These days, Michael Eisner sounds exactly like a member of my family.
Let me explain. A few weeks ago, I noted that I was not a great fan of sleepover camps, but that my opinion was anomalous – and I needed to look no farther than my wife and three children (and lots of other relatives) to prove my point, as they all had exemplary camp experiences, of which they still speak with reverence and deep affection.
And now there's Michael Eisner to add to the list.
The departing CEO of the Disney empire has published a memoir, titled Camp, with Warner Books, and like most other people I know who loved the time they spent in the woods of Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maine, Michigan – or wherever – he is a devoted fan of his camp, and would have wanted to be nowhere else during the summer months.
And even though camp season in these parts wrapped up a week or so ago, those who would like to extend the mood or relive moments of summer glory could do no worse than read this slight but loving tribute to the Vermont campsite that Eisner insists stamped his character irreparably.
But if you do make your way to this Camp, be forewarned. Eisner isn't a polished writer, and his book is kind of scattershot in structure. (Its worst failing is a repetitiveness that should have been weeded out by an attentive editor, if they exist any longer.) But if you don't expect a masterwork, you might be pleasantly surprised. (Still, those who have no stomach for camp lore better not get started. This book is not meant for the likes of you.)
There's another thing to keep in mind. There's a facet of this memoir that's a teeny bit self-serving. The author discusses at length the work of the Eisner Foundation, which sends disadvantaged kids to his beloved Keewaydin Camp on Lake Dunmore in the magnificent Green Mountains of Vermont. But despite this bit of tooting his own horn, Eisner does manage to tell the story of two such young boys, Pepe and Quenton, both from Southern California, who were given a summer away by the foundation, and he dramatizes this clash of cultures with a simplicity and a level of emotion that eventually disarms the reader. (In addition, all the proceeds from the sale of the book go to further this kind of work.)
'All That Was Fatherhood'
Eisner first came to know Keewaydin, his father's warm weather "alma mater," when he was just a young boy, and the story makes for one of the loveliest moments in the book. The year was 1949, and Eisner was 7 years old. At dinner one night, young Michael said that the voice of God – God being his father – spoke to him and said, "I thought I'd take you up to Camp Keewaydin to see if you might want to go there next summer."
Eisner said that he was both excited and paralyzed by the idea of a trip with his father, sans mother or sister. He describes his father as "the man who inspired enduring respect, love, admiration, envy and fear, and all that was fatherhood to me."
"Surely everyone thinks their father is unique," continues the author, "and at a young age, the impression I had of my father was no different. He was athletic, a bold entrepreneur, clever humorist, attentive husband, matinee idol to my sister's friends and simply bigger than life to my friends. The women loved him, and children were awed by him. As a 7-year-old, I saw all of this, and was at once respectful and impressed and mesmerized and sometimes daunted by his power."
So Eisner and his father went up for a weekend alone together. Young Mike slept in a bunk with other boys his age, followed them to the bathroom in the morning and then to the dining room. He saw his father here and there during that first day, met other adults, especially Waboos, the director of the camp, whose Indian-style nickname was pronounced as it's spelled, WAH-boos, and who was deferred to by all of the boys who seemed to idolize him. But mostly, the new boy played, swam and rested, then played and swam again, till it was time to eat dinner.
In front of the dining hall, he saw his father huddled with Waboos. Then, the director approached Mike and asked, "Do you want to box tonight?" Young Mike said, "Sure," though he had no idea what he'd just agreed to.
As he soon learned, every Saturday night during the summer there was a wrestling and boxing show at Sunset Arena in the center of one of the ball fields. Each group of campers presented four events – two wrestling, two boxing. At that point, Mike hoped his mother might appear and make everything right again.
His opponent turned out to be a totally confident 9-year-old who'd been in camp since day one, and who Eisner was certain "later went on to be a successful fullback in the NFL."
The fight lasted about two minutes, notes the author.
"I didn't cry, I didn't take a dive. Even though the oversized gloves were like pillows, I had the stuffing and pride beaten out of me – not necessarily in that order. After what I'm sure was some encouragement bestowed upon me by Waboos and my father, we left the camp for the drive back [home]," he wrote.
Little Mike slept the whole way, only opening his eyes as his father carried him upstairs to his "real" bed.
" 'You should have seen how brave he was,' I heard my father saying to my mother. 'He was a stand-up boy.'
" 'Isn't Waboos a great guy?' he said to me, curled up in his arms. 'Don't you want to go to Keewaydin next summer?'
' 'Yeah,' I mumbled, and fell back to sleep before we made it to my bed."
As they like to say, the rest is history, and young Mike Eisner never looked back.
'The Great Ideal Realized'
Other memories from the past are revisited in Camp, along with two other major storylines: the brave story of Pepe and Quenton's first summer at Keewaydin, and a moving portrait of Waboos and all he did for the camp during his many years as director.
Here is Eisner on the scrappy, nearly paper-thin young man named Pepe: "For Pepe, I think to myself, it is a time of firsts. It is his first time this far away from home. It is his first time seeing a lake, forget about swimming in one. Tonight, for the first time, he will sleep in a tent, less than 20 feet from the shoreline of the lake. For the first time, he'll know exactly where to go for his three meals per day without concern. And for the first time since moving from Mexico back to California a few years ago, he won't have to translate the English spoken around him into Spanish for his mother, who works the night shift in a factory to provide for her son. Pepe Molina is at summer camp, a million miles away from home."
Each of these boys is given his due by Eisner, and their stories are ones of pluck and mastery in the completely new world of Keewaydin.
And here is the author on Waboos, who stands for everything Eisner considers thrilling and edifying about camp:
" 'Keewaydin has meant that which is the most inspiring and the happiest and the best in my life. Keewaydin is the great ideal realized, and much of the credit must got to Waboos Hare.'
"This is an excerpt from a letter written by Richard Garnett, included in a collection of such tributes at a celebration commemorating Waboos' 60th anniversary at the camp in 1983.
" 'We never ceased to wonder,' wrote Doc Mather in his 1983 letter, 'at how quickly you learned the names of all the boys and at your efforts to make sure all of them understood the Keewaydin Spirit. …
"Today, Waboos can't see a face, yet he still produces a name. His camera has lost its focus in the last few years, yet he still remembers. At opening day a few weeks ago, outside his cabin, a crowd of people huddled together around Waboos, like the fans around the celebrity of honor at a banquet.
" 'Waboos, it's Tom Atkinson, from Armonk. I was at camp from 1968 to 1970. My son Tommy is in Wiantinaug this summer.'
" 'Right, Tom. Wiantinaug. Great tennis player. Still playing?'
"Tom Atkinson, being reduced to a young camper again, is giddy that Waboos remembered him, his tennis skills, just one camper in thousands that have come through."