Camp Powhatan

on Jul 01 in Uncategorized by

When I was twelve, I spent the first of three pleasant, albeit undistinguished summers at a camp for boys in Maine, playing basketball and tennis, water skiing, target and skeet shooting, navigating a canoe and learning how to tread water for a really long time. It was 1968. I was giving the idea of sleep away camp one more shot after four weeks at a place I remember mostly for its forced conviviality, starchy food and mean-spirited counselors.

This time, despite some homesickness, I enjoyed myself. It would have been hard not to. I was at an age where my parents and I were driving each other crazy. And my suburban hometown was deader than dead. Simply having access to a dozen other guys’ record collections would have been enough, but I enjoyed my bunkmates, being outdoors and what seemed like frequent enough socials and trips into town.

In what would have been my fourth summer, I went to summer school to study creative writing, falling out of touch with my mates (how significant and shameful it seemed then to be writing poetry while my buddies honed their athletic skills and moved into positions of leadership). When I think about it, I’m amazed I ever lived communally, given my need for solitude.

Recently, Nick Lewin, a former camper sent me a DVD about the life and times of the director, Joel Bloom, a square-looking, plucky old guy (he might have been forty when I met him) who showed up in our living room one winter with a low-key sales pitch and a slide show. I remember Joel assuring my parents that he selected counselors carefully and telling me that the boys my age were nice, we could choose our own activities and listen to any kind of music we wanted. To my surprise, all of this was true. And Joel was the benign dictator with a supernatural knowledge of everything that happened at camp, sanctioned and illicit, as well as our thoughts and activities.

I’d pretty much forgotten all about this by the time the DVD came and it was fun watching it. There were guys running and goofing around vaguely familiar sights: the old bunkhouses on stilts with dark screen windows, choppy lake water and clunky, old boating equipment, athletic fields and halls where countless games were won and lost. At the heart of it all was Joel, a passionate and accomplished man with a PhD who introduced the idea of elective activities and racial diversity into camping back when neither was even remotely in vogue. I had my distance until the end of the last event of color war – the softball game – when the winning team ran into the lake, at which point I welled up and then lost it.

At first, this baffled me. I was, at best, a reluctant color warrior. I liked sports for a challenge and the release of endorphins, but preferred competition that was solo or private, like long distance running and standardized tests. To cover my fears, I whined to whoever would listen that color war was at best, a brutish contrivance, pitting us against one another, forcing us to perform against a standard few could achieve, and at worst, a simulation of war, which weighed heavy on everyone’s minds. But once it began and I was assigned to a team, I got caught up in the excitement.

The DVD brought back other memories: chilly August nights around a giant campfire, the gray-streaked face of my counselor, Larry something from the Bronx, screaming and exhorting us to do our best; a complex, half-day long game of capture the flag; chanting in the dining hall, waiting for the scores to be read; standing in the shower area, smearing Ben Gay on our aching muscles.

I liked belonging to a tribe that was glad to have me, demanding only that I be the best version of myself. It was a relief not to have parents making arbitrary demands, teachers to suck up to, and mindless tasks that didn’t seem to count toward anything. Every activity was a chance to test our mettle, to see how good we were, to express ourselves aggressively without remorse, or anybody on the sidelines, worrying we might offend, insult, injure, embarrass, implicate or otherwise damage ourselves or each other. During color war, life was simple and engaging.

It ended in the afternoon of the third day, all of us exhausted, with the final softball game, the plunge into the lake, celebrations and a banquet. I remember being on the winning team once and the losing team twice, though that seems not to have mattered much at the time. Before I could be nostalgic, I’d consigned color war and camp in general to that category of cheesy things I did as a kid that I could be cynical about, which is where these memories remained until I found myself at a computer screen, wincing and then sobbing at the sight of the red team jumping in the lake with their clothes on.

So why this reaction?

I know that back then, my parents, bless them both, loved me too hard to let me try things and fail. And school engaged me from the neck up, but mostly for the purpose of making a productive person. Even my bar mitzvah, which was supposed to be my initiation into manhood, was an empty, dispiriting affair. No rabbi whispered anything in my ear that would make the transition to adulthood any easier. No wise uncle came over and gave me advice. When it was over, I was the same bewildered boy I’d been before, perhaps just a little angrier.

In my thirties, married with kids, feeling like I’d only half-accomplished what I’d needed to be an adult, I returned to camp — first, an Outward Bound and then several men’s retreats. Like color war, there were trials, community tasks that required mastery and commitment, ritual sharing, and some difficult task I had to achieve, all of which I embraced, throwing myself in the same way I had many years before. Only this time, the activities seemed loaded with significance.

A couple days after watching the DVD, I had another memory, enhanced by a friend’s recollection years later. Scott Herrin and I were doubles tennis partners in a long match, down by at least one set and about to lose the next. It was late and the small crowd that had gathered to watch seemed ready to pack it in. I don’t remember us saying much, but at a certain point, standing on the brink of certain defeat, we decided to throw caution to the wind and play as hard as we could. In front of a larger and larger crowd, we came back to win the set and then the match, not paying all that much attention to our opponents, only basking in the glow of our accomplishment, our physical and mental exhaustion, and that sweet feeling of victory. It occurs to me now that color war and my camp experience might have actually been the beginning of something really important.

One Comment

  • Stephen Rockower says:

    Great article about Joel and camp. As your coach in 1968 (I think), I remember exhorting all the kids to perform a little beyond what was expected. That was the essence of camp: to outdo yourself. As you remember, all the kids were “pooped” during the year to see where they were in relation to the rest of the bunk in all the sports. In Red&Gray, if you took 5th instead of the 8th that was expected, your team had more points than expected. Thus, everybody cheered for everybody else. An unexpected upset could often make the difference in the 3 day competition. When I was a camper and a general nebish, it was those times when everyone was cheering for me to do my best that remained with me through the year and drove me again and again to keep trying. As a counselor, Joel’s wisdom continued to come through as we taught the next generation the values of “interest motivation”. The memories of Powhatan last to this day: I still have a great aversion to wearing anything Red. I have to check myself each time and ask, “Do I really want to wear this?” My son went to Powhatan in its later years, and I was able to trudge the old pathways down the bunkline.

    Thanks again for the memories…