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Once Upon a Summer Camp

July 31, 2008 By:
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My wife had an especially magical childhood. It wasn't perfect, of course; she suffered from all the same angst about body image and popularity in school as all other young people of the period suffered. But when her young years were good -- and this was a substantial portion of the time -- they often approached perfection.

Take where she and her parents vacationed. As a young man, my late father-in-law fell in love with the Lake George region in New York's Adirondack Mountains and took my mother-in-law up there for their honeymoon. This sheltered, somewhat pampered Cheltenham girl -- and she wasn't much more than a girl at the time -- never knew what hit her; it was, as her husband had hoped, love at first sight. They decided to vacation there every summer.

But it would not be any ordinary mountain resort kind of vacation. They planned to camp out on one of the islands in the middle of the lake, as my father-in-law had done with his high school pals before World War II. You could, in the late '50s, build a permanent site on a portion of these islands that was yours from then on. Other campers could use it when you weren't around. But when you planned to come up, all you had to do was let the local ranger know, and he would shoo away anyone using your spot. I think you paid $1 a week.

Now, none of this was accomplished easily. After packing up the car and hitching their 12-foot aluminum boat to the back bumper, it took nine hours to get from Cheltenham to Lake George (this was before the New York Thruway was built). Then my father-in-law had to make several trips in that little boat out to the island, transporting all that gear. He had to pitch the two tents where the four of them slept and set up the rest of camp. My father-in-law stayed for his two-week's worth of vacation, beginning in mid-July, and then he left my mother-in-law and the kids to finish out the summer. He came back on the last weekend in August, packed everything up and drove home.

I understand, though barely, how my father-in-law managed this Herculean task; but I still can't imagine how my mother-in-law, who was raised by servants, coped alone out there. There were no amenities -- no refrigerator, electricity, nothing but an outhouse crawling with spiders and stinking to high heaven. Every other day, she had to get into that little boat and go to the mainland to get a block of ice to keep their perishable foods cold (granted, much of what they ate came from tins, and there was lots of powdered milk).

All I know for sure is that she thought it was paradise. She was away from all the family and business pressures, and she just baked in the sun and smoked cigarettes all day.

And if it was paradise for her, it was heaven for her children. The pictures I've seen of that time look like something out of Peter Pan's Never-Never Land, where no one would ever want to grow up. It was every child's dream of absolute freedom.

Thanks to my wife, I came to love Lake George as an adult, so I know of what I speak, and sometimes I even dream of having my childhood restored, and I'm there enjoying the lake and the sky and the trees with the absolute abandon reserved only for the young.

But that's not the only treasure my wife was given. Once Lake George began to become a bit of a bore -- as even heaven does for any child approaching the teen years -- my wife and then my brother-in-law were sent to Adirondack overnight camps. Both of them -- Camp Woodmere for my wife and Camp Paradox for my brother-in-law -- were in the same area. Situated due north of Lake George, these establishments both bordered on Paradox Lake, which is closer to the Lake Placid area, and, of course, this spot was, and is, just as exquisite, just as idyllic, especially for anyone already smitten by the region's beauty and charm.

On this score, I also know of what I speak, since my wife and I started taking our kids to Lake George for vacations (which were confined to a family-oriented resort on the mainland). And each time, we made a trip out to the island and visted the overnight camp she attended (unfortunately, my brother-in-law's camp closed years ago, the site now only a few abandoned cabins overrun with weeds and tall grass).

But if I didn't know any of this in any firsthand way, the book "A Paradise for Boys and Girls": Children's Camps in the Adirondacks would have told me. A slim, coffee-table-size book chockful of nostalgic photos, it's been published by the Adirondack Museum and the Syracuse University Press.

The text is made up of three essays on various aspects of the camp scene, written by Hallie Bond, Joan Jacobs Brumberg and Leslie Paris. They cover the early history of camping, camp lore and ritual (especially as it pertains to what was then called American Indian mythology), all of it presented with a necessary but not cloying nostalgia quotient; there's even an essay devoted to organized camping during World War II.

The authors note that the Adirondacks were not where camping began in America -- that honor goes to New England -- but the essayists all agree that the area nurtured the tradition and became forever associated with the endeavor. In fact, the oldest extant children's camp in the country -- Camp Dudley -- is located in Newburgh, N.Y. Founded in 1885 by none other than Sumner F. Dudley, it was one of the first YMCA boys' camps. And, according to Paris, by the turn of the 20th century, the YMCA movement was booming across the nation.

Jewish camping -- with appropriate recognition of both Woodmere and Paradox -- is discussed at a length appropriate to the topic. The grand Adirondack resorts were known in the late 1800s for their exclusionary efforts aimed at Jews, and the general camping movement, it turns out, was no different in this regard.

Writes Bond: "The vast majority of Adirondack campers before the Second World War were white and not poor. Most were Christians, but Jewish families sent their children to camp in numbers out of proportion to their percentage of the general population. Jews were attracted to camping for the same reasons Christians were -- for education and character-building in the outdoors. In the Adirondacks, they established separate camps primarily because Jewish children were not welcome at most camps established by Gentiles until after the Second World War."

Rabbi Isaac Moses founded the first camp in the Adirondacks, the Schroon Lake Camp, in 1906, "only four years after the foundation of the earliest Jewish camp in the country," notes Bond. The author also points out that sending a child to camp was an expensive proposition, so it is not surprising to learn that these first Jewish campers came from established German Jewish families connected with the Reform movement, as was the case with my in-laws.

My brother-in-law's camp had one great claim to fame before its untimely demise: It was where the great lyricist Lorenz Hart was a counselor (Hart was the highly gifted, though troubled, early partner of Richard Rodgers, before the latter teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein and wrote "Oklahoma"). Hart contributed to some "dramatic sketches" performed at Paradox long before he gained fame on Broadway.

Unfortunately, the book identifies him as a librettist, which he never was, just an inordinately gifted lyricist, one of the best America ever produced. Despite little glitches like this, "A Paradise for Boys and Girls" will thrill any "child" who was lucky enough to go to camp in the Adirondacks -- and even those who still wish they had.


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