We tramped, teased and talked late into each night of our 74-camper trip back through time at the Nevele in Ellenville, N.Y., and our former camp in nearby Pine Bush. Songs and laughter were in the air and memories filled our minds as we felt what more than a few reunion participants described as “magic.”

Decades seemed to fade away as we wore Stern Summer Camp blue crest T-shirts, played softball, sang “God Bless America” exactly where we did on past summer mornings, and taunted and hugged each other after trips across the continent and beyond. Two sisters flew in from London, another camper came from the Netherlands and the prize for longest journey went to a multiple time zone-hopper from Australia. What juveniles we all became again as familiar faces, voices, mementos and settings awakened our inner campers June 27-29, 2003.

We are fifty-five, going on sixty-five
Aren’t we old for camp?
People not here must think that we’re queer
To sing things like ‘tramp, tramp, tramp.’  

But there was nothing imaginary or forced about the emotions and respect that silenced chatter as Gloria Langsam and Marcy Jackson lit candles Friday evening and Leslie Cooper Fox stirringly chanted the Sabbath blessing.

The hush remained as Norman Langsam opened the tattered volume of folktales that he held on earlier Friday evenings in the Catskills. His expressive, evocative readings of “It Could Be Worse” and “Cunning vs. Greed” by Sholem Aleichem were as timeless as the parables themselves.

On-key memories

That pitch-perfect tone continued all evening and Saturday as old songs and a pair of new ones extended one of co-director Gerry Bucky’s most colorful legacies.

“Music was a daily part of my father’s life,” recalled his 55-year-old son, Steve, who was at SSC from its 1948 debut through its 1965 finale. His dad, who earned a Swiss doctorate in music and directed operas in Paris before his wartime emigration, relaxed with opera recordings each afternoon at his retirement condo in San Diego until shortly before his death at 94 in July 2002.

“Gerry laid the foundation for my entire musical education,” Elaine Hanauer Ravich told fellow alumni before singing a good-natured sendup of the camp founders with Dick Goldsmith. She recalled Upper Manhattan station wagon rides to Stern Nursery School as Gerry tuned in a classical radio station and quizzed her about symphonies and composers.

Similarly, Barbara Eisner Bayer earlier remembered that “my first performing experience was at camp” and added: “The influences I received from this camp totally made me who I am today. I’ve incorporated all of the lessons.” She sang professionally in regional theaters and is “still active in competitive sports.”

Reunion song coordinator Elyce Wakerman, another veteran of the SSC stage, helped recapture those memories by compiling a 10-page collection of lyrics—including a clever, touching new ballad (excerpted above) to the tune of “Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” from “The Sound of Music.” As she sang after dinner Saturday:

We are parents and teachers and therapists
Some with our PhDs
Kids that we raised are grown and amazed
We’re wearing our old-time T’s

Singer-songwriter Larry Stempel, another lyricist making his Catskills debut, also delivered a poignant performance that enchanted evening—an update of his anthemic “It Seems Like Camp Takes a Long Time,” a 1958 classic to the tune of “Hi Lili, Hilo.” The 2003 version adds these stanzas:

And now what once seemed a long time
Gets shorter and shorter each year . . .
The games, the jokes, the friends, the Cokes
Can all this disappear?

There was a camp up in Pine Bush
That’s what brings us all here:
To bask in the glow of those campfires then,
And feel all that’s now come and gone.
And know, though there’s no going back again,
The spirit of camp will go on.

An equally creative and moving contribution came from Ruth Eisenberg Wouk, who read a 13-verse poem with sentiments like this:

Memories still return to me,
Some nights when I lower my lamp,
Of when the world was safe, and our hearts were free
Back when we were Stern Summer Camp.

In less melodic presentations, words just as heartfelt were shared at two presentations with Steve Bucky at the microphone. The directors’ son began by leading a discussion about the attractions, lessons and legacies of our summer place—”an extension of home,” as Shirley Gola Enselberg put it after breakfast Saturday.

