The sharp-focus lens of hindsight zooms in with narrow precision on nuggets that were tiny pieces of the Pine Bush picture. Now these shiny gems stand out as important bits of the memory mosaic, like food, fashion or music cues that bring back a special evening, distant friendship, or vacation spot.
This ex-camper, for instance, can’t watch a Monarch butterfly glide, see tadpoles wriggle in a pond or surprise a garter snake without flashing back to Stern Summer Camp. Salamanders, bonfires and marshmallows browned on a stick also remain a few of my favorite things.
The mental lists are as individual as laundry name-tags and as shared as early rock classics. Let’s see how much mine overlap with yours:
- Frosty Cokes bought with nickels or dimes from a bright red vending machine with a pewter-color handle we pushed down to release an 8-ounce, green bottle with a base as thick as Buddy Holly’s glasses.
- Spent bullet and shotgun shells, gathered like exotic trophies from around hunting blinds or a firing range next to the riding stables we patronized.
- Chasing down obscure items for nighttime Scavenger Hunts by combing through our bunks, the kitchen, the infirmary and the office.
- Enjoying frozen Milky Ways, Snickers, Fudgesicles and Creamsicles bought from a coil-topped, round refrigerator at a bungalow colony “store” less than two miles from camp. That outpost’s memorable name: Vienna Rest.
- A boxy, rusted jalopy with bare wire wheel rims, seat springs and a steering column—just enough to feed a young guy’s fantasies as he climbed behind the wheel in a back corner of the grounds.
- Curling up on the lawn, water tank or an Adirondack-style chair during afternoon “free time” with a Hardy Boys book or Alfred Hitchcock Presents magazines with mystery stories.
- Passing around colorful 10-cent treasures that told and showed the adventures of Batman, Superman and Archie—as well as the slightly higher-brow pulp literature of Classics Illustrated.
- A rustic stream bridge made of logs and tree-branch handrails, which served as a passageway to our stone campfire circle.
- An amphibian-rich drainage ditch, dubbed Bullfrog Paradise, where we used a butterfly net to snare the slowest creatures.
- Weekly deliveries by a Duggan’s Bakery truck, a chance to buy small lemon or cherry tarts, cupcakes or frosted doughnuts from the driver for a quarter.
- Watching sparks from glowing logs flicker in the night as we sang “Round About the Blazing Campfire Light” and “On Top of Old Smokey”. (Equally memorable was the rewritten “On Top of Spaghetti”, a saga of losing a poor meatball that rolled off the table, onto the floor and right out the door.)
- Husking corn for the evening meal on a patio outside the kitchen. “It smelled so good,” recalls Linda Hanauer, a camper from 1956-65.
- Baking enamel powder on copper shapes in a small kiln for lapel pins—early punk fashion accessories.
- Making lanyards in that same arts and crafts shop. “I recall the nails on the wall upon which we began to weave the plastic strips, either in a round braid or in squares,” reconstructs Leslie (Cooper) Fox. “I loved doing this stuff.”
- Dodge Ball played with a vengeance and a two-person table game called Nok Hockey, with wooden sticks and a checker-like puck.
- Steal the Flag (actually a weighted milk carton), played on a field and hill—with daring raids behind enemy lines to free captured teammates.
- Colorful murals under screened windows outside our dining porch, painted by senior counselor Lilo Hanauer of Manhattan, who helped set up the camp in the early 1950s. She illustrated scenes from children’s stories, including Snow White, Pinocchio, the Nancy and Sluggo comic strip and Mr. Flub-a-Dub from the Howdy Doody Show.
Nothing ultra-special about any of these touchstones—unless you were there. We were like 3-year-olds at a birthday party, paying as much attention to the shiny package as to the gift inside.
Summer camp treasures weren’t found just in the organized activities and photo ops, we proved with the intuitive wisdom of those to whom almost everything is new and wonderful. A lesson to carry through life.