You needed no alarm—neither one that rang a bell, nor a clock radio crashing the morning’s quiet. You rose when you were sated with slumber, stretching and yawning in brazen indulgence, reaching out by reflex to the chair beside the bed where comic books were stacked, the reading by nightlight from the previous evening to be finished near the window by the bed, the shade now drawn up, the sun lighting the pages just as it burned off the last drops of mountain morning dew from the sprawling grounds.
The bungalow colony was mostly still asleep; here and there compatriots were rousing. In your cramped room the sweet smell of the country morning seeped through the window screen. You scurried from the bed, intent on beating your brother to the bathroom, the flowered linoleum so cold beneath your feet. The ancient plumbing—a stall shower and the sink with two separate faucets, hot and cold—made it impossible to blend the water to a tolerable temperature. You brushed your teeth with Colgate, or Pepsodent, hurriedly washed hands and face, and stormed the kitchen, ravenous. You devoured a bowl of Sugar Frosted Flakes, topped with banana slices, all in the melamac bowls that were as much a sign of summer in the country as daisies and apple trees. Then a fresh, feathery challah roll, spread with Breakstone’s cream cheese, and a large glass of icy cold orange juice—Tropicana or Crowley’s. The kitchen table was thick luncheonette Formica, the chairs steel shafted and covered with vinyl either yellow or red.
All the time you had an eye on the handball court, counting the arrivals, careful to appear in time to be chosen in for the day’s first stickball game. You quickly laced your Keds, or PF Flyers, and ran through the screen door as if it didn’t exist, and off to join friends, the hint of jasmine and pollen filling your nostrils.
You’d hardly played ten minutes when the loudspeaker came on. The first scratchy, static announcement of the long day was the needle on the old, warped record Revele. Then the sleepy, gravely voice of the camp director: first call for camp. Day camp line up in ten minutes. The first morning activity was a softball game against the colony on the other side of town. You’d been oiling your mitt for two days to be sure it was supple and grooved in the pocket. The camp director climbed behind the wheel of his battered station wagon, your counselor and a few kids crammed in the front seat beside him, the rear seat turned down to hold the rest of your group, “the senior boys.” You sit Indian style, your bottom catching a beating on the old dirt and gravel road. The windows are opened wide, and the sweet summer air floods the car, and you arm wrestle with your best friend and then work a softball into the pocket of your glove, and watch the road and the trees and the forest move by until, after your tush is numb and your knees locked under, the car slows and pulls onto the ground of the other colony.
The other colony is perhaps 4 or 5 miles from your own, but it feels so foreign it might just as well be Japan. It’s like something from a Rod Serling script for the Twilight Zone, a real parallel universe. This colony is identical to your own, but in almost every way it is still somehow different, too. It has a ball-field, a pool, a camp house, casino, and a colony store. There is the ubiquitous PA system and the intrusive announcements. Tenants are paged for phone calls all throughout your game, but the names are unfamiliar, as are the faces of the parents who’ve schlepped lounge chairs to the ball-field to watch their progeny defend the colony’s honor with bat and ball. The game begins and moves swiftly, and soon the July sun is hot and high in the robin’s egg Catskill sky, and the heat builds, till your tee shirt is sticking to your back and your throat turns to cotton, and your tongue tastes the salt of the beads on your face, and you begin dreaming of a tall, cold, sweating bottle of Orange Crush, or Teem, and then the smooth, pristine, blue surface of your colony pool, waiting for you to slip inside.
The game is over, and you are on your way home, again in the rear of the ragged station wagon. Did you win or lose? Looking back, it is so hard to recall. You remember only that your best friends in the world are all around you in the back of that car, trading baseball cards and telling lies and choosing sides for the post camp stickball games, and constructing stories for the colony loudspeaker retelling who were the heroes of the morning’s skirmish.