Lenny Loewentritt, a camper and counselor from 1950-65, echoed that sentiment. He recalled “the continuity of the people and how incredibly caring everyone was—it was family.”

For Allen Meyer, “age was not as relevant at camp” as it was at school. “We were a fraternity.” And for Monica Fleishmann, who grew up as somewhat of an ethnic outsider in Teaneck, N.J., camp provided a “Jack in the box” opportunity to pop out and flourish in a comfortable atmosphere each summer. During other seasons, she explained, “I lived in the box. Camp was where I came alive.”

Harry Pomerantz, who traveled to the Nevele from Holland, also felt liberated during those getaways. “Camp was the place you could act out everything you couldn’t do during the year,” he said.

Lingering shadows

Other speakers noted the historic context behind a camp founded in 1948 by Jewish emigres from Germany, serving families who generally shared that background.

“Camp was where I learned to be an American kid,” said Harry Reis. “I didn’t play baseball before . . .  and it showed.”

Harry Hertz recalled an era when our parents “still had fears . . . and saw camp as a safe haven for us.” For Elaine Hanauer Ravich, “camp was my substitute extended family” after a war that claimed grandparents and other relatives. “I had no cousins, no older siblings. I needed people to show me how to grow up.”

For those reasons and others, Allen Meyer remembered, “there was a lot of stress on us growing up. We glamorize Washington Heights, but it was a tough, struggling neighborhood. We needed a place to segue from youth to adulthood.”

Many of us also made a transition from our families’ European backgrounds to the culture of their new homeland. “That Americanization of us happened at camp with flag raising, Taps and anthems,” noted Yvonne Eichel Sherrington, now a Londoner.

Irving Weiler, a 1948 SSC pioneer, tried to see that process through his folks’ eyes. “My parents arrived right after the war and struggled to assimilate. It helped to have their child out of the way (during summer) while they continued this struggle to become Americans.” Weiler, who married camper Evelyn Neu (though they didn’t meet at camp), feels SSC helped both generations “because I needed to become American, too.”

Wartime odysseys

The thread was woven into a larger pattern that evening in a banquet room, where we shared four meals below a navy and white reunion banner with the camp crest.

At a pre-dinner reception hosted with former camper Marilyn Grossman, whom he met at camp and later married, Steve traced his parents’ odysseys from Germany to 1803 Riverside Drive in the Inwood section on Upper Manhattan. That’s where their paths fatefully crossed in the mid-1940s when Gerry enrolled his son Jean-Bernard (Bernie) in Ellen’s Stern Nursery School—which later served as the camp’s farm club.

He also sketched in more backstory of our accordion-playing, musical-staging “uncle” and his second wife, affectionately recalled by Steve and others as a daredevil, glove-wearing driver who navigated country roads and Alpine passes with elan—and unintended thrills. A running gag involved Ellen’s touchless driving as she used her hands to illustrate the size of a Pine Bush skunk that survived a close encounter with the station wagon—a gesture that left passengers hoping they’d be as fortunate.

Below the joking ran a river of respect for our July and August surrogate parents.

“This was a second family for many of you,” Steve acknowledged. “My parents sincerely cared about you, and your parents knew that. In the context of having fun, my parents were totally serious about a family atmosphere and commitment to learning.

“Fairness and acceptance really mattered . . . There was a lot of learning that connects us with who we are.”

Applying insights as a psychologist, as well as an insider of both the Bucky family and the symbolic camp family, Steve delved deeper into the “play as child’s work” aspect of our formative vacations . . . providing an articulate voice-over for thoughts many shared.

“I learned much more at camp than at home about how to deal with emotions and feelings,” he commented. “We were able to experiment in ways that complemented values we got at home and compensated for weaknesses” in our upbringing. After all, he noted, most of “our parents were just a few years out of horrendous activity” in Europe and couldn’t necessarily set the backdrop for carefree childhoods, as Steve put it.

He quoted Lenny Loewentritt’s recollection of a home life with “no frivolity,” and earlier in the day acknowledged that in his own Riverside Drive apartment, “we didn’t talk about emotions. For (our generation of) kids growing up in New York City, life was 98 percent responsibility and 2 percent fun.”

