Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time rewritten every line?
Memories that are brightly framed, decades after the original events, deserve to be savored and trusted as true. And among the most stirring recollections of camp are those from the last full day.
The long good-bye actually began a day earlier, when metal trunks were pulled from storage and brought to the foot of each bed—unwelcome reminders of summer’s end. The calendar had flipped too quickly. There were still laps to swim, frogs to catch, marshmallows to roast, songs to dance to, places to explore.
A frenzy of packing mingled clothes with crafts, favorite comics with bullet shells, dusty blankets with camp T-shirts. Even more precious than that baggage were the intangibles we’d carry back, things we had seen and done and learned since the last weekend of June.
All that pre-departure activity, energy and mixed emotions deserved a special meal, and veteran campers knew that one was ahead. It was guaranteed to be an evening of “We want Ladell” chants after we enjoyed pot roast or brisket—a savvy marketing move to send us home with praise for the food.
That set the stage for a hilltop ceremony that now seems like a movie scene. All 90 of us, first-graders through senior counselors, gathered after dark around our slowly draining pool for a somber, symbolic and schmaltzy bit of stagecraft . We placed lit candles in small tin baking cups and floated them on the water, holding hands, hugging, getting teary and promising to stay in touch.
To the tune of “Hi Lily, Hi Lo”, counselor Larry Stempel wrote:
It seems that camp takes a long time
But after it’s over, I see
That every joy that we shared in camp
Is just a memory
As time goes by, I remember
Those times that so quickly flee
I sit by my window and watch the rain
I ponder of old SSC
I wish that I could be back there again
For that place means so much to me
Older campers and teen-age counselors kept the flame alive in post-camp weeks by meeting for parties and trips to Rockaway Beach. The directors hosted a winter or early spring reunion that was mainly a pitch to parents for early deposits.
Some alumni also attended a 1977 reunion at the directors’ preschool opposite the north end of Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan 12 years after the camp closed, and a handful living around Washington, D.C., gathered there in 1980—further testament to the Super Glue-like adhesion those years, people and experiences still have on our emotions.
Memories light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were
Here’s how Leslie (Cooper) Fox, who spent the early and mid-1950s at our camp and returned in 1963, puts it: “Why is it that many of our daily occurrences pass through our consciousness so rapidly and we cannot recall them at all? Yet a place, long ago and far away, at which we spent only eight weeks a year for perhaps a few summers in our childhood can be recalled so vividly by each of us as to be positively spooky? What was it about the place? The people? I can see us now, gathered for flag raising.”
I can, too. And I’m looking at people who genuinely cared for each other, who enjoyed sharing and teaching, who were competitive and occasionally mischievous—but always honest, respectful, considerate mensches. Remarkably, Stern Summer Camp was a place that minimized bullying and cliques. Oh sure, there were teasing and pranks, but no cruelty or ruthlessness. A functional family, in other words.
We didn’t notice or appreciate it then, of course. It just was.
“It was a good place, a safe place where children could be children,” says Leslie. “This is all a great tribute to Gerry and Ellen and what they built up there in Pine Bush. They have given to us all who remember them, and SSC, the special gift of the caring environment they provided. The fact that they cared enough to do it right by us is their legacy.
“And we, who now recall those charmed summers of our youths, honor them by keeping their memory alive. I think they’d be pleased that after all these years, we still recall fondly our days at SSC.”
So it’s the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember the way we were
Without articulating it, we took meaningful steps—maybe our first big ones—toward discovering what we enjoyed, what we did well, who we were, what we might like to be when we grew up. We got to test ourselves in the security and relative freedom of an alternative world without homework, music lessons, assigned reading, dress codes (well, almost), visiting relatives, nosy neighbors, rival schoolmates and other strictures.
Our isolated, self-contained world was at the end of a narrow, unpaved road that symbolized a boundary between city and country, spring and fall, school and vacation, streets and fields, punchball and softball, parents and freedom, childhood and maturity.
Out of reach from the direct influence, traditions and expectations of parents and even the laser vision of our neighborhood pals, we tried new sports, performed on stage, took on leadership roles, welcomed new emotions. In other words, we flexed more than swimming and softball muscles.
And we learned from each other, with each other.
“It’s easier to be good when the people around you expect you to be the same,” Leslie Fox observed in a philosophical e-mail. “The childhood moral compass is not yet strong enough to function independently—and that’s where guidance and milieu come about. There was an expectation of goodness in the camp. It wasn’t preachy; it was just the way normal people act toward one another. This provided the framework around which everything else was able to function. It was a healthy atmosphere.”
We went there at a time of political, social and cultural change. But with assassinations, Vietnam escalation and the Age of Aquarius still ahead, our idyllic campground was an oasis of innocence that had Marlboros but no pot, panty raids but no evident Schlitz-sneaking, patriotism without protests.
“Was it perfect? Of course not,” Leslie acknowledged. “Were there undoubtedly the usual childhood cruelties and pettiness? Naturally. I’m sure I wasn’t happy all the time. But that doesn’t affect the overall way we view the experience today.”
Within a few years, we’d be taking calculus and applying to college, singing along with “Let’s Spend the Night Together” instead of “They Call It Puppy Love,” and watching Dylan, Joplin, Morrison and Hendrix bump all those guys named Bobby off the Top 40. Our Jewish culture would blend with the counter-culture, and we’d wear embroidered jeans, tie-dye, peace symbols, longer hair.
But we’d carry the values—honesty, respect, teamwork, love of family—that were reinforced as we put on musicals, competed in color wars, listened to Sholem Alecheim morality tales and learned lifelong lessons. We value our camp months as a clear, dramatic transition time from adolescence to young adulthood and who we have become now. More than school, the concentrated and intense eight-week crucible was the first place we thrived, explored, experimented and maybe rebelled a tiny bit outside the nest.
Such a bargain our folks got for the price.