Monday, September 27, 2010

Remembering An Icon

I woke up Sunday morning to the news another part of my youth had passed away.

Lonny Benamy was an iconic figure at Camp Columbia and Kfar Masada, two eight week sleep-away camps in upstate New York where I spent my teenage years. Lonny died Sunday morning after a four year bout with cancer.

I first met Lonny in 1962. I was 13, Lonny 18. He was the nature counselor, but to the urbanized (read that, sheltered) Jewish boys and girls of Brooklyn and Queens who mostly populated summer camp, he was the the flesh and blood image of Ari Ben Canaan of Exodus. Or more precisely, he was our Paul Newman, with wavy brown hair, piercing eyes, bronzed suntan and khaki shorts rolled up high on the thigh like any good Sabra would wear. He drove the camp’s red Jeep. He wasn’t afraid to play with snakes. He had a devilish grin, not too dissimilar from that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Naturally, he also wielded a big hunting knife.

As I matriculated from camper to waiter and counselor with off-site days-off privileges, I aspired like everyone else to be chosen for one of the five passenger seats in Lonny’s 1956 Buick. As one of his fellow Saturday afternoon volleyball enthusiasts, I was fortunate to secure a coveted spot most of the time when our six days off coincided. Those excursions were among the most memorable days of the summer.

Riding with Lonny on the narrow, winding upstate roadways was an adventure. You never knew when he might suddenly swerve. If his eagle eyes caught sight of a woodchuck, he’d do his darndest to run it over. Perhaps that’s what they taught him about farm pest control at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In his pre-seat belt car, it was everyone’s not so silent prayer that woodchucks stay invisible when Lonny drove by.

It was with Lonny I first went to the track, Monticello Raceway. After a day bumming around town, perhaps visiting other Jewish camps to drop in on friends, we’d get to the racetrack parking lot shortly before the 8 pm post-time. As we were still dressed in shorts, we’d jump out of the car and change into pants as fast as we could. There were no inhibitions when Lonny was around. There also was no guarantee I’d make it inside the harness racing track, as I was just 16 that first time. But with Lonny running interference, I made it through the gate. Making it back to camp by the midnight curfew was another form of racing. We’d stay at the track till nearly 11. The ride back to Elizaville was about an hour, mostly with no other cars on the road, and thankfully, with no woodchucks crossing our path.

In August, once Saratoga Racetrack opened, we’d go north, first to Lake George for some motorboating, then back down to Saratoga for the afternoon races. For Saratoga we had to bring along some decent clothing, as the meal at night invariably was at Tradewinds, a white tablecloth restaurant on Route 9 sitting by itself at the southern entrance to downtown Saratoga Springs. Fortunately, the trips to Saratoga came after Parents Visiting Day, so our wallets bulged with tip money. I’ve been back to Saratoga many times in the last 10 years. Tradewinds has long since closed. Its location is surrounded now by other restaurants and a Hilton Garden Inn hotel. I’ve eaten at the restaurant that took over the Tradewinds’ spot. The food is not as good.

As I sat at Lonny’s funeral service on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, across the street from Yeshivah of Flatbush founded by Lonny’s uncle, Joel Braverman (Lonny was a biology teacher and the head of discipline for the high school—my alma mater—now located a few blocks away on Avenue J and East 16th St.), I reflected on another friend’s passing, another alumnus of Camp Columbia and Kfar Masada. Michael Lauchheimer died 20 years ago, Oct 4, 1990. Like my relationship with Lonny, it started out as camper and counselor. I was one of Michael’s counselors. When we met again some 10 years later, my daughter and his older son were in the same class at Solomon Schechter. We were now equals and became close friends. Like Lonny, Michael died during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. One of the most joyful of holidays has become tinged again with sadness.