The first time I went to camp – when I was nine years old – I had no idea I was going.
I got on the bus to bring my older brother something he’d forgotten, the doors closed and I went to camp.
For eight weeks. Fifty-six days, if you’re counting. And I always was.
I returned to the same camp every summer till I was twenty-one, and one last time when I was twenty-three. If you’d have asked me then, I had have said that I never liked it. So why did I keep going back?
Canp Ogama was named after Indians, though I’m not exactly sure why. I imagine someone just liked the sound of it. It sounded much better than Camp Lieberman, which was the name of the original owners.
Camp Ogama was a place where parents paid substantial sums so their children could leave home for the summer and enjoy living conditions considerably worse than they were accustomed to. (Don’t ask me. I don’t get it.)
Though some campers stayed for four weeks, the majority went for eight. Back then, it was quite normal for children as young as six years of age to be shipped off to a sleepover camp for two months. Today that would be considered child abuse.
My brother started going when he was six. Me – no way. I had checked the place out during Visitors’ Day, when we visited my brother and brought him a salami.
I didn’t care for the place.
There were no bathrooms in the cabins. The Boys’ Washhouse was on other side of camp. You got there by walking through a forest, along a path, braided with gnarled roots and tree stumps you could trip over. The forest was also generously stocked of animals. All making for an unappealing trip, if you needed to “go” in the middle of the night.
Your alternative was “going” behind the cabin, in the forest, where, as I’ve mentioned, there were animals. Raccoons, skunks, the odd bear. In addition to swarms of mosquitoes, who were instantly drawn to the exposed body parts of urinating children.
The washhouse itself was no bargain. It was hardly what you’d call clean. There was no hot water, only cold. (I didn’t wash my face for fourteen years.) And my favorite: the bathroom stalls had no doors on them.
(The walls boasted some graphic anatomical illustrations, accompanied by humorous graffiti. One memorable message read: “I aim to please. You aim too, please.”)
Camp food was not to my liking, meaning they picked it, I didn’t. Over the fourteen summers, my commitment to only eating food that wouldn’t make me gag, caused me to lose well over two hundred pounds. If I hadn’t gone to camp, I’d be weighing in the high three hundreds today. (Back home, I ate a lot of cookies, and my primary exercise was changing TV channels with my toes.)
In later years, I started bringing two sets of clothing to camp: July clothing, and August clothing – the same wardrobe, but in a smaller size.
(My camp eating behavior is the prototype for the contrast between the way other people deal with negative situations and the way I do:
Everybody hated the food. But I was the only one who didn’t eat it.
To me, it’s a matter of consistency. If you really hate something, how can you…I don’t get it. But then of course nobody else needed two sets of clothing.)
What else didn’t I like about camp? Again, it’s a control issue: Everything was scheduled, and not by me. Nine A.M., there are ice caps on the lake – the schedule says, “Swim Instruction”, and in you go. It’s a hundred and five – you want to go swimming. But the schedule says, “Lacrosse”, so you grab your lacrosse racket and you faint on the field.
It didn’t make sense. And I was never shy about saying so. Did it make any difference? Not a bit.
My biggest problem about camp: No television. All year, television was my life. I almost never went outside. This was the opposite. Camp’s almost entirely outside.
I was a total stranger to the place. I’d go out, and “Outside” would go, “Who’s that?”
(On my counselors’ days off, I’d ask them to bring me back a TV Guide, so I could see what I was missing. I’d sit on my bunk, mopily leafing through the listings while humming the theme song from Have Gun Will Travel. Do I need to mention that I didn’t have a lot of friends at camp?)
No television, no personal control, nothing I could eat but Wonderbread, no friends – shortly, you’ll hear about the time my cabin mates tried to hang me – the bathroom was half a mile away, and there were very few activities I could perform without hurting myself, embarrassing myself, falling down or drowning. Is it surprising I wasn’t real happy?
There was nothing there I enjoyed.
