Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene:
Camp

The summer I was ten I was given a three-week scholarship to a large Jewish camp through my Hebrew school. My Talmud Torah had two buildings: one was dark and grimy, with crowded classrooms set over a basement synagogue about which I can remember only the spittoons; the other was new, of bright red brick, and placarded with posters calling on us to collect for the Jewish National Fund. Camp was part of the world of the new building. A bustling community of bunkhouses and tents, Camp Herzl (the name is fictitious) throbbed with animal spirits. Hebrew songs leaped into the bright air. All was purposeful vigor, ideological conviction, the polished brass of a new faith.

Nevertheless, part of me belonged irrevocably to the old building of my Talmud Torah with its scowling ancients shuffling in for minchah and its musty smells. Camp seemed like a community of the well-favored. The kids in my bunk spent money—nickels and dimes even—with impressive casualness. I felt my scholarship status as a badge of poverty. There was one other scholarship boy in my bunk, and we avoided each other with a sense of our ignominious bond.

To make matters worse, my mother had stubbornly ignored the camp’s directions, which called for pajamas—an amenity my brothers and I regarded as little less than decadent. Much more distressing was the lack of “whites.” On Shabbat all the campers and counselors turned out in white. Again, my mother had shrugged off the instructions. After all, she thought, camp is camp. To run around who needs white pants and a white shirt? As a result, on Saturday I was the one smear of khaki in a sea of white.

Hebrew classes were held under shade trees, the sunlight dappling our books. It seemed strange to me that the Great Outdoors could be interpenetrated with Jewishness. After morning classes we had a regular camp program—baseball and swimming and cautious little hikes. It seemed odd to sing Hebrew songs as we walked to the baseball diamond swinging bats. And ghost stories, which one counselor delighted to tell us on hikes, seemed monstrously un-Jewish.

It was my very first experience in the country, and I became tentatively familiar with hill and lake. I saw canoes for the first time, slim and elegant, knifing through the water. I learned to swim, thrashing wildly in an old-fashioned overhand. Zionism became mixed up in my mind with sweat and volley ball and tanned lifeguards shouting “All out!” Visiting day occurred during those three weeks, and I recall that the other scholarship boy lay on his bunk and cried out of homesickness. Since nobody came to visit me, I felt that it was an act of filial impiety to remain dry-eyed. So I too lay on my narrow bunk and cried perfunctorily.

My counselor seemed grown up and wise—but profoundly indifferent to me. (I had no understanding at that time of such matters as tips. He correctly sized me up as a dead-beat, as were most of the scholarship campers.) I remember too that he was constantly preparing for his evening dates, which were the substance of much sniggering talk after lights were out.

I was glad to get home to go to the beach and try out the overhand stroke I had learned. And I felt far more comfortable with the grasshoppers, the broken bottles, and the high grass in the lot on 46th Street than I had with the hills at Port Jervis, which I felt looked down as superciliously at me as did my counselor and fellow campers.

_____________

 

Two summers after my Jewish camp experience, all the kids on my block registered for two weeks at a settlement house camp. We were the brigands of the 46th Street lot, confederates in a series of ill-fated punchball teams (“a nickel a man”), and though we “razzed” each other indefatigably, we responded to group signals. There had been a summer for building wagons (out of planks and carriage wheels), a summer for wooden pistols which fired cardboard strips, a summer for campfires on the 46th Street lot, and a summer for “cockamaimies.” That was the summer for going to settlement house camp. By the time my mother acted on the proposal—a telephone call in those days was an awesome affair—it was too late to get into the camp. However, we were referred to another settlement house camp, and it was there that I went, uncompanioned, for two weeks.

Camp Alpine was a miniscule camp of sixty campers in a heavily wooded area from which a baseball field had been vaguely hacked. There were six bunks scattered on various levels, outhouses, a dining room—that was all. Below us was the lake on whose shore five incredibly heavy rowboats were beached. Across the lake the lights of a Boy Scout camp blinked mysteriously at night. During the day we would see tall boys on their dock going through a slow-motion pantomime of summer, looking strangely un-scoutlike without uniforms.

