CONFESSIONS OF A CAMP COUNSELOR
How I misspent my summer vacations
It was the Sixties. During those years was hopelessly mired in cities and universities, from September through June. But each summer I escaped. I fled north, to work in the Highlands of Haliburton, Ontario. To Camp White Pine.
White Pine was not a typical summer camp, if there is such a thing. “A unique experience in small group living,” read the letterhead. It was so unique it is hard now for me to believe that it existed at all. I recall it largely to reassure myself that it ever really was.
These are events and recollections. Postcards I never wrote, from Camp White Pine.
Day one of the season. The train has left Union Station. They are on the way. From every stop, JoJo phones us.
“Switch Duberman from Koala 8 to Blue Dolphin 12.”
“But Joe — then he won’t be with his cousin Simpnowitz.”
“I just found out he hates him.”
And out goes an emergency crew to transfer Duberman’s duffles so that, when this little terror arrives, he won’t write home to his parents that we almost put him with that stupid jerk of a cousin.
The train lurches on. Directives trickle in. JoJo sits in the club car like Trotsky on his train dispatching lieutenants. “Get me Edward Rosegarden.” Enter four feet, two inches of Rosegarden. “Edward, I know I said you would be with Howie Duberman. But one of the purposes of camp is to meet new people and learn to live with them . . .”
JoJo is an emperor and White Pine is his empire. He rules by a kind of divine right. When he bought this place for the sons and daughters of wealthy Torontonians, it was beside Hurricane Lake. His first act was to rechristen it Lake Placid. Now, let there be washhouses . . .
I am in charge of 10 12-year-old boys. We call them Gnus, pronounced g’nooze. (The other sections, ranging in age from eight to 16, are Kiwis, Koalas, Dolphins, and tvs — for Training Village.) This crew of mine will play baseball, they will abide swim instruction, they will tolerate ceramics, but they decline campcraft.
I cajole. I flatter. I threaten. I bribe. Finally they are there.
Lar the Tripper: “Okay. You guys are so smart. What’s (holding up the helve of an axe) this?”
A cacophony. Every possible response except the correct one.
Lar: “I thought you knew everything there was to know about campcraft.”
“It’s not that we don’t know,” explains spokesman Paul Case. “It’s just that we’re inarticulate.”
A trip. The boys lie in their sacks under the sky. The fire dying. A pounding in the air — an owl swoops down, into the centre of our campsite, wings spread wide. I snatch a paddle and leap over a canoe into the middle of the circle of my campers. The owl flees upward. “What’s wrong?” anguishes Robbie. I stand tensed, brandishing the paddle. “Nothing,” I say stupidly.
I haul my bag over beside his. “I’m scared,” he doesn’t say. “Rick?”
“I’m afraid everybody else will fall asleep before I do. And then I’ll be so frightened because I’m the only one awake that I’ll never fall asleep.”
“I’ll stay awake till you fall asleep.”
“If you don’t fall asleep, we’ll both stay up all night.” He has given me a chance to calm one of my own ancient fears — in someone else — in a way that no one ever calmed it in me. I’m grateful for this.
As we talk of bears and junior highs, the sky seems to brighten. Neither of us notices it for a while. Then it actually glows. It’s the first time either of us have seen the Northern Lights, i’ll see them many times again. Some nights I’ll read and write by them. But I see them only in the summers. People who live here year-round tell me that in the winter the lights are colored. They bring their chairs out of doors and watch the lights the way we in the city watch television.
V.D., as the kids call it. Visitors’ Day. They begin arriving in the early morn. JoJo stations staff members up the road that winds the mile into camp from the highway. To hold them back. By nine, every inch of that route is backed up. Meanwhile each cabin is being cleaned, each shelf straightened. Last night — a turkey dinner. This lunch — tunafish and cheese sandwiches — choices that can be confidently held down.
One o’clock precisely. Cut them loose. They stream out of the dining hall. Down with the barriers; parents abandon their cars and pour into camp. They rush at each other, from opposite sides of the playing field, one wave rolling toward another, droplets seeking out their like — onward till they meet, leap into one another’s arms, babble, “How are you? How are you? I’m fine, how are you?” And then .. .
Often, that said it all.
JoJo in his compassion, in his Semitic Buddha-like wisdom, had limited V.D. to two and a half hours. Often even that was an ordeal of uncommunication for those involved.
Hence the food. JoJo for his own reasons utterly and tyrannically forbade gifts of food from parents to campers. No. Nothing. Never. They get enough to eat, he insisted, and this was certainly more than true. Breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, supper, evening snack, counselors’ snack, tuck.
But all the more did those parents strive to convey their concrete expressions of love: turkeys, salamis, layer cakes, pickle jars, pop, licorice, cookies, egg rolls, pizzas.
Rick Salutin is a playwright and an editor of the periodical, This Magazine.
Parents buried food in the woods and gave maps to their kids but their cunning was no match for JoJo’s late-night raiding parties
They set up lawn furniture by their cars and ranchwagons and spread Roman repasts along that dusty road. But heaven forfend against those who sought to carry a hamper across the field into the confines of camp. Non pasare.
“Stop that turkey,” JoJo would boom, and stride directly up to the dismayed owner of Rite-Seam Garment Inc., and snatch the bloated bird out of his arms. Humiliate him. Strike stiffening terror into the onlookers.
