The countdown had begun.
(TO THE TUNE OF “FOR HE’S A JOLLY GOOD FELLOW”)
“Four more days of starvation
Then we go to the station
Back to civilization
The bus will carry us home.”
This musical reminder erupted spontaneously in the Mess Hall during the dwindling days of our stay at camp. The song was delivered at various speeds, depending on how you felt about your inevitable departure. If you were sad, it was sung as a melancholy dirge. If you were excited to leave, it emerged as a stirring march, accompanied by the rhythmic banging of silverware on the heavily lacquered tables, the lacquer protecting the wood from just such abuses.
My version was particularly unique.
“Fifty-six more days of starvation
Then we go to the station…”
That’s right. I started singing it the day we arrived.
Was I eager to leave? Are you kidding? Home meant television, food I liked, privacy and freedom from a routine that took me from the indignity of coughing up half the lake learning how to dive to the embarrassment of racing in on a fly ball, only to see it soaring over my head in the opposite direction.
I’m the Jews in bondage, waiting for the Tenth Plague to end, so I could get my butt out of Egypt! I could not wait to go home.
So why did I feel so upset?
Down at the lake, they were pulling up the docks. Huge, hairy-legged horses, dating from the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth, were dragging sections of the dock towards the beach. The empty oil drums that had been supporting the docks, were collected onshore, finally dry, but with nothing to do.
The Swimming Area was no more; it was just the lake. I had few happy memories of the Swimming Area. But I felt a loss when it started to disappear.
Everywhere you went, they were taking inventory and storing things away. The Sports Office. The Arts and Crafts Center. The horses had left without saying goodbye. Piece by piece, hey were dismantling my summer.
The final week offered a reverberating series of “lasts.” The last corn roast. The final banquet. The last night’s Counselors’ show, where we gathered in the Rec Hall and watched authority figures letting down their guards, burly trippers cavorting in tutu’s, (the camp owner’s wife singing, “My Yiddishe Mama” for no reason other than she could), and, at the end of the show, the entire staff, standing onstage, in matching crisp, white camp t-shirts singing,
(TO THE TUNE OF THE OPENING VERSE OF “IF THEY ASKED ME I COULD WRITE A BOOK”)
“ABCDEFGee, I never thought I’d miss a camp so much
12345678 weeks have flown away and now they’re gone…”
People around me are starting to snuffle.
The Rec Hall door is thrown open. Outside, are the three Unit Heads, each holding a flaming torch. The campers exit the Rec Hall by units, following their leaders to the beach, where we stand in our groups, facing the water.
The lake is virtually still, gentle waves, lapping against the shore. The sky is black, dotted with an uncountable number of stars. The wind is still. The beach is quiet. Scattered lights burn in nearby cottages, but, far more than less, the evening is ours.
Though the veterans know what’s coming, the “last night” ritual remains surprisingly effective. Campers, predominantly female, stand assembled, armed with anticipatory boxes of Kleenex.
Was the ceremony manipulative? I guess. Was it “over the top?” Close. But there was something about it that seemed honest. And necessary. We had weathered eight weeks of communal living. The experience needed to be wrapped up.
And wrapped up it was. By the camp director. Speaking over a P.A. system set up somewhere in the back. In slow and measured tones. And always playing in the background as Joe recounted the highlights of the summer that was over, was the scratchy recording of a tear-jerking anthem:
“For all we know, we may never meet again
Before we go, make this moment sweet again
We won’t say good-bye until the last minute
I’ll hold out my hand and my heart with be in it…”
Okay, that was “over the top.” But it came with the territory. An emotional underscoring, if you will. (Either that, or a tear-wringing strategy to get people to come back.)
And what message did, Joe wish to sear deeply into our departing memories? The message of personal growth. As a man trained as a social worker, Joe was determined that tonight, areas of individual advancement, both large and questionable, would be dutifully honored. If one thing was certain, it was this. We had all learned something.
“Maybe we learned to swim. Or maybe we learned to play baseball. Maybe we participated in a play. Or maybe we made a beautiful ashtray in Arts and Crafts. Maybe we learned to make our beds for the first time. Or maybe we learned…how to brush our own teeth. Even those really hard to reach ones way in the back.
