The weeds at the entrance gate are waist high, jellyfish glide lazily through holes in the nets down at the beach and the spiderwebs hang in silken gobs in corners of the girls' and boys' bunkhouses.
Camp Kaufmann is closed this summer.
It is also for sale.
This time next year, 100 acres of woodland and ball fields and a 2,000-foot Chesapeake Bay frontage could easily become a private estate, a corporate retreat or just another Mondo Condo Vacation Hideaway and Marina in burgeoning Calvert County.
This is shocking news to those of us who spent some of the most important parts of our childhood at this playground for underprivileged Jewish children.
To some, of course, "underprivileged Jewish child" is a contradiction in terms, right up there with military intelligence, feminist humor and managing editor.
But in the Washington of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, there were indeed hundreds of Jewish children whose parents could not afford to pack them off to expensive camps with lakes and mountains and names like Whistling Water and Oconomowoc.
For three or four weeks each summer, we, the children of steamfitters and secretaries, waiters and housewives, tailors and clerks, went to Kaufmann Camp for Washington Boys and Girls on scholarship -- though there were richer children, too -- along with Protestant and Catholic kids -- to enhance diversity.
"No camper or staff member ever knew which of the children were scholarship cases or full pay," said Phil Fox, the late director emeritus, in a 1983 fundraising appeal. With his wife, Sis, he ran Kaufmann with a referee's whistle, an iron hand and golden heart from its second year of operation in 1953 until his retirement in 1979.
I arrived with some trepidation in 1955 when I was 9 and reluctantly said farewell six summers later, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 14. How lucky I felt to escape the muggy confines of Silver Spring for three weeks of high adventure on Chesapeake Bay.
It was at camp that I learned the mysteries of canoes and rowboats, finally concluding that proficiency at the helm of either contributed not a whit to bust development. It was here, too, I reasoned that tennis and archery were sports best left to girls at boarding schools, and that the only way to stay alert during Friday night services was to sing in the choir, where dozing was considered extremely bad form. Possessed of great manual dexterity from an early age, I mastered lanyard making in a trice.
This was all hot stuff for the daughter of a cab driver and a dressmaker, both of whom had lived what sounded to me far more interesting lives in Warsaw and Paris than they did in their adopted home in suburbia.
In short, camp was serious cultural enrichment.
It was in that foreign country called Southern Maryland that I first saw corn and tobacco growing in neat rows, and poor blacks living in shanties; that I played still- legal slot machines, fell asleep to the music of croaking frogs and chirping crickets and awoke to make perfect hospital corners on the very beds I later learned to short-sheet.
It was there, too, I learned about homesickness and teamwork, kindness and pettiness, about competition and solitude, and, of course, about boys. But more on that later.
Camp was both spartan and exotic. The bunkhouses were paired wooden boxes that slept eight or nine campers, and were divided by common bathrooms. Windows were wooden flaps propped open with sticks, beds were metal frames with simple ticking mattresses, and all our worldly goods were supposed to be folded neatly into pine "cubbies."
Taking a shower meant hiking down a wooded dirt path to a cement showerhouse, and perhaps encountering a garter snake, rabbit or other harmless beastie en route.
In the beginning, swimming and boating took place in the bay, where the jellyfish slithered into our bathing suits with dismaying regularity as the summer wore on. But in 1960, Mrs. Charles "Aunt Minnie" Goldsmith, whose family fortune came from the old Lansburgh's department store, saved us from the stinging slimies by giving the camp a pool built with $60,000 she helped raise. In it, I learned to swim, dive and execute a reasonable cross-chest carry if, God forbid, I ever had to save someone from drowning.
Personally, I much preferred to roam the beach between Breezy Point and Scientists Cliffs in search of sharks' teeth that washed ashore, and by my sixth summer had collected more than 300 of them. I must confess, however, that my prize tooth, a symmetrical three incher, was found in the staff parking lot, obviously having fallen from someone's pocket.
There are other vivid memories:
The perpetual futility of entering the camp talent show as long as Bobbi Goodman was there to cop first prize dancing in pink tutu and toe shoes.
The pandemonium the night a bat flew into the bunk, driving us into a shrieking frenzy to don bathing caps as protection against whatever nasty bat gunk might wind up in our hair, the only known cure for which, we fervently believed, was head shaving.
The shock of tuning in WPGC, the only rock and roll station strong enough to reach Plum Point, and hearing a voice come out of my turquoise Motorola portable saying that my orthodontist had committed suicide.
The discovery of Nabisco chocolate fudge cookies, supplied by parents and accommodating counselors, and our attempt to cram eight giggling girls into the bathroom at midnight for a pig-out.
