Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Summer Times - Programs"

They always woke us up.

“We’ve got to get down to the beach!” There was always this urgency.

The counselors hurried us into bathrobes and slippers. If you were an inexperienced camper, you might have felt scared.

“What’s going on?”

Veteran campers knew from the first “wake up” shake.

“It’s a program.”

Programs were a welcome break in the camp routine. A two or three-day team competition, always with an underlying theme, invariably concerning world peace, which seemed to be a perennial concern. I wasn’t aware there was a war.

Some programs were unit-wide, meaning only one section of the camp took part. Others – the camp-wides – involved everyone. The following was a two-day program for the Senior Unit, boys and girls, aged thirteen to fifteen.

We dragged ourselves down to the waterfront. Being Seniors, we feigned boredom. But underneath, there was, if not excitement, at least curiosity. How would they “break” – meaning introduce – the program this time? The “breaks” were always unusual, each trying to out-flourish the “break” of the year before.

We’re assembled in the sand. We hear the drone of an approaching airplane. We look up. A small plane comes into view, slowly circling the lake. It turns and heads straight towards the beach. Were they going to bomb us? Not a great idea for camp recruitment.

“We bombed your children. Would you like to come back next summer?”

A terrible idea. But a spectacular program “break”!

The plane slows down about a quarter of a mile in front of us. A figure drops out of it. His chute opens, floating him gently to the water.

Immediately, the camp’s boat driver jumps into the boat and, gunning his motor, races out to retrieve the parachutist. The driver lifts him into the boat, and roars back to shore.

As they reach shore, the boat driver turns off the motor. The parachutist then stands up in the boat, and proclaims….


Apparently, he had forgotten his “announcement speech” in the plane. The parachute jump had clearly discombobulated his brain. You could see him straining to remember what he was supposed to say, but nothing was coming, just incoherent sputtering.

Finally, the boat driver mercifully jumped in.

“Has the Hungarian Revolution begun?” he prompted.

“Yes!” exclaimed the parachutist, invigorated with a renewed sense of purpose. “The Hungarian Revolution has begun!”

With this, the Senior Unit program was officially “broken.”

In a flash, we were swept into waiting buses, which immediately took off. Where were we speeding to? We had no idea.

Would they be flying us over to Hungary? I hoped not. Apparently, there was a revolution over there. A person could get hurt during something like that.

As it turned out, our destination was a field-like patch of land on the other side of the lake, two miles from camp by water, but longer if you drove around. I don’t know who owned that property, but apparently, it had been rented – or, for all I know, commandeered without permission – and, for the next two days, it would stand in for Hungary. At least the part of Hungary where the revolutionaries hung out.

When we arrived, we found a totally functioning campsite. It appears that, while we were sleeping, our counselors had taken our sleeping bags, some clothes, our tooth brushes and washing equipment – and it was all out there, waiting for us, inside a row of already pitched tents, to which our teams were subsequently assigned.

There was one exception to the tent arrangement. There was a dilapidated house on the property and my team – I believe we were the “Workers” – were assigned that house for our “Hungarian” home. I felt fortunate. The “Workers” would be sleeping indoors, while the “Students”, the “Farmers” and another team whose name I can’t remember but who were apparently equally unhappy about the ways things were going in Hungary, would be bunked out on the ground.

What you remember is what you remember. And what I remember most clearly, and unfortunately, is this:

I was standing by a window inside this creaky, old house. The window had no glass in it. It was that kind of house. No glass, just a cracked, paint-peeling windowpane.

How do I explain this? In actuality, there was nobody looking at me. However, I have this powerful feeling that, if I do something really funny, someone, or an audience of someone’s, will suddenly appear, they'll notice and they’ll laugh. Where does this feeling come from? I have no idea. But it feels real to me, like the Field of Dreams thing.

“If you do it, they will laugh.”

The joke would be, I would lower the pane of the window that had no glass in it, after which, in my best Oliver Hardy imitation, I would say, “Now, that’s better”, the funny part, as if I needed to explain, being that, since there was no window in the windowpane, it wasn’t better at all, it was exactly the same. Hilarious, circa 1932.

The problem was the windowpane was stuck, making it extremely hard to pull down. No problem, I decided. My struggle with the windowpane – a monumental effort in the accomplishment of nothing – would make “Now that’s better” even funnier. Don’t you think? I do.

The surprise came when, while wrestling with this operation, the windowpane came slamming down on my finger. This produced an entirely new ending to my joke. A stupid person, performing for no one, ends up lacerating the heck out of his finger.

I’m an idiot! An idiot in pain, but who’s simultaneously laughing hysterically at my own ridiculousness. I’ve been entertaining myself in this fashion my entire life.

The next day of the “Hungarian Revolution” program involved an ingenious variety of competitions – races and relays – which completely elude my memory, due to a hundred per cent lack on interest, matched by an almost equal deficit in ability. What I do remember was, in the heat of the hubbub, a motorboat arrived from camp, with the announcement that Dr. Posen was in camp. Dr. Posen was my orthodontist.

Singled out with three other campers – meaning I wasn’t technically singled out; I just don’t know what you call it when four people are singled out at the same time – we clambered into the boat and were driven back to camp. Dr. Posen tightened our braces, at which point we were boated back to “Hungary”, where we returned to the festivities with aching teeth and throbbing gums. (I also had the finger thing. It was a nightmare.)

The program ended, as our programs always did, with a pageant, dramatizing the message the program was constructed to convey. I always volunteered for the pageants, because rehearsing for the pageant allowed you to be excused from further participation in the “games.” Yay.

I played many parts in pageants, highlighted by my portrayal of Ghandi, a role I won less for my acting abilities than by the fact that I was the skinniest kid in camp, owing to my refusal to eat any of the food.

In this pageant, I played Imre Nagy, who was the Prime Minister of Hungary during this turbulent time, and was, in the pageant, though I imagine also in real life, executed by a firing squad. I recall very few of my lines, but I do remember practicing various methods of falling down dead.

I also remember “running” my lines with my friend, Shelly, who played the prosecuting attorney who won the verdict that got me executed. We’d rehearse while playing badminton, one of the few games I didn’t totally stink at.

The “birdie” flew back and forth, punctuating our dialogue.

“So, Nagy, we meet again.”


“Unfortunately, yes.”


The pageant’s message was the hope that, someday, all people could learn to live in peace.

A message that came too late for the Prime Minister of Hungary.

Tomorrow: Greased watermelons and sandy pajamas.

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