Monday, August 13, 2012

"Summer Times - 'The Clearing Meeting'"

I write about camp in the summer, because what else am I going to write about in summer, shoveling the sidewalk?  I write about it so often, because my camp experience – which, being me, I resisted intensely while it was happening – played a fundamental role in shaping what I ended up doing and cemented my basic belief system and humanistic values. 

It also taught me how to swim in my back. 

And it wasn’t just me for whom going to camp was life-shapingly significant.  Many marriages had their roots there.  My brother and sister-in-law met at Camp Ogama in their early teens and have now been together for a hundred and thirty-five years. 

Or so.

Camp put me in shows, and I ended up doing shows.  That was my track.  But there were other careers forged from the camp experience as well.

For example, future courtroom litigants perfected their arguing techniques at a daily camp ritual known as “The Clearing Meeting.”

A little background.

The camp day was divided into three “Activity Periods”, one in the morning and two in the afternoon.  Certain “Activity Periods” were pre-scheduled – Swim Instruction, Canoe Instruction, Riding, Water Skiing.  The remaining periods could be requested for any activity the camp provided. 

This was a not an uncomplicated arrangement.  “Facility use” had to be carefully coordinated.  Two hundred and twenty-five campers could not all play tennis at the same time.  There were only two tennis courts, and six racquets.   That’s a lot of waiting around for your turn.


“The period’s over.”

“Well, that was pleasant.”

Here’s how it worked.  Every night, at bedtime, each cabin would decide on the preferred activities they wanted to schedule for the following day, beyond the periods that were scheduled for them.  (By the way, for me, Swim Instruction always seemed to be scheduled First Period in the morning, when, especially in August, there were icecaps on the lake.)

Selecting the periods was a democratic process, by which I mean the most powerful people always got their way.  The counselor would ask for suggestions, and the loudest and pushiest in the cabin would bellow out their requests – tennis, basketball, archery was a particular favorite (allowing scores to be settled in the proximity of pointy objects.)  A less popular proposal, like, “Arts and Crafts” was met with cascades of derision and  (in the boys’ cabins) unsubtle intimations of testosterone deficiency.

“Second Choices” were solicited, so that if you didn’t get your first choice, you would not find yourself shunted to the periphery, playing tetherball.

The counselor noted the suggestions, and, at breakfast, they would pass on their handwritten requests to the Unit Heads.  Then, while the campers were back in their cabins doing “Clean-up”, the Unit Heads would hash out the activity allocations at the “Clearing Meeting.”

When the “Clearing Meeting” ended, the Unit Heads would proceed from cabin to cabin, announcing which activities each cabin had gotten, a triumphant tour if the Unit Head had scored the cabins’ “First Choices”, a “boo parade” if it was “lanyard making”, or “Experiments in Clay.” 

Despite a commitment to fairness and the espousals of sharing for which the camp’s message-filled pageants were famous, the “Clearing Meetings” were ferocious.  Ego issues aside, nobody wanted to be continually aced out for the plum activities, and forced to trudge from cabin to cabin, delivering massive missives of camper disappointment. 

“First Period – horseshoes.”

“Aw, Man!!!!?”

One can easily envision the defense attorneys of tomorrow recapitulating eerily similar exchanges with their clients:

“I got you ‘Murder Two’.”

“Aw, Man!!!!?

“What!  It’s not ‘Arts and Crafts’!”

Nobody wanted to go through that.  So they practiced the cutthroat tactics that would serve them ably in future courtroom contentions during the “Clearing Meetings.” 

SENIOR UNIT HEAD:  We’ll take basketball, and you can have croquet.

JUNIOR UNIT HEAD:  They’re six years old.  They can’t even spell “croquet.”

SENIOR UNIT HEAD:  They don’t have to spell it.  They just have to play it.
Nobody gave an inch.  This was not Marquis of Queensbury.  People came out crying.

I myself was never a Unit Head.  However, when it was the Unit Head’s day off, it was traditional or one of that unit’s counselors to fill in as acting Unit Head, which, of course, included “Clearing Meeting” responsibilities.  When my turn came around, I dutifully answered to call.

You know the way mischievous students treat substitute teachers?

It was exactly like that.

But even more so, because “It was Pomerantz.”

From my earliest summer when my cabin-mates tried to hang me to when I was older and I was lifted into an oil drum-sized trash barrel after which the barrel was hoisted onto a tree stump so if I tried to climb out it would fall over, it seemed like I was always designated for “special treatment.”  The “Clearing Meeting” proved no exception. 

I got nothing.  No “First Choices”, no “Second Choices.”  I had to battle for “miniature golf.”  Mostly, I was ignominiously ignored.  Relegated, from an activities standpoint, to being left to settle for the “scraps.”

This was not good.  I imagined myself shuttling from cabin to cabin announcing the activities, and being pelted for my dismal efforts with a fusillade of still sodden (and sandy) bathing suits.

And then came the laughter.  They were just pulling my leg.  Wasn’t that hilarious?  (Not to me.)  They would now begin again.  A level playing field.  Nobody hogging the most coveted activities.  Everyone has a chance.

I again got nothing.

Making my rounds after the “Clearing Meeting”, I would call the counselor outside, announce the decision,

And run.

This was possibly my first hint that I was not cut out to be a lawyer.

1 comment:

Rick Camp Grenada said...

What were you cut out to be...a hostage? Sounds like a hell of a camp, a collection of experiences which haunt you to this day. Thanks for sharing!