“We made friends. Or we didn’t make friends, leaving us more time to appreciate ourselves. We could have made friends, but we chose not to, teaching us that everything, including making friends, is entirely up to us.
“The choices are ours. We can make friends, or we can not make friends. And after we’ve chosen not to make friends, we can change our minds, and make friends after all. We make those choices. But we can change those choices if we want to. And decide to make friends.”
It was something like that. I wasn’t really listening.
Next, came “The Candle Ceremony.”
There were two rowboats on the lake in front of us. The rowboats were filled with candles. They were really half candles. Actually, Jewish Sabbath candles cut into half candles, which were then set into small, ribbed paper cups, by inserting each candle into a bed of still-soft paraffin wax. When the wax hardened, the candle would stand up inside the cup. (You got that?)
As Joe read off the name of each camper, the wick was lit, and the “candle-in-the-cup” was floated onto the lake. Everyone waited for their name, and looked for their candle. The list of campers seemed interminable. Especially if you were “P.” Which isn’t terrible, I suppose – it’s better than “Zelman” – but it seemed like forever.
Then, there were family clusters:
“Wendy…Krangle. Robbie…Krangle. Ricky…Krangle.”
And a seemingly endless litany of the owner’s relatives:
“Sydney…Goldenberg. Sheldon…Goldenberg. Barry…Goldenberg. Leslie…Goldenberg. Randy…Goldenberg. Malka…Goldenberg….”
You chuckled, wondering if relatives paid full price. You also thought, “Enough, with the Goldenbergs! Get to my name!”
When the names were finally read, there was this ribbon of flickering candles spanning the breadth of the waterfront. And one of them was yours.
Finally, there was “The Burning.”
The trippers had cut down saplings, and wrapped them in burlap. And on an island, about a quarter of a mile from shore, the elements were assembled and planted vertically in the ground, ultimately creating a billboard-sized word. A carefully selected word, symbolizing that summer’s experience. On the signal, the encasing burlap would be doused with kerosene and set on fire.
And there it stood. Blazing in the darkness.
“TOMORROWLAND.” (commemorating an uncharacteristically non issue-oriented Disneyland program.)
Sometimes, there were fireworks. And the nearby cottagers called the police.
“For All We Know.” The Candle Ceremony.” “The Burning.” They made you remember. I hated camp. At least I thought I did. So why was I so moved?
One reason is that emotional button pushing works. But I think it goes deeper than that.
Reading along in this series, it’s easy to imagine that my experience at camp was a total nightmare. There were terrible interludes, no question. I mean, nobody wants to be nearly hanged. Or eat nothing but Wonder Bread for eight weeks. Laboratory mice die from doing that.
The thing is, that wasn’t the whole story. Embedded in the terribleness of that first summer, I had learned to climb unassisted into an upper bunk, made a friend, acted in a play, gone on a canoe trip, and been given a song to lead in front of the entire camp. Plus, my greatest achievement: I’d survived.
Not bad for my first time away from home. Unfortunately, I have this character tendency – I originally wrote “character flaw” but I changed it to “tendency” – which not only affected my camp experience, but my memory of my camp experience, and, as a consequence, this writing.
I’m a complainer. (You may have known that already.) I notice negative stuff and, maybe, dwell on it. This tendency has its “up-side.” (For one thing, it gives you something to write about.)
At camp, my complaining tendencies brought me some much-wished-for attention. It gave me a distinct persona, like the girl who wore the really short shorts, or the counselor who stuck cotton in his ears.
I was “The Camp Complainer.” Or, more accurately – and thankfully – “The Funny Camp Complainer.”
When you have a persona, you need to stick with it. And I did. Right to the end.
The buses had arrived. I was sitting in the Mess Hall, waiting for my name to be called. When it was, I got up, heaved an exaggerated “Thank God, I’m finally going home” sigh, and (literally) skipped happily out the door.
I see the buses. I think, “What does “The Camp Complainer” do when the buses finally arrive to take him home?” The answer? He races to the bus.
I race joyfully to the bus.
I trip, and fall flat on my face.
I’d been done in by my feelings. My legs had given me away.
Next summer, I’ll return with a new series of camp stories. Hopefully, they’ll be more balanced.