For all the summers of my youth, from the time I was 4 until I was 20, I went to summer camp in the Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania, to Camp Keeyumah. Last week, for the first time in 12 years, I went back. Not to Keeyumah, because Keeyumah no longer exists, but to the camp across the lake, Echo Lark. I wanted to see if summer camp was still the same -- a safe harbor during a stormy adolescence -- if the same rules still applied, if it still floated weightlessly above reality, if the same kind of kid still went to camp. If I could really go home again. I went to compare my now against my then and measure the difference. I got lucky. Camp was just as I hoped it would be. And I know now as I suspected then, that even if you had to grow up, at least in camp you never have to grow old.
The boys raiding the girls; the girls raiding the boys. In the middle of the night. The most enduring camp game of them all. Camp Rule No. 6: They tell you not to go. They promise you they're going to catch you, and they warn you how severe the punishment will be when they catch you. They tell you things like, "We know you like basketball, so we won't let you even touch a basketball for the rest of the summer." Or, "We're going to call your parents and make them take you home, and then won't you feel embarrassed?" Or, "We'll put this in your permanent record, and you'll never get into college." It's all jive. They know you're going to go anyway.
Every camp has two kinds of raids -- The Killer Raid and The Sex Raid. In The Killer Raid you terrorize the group you're raiding, strip beds and dump shelves, put shaving cream on sleeping campers, or steal a bra or a pair of panties to hang on the flagpole. The Killer Raid demands a full cast of characters, the better to spread the legend. I remember one night at Keeyumah on a Killer Raid -- 12 campers and two counselors -- equipped with cans of shaving cream and talcum powder to really trash one of the girls' cabins. I never understood until much later why our counselors were taking us to this group of girls so much older than we were. It was because our counselors were dating their counselors, and our counselors wanted to use our Killer Raid as a cover for their Sex Raid.
The Sex Raid is usually a solo sortie, a boy sneaking into his girlfriend's bunkhouse (or vice versa). The quieter, the better. It gets embarrassing if there are too many witnesses. "Don't make it more than it is," says one girl counselor. "I've had three boys raid my girls this year, and all they do is sit at the edge of the bed and kiss a little. It's like watching Mork and Mindy. Nothing ever happens."
The name of the game at Echo Lark is "Beat Ed." Ed Shumsky is the boys' head counselor. All the older campers want to beat him. Few succeed. Shumsky prowls nightly -- sometimes joined by the assistant camp director, Billy Rose -- looking for lost raiders of the dark. He has caught boys on the path to girls' side, and caught girls in the boys' bunkhouses. He doesn't go to girls' side to catch boys there; he simply lies down in the bed of one of the raiders -- and waits for him to return.
The Top Athlete
Late in the summer, Echo Lark had a chance for an unprecedented sweep of the four major Wayne County under-16 boys' sports championships. With softball and street hockey already in hand, only basketball and soccer remained. At the core of each of the four teams was Rich Miller, the top athlete in the oldest boys' bunk, the waiters.
This year's Cory Zelnick.
Rich Miller is the definitive camp person, having spent every summer of his life at camp. His father, Joe, a principal on Long Island, was a camp counselor for almost 20 years (he was my counselor at Keeyumah for four years), and his mother, Sue, is currently assistant head counselor on girls' side here. That is the kind of pedigree that leads Rich Miller to appreciate what it means to be the top athlete in camp, to grab a piece of glory no one can ever take away, to be all alone at heaven's gate.
"All my life I looked up to the top athlete in camp," he says, rattling off names of his heroes over the years. "Those guys were my idols, and I've always dreamed of being in their situation. I'm a nice athlete at home, but nothing special. I should start as the soccer goalie in high school this year, and I'll probably make the basketball team -- but I probably won't play too much. I don't kid myself about that. I'm no king at home. School ball and camp ball are totally different.
"All through my camp years there was always someone older who was better than me, like Cory was last year. And at the end of last year, when I knew Cory was going to be a counselor, and I was coming back as a camper, I knew this was going to be my year, the year I'd always looked forward to. I knew down the stretch the ball would be coming to me. I knew everybody would looking to Rich Miller, to see if he could do it. I knew there'd be pressure, that if the team lost, more than likely everybody would blame me. I just hoped I'd be ready for it. I'm not going to lie to you; I like when they look at me -- I like the applause. Not that I'm bragging or anything. I'm not egotistical, and I would never call myself the best athlete in camp. But I told myself at the beginning of the summer, 'This is my last year, and this year is mine.'