Everything I’ve become, both personally and professionally, has its origins in Camp Ogama. It was camp where I was first identified as a writer. I hadn’t a clue myself. I just thought I was a guy who couldn’t catch.
My obsession with fairness? Pure Camp Ogama. It certainly wasn’t something from home. Living with an older brother, the lessons there were more along Darwinian lines.
Camp inoculated us with a passion for justice. And it wasn’t “write a check and see you later”; this was “money where your mouth is.” Our head counselor would later become the head of the Civil Liberties Union for the province of Ontario, a very large province. My counselor was later appointed ambassador from Canada to the United Nations (though there’s a chance he taught us a song with African lyrics which may have been entirely made up).
Our experience was more than sitting around the campfire singing,
“The banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miners sweated for.”
We did that too, but the message was branded on our consciences, because our leaders kept hammering it home. Once, when a thunderstorm kept us indoors, instead of reading comics listening to Belafonte, we were enthralled by an audiotape our counselor had made from the middle of a school integration demonstration in Little Rock, Arkansas. Innocent Toronto children, sitting in our cabin with our mouths open. You could hear the seething hatred on the tape.
Even the “fun” activities weren’t delivered message-free. Once a summer, the camp would stage a multi-day camp-wide program. It was like a “Color War”, where the campers were divided into four teams and we’d square off in various competitions.
In our case, however, instead of the teams being called “Red”, “Blue”, “Green”, and “Yellow”, the program always involved a theme, like the “Hungarian Revolution” and the teams would be the “Workers”, the “Farmers”, the “Students” and some other guys who were unhappy with the way things were going in Hungary.
The programs ended with a pageant, dramatizing the issue, which was always intolerance, and driving home the message, which was always “Stop doing that!” I acted in all the pageants. Once, I played Ghandi, on a hunger strike. It was type casting. With my resistance to the food, I was the skinniest kid in camp.
While appearing in the pageants, I was required to learn haranguey speeches with big words in them, like “totalitarianism.” I had no idea what that meant, and I could never remember it. So I took a marker and I wrote it on my arm. Unfortunately, being nine, I had short arms and I wrote big. I wound up writing “totali” down one arm and “tarianism” up the other.
There are no secrets at camp. With everyone aware of my situation, the audience began laughing the minute I started reading my arms. This was hardly in keeping with the somber concentration camp ambiance of the scene.
I know this all sounds Left Wing, and I’m sure it was. Not that our parents sent us there for indoctrination. They just wanted us out of the house. The ideology was the product of the passionate commitment of the politicized staff.
Though I was never political, I did become highly sensitized to the issue of fairness, which you have likely found reflected in my writing (and will in the future). I hardly consider this a partisan concept. Fairness isn’t an exclusively Left Wing idea. Is it?
Camp Ogama went beyond preaching. They put their tolerance into action.
Every summer, we’d have at least one camper amongst us who was deaf. This was no accident. Statistically, the camp population was small enough to be deaf-free. But Camp Ogama wouldn’t hear of it. (Sorry. It’s my training.)
The camp’s staff wanted us to be comfortable around people who were different. (That’s probably why I was invited.) One camper – maybe out of the frustration of not being able to hear – had this suppressed volcano quality – there was always the danger he would blow. You wanted to be friendly, but you had to be ready to run.
Was Camp Ogama’s setting aesthetically beautiful? I have no idea. Kids don’t notice that stuff. To me, it was dusty when it was hot, freezing when it was cold, muddy when it was raining, and odiferous when people decided to forego the washroom experience and “go” behind the cabin.
It might have been beautiful. Sitting at the edge of a glassy-smooth lake, surrounded by spruces and pines and maples and birches, it might have been spectacular. I’ve only been back once – a few years ago, when my brother and sister-in-law and I snuck in during the off-season. It just seemed empty. And, like when you go back to your Elementary School, a little small.
But still very special.
That was my camp.
And if it’s okay with you, I’d like to tell you about it.
Let me know if it sounds interesting.