Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Summer Times - 'Changeover Day'"

The majority of campers stayed for two months.  But some campers – I imagined the poorer ones – stayed for only one month.  My snobbery concerning this matter was exceeded only by my inaccuracy.  In reality, a number of campers went home after a month, not because they could not afford to stay for two, but because their families, often the wealthiest ones, would spend the second month vacationing in Europe.  (I cannot specifically date when I started being wrong about things.  I only know the tradition continues to this very day.  And I am unhopeful about the future.)

During the “Changeover Period”, there was a two-day interim, when the “First Monthers” had left but the “Second Monthers” had not yet arrived.  (Why they didn’t simply use one bus, where the arriving campers got off and the departing campers got on, I have no idea.  They may have needed time to fumigate the bus from the arriving campers’ throw-up.  But that’s only a guess.) 

I recall one summer, when, having only six original campers in my cabin, four of them went home, leaving an entire cabin occupied by two campers – myself and Jerry Wiseman. 

(Historical Note:  Longtime readers may find this name familiar.  I previously mentioned Jerry Wiseman in the context of a hike, where Jerry, trekking at the back of an extended column of campers, got stung by a bee, and after he was treated and the hike resumed, Jerry Wiseman got stung a second time, driving home the lesson of the hilarious arbitrariness of life.  I could have learned the same lesson if I’d been stung twice, but I doubt if it would have been equally as funny.)

Six campers.  And four of them went home.

It was the best time I ever had. 

A cabin with two campers in it provided flexibility unimaginable in a larger group.  Take voting for which activities to request for the following day, as we would did every night, before “Lights Out.”  With the full cabin, I was one vote out of six.  Meaning “doing nothing” was continually outvoted by doing something I hated and was terrible at. 

Even though “doing nothing” was not really an option, I now had only one person to talk into “doing very little.”  And Jerry Wiseman was not difficult to persuade. 

Being a “Cabin of Two” made us virtually immune to obligation.  Another cabin challenged us to a lacrosse match, which would guarantee bruises and lacerations, due to the “accidental” smashing of lacrosse racquets against our shins – “Sorry, there’s only two of us.” – and they’d move on, challenging a cabin that could field a more “team-worthy” compliment of players.  And lacerate their shins.

With the departure of the “First Monthers”, our cabin, once congested, now felt spacious and commodious.  There was less clutter, and less to clean up.  And less chance of a hostile cabin-mate “accidentally” jabbing a broom handle into my ribs.  No chance, in fact.  The mean ones had all gone home.  Jerry and I actually got along.   

Having fewer campers to supervise, the counselors seemed looser and less adversarial.  It was like World War I, when the soldiers on both sides emerged from their trenches and sang Christmas songs together.  I don’t know if we were elevated to “counselor status” or they reverted to “camper status”, but, for a short period of time, the delineation became seriously blurred.   And discipline noticeably lessened.

EARL:   Do we have to wash tonight?

COUNSELOR:  It’s up to you.

I didn’t wash.

Mealtime was the best.  The counselors sat at the ends of the table, leaving Jerry and me sole occupancy of an entire bench.  We could stretch out if we wanted to, take catnaps between courses.  Of course, there was more food for each of us, but I didn’t eat the food, so there was a lot more for Jerry.  The exception?  Dessert arrived, and after the counselors had taken their slices, Jerry and I would “fifty-fifty” an entire platter of cake. 

Sadly, this heavenly arrangement lasted just two days.  Then the “Second Monthers” arrived, and the party was over. 

Second month campers – or as the Senior Boys called the females as they filed off the bus, “New Meat” – were, almost generically, uncomfortable.  First, they arrived at camp feeling “butterflies of unfamiliarity”, which for us, having been there a month, were already long gone.  Second – though the problem was less seriou when joining a cabin with two campers in it – they were required to fit in with a group who had bonded, and already liked – or hated – each other. 

Which brings me to “Cuppy.”  A nickname, tortured into English from an obscure.  Yiddish counterpart.

“Cuppy”, moon-faced, with signs of pre-adolescent balding, was not only a “Second Monther”, he had never been to camp before at all.  This is a particularly difficult adjustment.  For which “Cuppy” was conscientiously prepared.

Second – because “first” needs more going into – after “Lights Out”, “Cuppy” would campaign for acceptability, by regaling his cabin-mates with a series of what would at the time be considered, “dirty” jokes, their punchlines were invariably delivered in a Yiddish-inflected accent.

More significantly – which I justifiable label “First”, though I am writing about it second – “Cuppy” arrived attired in a “Letter Man” windbreaker, almost entirely covered with sewn-on badges, delineating championship-level participation in an elaborate range of sports – baseball, basketball, hockey (both ice and field) football, swimming, track-and-field.   In a jock-impressed environment, these badges signaled instant acceptability.

What we quickly discovered, however, during our first scheduled period of basketball, was that “Cuppy”, despite his myriad decorations, was seriously uncoordinated and entirely inept.  The first time he got the ball, “Cuppy” immediately dribbled it off his foot.  

It was the same with everything “Cuppy’s” badges announced he excelled at.  There was no sport at which he was not terrible.  He was actually worse than I was.  And my windbreaker had nothing sewn on it but pockets.

My curiosity piqued, after we became pals – and we remained so for years thereafter –  “Cuppy” revealed that he had stolen all the badges from his school’s storeroom, and had his mother sew them on his “Letter Man” jacket, which he also pilfered, in order to win favor among the strangers whose company he was about to join. 

Such was the pressure on the “Second Month” camper; you would misrepresent yourself with unearned badges.  Won over by his gentle nature, intelligence and ready humor, I immediately forgave him for his subterfuge. 

I did not, however, forgive him, or his fellow “Second Monthers” for showing up.

And neither, I believe, did Jerry Wiseman.


JED said...

"Cuppy" is probably the president of a university somewhere or, perhaps, he is about to operate on someone without wasting his time at some expensive medical school. But I'll bet everyone likes him.

Ben Kubelsky said...

I don't know why but I love these camp stories as much as the "Story of a writer" series.