"You know, last year in that championship game, when Cory hit the one-and-one to win it, I was out on the court with him, but my eyes were wandering. I was looking over at his girlfriend, and when he hit the shots, I saw her friends jumping all over her, and I could see that she was really proud to be Cory's girlfriend. In all my years of camping, the top athlete has always had one of the nicest looking girlfriends in camp -- no matter what he looked like.
"I'm very proud to be in this position. Very proud. I guess I'm prouder of this than anything else in my life so far."
The Big Game
The under-16 basketball championship, and basketball, is the biggest game in summer camp. Echo Lark vs. Equinunk. Equinunk brings almost 150 fans, dressed in candy-apple red shirts. Screaming. Cheering. Echo Lark has more than 200 people in its field house. Shouting. Yelling. MORE NOISE! MORE NOISE! Man, the joint was jumping, going round and round, reeling and rocking, what a crazy sound . . .
Camp ball. Nothing like it. Love it to death.
Just before the tap Rich Miller stands on the sidelines, staring into his private Zen black hole, knowing if this game is on anybody's shoulders, it's on his, and hoping that his are broad enough. His parents, Joe and Sue Miller, sit quietly in the stands. There's nothing more embarrassing than wildly cheering parents, especially camp staff parents, so they must play their emotions like poker hands and hope their insides can absorb the spillover. Bob Gould, the peripatetic owner, is pacing the sidelines. Billy Rose, the chief aide to Gould, is trying to keep his man happy, hoping he isn't wound too tight. Leland Roth, Cory's co-counselor, brings his 12- and 13-year-old campers from the Rapids bunk. Cory is on the bench, an assistant coach. Stacey Weiner, the camper Queen, is on her feet, part of an ad hoc cheerleading squad. Camp Rule No. 7: Although camps are for boys and girls, the boys are more equal than the girls, and both the boys and girls know it. So when the boys play a big game, the girls cheer. And no, there isn't a vice versa.
STAND UP! STAND UP!
GET PSYCHED! GET PSYCHED!
One of the older counselors, 23-year-old Dave Iskols, who was Cory Zelnick long before Cory Zelnick was, leans over and says, "By the way, this game tonight makes or breaks the summer for every kid out there."
As the game starts, Rich Miller's worst fears come true. Everywhere he goes three Equinunk players go with him, cover him tighter than a Tupperware lid; the Equinunk coach is trying to take from him this moment he has waited for all his young life. There is no way he has a big scoring night; the best he can do is play tough defense and look for assists. The good news is that Rich Miller is dominant enough to deserve a special defense. The bad news is it's actually happening.
Echo Lark breaks out big, 18-6 after one quarter, and 34-23 at the half. The campers rise and hold their hands together in a circle over their heads -- "A Standing O."
The second half opens with the same special defense on Miller, and now it begins to work as Equinunk closes to 42-34 after three, and 42-38 early in the last quarter. Somewhere from the girls' side there comes a cheer that girls would only try to get away with at camp: "We got the team. We got the guts. We got the other team by the n---." Miller is playing with four fouls; one more and it's bon voyage, thanks for the dance and see you around, sailor. But he picks the right time to go all out; his two baskets and two assists key a 12-point Echo Lark run to make it 54-38. When he fouls out with one minute remaining, Rich Miller has scored just 7 points -- his lowest total of the year -- but his team is winning 63-50. He gets a high-5 from Cory; Mr. Last Year congratulating Mr. This Year. And there is no more need to chant MORE NOISE!, because there simply can't be any more noise.
The boys from Rapids scream. Stacey smiles. Bob Gould preens. Billy Rose grins. Joe and Sue Miller exhale.
At the buzzer Rich Miller leaps into the arms of his teammates, and they hug tightly, as the sweat from their shirts drops off and makes a common puddle on the floor.
I can tell you a little about being the hero, and I can tell you a little about being the goat.
I was 14, and though I wasn't a complete basketball player, I sure could shoot from the outside. I owed it to my counselor, Larry Brown, who went on to play on the 1964 U.S.A. Olympic basketball championship team and in the ABA, and now he coaches the New Jersey Nets. If you let me have enough time to get my shot off, I was deadly from 18 to 22 feet.
