then I transitioned to a very safe CD for the next song.

And breathed a sigh of relief.

Things went back to normal.

Kid came back up to get his tape.

“What happened?”

“Your tape? It’s too hot. The levels are too high so it’s clipping. It’s so bad, it made my amp shut down. That’s why it sounds fuzzy.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I did my best.”

I handed him his tape. He turned and walked back to his friends. 

Certainly not enough to get banned from a 4H camp, right?  Of course not.

At least 3 times that evening someone from the staff had come upstairs and asked if we would turn down the music. Apparently while the kids are dancing, the adults are downstairs watching a movie and we were being too loud.

Just like your average room full of kids, what happened every time the adult left?  The music went back up.  

It wasn’t entirely me. The second I’d turn it down, the room would stare daggers at me. They’d see the senior staff person talking with me and understand, but it was clear that they weren’t happy. As soon as the staff were gone from the room they’d come up and ask to turn it up.  Just this song.  Just a little bit.  Thanks.  

Who am I to say no?

What about now?  Am I banned yet?  Nah.  Not even close.

Earlier in the evening, a very flustered looking woman came up and asked if the three gentlemen who were fraternizing with the CITs were with me. You know—the guys from the parking lot. The guys Lisa asked me to vouch for. 

I said yes.  

THAT’s what got me banned.

You see, while there may have been some inkling of desire on Lisa’s part to have me come and DJ the dance, the real reason I was there was to provide cover for her and her friends’ boyfriends. I guess they couldn’t imagine a better way to smuggle them into camp. 

And, you know, at 16, love is everything, right?

While the guys had dutifully helped me set up, they’d spent the remainder of the evening doing the sort of things that unsupervised teenagers do at dances. 

Which made the staff uncomfortable. Confused many of the campers. And made the camp leadership absolutely livid with me since they had absolutely no reason to believe that I wasn’t the ringleader of the scheme.

Of course I had picked up on what was going on pretty soon after the dancing started. I knew there was at least one relationship going into the evening—between one of the guys in the lot and one of the CITs. Once I saw them all together all was clear. I shook my head and ignored the public groping and affection the rest of the evening. Or when two of them slipped out a side door. Was this really my responsibility?  I sure didn’t think so.

As we were packing up for the night, one of the women from the camp came up to talk to me. She was clearly pissed and didn’t mind me knowing. 

“We’re really not happy with how tonight went.”


“You and your friends are not welcome back here.  Ever.”

“OK.  We’ll be gone soon.”

Thankfully the guys kept up the ruse and helped me pack up the car. 

I was angry. Embarrassed. I felt used. And I took the heat anyway.

It was a long drive home.


I’ve DJ’d a ton of times since that first terrible but instructional gig. The experience wasn’t enough to kill it for me.

What made me want to keep doing it was the look on that kid’s face when I agreed to play his song. He knew the score—he knew that I wasn’t his guy. I hadn’t played anything remotely like his music all night long and I played his song anyway. Made that kid so darn happy.

And he probably doesn’t remember it at all.