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Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Doug, Take Me With You!"

After I left Bermuda in the summer of 1963 (see "My Year in Bermuda," February 9, 2010), I moved to College Park, Maryland, to finish up my undergraduate work at the U of M. My family was still back in Bermuda (where my sister Mary Beth graduated from high school), and it was difficult to get home for holidays, having to cross half an ocean to do so. I decided that I needed to find a job for the summer of 1964, and after applying around I obtained one as the drama counselor at Jayson Camps near the town of Monterey in western Massachusetts, in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains. I was told that in addition to running the drama programs at both Camp Owaisa, the girls' camp, and Camp Monterey, the boys' camp, I would be a camp counselor for one cabin (called a "bunk") of boys for eight weeks.

Hmm, I thought. Live with a lot of kids for an entire summer? I'd had no dealings with children to date, and worried I'd be terrible at making small children happy and/or obedient. Could I handle them at all, or would I just give up and sneak away into the woods one night, never to be seen again? Phrased another way, I had the same worries all expectant parents have when contemplating rearing children.

In the event, I accepted the job, and even talked them into taking me a week early since I had no place to go once Maryland closed down my dorm. The other counselors arrived at the end of my first week for a week of orientation. This involved learning things like how to canoe, set up a tent, shoot an arrow, etc. I'd been a Boy Scout when I lived in Japan, so some of these things were not new to me (though I was a sorry Boy Scout, spending over two years as a Tenderfoot); it also helped that I was a Red Cross-certified lifeguard. After my first two weeks at Jayson camps, the children arrived for the start of their eight week adventure. My co-counselor for Bunk 8 was a nice guy, but he couldn't take much of the eight nine-year-old boys we lived with. He had a hair-trigger temper, and, fearing he would strike one of them in a fit of frustration, he simply quit, leaving me with quite a handful for much of the summer.

But from the beginning I adored the kids. They were sweet, fun be with, and, with one or two minor exceptions, pliant and obedient. There were lots of interesting moments, and I did find myself saying the oddest things such as, "Even if he put your socks in the toilet you shouldn't have buried his glasses in the sandbox" or "I don't care what you heard, there can't be a bear in the bathroom!" The first day of archery went particularly well. Repeating the basic steps I'd been shown just the week before, I nocked an arrow, pointed at the target some fifteen feet or so away, and, talking as if I knew my subject, explained how to aim at the target. I then let it loose and—I'm not making this up—by happy accident the arrow flew smack into the middle of the bulls-eye. The kids almost gasped in admiration, but I pretended not to notice. Though they asked, they never saw me shoot another arrow.

One interesting thing was that 90% of the kids, counselors, and all the people in charge of the camp were Jewish. I am not, and that meant I frequently didn't understand things—ah, but I learned a lot that summer, particularly about Jewish food. Most of the jokes seemed to have Yiddish punch lines, and when the joke was told everyone but me would laugh. I would then be belatedly furnished with the translation. One example: A rabbi dies and finds himself at the Pearly Gates, confronting St. Peter who informs him that Judaism was wrong and Christianity right after all. The poor rabbi is amazed and asks for proof. "Anything you like," is St. Peter's friendly response, at which invitation the rabbi states he'd like to visit the stable in Bethlehem. He's promptly whisked there, and, reverently, the rabbi approaches the Virgin Mary, who is holding the Christ child in her arms. "How does it feel to be the Mother of God?" he asks her. Then comes her reply in Yiddish, and all present except the goy laugh. The eventual translation? "Oy vey, I wanted a girl!"

During the first week of camp there came a rest day (Saturday, of course), so we could make our own schedules, and sleep in late (with bagels and cream cheese provided, along with lox,(which I'd never even seen before). My co-counselor and I were trying to nap while the kids were playing in the cabin, and I realized that since half of the kids bunked on his side of the room and half on mine, they'd decided to play a game of Jews v. Christians (he being Jewish and me, nominally, Catholic), but the enterprise fell apart because none of the boys wanted to the Christians. Oy vey!

I was also the drama counselor for the two camps (which were located next to each other, with a common messhall), and that meant I had to put on shows with children of various ages, all musicals. Both summers that I did this I wrote the musicals and the lyrics, but talented other counselors wrote the music and helped me stage the shows. Our presentations were amateur hour writ large, but the kids gave it their all. I have recordings of many of the shows, and I listen to them on the odd occasion with both pride in the kids and embarrassment at how bad some of the material was. Let me give you a sample. One of the girls' shows was called "After Ten in the Counselors' Den," and the campers, all about twelve years of age, acted the parts of counselors who had put their charges to bed and were meeting in the Counselors' Den and then going into the nearby town of Great Barrington (where the events of "Alice's Restaurant" once occurred). Were they meeting the male counselors there for good fun? No. Just as in real life they went to the laundromat to wash their clothes. So the girls sang:

Great Barrington (population 7,527)
GREAT BARRINGTON... YOU MIGHTY CITY!
METROPOLIS / CEMENT AND LIGHTS!
WE HEAR YOU CALL / YOU CALL US ALL
LAND OF ONE THOUSAND HAPPY NIGHTS!