It was a Color War game, the most important basketball game of the camp season for my group, and the word was, if I got hot, the game would be history. Shoot the lights out. Stick a fork in the other team, 'cause they're done, baby. The first two times down the court I parked myself at the top of the key and let fly. Bombs away. Nothing but net. The other team called time, and it thrilled me to death when I heard their coach yelling at his players, "I DON'T WANT KORNHEISER TO SHOOT. GET UP IN HIS FACE." I was golden and I loved it. I was headed for 30 points, total adulation and instant legend.
Unfortunately, they got up in my face.
I missed my next three shots. I started forcing, and missed my next four. Instead of stopping and feeding my teammates, I kept throwing 'em up. Bricks and air balls.
The worst of it was hearing people in the stands taunting me every time I touched the ball, screaming, "Shoot. Shoot." They hit me where I lived -- in my ego. Over the course of the game I missed 15 shots in a row, 15 freaking shots in a row!
We lost by 12 or 15, lost in front of the whole camp, and lost because I stunk out the joint. I not only put on one of the worst performances in camp history, but one of the most selfish ones as well. I was a disgrace. After the game, I didn't talk to anyone, and no one talked to me.
The thing about heroism is that it happens to everyone at camp, and it happens when you least expect it. An unathletic camper who has to suffer spasdom all season might find he has a talent for acting, get the lead in a camp show and hear the thundering applause he's waited for his whole life; a fat kid with a terrible self-image might suddenly find himself a star because the turning point of a relay race is an event he is a natural at -- like speed pie-eating. You never know.
For me it was archery. I was 10, and it was Color War. No one in my group had ever heard of archery, so we were all starting off even. We each got 10 arrows and the target was 30 yards off. The counselors strung the bows for us, then got the hell out of our way. I hit the target with all 10 arrows and got four bull's-eyes. Won the event singlehandedly. Was a natural. That night, I got the honor of lowering the flag at line-up. And every year after that when the time came for Color War archery, I was Mr. Robin Hood. Having known both the outhouse and the penthouse, let me assure you that the view is better from the penthouse.
If it is true that the quickest road to acceptability in camp is through athletics, it is equally true that the quickest road to notoriety is through outrage. Historically, camp legends are either great ballplayers or great crazies. If your goal is lasting camp fame, your last year as a camper you take it to the limit. Which leads to Camp Rule No. 8: Wherever they put it, the waiters' bunk is camp's answer to Animal House.
This year, Echo Lark's waiters dropped a bowling ball into a toilet to see if it would float (it didn't), attacked a stereo with a hockey stick to see how tough the stereo was (not tough enough), used a live frog as a hockey puck, and even had one of their own douse himself with pitchers of iced tea, because, in his words, "I like to feel disgusting." Invariably, camper waiters are mischievous, raucous and thoroughly whacko. They are a camp's heart and soul, the foot soldiers of adolescence.
Their funniest members this year are Seth Margolies and David Spiro, both 16, both spirited and both from Long Island. Every camp has a Seth Margolies, a large, floppy bundle of high energy, a tummler as he might be called in the Catskills, a physical comic. And every camp has a David Spiro, a thin, wiry shaman of the neurotic, a piercer, a stinger, Woody Allen-style.
David: "Let me be honest with you -- I'm nervous. I'm getting gas."
Seth: "I once was in the next urinal over from Jerry Vale. It's the closest I ever came to meeting a real star. I got his autograph. I asked him, 'Was it as good for you as it was for me?' "
David: "Seth's a slob. He blows his nose in my underwear."
Seth: "Last night I was nice; I blew my nose in your sleeve."
David: "Tell the man about your hemorrhoid condition."
Seth: "I once shaved half my head. I tried to set a trend. I led, but nobody followed."
David: "Maybe you shaved the wrong half."
Seth: "For me, there's nothing like walking past the little kids and hearing one say, 'Oh wow, I'd like to be just like him.' You see, I was a fat kid who used to get beat up all the time. I was a scapegoat, but I worked my way up to superstar."
Even though Echo Lark, as Bob and Zelda Gould say, "is not a social camp," the weekly Saturday social is by far the most eagerly awaited evening activity, and Saturday Night Fever heats up shortly after that evening's supper. As the boys in Rapids go through their pre-social rituals of blow-drying their hair, dousing themselves with enough musk oil to send a Canadian herd into apoplexy and contemplating whether they want to shave off that growth of cheek peach fuzz now or wait until next week when it really becomes barbed wire, they talk about the social activity at camp. Camp Rule No. 9: It is incumbent upon a camper to complain that the rules are too strict, that there isn't enough time with the opposite sex.
