We now might recognize summer camp as a journey rather than a destination, a passage toward adulthood rather than simply a parent-free play zone. Back then, of course, Being There was all.
Getting off the buses meant more than stretching our legs—it closed the door on city life and opened a suspended-time season. Footloose and hassle-free, we lived in the moment long before any of us had to re-learn that as a philosophy.
Arrival day unfolded in a blur of “you’re back!” greetings, bed-claiming, comic-inventorying, candybox-stocking and trunk-unpacking. Reunions with past campmates took place between small knots of kids, since many of us arrived with ready-made cliques from our school and neighborhood.
Stern Summer Camp, owned and operated by a couple who owned a nursery school at 1803 Riverside Drive in the Inwood section of Upper Manhattan, took its name from the middle name of co-director Ellen Stern Bucky. It attracted campers mainly from that area, from Washington Heights directly to the south and from the Rego Park/Forest Hills sections of Queens. There also were kids from Riverdale in the Bronx, Westchester County and Brooklyn, though the bulk lived in Queens and northern Manhattan—and came in prefabricated packs, complete with school nicknames that followed us north and with parents who socialized at home.
A family place, in other words—continuity and comfort.
But parents were out of sight and out of mind. We felt liberated and in charge now, more or less, reined in only by the teen-ager counselors and a few adults who’d stand between total anarchy and us until late August. They began by directing our candy-fueled energy into setting up our bunks.
We customers, between 4 and 14 years old, were divided by gender and ages into cinderblock or wood-frame barracks with group names that included the Smarties, Fair Ladies, Wise Guys, Bigshots, Charmers, Flappers, Supermen.
Keys on string around our necks unlatched trunks delivered earlier by truck. Savvy parents hung an extra padlock on the brass hardware, since the trunks’ own latches all popped open with the same thin universal key.
Sheets and green woolen blankets were tucked onto metal springs with “hospital corners” that soon would become a disliked morning ritual to be rushed through before a counselor’s inspection.
We scoped out the newcomers, compared broken-in baseball gloves, checked out comic and magazine stashes and inventoried contributions to each bunkhouse’s communal candy trove—an ant-resistant metal bread box, typically with a nausea-risking floral pattern, that was used to separate vulnerable campers from the risk of over-indulgence. (The camp’s other director, Gerard J. Bucky, had a doctorate in music and self-taught wisdom about temptation, restraint and delayed gratification.)
And such a treasure trove of treats, that box was! Jellied crescents, lemon drops, Mallomars, Toblerone bars, toasted coconut-covered marshmallows, Chuckles, Manner wafers, raspberry and blackberry lookalikes, Good-n-Plenty boxes, Bazooka gum, Bit-o-Honey, Tootsie-Rolls, Hostess cupcakes, Oreos, Fig Newtons, Drake’s cakes, chocolate babies (hey, it was the 50’s!) and other delicacies were supplemented in the first days after arrival by half-moons and other bakery cookies, fresh macaroons, babka and pies. Starve, we didn’t.
Theoretically, the box was opened only after dinner in a counselor’s presence—partly so he or she could sample the wares, as well as enforce some semblance of rationing. The goal was to grab something another kid brought, since this was supposed to be a season of new experiences after all. Invariably, shrinkage of the unlocked vault’s contents appeared evident within days—hours?—and the passage of time frees me to confess I was as guilty as anyone of possessing contraband candy.
Ah, but who among us didn’t have to wipe stealthily sneaked sugar from our lips—or test other limits during our summers of liberation?