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Camp Stories

A humiliating first day, taking it outside for a showdown behind the bunk, the first stirrings of an urge for aliyah: readers’ stories of summer camp—and illustrations inspired by them

Liana Finck
June 29, 2011

Two weeks ago, we asked Tablet Magazine’s readers to share their most memorable summer camp stories, promising to select our favorites and ask illustrator extraordinaire Liana Finck to contribute an artwork inspired by each story. Here are our top three selections, accompanied by Liana’s illustrations.

On the Bus
by Jordana Horn, Camp Eisner

I first went at age 10. I was the rookie who made the mistake of packing books (to read for fun!) rather than eyeliner or bras. I should have shown up at the bus wearing a shirt that said “Pariah.”

I drove to the New York City street corner where the bus would pick us up with my parents. I was very nervous, knowing no one, and was trying not to cry. My parents told me to go put my stuff on the bus and then I’d come off and say goodbye to them. I got on the bus and put my bag down on a seat. I went back to the front of the bus.

“No one gets off the bus once they’re on the bus,” the head counselor said, in a weird riff on Ken Kesey‘s “Either you’re on the bus or you’re off the bus.”

“But I didn’t know that rule.”

“Now you do,” he said, and went back to looking at his clipboard.

My parents protested, but it was no use. The head counselor, Hitler-in-training, wouldn’t budge: I was on the bus. I sat in my seat, looking out the window at my parents on the sidewalk. I was trying my best not to cry like a baby. But snot was coming down my face. It wasn’t working out. These people were assholes. This was a huge mistake.

I thought things couldn’t get any worse. But they could. At that second, the loose tooth I’d been wiggling for weeks decided to come out, emerging with a geyser of blood. With snot and blood coming down my face, I went to the counselor to beseech him if not for mercy then at least for a tissue. “I told you, sit down,” he said before I even opened my mouth.

I went back to my seat, bawling, blood cascading over my lips and chin and onto my shirt (which, I guess, was as good as wearing a shirt that said “pariah” after all).

Needless to say, no one sat with me. The bus doors closed, and we were on our way.

State of Nature
by Jerome Copulsky, Camp Equinunk

Long before I had heard his name or encountered his colossal masterpiece, Leviathan, I understood the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, when I came upon his infamous account of the state of nature, the war of “every man against every man,” and the danger of the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” life, I at once recognized it as a perfect description of my summer camp.

I was 8 years old when I was first sent off by my parents. As a consequence of the camp food or homesickness, I was stricken with a bout of diarrhea that lasted several days and earned me the scorn of my new bunkmates. After that, I was a marked man.

Shy and introverted, a bookish kid stuck in place where there were no books, I was happier on nature walks in the gloomy woods, searching for salamanders and snakes under rocks by the streams, than playing baseball, basketball, or soccer. The other boys, fierce competitors and already old-timers well-acquainted with the terrain, held me in low regard, often teasing me for my awkwardness and for my old-fashioned, clumsy name.

It is not difficult to imagine the cruelty of boys, liberated from the regimen of school and parental control, free to flex their young muscles and exert their power on those nearby. On the playing field, if you missed an easy catch you were mercilessly taunted. Back in the bunk, you had to be on your guard against the perils of wedgies and rat-tails, the wet tip of a rolled-up towel snapped at your behind. So much for hopes of ethnic solidarity.

Alliances were constantly shifting. In an instant, your best friend could turn on you. You never knew where you stood. Nor could you rely on the benevolence of counselors, college kids who were less interested in exerting their authority and maintaining a fragile peace than enjoying their summer break, frightening their charges with tales of the local madman who lived in the woods that surrounded the camp, drinking in the nearby dive bar and returning to puke in the back of the bunk, or sneaking out to fool around with their girlfriends.

It was a brutal and lawless place, where the only rules respected and enforced were those of the various sports we would play. Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

Yet it never occurred to me not to return. Other campers left after a summer or two, but every summer for seven years, out of some mixture of inchoate obligation and misguided defiance, wearing a blood red T-shirt emblazoned with the camp insignia, I boarded the bus and rode up to a remote corner of Pennsylvania to endure eight weeks of trials, my head filled with hopes that this year would be different.

Over the years, consigned to the purgatory of right field during countless baseball games, I imagined in intricate detail the possibility of my own glory, of hitting the winning home run, or rejecting all of the ridiculous traditions and ceremonies of the camp, and declaring myself a conscientious objector at Color War, all the while praying that a ball wouldn’t be hit in my direction.

