(July 27, 2023 / JNS)
Two days after the school year ended, I was sent away to a Jewish sleepaway camp in the Catskill Mountains, also known as the Jewish Alps. The term “sent away” is also used when one is shipped off to prison. I was 10 when my parents sent me away for a full eight weeks.
For many of us New York kids, summer camp was our yearly break from the sweltering heat and concrete jungle. Baseball on real grass and actual dirt. Tetherball, tennis, swimming with tadpoles and frogs. And living with a variety of bugs and wildlife other than rats, roaches and alley cats. And no parents.
We would march to the flagpole at 7 in the morning, say the “Pledge of Allegiance” and then mumble our morning prayers. I noticed the kid who prayed the hardest was the one that usually got hit in the head with a hardball and was sent back home. Be careful what you pray for. Then it was off to gruelfast, usually powdered eggs, stale cereal and warm milk with dead mosquitos floating on top.
If it rained, we’d watch a movie shown on a white sheet or do arts-and-crafts, which was lanyard-making and Bingo to get us ready for old age.
No calling home until the fourth week unless there was an emergency. Like in the old prison movies, two dial pay phones were attached to the canteen wall. Because there were hundreds of us waiting to use the phone, we were limited to a three-minute collect call. The kid behind you got to hear your entire conversation. If your parents didn’t answer, there was always some idiot kid who told you they were dead.
There was one parent visiting day during the eight weeks, and if a kid’s parents didn’t show up, word spread that their parents didn’t like them. On visiting day, the camp notched the food up a few grades.
Parents were allowed to send care packages twice during the summer. When my first one didn’t arrive like everyone else’s, Barry Silverman told me that my parents moved and that I’d have to live at the camp forever. I was much relieved when my package eventually did show. I offered none of my provisions to Barry, and instead short-sheeted him and dropped Daddy Longlegs on his face while he was asleep.
Unless you took out someone’s eye with a rock or kept pushing kids who couldn’t swim out of their canoe, it was hard to be sent home. But let’s face it: Having a handful of 16-year-old counselors trying to control hundreds of kids just a few years younger than them is impossible. What happens in sleepaway camp stays in sleepaway camp.
My favorite was bunk raids and, of course, Color War. None of the bunks was ever locked. A raid consisted of stealing an article of clothing and then hanging it from the flagpole (it always got returned). Color War we learned the valuable lesson that if someone beats you at something, you can still be good friends with them.
Most of us kids had no idea what sleepaway camp was offering us. Besides good fun and bad food, it was the first opportunity for many of us to spend some real time away from our homes. It was a chance to make new friends and grow up simply by separating us from our parents and siblings for a few weeks.
When I returned from a summer away, I was a different person. I was tan and more mature, though I still had at least 30 more years until people stopped asking when I would grow up. Plus, the food at home was like dining in a Michelin 5-star restaurant compared to the powdered eggs and bug juice that I had gotten used to over the summer.
My wife and I sent our boys to sleepaway camp. We loved them, but it was a pleasure to be rid of them for a few weeks like my parents and many of you.
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