Authors: Mindy Schneider
Not a Happy Camper
Copyright Â© 2007 by Mindy Schneider
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
FIRST GROVE PRESS PAPERBACK EDITION
eBook ISBN-13: 978-1-5558-4734-0
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Dedicated to the dining room
(**insert photo hereâTK**)
I once went to a summer camp in Maine
that was not exactly what it was advertised to be.
For the sake of clarity in storytelling, I've altered
the chronology of certain events, changed some names and
combined several people into each of the characters.
But this is how I remember it.
Not a Happy Camper
“We've got a cartload of Mindys.”
Saul Rattner, Camp Director
GREW UP IN THE
WHICH IS TO SAY
GREW UP REGRETTING
the fact that I hadn't been born about ten years earlier. For those of us who became teenagers in 1974, our memories are not of Viet Nam War protests, Woodstock and the Summer of Love. If we can recall anything at all, it would be Watergate, gas rationing and the early works of Barry Manilow. And in my case, eight weeks at a summer camp in Maine with just one thing on my mind.
How vividly I can still remember standing by the edge of the lake, watching the Wolverines' cabin burn to the ground and thinking to myself, “Maybe this will be the summer I finally get a boyfriend.” But I didn't want one of those boys from the Wolverines. First of all, I was thirteen and they were only twelve; and besides, they were kind of dumb, going along with Todd Zimmerman's plan to place lit candles under their beds before dinner so that by nightfall their sheets would be toasty warm. Though Todd and his bunkmates would grow up to be doctors, lawyers, college professors and temporary dotcom moguls, all I saw that summer was a bunch of budding pyromaniacs. With their bunk a total loss, the Wolverines were split up and forced to spend the summer of 1974 living with the waiters over the boys' dining hall in rooms so hot you could bake muffins in the drawers, their quest for warmth fulfilled. My quest, on the other hand, was only just beginning.
COULDN'T WAIT TO GO TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP
D DREAMED ABOUT IT
for years: the many wonderful friends I'd make, the one special boy I'd meet, the magical memories that would linger for a lifetime.
When I'd turned eleven, my parents said I was ready. But first, they had to argue about it. My mother always wanted me to go to Camp Mohaph, where she'd spent her summers in the 1940s. Mohaph (not really an Indian word, but an amalgam of the owners' names: Moe, Harry and Phil) was a ritzy place populated by the children of Revlon cosmetics and Horowitz-Margareten kosher foods. My mother wasn't from quite as affluent a background, but her family owned a dry goods store on the Lower East Side so she had more underpants than anyone else. My father's experience was modest by comparison. He went to Boy Scout camp for only a week, sleeping outdoors in a tent and swimming in an itchy wool bathing suit his mother knitted for him. But after serving in the Navy during World War II (and successfully defending Annapolis, Maryland), my father was hired by beautiful Camp Cicada in the Catskill Mountains, where he was voted Most Popular Counselor.
“Why can't Mindy go to Mohaph?” my mother questioned.
“Because she's going to Cicada,” my father answered.
“But you promised when I was pregnant that our kids would go to
“You were making me nuts,” he reminded her. “I'd have said yes to anything.”
It didn't matter to me who won. I just wanted to go to camp. In the end, my father prevailed and for my first summer away from home, I went to his alma mater, but only because Mohaph had recently gone out of business. As it turned out, I didn't enjoy my summer at Cicada.
“The girls were really mean,” I told my parents.
“I'm sure they were just shy,” my mother insisted.
“And they're all really rich and have nicer clothes than me and the counselors make you fold your blankets a certain way and I couldn't do it.”
“I loved my summers at Cicada,” my father reminisced. “I think you should give it another try.”
When I disliked it even more the second year, I told my parents they were wasting their money. This did the trick, and they agreed I could pick any camp in the entire country to attend the following summer, as long as it had a kosher kitchen. I had three choices.
We met with the owners of two of the camps, also located in the Catskills, but both places looked and sounded like the rigid, snobby nightmare I'd just fled. And then there was Camp Kin-AHurra in Maine, the Vacationland state. Owner/Director Saul Rattner scheduled an appointment at our house in Springfield, New Jersey in the winter of 1973. Maine sounded so far away and exotic, the thought of Saul's visit filled me with nervous expectation. I waited in the den, watching a rerun of
My Three Sons
, wondering how so many people could live in one house and still stay calm.
