Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Summer Times - Visitors' Day"

My strongest memory of Visitors’ Day occurred my first summer when a famous Canadian wrestler named “Whipper” Billy Watson, fronting for some charity, arrived at our camp and, before the eyes of an amazed gathering, twisted off a Coke bottle cap – in the days when it was impossible to do that – with his bare hands. Visitors’ Day was always exciting, but nothing ever topped that “Whipper” experience.

Visitors’ Day took place on the Sunday closest to the “half way” point of the camp season. Parents were discouraged from visiting any other time. Apart from letters and the occasional phone call – which was also not encouraged – this was the first major contact between parents and their kids. As well as between the parents and their kids’ counselors.

Counselors were the pivotal reason campers liked or disliked camp. They weren’t everything – especially if you’d pubertized to the “I think there’s ladies here” plateau – but they were very important. A competent, caring and funny counselor could make your summer. The opposite kind made it rain in the cabin.

Until Visitors’ Day, counselors communicated with the kids’ parents through a series of “progress report” letters. Is their kid okay? Are they making friends? Are they learning skills? Are they having fun? Like that. The counselors’ job was to keep the parents informed.

Only they were required to lie.

Okay, maybe not lie, but they were instructed to describe every situation in an upbeat and encouraging manner.

As a counselor, I was very bad at writing these letters. What can you say in an “upbeat and encouraging manner” about a kid who likes to throw frogs in the air and then swat them with a baseball bat? “His eye-hand co-ordination is considerably improved”?


If a kid was uncontrollable, you’d say he was spirited. If he was constantly getting lost, you’d praise his “sense of adventure.” A bad influence that others followed showed “leadership tendencies”, and a recluse displayed “a remarkable ability to entertain himself.” If the kid had temper tantrums you’d compliment his “ease in expressing his feelings” and if he tattled, he was “highly informative.” If a kid was consistently late, slow, sloppy or foul-mouthed, you’d commend him as a camper “whose behavior you can always count on.”

It was crazy. It wasn’t like the parents didn’t know what their kids were like. Their atrocious behavior was very likely the reason they sent them to camp in the first place.

They needed a break!

Nobody was fooled by these letters. And yet counselors were required to write them. Which was fine. You made stuff up, and you sent it away. Visitors’ Day was a different story. You had to lie directly to the parents’ faces. And they totally knew you were doing it!

Visitors’ Day was important. To the camp, it was “Showcase Day” – “Here’s what you’re paying for. And maybe you’d like to sign up for next year, or extend your child’s one month’s visit to two.” To the counselors, it meant tips, an amount which – if you’re a first year Junior Counselor – could exceed your entire salary.

(That wouldn’t take much. Junior counselors were paid twenty-five dollars for the summer. After the camp deducted for the t-shirt you bought, and the toothpaste, and the flashlight batteries, and the stamps, and the candy bars and the gum, and, maybe, a camp picture, well, after my Junior counselor summer, I received a salary check for exactly four cents.)

For campers, Visitors’ Day was an opportunity to show off to their parents. “Look at the bracelet I made in ‘Arts and Crafts.’” “Watch me on a horse.” “Look! I can jump out of a canoe while turning it upside-down, turn it over again and climb back in!”

Amazing stuff! Stuff that would prepare you for your future, if your future involved horses, bracelet-making or overturned canoes. For me, Visitors’ Day meant something different – the opportunity, through a resistance-breaking avalanche of whining and complaining, to get my mother to take me home.

The showpiece of Visitors’ Day was always the cabin. On the day before, we had a “Super Clean-up” to make it look as far from a breeding ground of infectious diseases as possible.

First, we changed the sheets, shook out the blankets, and made our beds at tightly as possible, instructing ourselves to “sleep neat” that night.

Slide in, slide out.

Then, we tidied up your shelves, making sure our clothes were carefully stacked, and properly folded, the folded side facing out. (Anything that disrupted the stack was hidden in our laundry bags.) Night tables were scoured and their contents meticulously arranged. It was like the army, and passing inspection meant a hot night in town. Only it was more important than the army. It was our parents.