I suppose it was there, standing alone in the outfield or in some corner of the soccer pitch, that I first learned to philosophize, to scrutinize the world around me and to begin to formulate the questions I would find myself engaging years later as an undergrad and then as a graduate student—the problem of human nature, of egoism and solidarity, of the formation of society, of freedom and obedience—as I studied the works of Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but summer camp was in fact an advanced course in social theory.

My final exam came one hot August afternoon, close to the end of my final year at camp, when I found myself in an exchange of insults with one of my bunkmates. With a head of light blond curls, his skin bright pink from the sun, he resembled a young Greek god. He was an excellent athlete, and, in his majestic, brutal joyfulness, the apotheosis of the camp spirit, the blond beast of Nietzsche’s fervid imagination. I envied and hated him.

I don’t remember who started the argument or what it was about, but it escalated quickly in the midday heat, our insults becoming personal and menacing.

After I had crossed some invisible threshold of abuse, he growled, “Do you want to take this around back?”

“Yeah, sure,” I retorted.

I knew, of course, that I would most likely be beaten senseless, yet I followed him through the thick overgrown grass around to the back of the bunk. Even as my heart raced, I resolved to stand firm and go through with whatever was to occur. For a moment, my vanity, my innate desire for glory, flared up, overcoming my usually powerful instinct for self-preservation.

Alone behind the cabin, he turned to me and asked, “Do you really want to fight?”

Did I? It seemed that all of my anger, my resentment, frustration, and disappointments of the past seven years were focused on this contest, on the kind of encounter I had tried to avoid for years. I took a deep breath and clenched my fists and prepared myself for significant pain.

“Well?” he asked.

“Not really,” I replied.

Without a word, he grabbed me by the shoulder and together we walked back around to the front of the bunk, where the others were sitting around lazily in the shade, glancing at their comic books or playing card games, and not noticing or caring we were gone and back.

He had nothing to prove, yet I wondered, as I sat there, why he had called off our battle. Was it due to noble disdain, empathy, a glimmer of friendship? I pondered the mystery of this event for the rest of the afternoon, until the announcement that we were to go down to the lake to take our afternoon swim.

It’s been more than 25 years since I’ve seen those guys. Recently, I have begun to be “friended” by some of them on Facebook. I accept their invitations and study their profiles. Some have even taken the time to locate and post snapshots from those summers, revealing their nostalgia for what was, for them, a series of summer idylls, which they hope their children would one day enjoy. And when I think of them, I think of the lessons they taught me, lessons which I now try to relate to my students, without the wedgies and rat tails, of course.

by Eileen Chupak Baranes, Camp Betar

I first went to Camp Betar in Neversink, N.Y., when I was about 14 years old. I went there with my best friend, Shushie, whose mother found the camp. I had no idea whatsoever about Zionism, but I knew it was a Jewish camp.

The first year we were in the Kanaim group, which was the oldest group. We were two teenage girls from the Bronx who were into boys and not much else. I loved it there. It was fun. The girls and guys were fun, and the counselors weren’t much older than we were.

Tisha B’Av came around. Whoever fasted was exempt from activities that day. So, of course Shushie and I fasted. We got bored sitting in the bunk, so we snuck out of camp and walked into Neversink, which was a small one-general-store town, to get supplies for after the fast. I remember buying a bottle of Mountain Dew and lots of munchies. Then we turned around and, to our surprise, saw all the head staff of camp in the store. Did we get in trouble! They confiscated what we bought and marched us back to the camp.

That night we had kitchen duty. We had to clean the kitchen and scrub down the stoves and ovens; it was terrible. We got so dirty and greasy; the showers in the bunks didn’t have hot water so we had to take a cold shower to get the shmutz off of us.

But don’t think that that was the end of our being bad. Our counselor, Barbara, didn’t know how to handle us. She just finished high school and was going away to college. We didn’t like her. One day we got a bucket of water, opened the door a little, and put it on the top of the door; we waited until she came in and she got the bucket of water on her head. For that she made a guy counselor take us on night maneuvers to scare us. But, please, we were from the Bronx (as a matter of fact so was he): Nothing scared us.

Until the end of camp I didn’t have a clue about Zionism. Then the guys from Machon L’Madrichim came back from Israel. They had light in their eyes. They were like magic. I can’t describe how I enjoyed listening to them talk of Israel and their experience and the Jewish destiny to live in Israel. After that I joined Betar and went to the meetings in the Bronx. Forty-six years after that I am still in Israel and do not have a moment’s regret.

Liana Finck is a poet and graphic novelist.