But my most enduring favorite vignette took place 25 years ago this summer, when photographer Henry Tobin arrived at our cabin to shoot our group portrait.
"Get the rollers out of your hair, put on your whites and come outside," he ordered.
We didn't budge. It wasn't that we didn't want to pose for the sort of picture only a parent could love. We just weren't ready to take down our hair five hours before the dance.
So we compromised, and Tobin snapped a photo of nine smiling teenagers, seven of whom wore scarves or hats to hide rollers and pincurls that the two more fortunate frizzy-heads clearly did not need. Life at a co-ed camp was tough enough without needlessly jeopardizing one's coiffure.
I learned a lot about boys my last three summers at camp, and a lot about the rules regarding behavior with same.
Innocent flirtations and summer romances between campers were okay if you stopped short of unseemly behavior in public or private. Carrying on with junior counselors and counselors was less okay, but still within the realm of acceptability if both parties were wholesome, discreet and Jewish.
The line, however, was drawn, at waiters and dishwashers, most of whom were blond, blue collar, gentile and great dancers. In these cases, ardor was crushed with the reminder that there was to be "no fraternizing" among campers and staff
Pity. There was no telling how many little hearts raced at the mere thought of slow dancing with Cookie the dishwasher, a teen-age Steve McQueen from Southeast whose name I've long since forgotten. But I'll carry forever the sound of his sexy raspy laugh, and the memory of blond hair, pale eyes, a pug nose to die for and a luscious lower lip to which, it seemed, an unfiltered cigarette was always perilously appended.
To be fair, I would have gotten no further with Cookie at home than I did at camp, for my parents, and hundreds of others I'm sure, considered non-Jewish men as forbidden as a ham sandwich.
So I did the right thing my last summer, and took up with one Richie Feldman, a counselor two years my senior. When I returned to Silver Spring in midsummer, he would visit me on his days off, and regularly wrote letters full of Kaufmann gossip and sweet nothings, the most poetic of which I instantly committed to memory.
"This morning, driving back to camp, we saw a beautiful pink cloud on the Baltimore- Washington Parkway. I think you are even more beautiful than that," he wrote, and I believed him.
The natural progression of camp life would have taken me on to junior counselor, a non-paying job I desperately wanted but did not get. Perhaps it was my sleepwalking, or maybe the cigarette smoking. It could've just been all-around obnoxiousness or one too many rude cracks about the fix being in for Bobbi the ballerina in the talent show.
Of all my subsequent employment rejections, including that of Rome correspondent for Women's Wear Daily, none was as devastating, probably because I've never loved an institution quite the way I loved Kaufmann.
Now it is about to disappear, and the big question is why.
Surely there are still underprivileged Jewish kids in the metro area, even if the median income of Jewish families is approaching the $50,000-a-year mark. There are the sons and daughters of divorced and single parents, the children of Soviet and Israeli emigres and large Orthodox families.
But the funds once supplied so generously by the pillars of the Jewish community do not flow they way they did in the 1950s and '60s, when men like Cecil and Joel Kaufmann of the Kay Jewelry store chain, lawyer Simon Hirshman, kitchen supply magnate Fred Kogod and businessman Frank Rich could simply write checks or put the friendly arm on their associates to cover emergency repairs or sports equipment purchases.
When Kaufmann was first conceived, these men and dozens of others raised an impressive $330,000 for land acquisition and construction, $75,000 of which came from the Kaufmann clan, thus explaining the camp's catchy name.
For their part, Camp Kaufmann became a private eleemosynary preserve of businessmen with hard cash and soft hearts. This is not to say they did not enjoy themselves immensely, among other things having spent one fundraising evening on a Potomac River stag cruise for which Gypsy Rose Lee was the entertainment.
Times changed. Successful Jewish businessmen and their wives who were shut out of WASPy Washington society in those days now enjoy the fruits of assimilation, and the next two generations of potential Kaufmann supporters often chose to give to less sectarian or more socially advantageous charities.
Young professionals like me and my former bunkmates were never approached about giving money, and had no idea the camp was in trouble until it was too late.
Earlier this summer, a dedicated group of former counselors and campers planned a Last Visitors Day, inviting all interested Kaufmannites among the 22,000 who went there to drive out for a final afternoon of nostalgia and mega-depression. The idea was nixed by the board of directors who feared someone would get injured.
Despite the rebuff, the alumni association still hopes to raise money for Camp Kaufmann scholarships for kids spending the summer elsewhere.
"This is admirable but hardly the same thing," I complained recently to a Jewish demographer who sincerely believes that my little corner of paradise just outlived its usefulness.
In a voice soothing and gentle enough to calm a bunk full of screeching, bat-crazed girls wearing bathing caps, he said simply, "Camp Kaufmann may have died but it surely did not fail."