Once all the beds were moved to one side of the cabin, you mopped the floor of the empty half with boiling water mixed with Spin ‘N Span. Then, you moved the beds to the other side, and mopped the other half.

After that, you swept, ridding the floor of those curly, swirly, dust-fluffy thingies. This was no regular sweeping. Visitor’s Day sweepings involved a preparatory spreading of some green granules called “Dust Bane”, some “scientific wonder” magnet for dust. The dust clung to the granules, then you swept up the granules up. This may sound dull and unimportant, but some day, your parents may be visiting your cabin and you’ll want it to look good.

Dust Bane.

Dinner before Visitors’ Day was always the same. Steaks. Chewy, fatty and gristly, but they were steaks. The choice seemed deliberate. The camp knew that the next day, this conversation between parent and camper was certain to ensue:

“How’s the food here?”


“Like, what do they serve?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what did they serve last night?”


“Steaks. Not too shabby.”

That’s why they served steaks on the night before Visitors’ Day.

Visitors’ Day itself was electric with excitement, everyone decked out in white shorts and newly purchased Ogama t-shirts. A barber had recently visited. Don’t ask. Our hair was clipped so short, it reminded me of the Fred Allen line:

“The man was so bald, he had to carry his dandruff around in his hand.”

Parents started arriving around ten. (My mother was consistently the last to arrive. Once, she came driving into camp – last as usual – with a flat tire – “flub-dub, flub-dub.” Somehow, everyone seemed to instinctively know it was my mother.)

Eager children lined the road into camp. Cars they recognized came into view, and they’d run alongside them to the parking area – the playing field – home, for me, of embarrassments in baseball, football, field hockey and lacrosse. I thought, “Take that, ‘Field of Humiliating Sporting Endeavors’. Today, you’re a parking lot.”

When the visitors stepped out of their cars, I noticed that, often, campers spontaneously ran first to hug their housekeepers and, when they were brought along, their dogs. The parents came third. It seemed strange to me. It seems odd to me now that, even as a kid, I was a habitual noticer.

As the morning wore on, there were a diminishing number of kids lined up along the road. Most visitors had already arrived. But not all of them and, as usual, not mine. There was this camp rule, that if your family didn’t get there by noon, you had to report to the Mess Hall and eat with the kids from Venezuela.

Their parents weren’t coming. They were in Venezuela. They had to eat somewhere, so the camp made them lunch. It was actually quite good, the “Consolation Lunch” – roast beef. A special treat, so the Venezuelan kids wouldn’t feel bad. The rule required that, if your visitors hadn’t arrived by lunchtime, it was roast beef with the Venezuelans.

My brother avoided the “Consolation Lunch” by eating with the families of friends. It was a good trick, but to pull it off, you needed to have friends. I ate with Pepe and Carlos.

It was odd. They never turned the lights on during those lunches. It was like they didn’t want to draw any attention to the fact that, somewhere in camp, there was sadness on Visitors’ Day.

Invariably, the minute I finished eating, someone came to tell me my mother had arrived.

I hugged and kissed my mother, and my grandparents, who usually came along. I was happy to see them, even though there was this suspicion that, if the feeling were mutual, they would have arrived earlier. (My feelings are rarely without reservations.)

My mother was the best at knowing what I liked to eat. And she brought it all. Barbecued chicken. Cokes. Fresh rye bread with caraway seeds. Watermelon. Pretzels. Potato chips. Chocolate Chip Cookies. Gingerbread Boys from the Health Bakery. It was all there, spread across the tablecloth – a magnificent feast of everything I had dreamed about and hungered for for nearly a month.

The trouble was, I had already eaten.

I did my best to eat again. It was good. But I’d have been happier if my stomach wasn’t full of “Consolation” roast beef.

The afternoon went quickly. After I showed my mother my cabin (“Look at my shelves!” – “I wish you were this neat at home.”), I dragged her to the “Arts and Crafts” cabin, where I presented her with the glazed, clay ashtray I had made her. She seemed delighted.