Your mom neglected to prepare lunch, and so you eat in the colony store, or coffee shop, or concession. Cheeseburgers, or hot dogs, or frozen pizza, or chicken or tuna sandwiches, with Bon Ton potato chips and bottles of soda picked cold from the cooler near the counter, the one that slid back and showed just the bottle tops, the caps opened and popped from the metal bottle opener fastened to the side of the massive fridge. Maybe there was a lime Rickey, mixed at the counter, or an egg cream. You complained that the 20-cent egg cream was too sweet, and the glass was given more seltzer. Then you demanded more syrup, and then, before they knew what hit them, you’d had two or three egg creams for your one. How did they fall for this each timer, with each kid? Or did they? Today you know better. The colony pool seemed so large, the deep end unfathomable, even though you managed to swim down, touch bottom, and return to the surface in one long breath. Your friends mounted your shoulders, and then you mounted theirs, for chicken fights. You slid into fat, inflated black inner tubes, sizzling in the summer sun, floating along like ships at sea. In those years BSB (Before Sun Block) the bright, sun bleached afternoons stretched on, baking you redder by the hour, until later in the day you had turned a lobster tone, awaiting the inescapable application of Noxema, creamy white and malodorous, yet somehow soothing to your blistered skin.
After swim you ran back to the bungalow for a quick change to shorts and tee shirt, then back to camp for milk, or ice cream. Do you remember what it was like to run somewhere? You rarely walked. You dashed everywhere. Legs flew and the breeze touched your forehead, and everything flashed about you like a movie run at advanced speed. And you never got winded, or tired, and your legs never ached or cried for rest. You were an endless font of energy, a storehouse of untold vigor and strength. Do you remember the small containers of Crowley’s chocolate milk? They were cocoa brown, and opened by peeling back a small aluminum strip. There were fudgicles and creamsicles, the icy orange coating giving way to a soft vanilla underbelly. Oh, and mella-rolls! How marvelous were these creations? Where on God’s earth are they today? A short, fat log of ice cream wrapped in paper, the memory smoother, creamier, richer, tastier, more sumptuous than Haagen-Daz or Ben and Jerry’s. You sat in the shade of the tall pines, tossing the feathered pine needles and cones at your buddies, racing to finish your ice cream before it melted on your fingers, sticky and sweet, then wiped clean on your cut off denim shorts.
Later in the day camp closed out with arts and crafts, or kickball, or a hike through the woods to the Indian fort your friends had labored on long and hard to surprise the dads. After camp there was time for a swim—the best pool time because there were no counselors to reprimand your horseplay—and you cavorted and carried on in the pool like a fish born to the water, happy just to be wet and cold and untamed. You swam and played till your mom shouted you in for dinner.
Dinner was the day’s biggest meal. Usually there was meat—either burgers or hot dogs or steaks grilled over hot coals, or chicken slathered in “Saucy Susan.” Sometimes there were chicken cutlets covered in Corn Flake crumbs, or, on a bad day, liver. There was always starch—potatoes, rice and corn. Another vegetable accompanied the meal—usually canned or frozen. Sometimes there were baked beans—Heinz Vegetarian Beans, the can read. If you had asked your mom extra nicely there might be salmon croquettes with spaghetti and, perish the thought, ketchup instead of marinara sauce. This was all followed by huge quantities of sweet and juicy summer fruits—large peaches, nectarines, plums, dark red cherries, lush melons, and magnificent watermelon, so red and sweet and wonderful that God Himself must have placed the seed.
After dinner the day raced towards evening, but this was summer, and the light refused to surrender the sky. You played ball until it was too dark to see, then switched to ring-a-leevio, Johnny on the pony, hide and seek, various versions of tag. Your mom finished off dinner dished and sat on the lawn with friends, kibitzing for an hour or so prior to initiating their evening’s recreation—either cards or mah-jongg.
Soon you are shouted inside, the cold night air still bracing in your lungs. A hot shower waits in the bathroom—never a bath, always a shower in the stall unit tucked into the corner. Afterwards, toweled dry, hair still damp, pajamas toasty warm, you climb between cold, sharp sheets, eager to launch into the pile of Superman and Batman comics aside your bed. Soon your brother is asleep, his comic book falling from his hand, his breathing steady and nasal and the only sound in the small bedroom. Soon your eyes grow heavy and you re-read the same page once, twice, a third time. You manage to reach up to the small chain on the reading light, pulling it once, the room now shuttered in darkness. Outside the bungalow night has settled on the Catskills. The air is cool, as it moves through the woods, leaves rustling slightly in the breeze. You tug the summer blanket about your shoulders, turning towards the wall, eyes shut, and you drift off to thoughts of softball and swimming, sodas and stickball, ping pong and pinball. You have no way of knowing or sensing that you’ve been chosen and blessed, granted a very unique and enchanted magic, to be gifted a time and a place to remain alive in your heart for the rest of your days.
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