Friday, August 4, 2017

Summertime Reflections on Sleepaway Camp

Our daughter-in-law Allison sent a short video of five-year-old Dagny cannonballing into a neighborhood pool along with a note that seven-year-old “Finley passed their deep end test by swimming the length of the pool down and back and then treaded water for a minute!” 

Naturally I am proud of them, but also envious, as I am, at 68, still a non swimmer. But what her note really accomplished was stimulating me to write this blog.

Actually, I’m a little late writing and posting this entry. A year late, to be perfectly honest. I had intended back in 2016 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of my first year at sleepaway camp, but I wound up spending too much time channeling Gloucester Island, Mass., summer resident Walt Whittaker (played by Carl Reiner) trying to warn fellow Americans, “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”

Okay, I promise you—no more Trump talk this time.

I was just four months passed my seventh birthday when my parents shipped me and my brother and sister out for eight weeks to Camp Massad Aleph in Tannersville, PA, at the base of Mount Pocono. We did not want to go. When they first told us about our upcoming summer adventure, while driving on the highway, we instantly rebelled. Dad threatened to stop the car if we didn’t quit complaining. We had grown accustomed to our annual stay at the Takanassee Hotel in Fleischmann’s, NY, (subject of a future blog) and had no interest in being away from our parents for two solid months, especially if we had to be at a camp where you were expected to speak Hebrew all the time. 

As if the trauma of being away from our parents wasn’t enough, we soon found out our mother would be taking an extended trip to Israel, Italy and France and therefore would miss both visiting days. Quite an adventurous trip for a woman by herself in 1956 traveling to countries where she did not speak any of the languages (Dad had to stay home to run their business). 

When school ended in late June away we went. To get to Massad we had to board buses somewhere in midtown Manhattan for the more than two-hour ride. My loneliness and trepidation began at the bus when my older brother and sister entered separate buses. I sat way in the back, on the right side of my bus, my head propped up against the window to stave off nausea. 

Of course, we all wound up loving summer camp. I spent 15 July-Augusts at sleepaway camps, the first five at Massad, winning all-around camper awards despite never learning to swim (each year my division head counselor would caution I would not win the award the following year if I failed to achieve aquatic success).

The years at Massad have a way of jumbling together in my mind but I have some very distinct memories of that first summer. We were, for example, warned not to play catch with a baseball. Softballs only. Naturally, some boys didn’t follow orders, until one bunkmate miscalculated his lunge for the hard ball and was struck right in his two front teeth which promptly exited his mouth. 

Another boy, Dennis Keene, had to retrieve a ball thrown over a fence behind our bunk. He found the ball among the trees sitting atop what turned out to be a yellow jacket nest. He emerged from the thicket shrieking, for good reason. His shirt and shorts were covered with yellow jackets dead after stinging him. No one dared go on the other side of that fence for the rest of the summer.

Every group had its own schedule. We ran on “camp time,” one hour earlier than time back in the outside world, so that it was dark by 8 pm. Each day counselors issued marks for your performance at various activities and for speaking Hebrew. Awards were handed out for each activity at the end of the year.

My first year arts and crafts project reflected the mores of the time—I made ashtrays for each of my parents, a brown one for my father, a sandstone one for my mother. On a bookshelf in my living room sits the sandstone ashtray. 

Twice a day we had swimming in the man-made lake, instructional in the morning, free swim in the afternoon. I remember being cold, standing waist-deep in the water, a thin reed of a boy unable to stay afloat when putting my head in the water, flailing my arms, kicking my legs. I did, at least, put my head under the water, not like an even thinner bunkmate, Michael Khan, who would shake his hands wildly when the instructor would ask him to dip his head in the water. 

Every day we would raise the American and Israeli flags in the morning, lower them in the afternoon. We learned the special way the American flag is folded into a tri-cornered shape. 

Around 4 pm every day we had chocolate milk and crackers or cookies. Thin kids like me could get a second helping of chocolate milk.

Friday afternoons the camp mother came by to wash our hair, vigorously. I never realized until many years later she was checking scalps for lice.

For Friday evening Sabbath services we’d dress in white shirts and blue shorts or pants, the colors of the Israeli flag. After dinner, we’d sing Jewish folk songs in the dining room. Before it got too dark, the girls our age would join the boys outside for Israeli folk dancing. Few boys were interested in this activity.

Saturdays were spent praying in the morning, free time in the afternoon except for a mandatory discussion hour on Jewish subjects, all conducted in Hebrew. 

At the end of summer camp we had color war, called maccabiah at Massad. My first year team was “Poalim,” Hebrew for workers. I can still recite the words and melody of our Hebrew cheer song. My team won.

I went back to summer camp for 14 of the next 15 years. I learned how to play different sports. I learned how to be competitive but always show good sportsmanship. I learned leadership skills. I learned how to be independent. I learned about young love. But unlike my grandchildren, I did not learn to swim.