Our July and August days began and ended with live instrumental solos, part of a soundtrack that accompanied camp life and that echoes in lifelong memories.
No farm rooster could have awakened us as vividly as our most unusual form of morning reveille: Accordion serenades by camp director Gerard Bucky, strolling around the grounds with a full-size instrument strapped around his shoulders. He played “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” and other tunes, standing outside the windows of girls’ bunks and marching through the male barracks like a drill sergeant or a one-man floor show at an Italian restaurant.
And 12 hours later, as the sun was sinking behind the Shawangunk ridgetops, an American flag was lowered as Taps played over a loudspeaker or, occasionally, from a counselor’s tarnished, dented trumpet.
That evening ceremony, like the pre-breakfast flag raising each morning, was conducted as a quiet, serious formality that reinforced lessons of patience and patriotism. Cereal boxes and evening activities had to await formalities that included singing God Bless America each morning and “Day is done / gone the sun” at dusk.
Not every ritual was that solemn. Right after Old Glory was hoisted, we’d run to a smaller flagpole to raise the blue and white camp colors and sing (or endure) a truly odd bit of doggerel: “We work and play / Sing and are all gay / Where do we have so much fun? / At Stern Summer Camp.” And that was just one verse.
Then came a quaint drill that probably bored more than a few campers, while holding others in rapt attention: A rabid fan of the national pastime, who had clicked on his transistor radio right after the first accordion notes, stood on a staircase to read the previous night’s major league baseball scores. Had to keep track of our beloved Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers! It was the Mantle-Maris era, after all—and any echoes of home were treasured.
It still wasn’t time to pour the corn flakes, though. Everyone below Junior Counselor age had to line up, roughly in ascending age order, for a hasty medical inspection. Standing on a lawn outside the dining hall, we’d dutifully stick out our tongues for (at?) the camp’s live-in pediatrician Dr. Niv, an Israeli emigrant, so she could spot any incipient sore throats and isolate the carrier before a mini-epidemic decimated the softball teams.
Inside the screened-porch dining area, campers were a hyper-vocal bunch who created recurring scenes and sounds of summer.
Goading, teasing chants between tables were heard during the wait for counselors to bring out food trays, seizing on athletic humiliations or the latest counselor couple. “From Table 2 to Table 5: You’re the strikeout kings—whoosh, whoosh.” Or: “Hey, Steve, what were you and Marilyn doing behind the pool?”
On a lighter note, some of the assembled voices also rose in verse to poke fun at menu cycles. “We had a song about food on each day of the week,” recalls Manhattan artist Linda Hanauer, picking up the chorus: “Today is Monday, today is Monday: Monday, spaghetti—Tuesday, chicken—Wednesday, meatloaf …” and so on, ending with an odd refrain for a mostly Jewish camp: “Friday, fish.”
Those dinners may have seemed repetitive, but they were mmm, good. And that brought a high-volume finale to special meals. With feet stomping and silverware clanging on tabletops, well-fed campers and counselors showed appreciation by chanting “We want Ladell, we want Ladell” until our camp cook came out from the kitchen to receive heartfelt applause for that evening’s roast beef or wiener schnitzel—an ovation she acknowledged with a shy half-wave like Mantle or Maris leaning out of the dugout.
This eight-week soundtrack also included campfire songs, crickets, bullfrogs and katydids, out-of-tune piano plunkings (Heart and Soul, Chopsticks), 45’s via a loudspeaker and the ping of BBs shot from air rifles.
And for a generation raised before “Sesame Street”, “Barney” or “Blue’s Clues,” bedtime was preceded with a flag-lowering refrain about rolling along merrily, off to our beds:
“Now let us go in / And jump into bed / Say our prayers / And cover our head / The very same thing / I say unto you / You dream of me / And I’ll dream of you.”
Summer still never passes without vivid camp flashbacks as an oldies radio station or backyard insect symphony rolls back the decades instantly with sense memories to savor…in the still of the night. It’s one of my favorite long-playing albums.