Camp Alpine made few demands on camper or counselor. There was a desultory work session in the morning when we carried water in buckets from the brook to the kitchen, for there was no running water. We also worked, Sisyphus-like, on a volley ball court which never got done. But the day was largely our own. If counselors had specialized functions, we never learned what they were.

The camp’s great virtue was that we were unsupervised, autonomous. Our activities, however impoverished, were our own. Most of the campers were East. Side kids, and the counselors felt that they were discharging their obligations simply by keeping us from killing each other. As a result, we were free to go off by ourselves. And we did. We would go off into the woods for half a day and come back ravenously hungry. With street-nurtured competitiveness, we would organize teams—our own teams—and play on the diamond which sloped and jutted with boulders. We would go out for an afternoon in a ponderous and splintery row-boat, six of us yelling for our turn at the oars, and catch tiny, gleaming “sunnies” or sinister black catfish which we were afraid to unhook. We would come back to shore and clean the tiny sunfish, regarding the fillets with mingled pride and horror, and then cook and eat them there on the beach.

My parents’ sending me to camp was part of the break-out from the ghetto. True, we lived in Brooklyn, but my parents had left the ghetto just a few years before, and we lived on a “border” street. On one side of us, separated by the cordon sanitaire of back yards, were tenements from which issued drunken fights and pestilential odors; on the other side were the stucco and brick mansions of 46th and 47th Streets, homes with gardens and maids in short aprons. Dimly my parents sensed that camp was part of the new life for children that had taken them to Brooklyn. But we were never really at home with nature, we never fully learned the idiom of woods, water, and sky. We voyaged in nature, curious, watchful, suspicious. I remember a “nature man” came to camp for two days to take us on “nature walks.” (It was one of the few compulsory activities.) We hooted at the idea and found the man absurd with his big belly and incongruously bald head, his assortment of bird calls—so what if a bird answered!—and his forlorn little joke about February 22 being “George Birthington’s Washday.”

Small splinters of memory about the counselors are lodged in my mind. There was a counselor from Iowa: a small, grave middle-aged man. I had never met anyone from the Middle West. There was another counselor, a dental student, who would shout “Nice swinging” every time one of us cut vainly at the baseball. The water-front counselor was a blond, chunky college student who enforced discipline like a martinet. One afternoon I was slow in leaving the water. He dove in cleanly and held me under water until I thought my lungs must surely burst.

The camp director was an austere man with an unexpectedly pretty wife who acted as camp nurse. (There was no physician.) There was about him the fastidious quality of the old-fashioned social worker. My second summer at Alpine, my brother, two years older than I, came along. It was characteristic of those times that grouping did not take place along age lines. Sam was fifteen and the youngest boy in the bunk was nine. Bunks were, in essence, gangs, and each bunk had at least one older boy who acted as the gang leader. Sam was our leader. Husky, and quietly competent, he was also an insurgent. And when it was time to do our morning stint of water-carrying or building the volley ball court—it was still a-building—Sam balked, and out of gang loyalty, I soldiered on the job too. Our argument was that we were paying for camp—seven dollars a week—and shouldn’t be working.

During our three weeks’ stay we had heard rumblings of the “initiation” ceremony for boys who misbehaved. The day came, and the director asked those boys who were sure they were going to be initiated to step forward. My brother got up grinning his brave, foolish, gap-toothed smile. For the next half hour, half undressed and blind-folded, he was pummeled in the chill August night, and streaked with paint. The next day he was sick. What offended me was that the director had tricked Sam into volunteering for the initiation.

The kids were the best part of Camp Alpine. They were largely from the East Side, and since we were effete Brooklynites, they felt it was their mission to acquaint us with the realities of life. There was a self-dramatizing quality about their toughness; they were almost professionally children of the slum. I learned about sex on rooftops and on bridges, about gang fights, and I began to see my noisy, narrow street in Brooklyn as a vale of innocence with its punchball games and ring-a-leavio.