In Pine Bush, though, “it was OK to be whoever we were,” Steve said. “Most people at camp felt accepted regardless of their abilities” at sports, performing or puzzles. “The lesson was to be the best we can be.”

Former head counselor Frank Jackson joined the evening recognition by saying: “This was more than a camp to me. Gerry and Ellen were our friends. It was a way of life, it was a home.” (Frank reprised that way of life the next morning, incidentally, by returning to the softball mound and earning a hit at bat—as the senior player at age 84.)

On with the show

Tributes also were voiced briefly by the three reunion coordinators and by Elyce ‘Eliza’ Wakerman, performing “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely” in her best Cockney accent as campmates joined in. Ruth Eisenberg Wouk warmly saluted the Buckys and the event organizers during her touching poetic salute.

After a wide-angle group photo and the meal, more mirth, merriment and music unfolded.

And oh what heights we hit, starting with an attention-grabbing rendition of another familiar show tune from our soundtrack—”Tonight,” sung by Barbara Eisner Bayer, whose professional singing experience was evident.

It clearly would not be just any night.

We raffled off a new Nok-Hockey game, gave out books, CDs and videos to the youngest camp returnee (Nancy Jackson Brandeis), the oldest (her dad Frank and Norman Langsam), the longest traveler (Peter Waxman of New South Wales) and those who shared memorable artifacts (Harry Pomerantz’s fifth-grade composite with seven campers and Mike Hirsh’s original steamer trunk).

The dandy games also included a Trivia Quiz, highlighted by the shouted answer to a question about favorite make-out spots: “Wherever Frankie Louis was.”

Post-dinner catching up on each other’s lives and photo collections stretched past midnight in our lounge and a second-story deck bar.

Up in Pine Bush

As nourishing as all those words and warblings were for the soul and mind, the main course of our weekend menu of nostalgia was a three-hour visit to the “hallowed ground” at the end of Sheldon Road. It was, as forecast, a surreal and emotional feeling to drive up that familiar lane—still instantly recognizable, even with a half-dozen new homes.

We paid homage to our home, sweet home partly by singing the patriotic anthem that ends with that phrase. We peeked into the refurbished Rec Hall, being converted into living space, and visualized the hilltop pool, main house and circular tree bench. The tree, at least, still stands.

The Fair Ladies’ bunk gained a front porch and spiral staircase to lower-level residential space (former boys’ bunks) used by a sculptor, Meadow, who graciously allowed our invasion.

A weedy tennis court and the former infirmary, now under separate ownership, helped orient our bearings. The silver water tank and home plate backstop are gone, and the left-field ditch is a pond—intentionally, now.

After subs, salads, watermelon and cupcakes, we planted two fruit trees in honor of SSC’s founders—with shovel duties shared by their daughter-in-law, Eve Bloch Bucky Villano, their granddaughters, Debby Bucky Birrer and Janet Bucky Moore, and great-grandchildren Sarah Moore and Lynne Birrer. The trees, placed on the main lawn where we danced during socials and played Steal the Flag, add 21st century roots to the family’s living legacy that stretches far from that soil.

Same cast, same stage

These restaged vignettes seemed like reshot Super 8 movie scenes, a series of walk-throughs by older actors on a redecorated stage in the mountains . . . with a familiar playlist and sense memories of accordion tunes, ‘Chopsticks,’ loudspeaker announcements, a mealtime hand bell, scratchy 45’s, campfires, roasted marshmallows, vending machine Cokes and floating candles.

The mountain landscape we parachuted into on a sunny June weekend was small—”humble,” our Wall Street Journal observer said—but its tug on the head and heart couldn’t be minimized.

“Camp had a monumental impact on us,” Steve Bucky said in opening the forum he moderated, and the flow of recollections showed it wasn’t an overstatement.

For those who traveled back, T-shirts and photos aren’t the only homecoming keepsakes—just the most tangible ones.

We are fifty-five, going on seventeen . . .