While going through my dad’s old 35mm slides, I came across the photos below that I call the “Get Rid of the Kid Collection.” When I was growing up, my parents lived for the day they could send me off to summer camp. (I suppose they thought I was having to much summer fun at the beach like in A Day at the Beach.) They planned all year where to deposit me the next summer. I think it was a hobby where they got to fill winter nights by having different camp salesmen come to our Bronx and Queens New York apartments to give their sales pitch. I don’t know what criteria the folks used to choose a camp except it had to be “Jewish.” I suppose they wanted me embedded in Jewness hoping some of it would stick. It didn’t.
Camp Was No Hilton
Camp pretty much backfired on me. I was not a camp kind of kid. I dreaded the day that I would be packed up–along with my steamer trunk and my name-tagged underpants–and dropped off in some remote wilderness with rustic cabins, discarded World War II army cots for beds, and military-style do’s and dont’s rules. I had a particular penchant for violating dont’s including the biggie—don’t talk back to your elders. Deep in my bones I resisted blindly doing what I was told, especially by my parents and teachers. And I paid the price. “Why” was my most used word. “Put your toys away.” Why? “Because I said so.” (Whack.) “Turn the TV off.” Why? “Because I said so.” (Whack.) “Eat your vegetables.” Why? “Because I said so.” (Whack.) And so it went.
Swimming with Worms
My memories of camp are almost all bad and/or traumatic. The first camp I recall had a pristine lake. On the first day, we kids were herded into it like fledgling geese, and told to have fun. Sounds pretty neat, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t until we left the water that we got to see our bleeding legs covered with blood-sucking worms. Not fun for this seven year old. The next day we repeated the fun, and the next day after that. By the fourth day I was so traumatized I wanted to escape but couldn’t. Saturday was the Sabbath when we got to do Jew stuff so thankfully no lake.
Hats Off to Thee
Some years later I was shipped off to Camp Lenni Len-Api named after the Leni Lenape Indians. (For some reason, Jews thought camp had to be named after Indian tribes. It never occurred to them to name it Camp Funtown or Camp Get Lucky with a Girl. Maybe it had sometime to do with the lost tribes of Israel.) I remember part of the theme song that we dutifully sang every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance:
Camp Lenni-Len-Api hats off to thee
To thy colors true we will ever be
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Pictured above from left to right: Me and Dad; Mom, me, and Grandma Albert; Mom, Dad, and Grandma Albert
Our counselor was pretty athletic and he liked to show off. One day he decided to fulfill the camp’s “learn tennis” promise by having us kids watch him play a game of tennis with another counselor. My councilor won and, with great flourish, he did a celebratory leap over the net. Mid-flight his foot caught on the net and he landed flat on his stomach. His chin got ripped wide open. There was blood gushing everywhere. Kids were puking, passing out, and crying for their mommy, me included.
Terror in the Bunkhouse
I had the meanest kid north of the Bronx in my cabin. His name may have been Marty. Marty used me and the other skinny kids for his punching bag when he wasn’t torturing us in other ways. I often thought, “I wonder how much Mom and Dad are paying for this character-building experience?” Years latter I bumped into Marty on the NYU campus. He greeted me like a long lost friend. I turned and just walked away. Fuck you, Marty.
An Old Folkie at 14
When I was about 14, my folks shipped me off to Camp Kiowa (yet another Indian name) where I got to be a Junior Counselor. The title meant they got to pay more for training on how to be a babysitter for the young campers who were the upcoming class of terrified little Jews.
I do have some fond memories of Camp Kiowa. I fell hopelessly in love with a young beauty at a boys-meet-girls camp square dance. She sashayed with me once or twice around our square. I was immediately smitten and would have pledged my undying love if she hadn’t twirled off into the crowd never to come within yards of me again.
My Senior Counselor/trainer was Paul. He and his counselor girlfriend Judy were theater majors at Syracuse University. Paul and Judy were so cool, and I worshiped Paul. He and Judy introduced me to folk music and it totally rubbed off on me til this day. They, in turn, worshipped the Weavers and Pete Seeger. It was the 1950s and we would actually sit around the campfire singing Kumbaya and other folk songs in the Weavers songbook. Paul sang a mean Wimaway.
One night we sat around a crackling campfire roasting marshmallows. As Paul and Judy played guitars and sang, we stared up at the star-filled sky and watched the recently launched Russian Sputnik streak by while nubile teen girls swayed their hips to the music with their recently invented hula hoops. The night was magical. The only problem was that, for some unexplained reason, I could not get the name Weavers straight and I kept calling them the Weaver Brothers. I totally pissed Paul off when for the Nth time I asked him to play another Weaver Brothers song. “It’s the Weavers, you idiot.” (Whack.)
Let’s Put On a Show
Paul and Judy produced and directed a broadway show put on by us campers. They immediately sized up my acting talent and assigned me to props for our production of Finian’s Rainbow. It takes place in the deep South and features Finian, his daughter Sharon, a corrupt Senator, Black tobacco farmers, and a leprechaun. There’s a scene where Sharon says to the Senator in a fit of anger, “I wish to God you were black.” Lights flash, there’s loud thunder and when the lights come up, the Senator is indeed Black.
I was given the job of making thunder for which I had the perfect solution. I got a bunch of empty one-gallon cooking oil cans from the kitchen, and erected them in a pyramid behind the rear curtain. On cue, I would kick over the cans and they made dandy thunder. It worked great in rehearsal. On the big night in front of the entire camp, a neighboring camp, and parents, I hit my cue perfectly. The cans went toppling and flying. The only problem was I must have kicked them a little too hard–one of the cans flew through the rear curtain hitting the leading lady in the head and knocking her to the ground semi-conscious. I honesty don’t recall what happened next.
And there was also Boy Scout Camp with it’s own unique terrors.
I’ll spare you the grizzly details. Just enjoy the photo of me going off to Boy Scout Camp.
I could go on about my camp fun(?) but I don’t want to scar you, dear reader, anymore than I already have. At least you now know the back story behind my happy camp photos. In case you’re wondering, I love my parents and miss them 40 years after their passing. You too, Grandma. You awakened me to the joy of radio soap operas, cucumbers, canteloupe, and knowing what it feels like to be loved unconditionally.