Friends became competitors, bunkmates turned into rivals and co-counselors took opposite sides about halfway through each August.
For a single-focus week, loyalties belonged not to the Fair Ladies or Big Shots, but instead to our newly assigned Color War teams. Once campers and counselors were divided on the basis of athletic, artistic, performing and leadership abilities into roughly balanced Blue and Gold teams, a new mood filled the days. We were partisans, crusaders, temporary rivals.
Color War “enemies” still slept in the same bunks, but no longer ate at the same tables. Conversations were guarded or good-naturedly baiting. Preparations for the coming showdowns filled the days, as did those events themselves. This was not a time for passive spectators; everyone was a participant.
Opening pageant skits were developed and rehearsed, complete with original songs set to the tunes of—what else?—Broadway musicals. One lyricist, Larry Stempel, is now a Fordham University music professor.
Here’s part of one of the instant anthems, penned by Elaine Hanauer and Roslyn Leiser to the tune of “Hey Look Me Over” for the Blue Olympians in 1964:
Racing in the water
Racing on land,
Each game will be slaughter
Cause we’re something more
Than you had planned.
Banners, murals and sometimes even elaborate floats were created in secrecy at opposite ends of camp or behind paper-covered windows in a playroom-cum-workshop. One memorable prop was a realistic schooner big enough to hold members of our comically costumed Vikings team. “Viking spirit, strong with valor / Victory sends us to Valhalla / So we try with all our might / To win with all honor in this fight.”
And yes, small trees alongside camp were sacrificed for our landlocked sailing craft—an environmentally incorrect stunt that’s now unimaginable.
Right before and during Color War, conversations often were conducted in whispers and mimeographed handouts were treated like top-secret documents. Captains urged teammates not to let The Other Side get a whiff of song lyrics, batting orders, relay race pairings or even team themes.
We were suddenly little soldiers, guarding our secrets and maintaining radio silence. It was a hoot, nearly as much fun as the day-long competitions and sidelines cheering.
Even morning inspections of bed-making and personal hygiene could add or subtract team points. Blankets had to be stretched taut enough to make a quarter bounce when a judge dropped it.
Head counselors and the camp directors carried clipboards to keep a running tally of scores, announced each night with dramatic flair. One of these judges ostentatiously demonstrated her neutrality each year by wearing one blue sandal and one painted gold. When they came out of Sandra’s trunk, it was time to let the games begin.
After the dueling songs and grand entrances came stopwatch-timed races on land and in water, softball played with extra intensity and the mother of all Scavenger Hunts. Battles were intense, but not brutal. We struggled to show off and show up the other side, but never forgot they were our pals, bunkmates and literally our brothers and sisters.
Final scores evaporated quickly from memory, but more important details survive: the excitement of shared crusades, the pride of pulling together an entrance show in a few days, the teamwork that sometimes depended on the youngest members as well as the strongest.
Felt like fun then. Fits into the lasting legacy now.