Adam Kurtz: "Boys and girls don't sit together enough."
Michael Goldman: "It's like an orthodox temple."
Alby Albert: "And even when you get to be with the girls, some of them are such 'preps' they don't even want to hold hands."
Sex is second only to sports as a topic of discussion in a bunkhouse of 12- and 13-year-olds, and on social night, it is second to none as they boast of (and probably invent) their summer sexual conquests. To hear them, there's nothing they wouldn't gladly fondle if only they could get their hands on it. Most claim "first base," and "Frenching" with their girlfriends. Some claim "second base" and "going up the shirts" of their girlfriends. A claim of second base, however, is immediately challenged: "Bull! You didn't even get up at bat yet."
There is some pressure to have a steady, a slightly greater pressure on the girl campers. The fear that a camper can be traumatized by complete sexual rejection is one reason the Goulds try to discourage formal socials. But all the Rapids -- even the ones without prospects -- are eager to go, and their counselors do their best to fan the sexual flames. Leland goes from camper to camper, telling each how "studly" he looks. Cory puts on a Diana Ross tape to provide the proper mood music, then advises each boy how to dress and helps some blow-dry their hair. The crowd around the one small mirror in the bunkhouse is four deep as Rapids continues with the Preening of America.
The social is held in the field house. And, as at all camps, the boys arrive before the girls. To see the moment the girls enter a social and make preliminary contact with the boys is to appreciate fully the fears that roil at the very core of a camp owner. You know, your mother told me all that I could give you was a reputation . . . There is not just a sense of sexual energy in the air -- there is a scent. Suddenly these are not just young boys and girls with pimples on their chins and braces on their teeth -- but Romeo and Lolita. Round, firm and fully packed. And, can you teach me how to dance real slow . . .
Scott "The Buffalo" Borsack, a veteran Echo Lark camper-become-counselor, acts as disc jockey, keeping a steady wave of sound flooding the arena. The bleachers that are normally set up have all been turned backwards and pushed to the corners to discourage campers from sitting like wallflowers. Rejection trauma is lessened by an innovative procedure -- Echo Lark counselors are required to dance at least one of three dances with campers. So, even the shyest and most socially awkward campers are dancing. After a while, with more than 150 people shaking it down in the center of the arena, and the rampant pubescent energy creating a force field of its own, the floor begins to look like a giant pinball machine, everything playing clean off the bumpers. And to keep them inside -- and not sneaking off into the bushes in still another camp game -- counselors guard each exit. Beat me short, but don't beat me long.
A social lasts 90 minutes. By the end The Buffalo has made his concession to the couples and has narrowed his ratio of fast songs to slow songs from 4 to 1, to 2 to 1. While this may separate the men from the boys, it certainly doesn't separate the boys from the girls. The lover boys of Rapids -- Michael Karyo, Alby Albert and Brian Zeiler -- are wrapped around their girlfriends so tightly that when he sweats, she gets wet. When I was at camp, we called this Grind Time. During Grind Time, the counselors would dim the lights and the older, more daring couples would passionately kiss for all to see. When enough of these sightings were made, the counselor in charge would change the beat; the next song would be something like a Sousa march.
The Buffalo knows the game.
His next tune is "Fame," and he turns it up so it shakes the hall.
Suddenly there are no more couples, only circles. Boys alone. Girls alone. Boys and girls together. Singing along.
You ain't seen the best of me yet
Give me time, I'll make you forget the rest.
Screaming to be heard.
I'm gonna live forever
I'm gonna learn how to fly.
Bonded together in friendship, their smiles like secret passwords, Rich Miller, David Spiro, Seth Margolies, Cory Zelnick, Leland Roth -- a small circle of friends.
Shouting. Throwing their fists into the air and leaving them to hang there like torches of teen-age freedom.
"BABY, REMEMBER MY NAME!"
In the disco darkness of the canteen, he is gliding along the floor, working on his moves. His slim hips move in time with whatever music comes through the juke box, never even slightly off beat. He has charm and confidence, grace and glisten. A bright boy, perhaps even bound for Yale after next year's high school graduation. A soft, model's face, framed by a shag rug of golden ringlets. Genetics has been good to him. The summer sun has been even better. Boys say, "When are you gonna give us some room"; girls say, "God, I hope he comes back soon . . ."
