Way back when we played with Spaldeens, read Archie comics and thought Paul Anka was cool, the dividing line between school and summer didn’t have as much to do with warmer weather, longer days or TV reruns as it did with nametag-sewing, trunk-packing and a chartered bus ride up the Thruway and Route 52.
We were off to camp, heading toward eight weeks of adventure, freedom, independence, growth, crisp air and no sidewalks.
It was the last week in June, not long after we learned whose class we’d be in next fall and had chanted “no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” that our parents would drive us to meet a line of two or three rounded-top buses idling alongside a vest-pocket park on Broadway near 168th Street in Upper Manhattan. The tingling excitement on those Saturday mornings was palpable among adults and youngsters alike, with each generation chattering animatedly, looking around the assembly area for familiar faces and hurriedly exchanging hugs, kisses, promises and reminders: “Feed my fish.” “Remember to write.” “Send candy and Mad magazine.” “Be nice to your brother.”
We wore shorts, Keds and new haircuts. In our pockets were hard candies, a trunk key and maybe a new 10-cent Batman or Superman issue. More than a few of us carried string-wrapped bakery boxes or white bags.
Waving at curbside, moms and dads looked ahead at their own two-month break with quieter and less-cluttered apartments, leisurely dinners, free evenings and weekends, even romance one now can imagine. So were those actually tears of joy, Mom?
(Hindsight also recalls a landmark opposite the departure site—obscure back then in the 1950s and early 60s, and now a historic footnote: the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcom X was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965.)
Aboard the northbound bus, divided by age groups, we met—re-met, usually—our bunkmates and counselors, sang “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and watched as apartment buildings were replaced by meadows, hills and farms. What seemed like a half-day odyssey was really a 90-mile trip just past Newburgh, northwest across the Wallkill River and through the Ulster County hamlet of Pine Bush on two-lane roads shared with tractors and hay wagons.
Yes, we city kids knew the difference between cows and horses, but the youngest still turned to look at livestock, barns and vividly green rows of cornstalks. This was the gateway to our new playground, after all, and the opening scenes deserved to be savored: houses with porch gliders, clotheslines that didn’t hang over courtyards or sit on rooftops, tire swings, chicken hawks circling, truck and car shells rusting at the edge of woodlands, bungalow colony and hotel signs at crossroads, Jerry Lewis on a Brown¹s Hotel billboard, no fire escapes.
At last, with a 90-degree right turn and a downshifting of gears, the buses swung onto a dirt road we’d come to know quite well in the weeks ahead—Sheldon Road, named for a Grant Wood-like couple whose clapboard house sat midway between the turnoff and our destination and whose tiny dairy farm straddled the narrow lane. They’d wave as we rode or walked past all summer, but I can’t recall exchanging more than a shouted “hello” with these neighbors during nine vacation seasons as an adolescent and teen. A city-country dividing line of a different sort, regrettably.
Our mountain home was Stern Summer Camp, a family-owned retreat for about 90 boys and girls, but these reminiscences are intended to recapture a sense of time, place and emotions that stretched beyond geographic boundaries.
The maturing, self-discoveries, emerging talents and turning-point memories of those rural months may be mental snapshots shared by campers from nearby Cragsmoor, Walker Valley, Thompson Ridge, Neversink, Livingston Manor, Loch Sheldrake, Mohonk Lake, Napanoch, Kerhonkson, Woodbourne, Andes, Margaretville and our regional magnets Ellenville and Liberty. Whether in Sullivan or Ulster county (as though we knew any difference then), whether at hotel day camps or bungalow colonies or “sleep-away” camps, formative experiences were shaped by the era, the music, the activities, the socializing and perhaps most significantly—our Jewish religion, our parents’ culture and heritage, their middle-classness and postwar aspirations.
The essays that follow, inspired partly by Arthur Tanney’s evocative Bungalow Life vignettes on this website, explore experiences that have endured four decades or more. They rely on memory and e-mail exchanges with fellow campers Leslie (Cooper) Fox, Elaine (Hanauer) Ravich, Linda Hanauer and my brother Ron Stamm.
See if you can hear and see the streams of your own bygone summers.