My mother was in the kitchen, removing the plastic floral centerpiece from the table, when the doorbell rang. My father got up to answer, motioning for me to turn off the TV and for my brothers to go upstairs. I stood ten feet away as a pipe-smoking, mellow-voiced
man in his fifties crossed our threshold, greeting my father with a hearty handshake, the kind where you use both hands. “Wonderful to meet you,” he said, sounding like he genuinely meant it.
Saul spoke with the quiet authority of a rabbi, though he was dressed in khaki pants and a safari vest and he drove a Jeep, as if he'd needed a machete to cut through the brush to reach our tract house in the suburbs. I couldn't tell if my parents looked comfortable or skeptical as my father led this stranger into our kitchen. When he heard my name, Saul smiled and said, “Oh yes, we've got a cartload of Mindys.” I chose to interpret this as his way of calling me ordinary.
Nevertheless, I was thrilled when he took a seat at our white lacquer-look table with the turquoise vinyl chairs and backed up his sales pitch with photographs of a beautifully maintained wooded paradise blessed with endless golden sunshine.
“Archery, arts and crafts, all the usual activities,” Saul explained, waving his pipe across the glossy black and white images in the catalog. “Plus we take the campers on lots of wonderful trips. Mountain climbing, canoeing. Our campers come from all around the world and we feel it's our duty to show off the magnificence of Maine. It's quite exquisite.”
“Must get pretty cold at night,” my father said.
“That's why the bunks are heated,” Saul replied.
“Really?” My mother asked. “Never heard of a camp having that.
“Oh, it's essential,” he assured her.
“What's this?” I asked, pointing at the next page.
“That's a camper developing pictures in our photo lab,” Saul explained. “Do you like photography? Do you own a camera?”
“Yeah! I do! They were giving them away for free at the Esso station when it changed over to Exxon, so we filled up both cars so we could get two cameras, even though my mother's car only needed like a dollar's worth.”
“Uh, that's enough,” my father cut in.
But it wasn't enough. I wanted more. I wanted to go to this camp with the kids from all over the world, go canoeing with them and learn photography and come home with snapshots like the ones in Saul's catalog. This was the place for me.
“You really don't want to go to one of these camps in New York?” my mother asked. “It's so much closer.”
“I don't know,” I said. “They just lookedâthe same.
“And the one in Maine?”
I was thirteen years old and I knew what I wanted. This time, the choice would be mine. All my parents had to do was pay for it.
In the 1970s, an eight-week stay at a privately owned camp cost an astronomical twelve hundred dollars. Eleven-fifty if you registered early. I didn't know how my father was able to afford this. My older brother Mark and I have often discussed the fact that up until we graduated from college and our parents built a new houseâthe biggest one in townâwe believed our family was extremely poor.
My father had often spent nights and weekends at his family's grocery store in Jersey City. One time, when Mark was five years old, a neighbor asked him what our father did for a living and Mark said, “My daddy's a delivery boy.” I knew he was also a lawyer, but even so it seemed money was always tight. It was surprising that for a third summer in a row my parents could afford to send me to camp. It was not surprising, however, that they decided to save on airfare by driving me there.
My father loved to drive. He would take our family anywhere, so long as we could reach it by car. His family had worked seven
days a week and never owned one, never traveled. Growing up, he'd been denied the opportunity to revel in motorized family togetherness.
Both of my parents enjoyed visiting Colonial restorations so we spent our vacations watching women in old-fashioned bonnets demonstrate candle dipping while our friends' families vacationed in Florida. They came back with tans. We came back with brochures. No matter how far away some historic site might be, we'd pile into the olive green and faux wood-paneled Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser and drive.
As it was, my father was the only one who loved these road trips. My middle brother, Jay, who would go on to become a renowned paleontologist and the world's foremost authority on giant mollusks, suffered terribly from motion sickness. Jay threw up everywhere. In a futile attempt to control the vomiting, Jay was always seated next to a window. As a result, our family trips became a series of backseat arguments with my older brother Mark and I fighting over who got the other window and who got smushed in the middle seat with the hump on the floor and no legroom, next to barfing Jay. It didn't help that my father would tune the radio to WVNJoy, a station that made elevator music sound hip.
But that summer, in late June of 1974, I had the entire back seat to myself. My brothers stayed home with my grandmother while I rode with my parents, northward to my destiny. It might have been a pleasant trip, but my father had no sense of direction and my mother had no sense of how loud her voice could get. These were my parents. They spent a day-and-a-half screaming over the Muzak about the road signs as my mother tried to figure out the Auto Club TripTik.