We sat in teams, the teams representing countries – four countries, four teams. Mine was Argentina. I wore a bath towel folded length-wise and draped over one shoulder as a serape. That was my costume. (And it kept sliding off.) I had no idea how real Argentineans wore those things. I had no idea if real Argentineans wore those things.
It was not that elaborate. The “China” team wore bathrobes. “Ireland” pinned shamrocks to their regular clothes. One “Irish” girl wore lederhosen. It sounds kind of Swiss, but I believe leprechauns wear them too.
The Mess Hall was festooned – I’ve never used that word before – with banners, signs and hand-drawn pictures, all honoring their respective teams. The decorations were clustered so closely together, you could barely see across the room. It got to be dangerous. A team member from “China” got up without looking, and lacerated his head on a cardboard gong.
Whatever the decibel level in the Mess Hall normally – and it was excruciating – it was three times that level during programs. Songs, cheers, disparaging inter-team national taunts – campers bellowed them at the top of their lungs, excited by the liberation from their regular routine, and a fierce commitment to their team, a team they’d been randomly assigned to the day before.
It was exhilarating.
(It also made you wonder, if you were that invested in a team you’d been affiliated with for one day, how much more powerfully would you be bonded to a nationality or ethnicity you were born into? Maybe stimulating that awareness what part of what the program was about. Maybe not. But it stimulated it just now.)
The meat and potatoes of the camp-wide program were the competitive games, on land, and in the water. I remember the water games better. Especially the one involving pajamas.
It was a relay. Four teams, lining up on the beach facing the First Area dock, the First Area being the swimming area closest to shore where even non-swimmers were allowed to go. You could drown in that too, but not as deep.
On the “Go!” whistle, those first in line pulled on a pair of pajamas – tops and bottoms – and raced into the water to the dock, maybe chest-level deep in water Of course, that totally depended on how tall you were. If you were short, it was higher.
The competitor touched the dock, then raced back to shore. There, they then pulled off the pajamas – not easy, because they were now soaking wet and clingy – and passed them to the next person in line. (You can see how you’d want to line up first in this relay. Those guys got the dry pajamas.)
As you continued in the relay, the pajamas got more water-logged, tightly-wrinkled and caked, both inside and out, with wet sand from having been dropped on the ground in the participants’ hasty efforts to remove them. The last person was faced with a pair of cold, sandy, wrinkly pajamas, and no option but to pull into them as quickly as possible. I remember this with a curled lip of revulsion.
Another race involved efforts to pick up a greased watermelon, bobbling in the water. I believe this to be impossible to pull off.
Competitions were accompanied by encouraging cheers from teammates, though, when the scores were announced, there was also a place for the cheerfully negative:
(TO THE TUNE OF “THE CAISSONS GO ROLLING ALONG”)
“We came in fourth
But we could have come in fifth
If there would have been
More teams in
(A propos of cheers, I heard this story decades later at a camp reunion. A former female camper named Gerri told me that, during one camp-wide program, she had served on a committee with me, assigned to come up with some new team cheers. Apparently, some of the other committee members were not sufficiently focused on the task at hand, and I had spoken to them harshly. When one girl whispered to Gerri, “Why does he take it so seriously?” she replied, “Because, for him, it is.” This is a story I wish I’d been aware of at the time. Not only would it have demonstrated to me where my passions lay – I myself had no idea – it might also have made me a more capable leader down the line.)
The Land Games, I can’t really describe. By then, I was in my favorite “hiding place” from the running, the jumping, and the humiliating myself in public – rehearsing for the pageant. Generally, the pageant, performed on the last night of the program, involved a rehash of the atrocities of World War II. I recall one memorable line, uttered bitterly when this character was informed of the bombing of the two Japanese cities.
“Where are they going to get enough wood for eighty thousand crosses?”
I later learned that the Japanese were not Christians.
More about the pageant shortly.
A perennial event during camp-wide programs was “The Carnival.” The entire playing field was converted into a Midway, featuring skill competitions (dousing a candle flame with a squirt gun), gambling, feats of strength, weight guessing, a Wedding Tent where couples so inclined could be married by a real, fake rabbi, the works.
The carnival took an enormous, all-day effort to set up, and everyone pitched in. Once, as the preparations were just about complete, it started to rain. A monsoon-quality downpour.
Everything was ruined. Support poles toppled in the mud, painted signs, mutilated and smeared, the colors ran on the crepe paper decorations, our beautiful effort, sinking in deepening bog. It was total devastation. What could we do? We went in the Mess Hall and watched a movie.
Our camp had a policy of not showing movies. That wasn’t what we came for, they believed. But there was one exception. On occasions such as this, when bad weather curtailed a camp-wide activity, we got a movie. It was always the same one. The camp only had one movie. (There were no tapes of DVD’s back then.) The movie was Lily.
Lily, starring Leslie Caron, was about a girl who ran away to the circus. It was okay, a little sappy, but with a catchy title tune:
“A song of love is a sad song
Hi, Lily, hi Lily, hi lo…”
It was the only movie they had, and because of that, its title became a verb. When rain started falling during a program, we’d cry, “Oh, no! It’s ‘Lilying’!”
When the movie ended, it was late afternoon. Streaks of sunlight streamed through the brightening sky. The Head Counselor addressed the camp. He was giving us a choice. We could forget about the carnival. Or we could go back out there and build it back up.
We built it back up. And it was spectacular. Not just the carnival. But the spirit behind its rebirth.
We had accomplished a miracle by working together. It was almost as if the camp had ordered the downpour to teach us a lesson.
Of course, the real lessons were in the pageant. If you could understand them. It was philosophy students writing for six year-olds about genocide. From a comprehension standpoint, one particular pageant offered a unique challenge of it own.
We were in a prison camp. (Where else?) A rescue had been planned, but time was running short. My brother, who was also in the pageant, had a leading role. He played a jumpy guy, always yammering, “Why aren’t they here yet?” or “When are they going to be here?”
He had a lot of lines that sounded extremely similar. And that was the problem. We were on Page Two of a twenty page script when my brother exclaimed, “Why aren’t they here yet?” when he should have said, “When are they going to be here?” and by so doing, managed to skip sixteen pages of the script. The next actor picked up my brother’s “cue” – delivered in the wrong place – and suddenly, we were on Page Eighteen. We proceeded on from there, and our forty-five minute pageant was over in six minutes.
The program ended where it had started, back on the beach. There was the scientist again, standing in his boat, telling us that the cooperation he had witnessed during the last three days had given him a glimmer of hope. Perhaps, if we continued to work together, with justice and brotherhood and a sincere caring for our fellow man, the world might justifiably be preserved. If not, he’d be back.
And with that, he sped away.
The problem with good intentions is they never seem to last. The next summer, there was another guy threatening to blow us up if we didn’t shape up. Apparently, we had lost the spirit.
And for that, we were condemned to another relay in sandy pajamas.