We fancied ourselves toughies and bigshots, Supermen and sluggers, teen queens and starlets—old enough to be away from home eight weeks, but still softies craving long-distance reassurance.
It didn’t necessarily have to come in an envelope or call from Mom and Dad or grandparents. A card from a younger Special Someone was even better.
Back when stamps had to be licked, not peeled, and before faxes or e-mails, mail call next to the Main House was a treasured daily ritual. Like pint-size GIs eager for a word from back there, we’d gather in a semi-circle around a counselor an hour or so after the Rural Delivery sedan with an orange flasher stuck on its roof made the run up Sheldon Road. No Pony Express rider ever was awaited more eagerly at a frontier settlement.
Names were called, recipients stepped forward and contact from the outside world was passed. Along with My Summer Weekly reader, Boys Life and forwarded issues of Baseball News came more coveted handwritten correspondence.
Older campers and counselors would hang back, feigning nonchalance while hoping to hear from a school-year heartthrob exiled to another camp, a bungalow colony or a summer job in the city. This was a time, remember, when Bobby Vinton sang of promising his darling this: “I’ll send you all my love every day in a letter, and seal it with a kiss.” In our no-secrets enclave, the head counselor distributing mail would stage an elaborate pantomime of sniffing dainty envelopes for perfume or delaying a thick letter for a lovesick counselor until all others had been given out. “Wait, I think I do seem to have one more here . . . for Eeee-laine.”
Before or after lunch, campers and counselors retreated with their envelopes to a lawn chair, shady spot, circular tree bench, ball-field water tank or their bunk to read up on what’s new in the city. News of a parakeet’s escape during cage-cleaning, a relayed greeting from a neighbor or family member, Dad’s adventure getting lost or nearly running out of gas and an update on a homebound playmate or cousin could brighten a cloudy or sunny day. A five-dollar bill might be tucked inside as a spirit-boosting bonus to spend on pinball games in town or at the camp canteen.
The luckiest campers heard their names after the final letters and cards were given out, when it was time for bulkier mail. Thick manila envelopes brought Sports Illustrated or Seventeen, fresh from a neighborhood newsstand. Boxes had candy, home-baked goodies, Topps baseball cards and maybe even extra socks or forgotten swimming goggles—and oh, how those package grabbers were envied. “What’d ya’ get? Lemme see. Can I have one?”
Naturally, not all 90 young faces left mail call with a grin each day. Moms were thoughtful and sentimental, but also busy and at the mercy of the Postal Service’s pace. Friends and relatives were even less reliable, usually requiring the investment of southbound mail first—a chore that only the youngest half of campgoers would be nagged about by counselors during rest periods, free time or in the evening.
Leaving the cluster empty-handed could make a tyke visibly glum, which must be what inspired a bit of creative writing by an attentive counselor during my initial half-summer at age 7. She tried to fill the dry spell of a several-day mail gap with a not-even-close forged card . . . as if even a homesick lad would imagine Mom’s penmanship had changed suddenly. (“Uh, I think a space alien is living with my Dad or something, because this card isn’t from my Mom.”)
Still, such a touching gesture was an early sign of a new family’s embrace that turned a shaky novice into an enthusiastic camper. This was a place where counselors were like cousins and kids learned that “community” didn’t stop at your block or temple.
No e-mail or fax could have been more precious. How many camp letters still sit in attic shoe boxes or basement trunks?