I met the first honest-to-goodness orphans of my life at Camp Alpine; and I was impressed profoundly by human resilience when I saw that they swam and played ball like anyone else. And there was one little Italian boy whose socks always hung disconsolately. I learned that his father sold “snowballs” on the Lower East Side. Having been brought up on three-cent cups of real ices bought from arrogant candy store owners, I was burdened with the image of this sad little boy’s father pushing his wagon of ice and colored bottles of syrup through the unresponding streets of Manhattan.

Camp created a moral dilemma for me. When my mother registered me it was on the assumption that the food was kosher. She had asked the harried registrar, and he dismissed the problem by saying, “Don’t worry, lady, it’s a Jewish camp.” As it turned out it wasn’t. Most of the time the food was familiar enough. But I can remember one cook-out when all that was prepared over the smoky campfire was pork and beans. Most of my friends on the block had already tasted the forbidden delights of non-kosher foods on expeditions to a midtown Automat. They had come back with reports that ham was “just like corned beef.” My attitude was: then why bother with it? But this was different. Here I was a footsore hiker, not deliberately opting for tarfus, but also reluctant to go hungry. With a sense of a vexed Almighty looking over my shoulder, I sat alone on a boulder, threading my way laboriously through a cupful of pork and beans, trying to isolate individual beans that were uncontaminated by the snaky shreds of pork.

_____________

 

In 1946, the first summer after my discharge from the army, I was a camp counselor. At the time I felt as if I still had one foot in the army with its bleak denials, and the other in a civilian life that had become, in my absence, unaccountably lush. Here I was up against the new, wildly rich middle class. At least I was up against their children.

And such children! At once they confirmed and confuted my prejudices. They were arrogant and dependent; money-wise and innocent; ineradicably middle class, yet partisans of their own private world. As counselors we learned to be very devious. The kids wrung small tokens of enthusiasm from us. We yelled at softball games; we affected a concern about tribe war. But among ourselves, sitting around during rest hour, we were stanchly cynical; it was a point of honor not to take the camp seriously.

Camp Wa-ho-pe is a mammoth enterprise consisting of 300 campers and more than 100 counselors, located in the Poconos where the country is lush and green with a touch of ruggedness in the occasional outcropping of rock. Set on a rise, Wa-ho-pe overlooks Lake Grant, a cool, deep bowl of crater origin. It is a luxury camp, with golf course, clay tennis courts, and well-appointed bunks. As one counselor put it, “There isn’t a blade of grass out of place.”

The kids came up with expensive cameras flapping against their comic books. They behaved with an assurance based on the best orthodontists, a full-time maid, and the conviction that Daddy could buy anything.

I had a bunk of senior boys. At thirteen they discussed the cost of their light meters and the size of their homes. They sized up their bunkmates’ parents as carefully as each other. They had handsome wardrobes; I used to borrow their sport shirts. The kids were happy to oblige, with just a touch of the condescension that they must have felt toward me as a teacher in any case. When parents visited, ‘there was a debauch of display, and expensive-looking women wobbled across the rocky terrain on their high heels.

The tipping of counselors in this period of economic free-booting was stealthy but unashamed. The palm was violated by the surreptitious and folded bill. There was the uneasy jocularity from behind the cigar: “This is for giving Stanley such a bad time. . . .”

But if the kids confirmed our crudest Veblenian notions, they were also easy and generous and “well-adjusted.” Between the time I was a camper and the time I worked as a counselor—a lapse of almost fifteen years—a small revolution had taken place. As a settlement house camper I had had to meet the demands of adults; we achieved our own world in the teeth of these demands. True, we were left alone; but that was precisely because nobody cared about our “needs” as children. At Camp Wa-ho-pe the counselors were constantly reminded that this was the children’s camp—from the concern we had to feel for their bowel movements (a report every evening) to the nervous stir the day before the parents visited, the head counselor admonishing us to say “nice” things about our charges.

Yet the children were as much imprisoned by this system as liberated by it. For all its “child-centeredness,” the institutional weave was tight. The campers had to be covered all the time. We were all subservient to a schedule which decreed softball at 10 and Arts & Crafts at 11. And it is for this reason, perhaps, that the “raid” played such an important part. This was a moonlight excursion, usually by senior boys, into the girls’ camp where they overturned beds and sent the girls screaming with glee into the night. It seemed to be the last frontier of authentic adolescent autonomy in camp.

