When ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was everything at Y-Camp

In the summer of 1992, my best friend Joey and I went to YMCA camp, or Y-Camp, for a short period where we flirted with girls, slept outdoors, swam at the pool where we gawked at the hot lifeguard (who ended up marrying my older cousin and is now like a big sister to me- BLAH! Creepy, right?), and constantly listened to KLYV-105: the “hip” radio station in town.

I am now 32 years old and am one of those people for whom music has defined their lives; from helping my dad wash the car as a 6-year-old (The Monkees), to legally driving a car for the first time (Sublime), to doing something else for the first time (U2), to going on a first date with my wife (John Mayer), to sitting in a doctor’s office before finding out the sex of my first child (Jim Croce); but, one of the most defining musical moments of my life was the summer I went to summer camp with my best friend Joey.

Joey and I grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, which is right on top of the mighty Mississippi, a ten-minute drive from both Wisconsin and Illinois, and only a few hours from Chicago and Minneapolis. As a post-21 year old Dubuque seems pretty standard for us that call it our home because in and around Dubuque you can, in one weekend, nay, in one day: visit strip clubs, gamble at a dog track and a multi-millionaire dollar casino, ride on the world’s shortest and steepest railroad, swim in the Mississippi, drink until you pass out at any one of our 154 bars (at last count), and then get up and save yourself in any of our 36 Catholic churches (at last count).

In fact, if you’re from Dubuque and you don’t enjoy a cold one everyday or practice one of the world’s other 20 major religions (at last count)- you’re kind of looked at as a complete and total anomaly.

Along with drunks and Jesus-freaks Dubuque is known for other things as well: portions of Field of Dreams and Fist (Stallone!) were filmed here, Al Capone used Dubuque for his hideaway when the police in Chicago got to close to him, in fact the hotel and bar he frequented is still standing and operational, the inventor of the paperclip is from Dubuque (you’re welcome), and we’re named after Julien Dubuque (much like Springfield is named after Jebediah) who is buried on a bluff overlooking the city (not like Jebediah).

But at 11 years old, none of this mattered to Joey and I, and the only famous thing that we knew about in and around Dubuque was the famous Y-Camp: with its isolated campgrounds just outside the city limits, its color-coordinated t-shirts, and its over-abundance of mosquitos, poison ivy, and “road apples” courtesy of the horses on site. And so, being a music lover and a tremendous fan of the outdoors (some of my best memories are catching crawdads at Catfish Creek near my childhood home) I wasn’t surprised when the summer of ’92 became one of the best of my life.

In the summer of ’92, there were numerous songs that I remember hearing on KLYV-105 in Dubuque, Iowa: “Life Is A Highway” by Tom Cochrane, “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus, and of course Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” but that summer at camp, the three songs that stick out the clearest in my memory and that I vividly remember hearing over and over and over and over were: “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (courtesy of Wayne’s World), and Guns n’ Roses’ “November Rain.” We even had a big end of camp dance where we slow-danced with our “girlfriends” (whom we had known for a week) to all of these songs; except when “November Rain” would pick up, no one really knew what to do since we had been carefully slow dancing for a few minutes and would be forced into staring at each other while Slash assaulted us all with that disgusting guitar solo halfway through the song.

I have never been a tremendous fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers outside of Blood Sugar Sex Magik and One Hot Minute (call me a ’90s child, I know) but I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who doesn’t know all of the words to “Under the Bridge.” Every time we swam in the pool, with our Starter hats on because it was the “cool thing to do,” that song was on. I remember patiently waiting on the diving board for a cool part in the lyrics to come on so that I could scream them out as I cascaded down into the freezing water.

And as far as “November Rain” went my most vivid memory, besides of course the end of camp dance, was listening to it, on what was most likely one of the high school kid’s Aiwa stereos, while stewing in the unendurable heat inside of the wooded “shelter” just near the main campground; gnawing on peanut butter and Bac-Os sandwiches and pounding as much Ecto-Cooler as possible before venturing back out into the heat; praying that my next session was not horseback riding under the searing Iowa heat or “games,” which was essentially just my friends and I running around in the heat playing Capture the Flag.

Then of course there is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which easily caused the largest campfire sing-alongs and full group moments. Joey had a pair of Wayne’s World boxer shorts that on the back read, “Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt!” which is easily the greatest piece of clothing ever created, but those boxer shorts were not the best thing that Wayne’s World gave us because of the moment that we all shared inside of the Mirthmobile with Wayne, Garth, Alan, Terry, and of course the overly intoxicated Phil (“If you’re gonna spew, spew into this”). That song was everything at Y-Camp. Every counselor, resident, lifeguard, caretaker, you name it knew that song. I had no clue who Queen was before that movie but that is one of the great things about pop culture, it can introduce needed-to-be-known-about artists to 12-year-olds and launch them into the stratosphere.

The last song that was played at Y-Camp in 1992 was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhadsody” and every single time that I hear that song I can feel the nighttime humidity on my skin, smell the marshmallows on the fire, see my friend Joey’s 11-year-old face glistening in the light of the fire, and reminisce about one perfect summer at YMCA Camp in Dubuque, Iowa.

Sometime in mid-July summer camp ended. We all boarded a yellow school bus and were escorted back into town where the YMCA and our parents would surely be waiting for us. We sang Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road” on the bus, held the hands of the girls that we had danced with the night before at the end of camp dance, and then Joey and I said goodbye to all of the kids that we had met that in the fall would be going to different schools in the fall and whom we wouldn’t really ever see again.

And then we all went home for the rest of the summer. We all, I’m sure, prepared for the first major step in any kid’s young life: the final year before junior high school, and time resumed as normal for any 11-year-old alive in 1992. But as the years crept on and high school parties came and went and chance encounters at Target and Hy-Vee appeared, we all still always recognized each other from Y-Camp: our own kind of paradise for one wet, hot, American summer in Iowa.

Erik Trilk is a high school English teacher in Marion, Iowa and the author of the recently published book The Soundtrack of My Life. For more of his writing, visit trilkwrites.wordpress.com.

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