I’m nine years old. I’m at sleep-away camp for the first time, and I didn’t know I was going. My introduction?
The first lunch.
My strongest memory?
Three hundred people, campers plus staff, a chattering clattering cacophony in the Camp Ogama Mess Hall. Have you ever been to Niagara Falls? You ever stand close to the thundering waters? Do you recall the pounding in your ears that made you feel like your head was going to explode? You remember that sound? Double it.
That was the noise in the Camp Ogama Mess Hall.
People shouting across tables, and counselors shouting “No shouting!” Campers rhythmically pounding on the polished wooden tables with their fists. Three hundred eaters saying “Pass the salt” at the same time. Cabin groups bursting spontaneously into song:
“Food, waiter, waiter, waiter
Food, waiter, waiter.
We want something to eat.
So don’t fall asleep on your feet.”
Phil Spector created the “Wall of Sound.” He got the idea from a summer camp dining hall.
I was sitting with strangers. My brain was going boom-ba-da-boom-ba-da-boom. I had just, at least in my mind, been kidnapped. I was not having a good day.
And then, they brought out the food.
A platter was delivered to each table containing one ice-cream-scoop scoop of tuna, one scoop of egg, and one of salmon. I don’t eat tuna, egg or salmon. I eat peanut butter. That wasn’t one of the scoops.
There are people who can eat anything. I’m not one of them.
For the rest of that summer, and the thirteen subsequent summers, my primary source of nutrition was Wonderbread. I had a regular routine. I’d fold a slice of Wonderbread in half and eat out the spongy part in the middle. By the end of the meal, you looked at my plate, and you’d see three slices of unbroken crust surrounding a giant hole. Picture frames, made of bread.
No wonder, by the second month, I needed a smaller set of clothes.
Dessert was ice cream. Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. All melted – it was hot, and the buses had arrived late. I like chocolate ice cream. I’ll eat vanilla. By the time the platter reached me, all that was left was strawberry.
I don’t like strawberry.
When lunch ended, a slightly built fellow in jeans walked to the center of the room and raised both hands high in the air. He wasn’t very imposing, but you could tell immediately he was The Man. As soon as he raised his hands, every staff member in the Mess Hall did the same thing. That little guy had clout.
Returning campers understood the “raised arms” signal. The signal was for quiet. The noise gradually subsided from “blast furnace” level, and the man began to speak.
His name was Joe. He was the camp’s director. (He would eventually buy the camp.) Narrow of build, Joe had clenched wavy blond hair, blue eyes, and a facial bone structure reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart, but on further inspection, he didn’t look like Humphrey Bogart. He looked like Joe.
Joe welcomed us to camp, introduced a few people, informed us of some basic camp rules. I wasn’t really listening. I had bigger things on my mind, like, “What’s going to happen to me?” and “Will I ever eat again?”
I’ll tell you more about Joe later. I’ll only mention – because it was the first thing I noticed – the way he spoke. With authority, absolutely, but he had certain identifiable quirks. He called “counselors”, “conslers”, and when he talked, he would emphasize, more than any other words in the sentence, the prepositions.
“When your name is called, you will proceed from the Mess Hall to the meeting place where you will be divided into cabin groups, after which you will proceed from the meeting place with your conslers to your cabins.”
I never heard any talk like that before. Or since. What’s so important about prepositions?
They read off my name. I proceeded from the Mess Hall to my meeting place with the Junior Unit at the flagpole. (It’s fun to do, but it doesn’t make sense.) The Unit Head then read off names of the campers in his unit (mine was the Junior Unit, including about fifty campers), assigning us to our designated cabins.
I’d be in Cabin 26. When the Unit Head finished reading our names, everyone in Cabin 26 immediately started running.
Except me. For two reasons. One, I don’t run. And two, I didn’t know where Cabin 26 was. I fell in beside my counselor.
“I’m not supposed to be here.”
My counselor just smiled. Man, these guys were really trained.
When I got to my cabin, I quickly understood about the running. Experienced campers – and apparently in Cabin 26, I was the only one who wasn’t – raced to the cabin so they could claim the prime bunks and the easiest-to-reach clothing shelves. By the time I arrived, what was left was an upper bunk with a sagging mattress, and shelves, high and in a far corner, that were virtually impossible to get to.
Things were not starting well.
The beds were positioned along the inside walls of the cabin’s living area, leaving the middle area open. The two counselors had single bunks along the front wall, there was a double bunk along each side wall (mine was one of those), and there were another pair of double bunks along the back. Four doubles, two singles – ten people sharing a tiny cabin. (When I visited years later, I couldn’t believe how tiny the cabins were.) (I hope you’ll be patient with the description; I just want you to see how it was.)
The shelving area was through a passway in the back. Suspended against the rear wall was a stack of medium-sized cubbyholes. We were allotted two cubbyholes each for our folded clothes. Our hanging clothes were hung on a shared rack, our rubber boots and shoes arrayed underneath.
The only other furniture were orange crates stood on their sides, which served as night tables. Two campers shared each orange crate.
That was it. No sinks. No toilets. There was a grid of overhead rafters to store our luggage, and large fastened shutters, which were lowered to cover the screens-only windows when it rained. The cabin was illuminated by a single light bulb you manipulated by pulling a string.
It was all the comforts of home. Minus all the comforts of home.
My counselor helped me unpack, put away my clothes (I could barely reach my shelves on tiptoes) and showed me how to make my elevated bunk. He left me to decide how to get up there.
Let’s set the scene here. I’m nine years old. I'm looking at a double bunk, which I've never seen before, and I'm noticing that my bunk is over my head.
The only way to get up there was to pull myself up with my arms, and my arms, well, you know “Popeye?” I have Olive Oyl arms. Spaghetti strands, with fingers. And no upper body strength whatsoever. (Lower body strength wouldn’t help in this process, though it wouldn’t have mattered. I had no lower body strength either.)
I placed my foot on the bed frame of the lower bunk to give myself a boost. I immediately heard from the lower bunk’s owner.
“Don’t touch my blanket.”
Don’t touch his blanket. The bed frame was like two inches wide. How could I get a foothold without touching his blanket? I stepped up again, trying to be careful.
“Don’t touch my blanket!” This time his warning arrived with an accompanying kick.
It was obvious that a side ascent would not be possible. I would have to climb up from the back. I had little choice. It was that or spend the entire summer sleeping on the floor.
At the back of the bed, there were these two metal bars in a criss-cross arrangement, intended, I suppose, to stabilize the bed frame. Maybe. What do I know about bed frames?
There was a crook where the criss-crossing bars crossed. The bars’ edges weren’t sharp but they were narrow. You wouldn’t want to put your full weight on that crook; the bars would dig into the bottom of your foot.
Having no other option, I put my full weight onto the crook. The bars dug into the bottom of my foot.
I reached up for the frame at the back of my bunk and, slowly and painstakingly, pulled myself up. As I dragged myself over the frame, I scraped my entire front, from the bridge of my nose to the tops of my feet.
But I made it.
I felt triumphant. It was my first camp achievement. I imagined my first letter home.
Today, I learned how to climb into my bunk. Thanks for sending me here.
“P.S. You know when I said ‘Thanks for sending me here’? I didn’t mean it.”
I thought over the events of the day. I’d been taken from my home to a strange and distant place. I’d been given food I didn’t like. I’d been kicked by a cabin mate for touching his blanket with my foot.
I dreaded the future, but for the moment, I felt comfortable. I could relax in my bunk till the next crisis arrived.
That’s when our counselor said, “Everyone off your bunks. We’re taking a tour of the camp.”
The next crisis had arrived.
I had no idea how to get down.