_____________

 

Counselor meetings were a mixture of YMCA uplift, pedagogic cant, and plain mamaloshen. We listened with indifference or contempt. For most counselors, camp was merely an easy interlude between final exams in June and the start of the new academic year. Some talked vaguely about “doing something worth-while next summer.” But there were others, elementary and high school teachers, for whom camping was a serious calling. Hard working and “professional,” these educational dray horses often had a vision of themselves owning a camp some day, and they mouthed the pedagogic jargon as if they meant it.

The counselors were a wildly mixed lot. In addition to the teachers, there were the old Wa-ho-pe campers, now counselors, who had an easiness born of long familiarity; a sprinkling from the good women’s colleges and Ivy League schools; and a sturdy base of students and graduates of the New York City colleges. There was Judy Cantor, fresh-faced and strongly built, with the proud austerity of the Vassar girl. Outraged by the camp’s bourgeois opulence, she went around, partly in protest, with one of the teachers, a City College graduate. Her parents, harried by the vision of a grubby marriage, made anxious visits to camp to remonstrate with her. There was Gail Rosen, a Hunter College sophomore, pretty and brash, who snapped up the richest counselor in camp, an authentic millionaire’s son. There were the teen-age camper-waiters full of an arrogant solidarity.

_____________

 

There were two non-Jewish counselors at Wa-ho-pe that summer. One was a blond, invincibly even-tempered athlete from Rutgers. The other, a burly Irishman with ham-like hands, represented himself as a Notre Dame football player. At first the kids in his bunk adored him; he was a stern but loving counselor. Soon we heard disquieting stories. He would come back drunk from his day off. There were inconsistencies in his stories about Notre Dame. He was affectionate with his kids and demanded a full measure of devotion from them, but if they disobeyed they were “crossing” him. “Bo” Jaffee, a fourth-year medical student, magisterially announced that O’Brien was a psychopath. The girl counselors were frightened to death of him. He had the kind of passionate volubility that could easily shade into anger.

It had seemed fitting to have this husky full-back in this best of all possible inter-faith worlds. But now our Eden was despoiled. We were embarrassed when we were around him. And he, poor rootless soul, wanting nothing more than the casual affection and ease he saw all around him, became more estranged, more suspicious, more violent. Then the director told us that he knew nothing about him, that he had found him working as a laborer in the area. The hearty laugh, the huge hands, were not those of a Notre Dame football player, but of a poor truck driver and drifter. One rainy day, he was quietly eased out. He came to say goodby to me carrying a shaibby, weathered valise. I was all right; I wasn’t “snooty,” but he would get the others some day. There were local police officers waiting around in case there was trouble.

The days proceeded, pleasant and slow-pulsed. After breakfast, the kids would clean up while we sat in the morning sun making a game try at the good books we had brought up with us. Then we would lead the kids to baseball. Later in the morning, sweaty and hot, we would walk down to the lake. The counselors would stand on the dock, shoulder to shoulder, gossiping idly while pairs of boys churned up the water and periodically held up their entwined fingers in a virtuous display of “sticking with their buddies.” Then we would return from the dock, clean and skin-tingling with a delicious sense of our physicality that we lose too soon. Rest hour, which followed lunch, was usually steamy and hot, the day stifled into immobility. The kids would lie on their bunks restlessly, fighting over comic books. Then there was the afternoon stir of activity followed by another swim, at which we alternately watched our charges and cast an appraising eye at the girl counselors standing in their bright-colored, skintight bathing suits on the other dock.

The only change in the week was on Friday evening when even Wa-ho-pe welcomed the Sabbath. We would watch the girls’ camp march sedately to the dining room, the counselors lovely and cool in white shorts, taking on, for the moment at least, some of the innocence of the little girls they shepherded.

The senior counselors would set up socials for the campers with upper-intermediate girls, and the youngsters, with their clumsy mixture of terror and delight, would provide a kind of grotesque mirror image of the counselors as they negotiated the rites of courtship. To most of the counselors, the “social life” was the true center of camp experience. Children’s camps are the Grossingers and Concords of the college student. There was an adult resort near Wa-ho-pe, and the counselors smiled patronizingly at the frenetic antics of the guests. Nevertheless, camp was for many of the counselors as much a marriage mart, however wholesome, as any resort; and the girl counselors came up unashamedly to “make contacts,” although the phrase itself repelled them.