Then, it was time to head to the beach, where my brother was engaged in a jousting exhibition. He’d balance himself on the gunwales (pronounced “gunnels”) at one end of a canoe and, wielding a long pole whose tip was wrapped in burlap, he would try and knock his opponent, balanced on another canoe, into the water. At occasions like those, it seemed incomprehensible that my brother and I had descended from the same parents.

Less fortunate, were the parents required to sacrifice waterfront breezes for the dusty mosquito-ridden stables, so they could watch their beloved children steer their horses around barrels. (Our riding instructor had been known to berate his riders by saying, “Treat those horses right. They’re only human.”)

On many Visitors’ Days, I’d be appearing in a play in a stifling Rec Hall, where a packed house of performers’ relatives would fan themselves and kvell (feel proud). Our plays always had a message, such as the one concerning the preservation of the Yiddish language, where I delivered the re-written My Fair Lady lyric, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” as:

“When you have a pain you say ‘Oy vey.’”

I did what I could with it. It turned out pretty well.

A late afternoon Visitors’ Day tradition involved my mother’s escorting me to her car, sitting me down, and cutting my toenails. This particular procedure has always been a problem. Because of vision problems, I find it a long way from my eyes to my toes, and assistance in this area has been known to be required. (For a while, my daughter, Anna, filled the bill, Dr M, being precluded by feminist considerations from engaging in such demeanments.)

Being alone with my mother for the first time all day allowed me the opportunity to make the case for, “I want to go home”, which, thinking back on it, was my entire argument. My mother, aware that her two-month payment was non-refundable, and with the practical understanding that there was nothing for me to do at home in the summer, rejected my demands, assuring me that I’d be home, wasting my life watching endless hours of television before I knew it.

My arguments had fallen on deaf ears. But my toenails looked spectacular.

There were tears when it was time for them to go. The one-day break from camp routine was coming to an end, and the car that I’d hoped would be returning me to the comforts of home, would be leaving without me. (As I write this, I feel debilitated by a feeling of retroactive despair.) There was likely one more “I want to go home”, but it was kind of half-hearted. It wasn’t going to happen.

And then they were gone.

Who knows? Maybe the second month would be better. Despite my terrible attitude, there’s this natural transition that takes place. Things inevitably get easier. You surrender to the requirements, become comfortable with the routine. Hey, I’d made it half way already. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

A few days later, my cabin mates tried to hang me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Recently I've had the good fortune to spend a great deal of time in the area near where I spent a few summers at Camp. I've been canoeing and water-skiing and doing other camp like things and this has brought back a flood of memories from those summers more than 40 years ago.
Camp did not have the same lasting impact on my life as perhaps it did on yours but please allow me to share a few memories.
My first summer, being only 8 years old , I was in the cabin with the youngest male campers ranging in age from 4 ( the doctor's kid ) to 8. I had accelerated through the primary years and was entering 4th grade, thus I was the only literate camper in our group. My counselor , a nice enough fellow with a penchant for Barbara Streisand and glasses so thick that each spring he was moved from the window desks at Hebrew School for fear his Machberat ( notebook ) would catch fire, immediately hit upon the idea that I could help him write the required letters home for all the other campers. I resent this imposition to this day, and it is perhaps the reason I have so few memories of those times.
Our camp also had "Color Wars " which ended in the famous " Camp Tie ", though my memory isn't of great issues of social justice, but that is perhaps because I cant reconcile those issues with being on the RED team known as The Beet Borsht Babies.
Musical Theatre was big at camp, and if I remember correctly my counselor was very involved ( when he wasn't listening to Funny Girl or looking for his glasses which he lost when I took him canoeing. I couldn't carry a tune and one year a non-singing role was written for me. The Cheshire Cat ( the singing role was The Hippie ) in an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. I was relentlessly mocked for years.
I look forward to reading further installments to see if more memories can be recovered.