Like many other city boys, I went away each summer to a sleep-away camp, in my case one of the oldest ones, founded in 1904 and tucked away in the Adirondacks on the northern shores of Lake George. One of the counselors at that camp was also a teacher at the all-boys school I attended, so a fair number of boys went there. I started going in 1968, at the age of 8. I guess the rationale was that if I could survive second grade, then I could survive two months in the North Woods.
And so at the appointed hour early in June, all the boys assembled in front of the old Hotel Biltmore on Vanderbilt Avenue to take a bus 8 hours north to camp. Our trunks had been shipped ahead of us and contained a charming array of items which comprised the camp uniform. Quaint navy blue wool tank tops with a white “A” on the chest, matching equally quaint navy blue wool shorts with white stripes on each leg. We also had navy blue wool sweaters, also with the requisite “A” on the chest, in addition to a navy blue flannel shirt. The perfect ensemble for a boy heading off to camp in 1904 – except of course for the fact that it was 1968. But no matter, I think we were allowed some individualism with our pajamas and underpants.
As a parent, I’m not sure I could put my 8-year old on a bus and send him away for 8 weeks into the relative unknown, but I guess my parents got over that moral dilemma pretty quickly.
At any rate, I don’t think much had changed in the 64 years since the camp’s founding in 1904. Electricity was a luxury enjoyed only in select locations, and in the form of bare light bulbs illuminating key spots like the 12-seater outhouse affectionately known as The Perch, the washstand and a building charmingly known as headquarters. I think the infirmary also had electricity – and even possibly running water.
There were two main leitmotifs at work in the camp – a military structure with a Native American overlay. Boys were assigned to one of 5 cabins in 3 units – Junior Camp, Intermediate Camp or Senior Camp. Cabins were either known by a number like Junior One, or an Indian name – in this case Onondaga Lodge.
Our comings and goings were punctuated by bugle calls, and we assembled at the end of each day for Retreat – a flag lowering ceremony with bugle and cannon in which each cabin stood as a group and reported to the Camp Director on its status. “Onondaga Lodge, All Present and Accounted For, Sir!” delivered in stentorian terms and accompanied by a jaunty salute. If boys were away on a trip it would be “Onondaga Lodge, Two Absent and Accounted for, Sir!”
The big problem occurred when the report would be “Onondaga Lodge, One Absent and Unaccounted For, Sir!” Retreat would come to a grinding halt and the unfortunate reporter would be questioned about the last known whereabouts of the erstwhile camper. Eaten by wolves? Fallen down a Crevasse? Kidnapped by Hippies? (remember, this was 1968). Usually, by this point the tardy miscreant would come running up the ball field, face beet-red and thoroughly chagrined at having caused all that trouble. There were usually punishments meted out for such transgressions, including the withholding of desserts or some other privilege like a blanket or pillow, and possibly even corporal punishment of some kind. Because after all, if we dressed like pre-WW1 boys, shouldn’t we also be treated like pre-WW1 boys?
Seemed to make sense to me at the time, but so did lying on the ball field naked on towels with the rest of the campers for something charmingly called “Sun Bath” under the watchful (hopefully not too watchful if you get my drift) Counselors.
But more about the charming, quaint, somewhat baffling and hopefully-not-too-scarring-for-life other customs some other time.