This then was our summer. If we shrugged off the “program,” if we had contempt for the absurd little head counselor pirouetting nervously around the parents and director, we were still caught in the web of a fragile summer poetry. When the dusk came on, the waters of the lake suddenly motionless, I would sit with the kids on the steps of the bunk in an easy communion. Or going down to supper, suddenly a thirteen-year-old would throw his arm around my shoulder in the eternal gesture of small-boy dependence, and for the moment I could forget the Talmudically ingenious wrangling over nothing at all in the bunk and the comic books and the querulousness.

_____________

 

Last summer I visited Camp Wa-ho-pe after a lapse of nine years. Camp looked much as it used to; it did not seem shrunken and mean as the landscape of the past often does. The male heartiness of the log bunkhouses was belied by the clipped, scrubbed look of the grounds. I had forgotten how much nature was kept at bay. The path down to the lake was no longer a dusty trail but a ribbon of pavement. In the old cookout area there was a long continuous line of barbecue pits—basic training for gracious suburban living.

I felt a keen sense of displacement. The counselors looked as if they had always been there. There were only a few familiar faces among them, and there were some husky young men whom I had known nine years before as little boys.

The camp administrators were brimful of progressive education. I was told that “nobody at Wa-ho-pe really loses any more; there are consolation prizes for everybody.” The counselors, sitting at the canteen with unruffled ease, couldn’t care less which way the doctrinal winds were blowing.

Al Brenner, the director, about whom there was a legend that he was never seen without a hammer or wrench in his hand—“the richest handy man in the Poconos”—still bustled about, his great energy undimmed. I transmitted to him the full infection of my nostalgia. “In your time,” he said, “counselors had more fun at camp. Today they run off in cars. Pretty soon I’ll have to hire a social director for them.” And it was true. In 1946 there were only two counselors with cars. I could remember our campfires at MacDougal’s Grave and the two-mile walk to a nearby adult resort, the black walls of vegetation pressing down from both sides of the road.

It had changed, it had all changed. I could not be reconciled to twelve-year-old boys lugging golf bags—lean shadows of their suburban fathers. Why aren’t they out playing ball—real ball? Surely we didn’t look so callow as these counselors—these kids with their unlived-in faces, untainted by experience. And they seemed so uniform in a clean, well-bred, alert way. I missed the sheer crotchetiness of the old counselors: lovely Leila Mitchell who was never parted from her volume of Turgenev, but who was never seen reading it either; old Siggy Abramowitz and his portable radio tuned in on the Dodger game; Sheila Gordon, darkly pretty and brooding, who, like someone out of a Sherwood Anderson novel, clutched my hand one moonless night and said, “What does it mean? What does anything mean?”

And yet as I walked around I saw that little had changed. At the Sabbath morning service, God still shared the platform with honor campers. (“Let’s give a hand to Michael Berg who has been Inter Honor Camper for three weeks in a row.”) At the Milk Circle the freshman girls sipped their afternoon milk with six-year-old gravity, their braids shining in the sun. As I made my way back to my room, I stumbled on a couple whispering intensely in the mild night. I was even reassured by the sight of two fat boys, disheveled and inept-looking. Surely they were violating the new dispensation in which everyone is happy and nobody loses in games.

There were still the dazzling truths of summer: life in a pair of shorts; the shimmering heat of the afternoon; the country sounds of night.

Before I left I took one last look around. On the girls’ campus two strapping teenagers, attired unselfconsciously in bras and shorts, were playing an impassioned game of squash. A group of nine-year-olds, with three counselors hovering over them, were playing a mysterious whispering game in a circle. On the boys’ side, seniors carrying golf bags shared a narrow walk with three geese, escapees from the Nature Shack. A straggling line of freshmen made their leisurely way to the lake, their bathrobes trailing aseptically on the concrete walk.

_____________

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.