Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What to DO with the kids?

This is the color of the sky today, no clouds anywhere on the horizon.

 Los Angeles sky today

It's burning hot and a little humid today—nothing like NYC though, sympathies go out to all living creatures—and lizards are darting in and out of rocks. One could say it's officially summer now that the weather's gotten hotter, but for me what makes it summer is seeing the worried look on women's faces. You see it in Silverlake, Highland Park, even Mt. Washington, that look of despair: worried mothers wondering what to do with their children over the summer break. 

The results of all that worry are varied, and you can see that too: kids waiting for buses to take them to day camp, or families packing up the car to deliver their children to camp somewhere in Utah. But for those not going anywhere this summer, there's plenty of angst: what will the kids DO? I can tell you, a mother feels guilty when her kid lies on the couch all summer long reading comic books. I remember that fear so clearly, that despair, that panic as summer approached and I had nothing for my kids to DO. That's over now, as they're both grown, but I know that look and I can see it everywhere.

I never sent my own kids to camp, which is ironic I suppose, as I spent every summer, from the age of seven on, at overnight camp near Louisville.  But in Junior High that changed, which leads to this story about Ann Myerson, who I hadn't thought about in years until hearing a program about summer camp on "This American Life" a few weeks ago. Here's my own "this American life" summer camp story without the commercials:

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade my parents had the idea that I should go to camp far from Louisville. I had no say in the matter; earlier that year my father had caught me sneaking around with my next-door neighbor, a Catholic boy. My father was terrified I'd get in trouble like another neighbor, a tall-for-her-age, precocious preteen, who one day disappeared to go off, we imagined, to a home for unwed mothers in Cincinnati. Perhaps my father's sense of it was real, but I was only thirteen when his decision was made: that summer I'd be going to Jewish summer camp in the middle of nowhere.

I flew down to Camp Blue Star in Hendersonville, North Carolina, in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and landed in a field of green. This picture found online is pretty much how I remember it—a camp surrounded by dense woods, with ticks on every leaf and blade of grass, and nocturnal creatures rustling behind every bush, causing me to sleep with one eye open, a flashlight in my hand and my clothes on.

 Camp Blue Star, Hendersonville, N.C.

I bunked with a cabin full of Louisville girls, gung-ho joiners who were there to have some fun; but I wanted nothing to do with them. Our counselor Susan Green, the daughter of Alan Guttmacher, an early president of Planned Parenthood, was my only advocate; I was a loner, that is, until I befriended Ann Myerson from the next cabin over, the first real beatnik I'd ever met.

As I recall, Ann lived near Arlington, VA., a Jew with straw-colored hair and a wide, confident smile that covered her braces. I was thin, with a boy's figure, but Ann had a woman's body, with ample breasts, a high waistline and powerful thighs. She was totally committed to a bohemian lifestyle, playing guitar and singing folk tunes (in the vein of Bob Dylan), smoking cigarettes (where she found them I don't know) and cutting afternoon activities. Her favorite thing to do was to climb to the top of one of the cabins, take off her clothes and sunbathe nude, all the while making sure the boys on their way to the swimming hole could spot her. 

Camp Blue Star boys staring up at Ann

I'm not sure whose idea it was, but towards the end of that summer we plotted to be stowaways on a bus heading an hour outside of camp. Our plan was to hide in the back of the bus, jump off after the campers had departed for their field trip, then explore wherever it was we had landed. We bribed the younger kids not to giggle or give our positions away by staring at their feet, where we were hiding—which they readily agreed to do. I want to say we exchanged their loyalty for a few cigarettes and a bag of candy, but I really can't remember.

The ride out went without a hitch, but after the campers debarked, we could hear, with much trepidation, a counselor making his way through the bus checking on what the youngsters had left behind. We held our breaths and tried to make ourselves invisible, but there was no place to hide, and he caught us with our hands over our heads, scrunched down into a ball behind the last seat.


Things happened pretty quickly after that. When the campers returned, we sped back to camp—Ann and I forced to sit up front, humiliated in front of our once loyal minions— straight back to the Camp office, where our counselors and the director were waiting.

Our punishment turned out to be rather benign: the director made us write a letter home informing our parents of our misdeeds, and stating that we'd not be welcomed back if we ever did anything like that again. As it was, I never went back to camp after that summer (although I did keep in touch with Ann for a few years). My father realized that Camp Blue Star hadn't helped like he had hoped in calming my rebellion, which continued throughout my teenage years.


  1. Yes, you're right, all over America, parents are worrying that a summer with nothing to do will turn their child's brain to oatmeal, siphon off nascent ambition and ruin all hope for a bright future. I'm one of them,at times, but in my more cogent moments, I say with the kids: "Whatever."

    Great story of teen adventure, and I love (LOVE) the paintings! Wonder what happened to Ann? And Charlotte, Nick followed friends to Blue Star for two or three years (age 10-12, maybe?) - sounded like quite the life.

  2. Amazing that Nick went to Blue Star too, that's really funny. Ah, those good ol days around the camp fire reading the Torah.

    I was talking to someone last week who was feeling guilty about their kid not being at camp but at home on the couch and it brought it all back, yeah, well, whatever. Glad that we're past that stage, now it's just another worry, wondering if they'll get jobs!!

  3. great story that makes its way to a very satisfying conclusion and oh what PAINTINGS! very rich. i'm going to email you a photo of me and Nancy DeLouise on the day we embarked for Camp Osito Rancho from Griffith Park, in front of the Greek Theater. There were BURROS at this camp and i learned to WHITTLE. something that would be quite satisfying to take up again, especially on a hot day like today.

  4. Whittling, Burros!!! my god what a summer camp that was. Your mom knew what she was doing. We had nothing like that at Blue Star. Yes whittling in the shade of a live oak tree while one's burro munched on grass would be very satisfying!

  5. Whittling, writing plays and acting them out, lots of singing, good Southern food, and yes, even idle time, at my summer camp in the Smoky Mountains a zillion years ago. Thanks for this. Thanks to my friend Kerry for posting to FB.
    Lots of fun!

  6. Thanks Augusta, what's this with whittling, how come we didn't get to do that? It would have been nice to have a skill at least!

  7. I thank Louise for getting me to go to camp and my mom for letting me go. We were allowed to carry knives. We probably earned our whittling badges. Louise and I were called Nancy DeLouise and Louse DeNancy in those days by our Girl Scout leader. We got in trouble for leaving the group on a hike to take our own path over a hill. Thank you Louise for setting me on the right path early.

    Charlotte, your story brought back rich memories. Thanks!

  8. Thanks Nancy Delouise; The picture of you and Louise (I wish i knew how to post here, it's such a great pic, well nevertheless) showing two best friends at such a tender age, oh, how sweet it is and I can just image the two of you taking off on your own adventures.

  9. Oh the adventures we had! I wish they had lasted several more decades, but I couldn't keep up. She planted the inspiration however, and that lives on.