(Scene: switches to a Laundromat)

LAUNDROMAT / MY WHAT A SNAZZY PLACE WE’RE AT!
GET OUT YOUR DRESS AND SUNDAY HAT / LAUNDROMAT!
WHAT A THRILLING THING WE’RE DOING
SUDSING, RINSING, BLEACHING, BLUING!
LAUNDROMAT / PERHAPS I’LL MEET MY TRUE LOVE HERE
I HOPE HE BRINGS A BOX OF CHEER / I’M SINCERE
CAMPERS THINK I’M OUT ROMANCING
WITH A BAG OF CLOTHES I’M DANCING
FOR AN EVENING FUN-SPOT THERE IS THAT
COMPLETELY AUTOMATED LAUNDROMAT!

Counselor Elaine Farrington put this lyric to a sexy rumba rhythm, and I staged it with the girls dancing around with bags of laundry; the audience loved it. Okay, it's hokey, and (sigh) I wrote a lot of these things. In the second summer I was at Jayson Camps we put on seven shows (six with campers, one with counselors), with seven songs a show, so 49 songs just for that summer. I learned a lot about writing, directing, producing, and staging shows at the Jayson Camps. It was valuable training for much of what I know about theater.

With my boys in Bunk 8 there were many adventures. One particular overnight camping trip in the Berkshire Mountains was typical. The head counselor went with me (for which I was grateful in that he knew what he was doing, as I did not), and things went well: hiking to the camp site from the drop-off point, making a fire, doing some fishing and cooking, and, since the weather was beautiful, spreading the sleeping bags in a circle. I made the mistake of telling the kids a ghost story before bedtime, and, of course, they had much trouble getting to sleep. So then I told them a funny story, and that helped. They were soon settled down and near sleep when a family of raccoons walked right into the middle of our circle, searching for food, and this spooked one of the boys, who screamed. The raccoons promptly climbed the only tree in the middle of the circle. That meant they had to come back down that same tree at some point, and we were up half the night before that happened. Just about dawn I awoke with the realization that a skunk was standing on my back (I was snug inside my sleeping bag). I couldn't see him, but, of course, my nose told me it was a definitely a skunk. And he was heavy (40 pounds or so)! What to do? I wisely decided on doing nothing. He sniffed around for a minute before climbing lazily down and walking away from me, into my line of vision. He'd obviously had a lot of experience with campers, and, giving me a bored glance, ambled into the woods.

Parents Day arrived mid-summer, and I was pleased to me meet my boys' mothers and fathers, who were all very nice people, and who enjoyed hearing stories about their offsprings' adventures. (The camp made sure the kids constantly wrote letters home.) The parents all attended one of my shows, and the performing kids made them proud.

That night when taps was played the kids settled down in our bunk, and when they appeared to be asleep I joined the other counselors in the Counselor's Den and we carpooled our way into town. The camp was patrolled each evening by the Duty Counselor, who went from cabin to cabin to make sure all was well. When I returned to Bunk 8 around midnight, I discovered to my surprise that the littlest of my boys was sitting up in bed, surrounded by his own vomit, and shivering. He'd eaten too much of the candy his parent had brought that day and gotten sick. "When did this happen?" I asked him. "Right after you left," he replied. "Why didn't you tell the Duty Counselor?" I wanted to know, astounded. "I waited and waited, but no one ever came." He burst into tears. So, of course, I got him up, cleaned him off, changed the bed, made sure he was snug and comfortable (none of the other boys woke at all), and then I went off to the Head Counselor's Office, where the Duty Counselor was supposed to have his base of operations. I was in a fury—wanting to kill somebody for harming my kid!!! It turned out that due to a scheduling muddle, there was no Duty Counselor. I was mad about that too, but what could I do? The next day, thinking about it, I was amazed at my reaction. I really had been almost out of control Some basic primordial instinct had been triggered, and I didn't know it was down there.

On the last day the parents showed up to collect their children, with a lot happy shouting and some tears as friends parted. One of my little boys wrapped his arms tightly around me and begged to go home with me, telling me tearfully that "I don't want to live with my parents!" Of course, there was no such option, and to this day I've wondered why he didn't want to go home—but I'm not sure I really want to know the answer. In any event, by this time I'd learned I wasn't afraid of dealing with children, and believed I had a good shot at being a decent parent when and if that arose. (You'll have to ask my son Clayton if it proved true.)

I enjoyed my summer so much that two years later, between my first and second year of law school, I came back and did it all again (and by that time I was of legal drinking age, which proved important). The picture at the start of this post is from the 1966 summer at Jayson Camps, and the man on the far right is Alfred Jayson ("Chief"), the owner (I'm second from the left). Once again I was one of the two counselors living for eight weeks with too many nine-year-olds. To this day if a nine-year-old boy comes within a hundred yards of me, my sixth sense begins to tingle (like Spiderman sensing evil), and I straighten up with a mixture of suspicion, fondness, and alarm.
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Related Posts:
"Catholicism and Me (Part One)," March 13, 2010
"Catholicism and Me (Part Two)," April 18, 2010
"The Boot Camp Fiasco," April 21, 2010
“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk” August 20, 2010
"Charleyne and the Giant Cookie," September 19, 2010
"Strange Songs, Inc.," September 29, 2010
"The Evil Big Birthday Song," November 5, 2010
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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