On my family’s summer trips to Harrisburg every second felt like a magical discovery

When we were kids, Harrisburg was our summer camp.

Along with my parents and two younger brothers, we’d pile into our rusty station wagon to make the annual trek to Pennsylvania. My dad viewed all posted speed limits as excessive. So, if a sign said a maximum of 60, we’d be doing 40 as other motorists whipped past mouthing profanities.

We always left Ontario in slow-mo.

But then we’d arrive — and life would rev into overdrive.

We stayed with family friends in Harrisburg. There were so many first experiences: First bonfire. First time in a tent. First time in a lake. First crush. First time on a motorcycle. First drive-in horror fest.

Pennsylvania was like going to Mars: we crash landed on another planet.

Every second felt like a magical discovery.

One night in Yocumtown, my brothers and I wandered outside, mesmerized by the fireflies. We had never seen bugs that glowed like Christmas lights. Kris, who now runs his own company, tried to catch one. Arun, who is now a corporate lawyer, tried to disabuse Kris of any notion we could safely transport a firefly home to North York to serve as a novelty insect pet.

Harrisburg was casting a spotlight on our developing personalities.

The three of us often walked to a nearby corner shop owned by an elderly woman named Gracie. She gladly accepted our Canadian coins and gave us an insane amount of candy for our inferior currency. Even as kids, you could feel Gracie’s warmth and generosity inside that cramped store where 50 cents got you enough Tootsie Rolls or peppermint sticks to give four out of five dentists a panic attack.

We’d take our bagged loot on the day’s planned road trip, usually a park picnic or sightseeing adventure, or body of water where Kris would hunt for rocks and Arun would float on his back until he drifted so far from shore that it was now my mother’s turn to have a panic attack.

I once asked my dad if there were sharks in the water. This should have been an easy, “No.” Instead, he whispered, “I’m not sure.”

This is not what a child wants to hear before tiptoeing into the sandy abyss with a belly full of Laffy Taffy. But my dad didn’t know about the great outdoors. None of us did. We were city slickers on borrowed beach towels. It was possible Arun was floating just a few feet above the Loch Ness Monster.

What Harrisburg did, summer after summer, was lift us out of our routines.

Our friends, the Benjamin family, had four kids who were older than us. We were also very close to one of their pals, who we affectionately called Mikey Baby. He introduced us to more firsts over the years: manual-shift transmissions; the music of Queen; Gettysburg; JCPenney; Superman; double-looping roller-coasters; root beer floats; and, ironically for an American, an obscure board game called “The Great Game of Canada.”

Those trips to Harrisburg were a summer highlight. I often felt like I learned more in two weeks than I had during the previous school year. I have almost no indoor memories of Harrisburg because we were always outside, always engaged in activities we never did at home. The Benjamins and Mikey Baby were our de facto counsellors at Camp Harrisburg, where our horizons expanded as we constantly learned about the world and ourselves.

Just like all the kids who have benefited from the Star’s Fresh Air Fund.

For more than 120 years, Star readers have helped send GTA youngsters to camp, lifting them out of routines and giving them a shot at magical discovery. And every summer, I can feel the warmth and generosity of Star readers, just as I did with Gracie many moons ago.

Your donations are like those fireflies: beautiful and awesome to behold.

Thank you for giving kids first experiences they will never forget.

Goal: $750,000

Amount raised: $823,659

With your gift, the Fresh Air Fund can help send underprivileged and special-needs children to camp. These children will have the chance to take part in a camp experience they will cherish for a lifetime.

How to donate

By cheque: Mail to The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, One Yonge St., Toronto, ON M5E 1E6.

By Visa, Mastercard or AMEX: Call 416-869-4847.

Online: For instant donations, use our secure form at thestar.com/freshairfund

The Star does not authorize anyone to solicit on its behalf. Tax receipts will be issued.

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