Peter "Munchie" Marber. Age 17. Introspective. Inquisitive. And lately, insecure. For nine fabulous summers, a camper. A star. This year, for the first time, a counselor. A big change, going from camper to staff, especially in camper-oriented Echo Lark. Camp Rule No. 10: Even if you don't wear a watch, you can't stop time.
"I didn't see the slide coming," he says.
He is sitting now. Let the music go on without him for a while.
"What I mean is, I was a waiter for two years. At the top, man. When you're a waiter here it's like, hey, you're there. We got what we wanted. I played on all the teams. I was one of the top guys. All the girls liked me. Then I come back as the youngest counselor. I'm too old to play on the teams, and I'm too young to really teach or coach. Wherever I go there are three or four counselors older than me who do the teaching and coaching. What I'm saying is, I came back and suddenly I'm on the bottom -- I didn't realize I was at the top until I came back and saw how it had peaked, and I was past it."
He makes his hand into a slide, and moves it from the top of his head to the soles of his shoes. Phhhllloooomm.
"I had all that fun, and I didn't even realize how much fun it was while I was having it. Being the youngest counselor is very frustrating. They tell me I'm doing a terrific job, but sometimes I feel so useless. I wanted older kids. They always give the youngest counselors the little kids; I guess I fooled myself into thinking that it wouldn't happen to me because I was Munchie. I get uncontrollably bored. I sleep a lot -- more than I ever did. I worry that I'll never get to the top again, because there's nothing like being the top camper. I feel like I'm on the shelf now -- out to pasture. 'You've had your good years, Munch -- that's it.' I just don't know what's going to happen. I mean, do I keep coming back and try to be like Smack? Do I go off to college and forget about this place? What do I do? I've lived my whole life here. The other day I was thinking: I'll go to college, then med school, then I'll come back as the camp doctor. I love this place that much. That's crazy, isn't it?"
The Load Out
With the last day of camp little more than a week away, The Buffalo was slouching toward his annual downer. "The last day is just the worst, the absolute worst," he says. "But the saddest thing for me isn't going home -- it's getting home. Getting home and going to sleep that first night in my own room, in my own bed, and waking up the next morning and saying, 'Let's go guys, everybody up.' And realizing there's nobody there but me . . . Three days I do that, and then I don't do it anymore; I know I'm home."
In the end there is one dance you do alone . . .
The Buffalo spits on the ground.
And says, "Home stinks."
I have thought and thought about camp. I have asked myself the basic questions. Why do I love camp? Why, after all these years, does it still have a hold on me? Am I simply afraid of growing up?
I have no answers. I do not think it is Never Never Land. I think it is a proving ground for adolescence and a training ground for adulthood. I remember having very real problems at camp, problems of fitting in with the bunk, problems of rejection by girls, problems of failing in athletics in crucial situations. Problems that I thought would haunt me for the rest of my life. But I also remember moments of great joy, heroic success. Solving those problems with the boys and girls, falling in like and falling in love. Hitting the winning shot or getting the winning hit in equally crucial situations. As I look back on 16 years of camp, I believe that every kid I ever camped with went through all those same moments, all those horrifying tragedies and all those stunning triumphs. And it occurs to me that something very special and significant happened to me at camp -- that I learned to live with other people in an intense, almost claustrophobic situation, and that together we learned how to grow up. To this day I feel closer to some people I went to camp with, people I haven't seen in 15 years, than I do to people I work with every day. I cannot explain this satisfactorily, even to myself. And I have stopped trying.
The day before I left camp, I walked to the highest point in Echo Lark, directly in front of the field house. From there I could look over the tops of the birch and fir and pine trees and see the boys' waterfront area at Keeyumah. It was cold and drizzly, and a low hanging fog seemed to make a marble cake out of the face of Sugar Loaf, the mountain that casts its shadow on the camp.
I stood there and watched that fog winding its way up and down the mountainside, swooping briefly over the campus, making even the waterfront disappear. It seemed to be teasing me, taking away little pieces of my past at its whim, robbing me of one last look at my roots, my essence. Then it rose again and suddenly I could see Keeyumah clearly. My past seemed exquisitely fine from this distance, and small enough that if I had long arms I could reach out and pick it up, and wrap it in my memory and carry it with me forever.