Some sought to circumvent. They buried offerings in the surrounding woods and transmitted to their offspring a map of where the edible treasure lay.
That night after the visitors had departed, while watchful counselors scanned theif charges for homesick moist eyes in the dining hall, JoJo would commandeer a force and lead a raiding party through all the cabins in camp, ransacking and confiscating. The booty all went to the Red Cross hospital in Haliburton, JoJo swore. But dark rumors persisted: that late at night for weeks afterward, orgies of gluttony transpired in JoJo’s office, among a tightlipped elite.
Another summer. I am now in charge of the Counselors In Training (the CITs). This means that the parents of my campers pay about $800 (in 1963!) per camper for the possibility that their child will be “invited” back to White Pine next summer as a junior counselor —to be overworked, underpraised, and paid $25 for the privilege. No I don’t understand it. But the important part is I am the counselor for 15 incredibly beautiful 16-year-old girls. Wendy and Connie and Janice and Esther and Anne — they are all the girls I never could have when / was 16 (I am now 21) at Forest Hill Collegiate and I wasn’t cool, didn’t belong to a fraternity, and didn’t have a sports car my parents gave me for continuing at the Holy Blossom Religious School even after my bar mitzvah.
They parade to the swim dock for instructional: it is the swimsuit competition of the Miss Canada pageant; every male head in camp swivels, incredulous. I love them, collectively. And I think they love me, collectively. Our relationship is intimate, intense, didactic, paternalistic and, the sure sign of suppressed sexuality, oh so terribly idealistic. It is true and it is false. It is false because it is true. It is father and daughter, professor and graduate student, analyst and analysand — in short, it is the epitome of inauthenticity. Oh, and I have five 16-year-old boys as well. (“Take ’em on a canoe trip right away,” was JoJo’s advice. “It’ll give the girls some respect for the boys.” At the end of the first portage the boys lay collapsed in a heap; the girls were hale, their packs neatly replaced in their canoes, their paddles out and ready to stroke.)
The Campwide Program is the only time all summer when everyone in camp participates, for three endless days, in the same activities. Each year its opening is a surprise. This year we awaken them at midnight. Counselors burst into their cabins, haul campers out of dreamland, out of urine-soaked sheets, down to the main field. They shiver there in bathrobes and slippers. The Kiwis are wailing. The Gnu girls are flirting. The camp siren is also wailing. Big-beamed flashlights glare. Above, the roar of a single-engine plane. All eyes turn up, and down, tumbling down down down, falls a parachutist. He lands in the centre of the field. He is no ordinary mortal. He hulks, he wears some odd suit covering him from head to toe. He looks like Michael Rennie in The Day The Earth Stood Still. Swiftly Howie Swim seizes a torch (A torch! What was that doing there?) and ignites a strip of fire across his path — between Him and Us. Yet on he comes — RIGHT THROUGH THE FIRE! He raises his hand, he speaks. His voice is oddly amplified. It seems to come from just above the ceramics shed.
“I come to you from a world beyond your own,” he intones, “from a race as advanced beyond yours as you are beyond the ants. Long have we observed your ways, your perverse determination to destroy one another, and we have decided to determine whether your race deserves the right to survive. Accordingly your ability to cooperate will be tested. Over the next three days you will be divided into six nations. You will be tried in many ways to prove whether or not you — mankind — shall continue to exist. On the outcome of these three days will it all depend.”
His speech is finished. He plods portentously forward into the crush of paralyzed juvenile humanity before him. Looms up to their very lip. Glares down at them from his asbestos heights. Down directly at eight-year-old Vicky Spirglglass. Vicky raises her gaze timorously under sleepy lids. “Hi, Phil,” she says.
JoJo has no mercy on his staff. From seven each morning, they shepherd resistant campers. If they are ever alone, JoJo magically appears and barks, “Where’re your kids?” After lights out come stories, or earnest whispered confidences in the dark. By ten-thirty at night most of them have made it down to the calm of the Counselors’ Lounge, yearning only for a cup of coffee, a cigarette, some aimless chatter.
But no. At least once a week, JoJo inflicts the Institute for Living. He imports speakers from the city to stimulate this bone-weary lot. Strewn about the floor and puffy sofas of the C.L. — 15, 16, 17 hours of depleted energy — they listen to Professor Lionel Rubinoff discourse on pornography; Professor Emil Fackenheim on contemporary thought; activist Arthur Pape on the philosophy of nonviolence (ah the Sixties!); or Eugene B. Borowitz, our resident existentialist theologian. (We must be the only summer camp in Canada with a resident existentialist theologian. No one knows why he is here, but he returns summer after summer.)
The stream of luminaries flows on. Coffee will be served after the talk. It is a summer-long talk show in the Haliburton Highlands, hosted by JoJo Cavett.
The Pegboard is part of the new regime. Gordy’s. Gordy became program director this year — JoJo’s first minister.
In the old days we, the head staff, sat on the steps in front of the office after breakfast, the smell of pancakes in the air, and haggled over whose campers got what facilities for the day. Inevitably there were disputes over access to the tennis court, the ball fields (the upper is small but dry; the lower is large but right field is a swamp), water-skiing, sailing, riding — it was a genial daily war council.
But Gordy has installed, across one whole wall of his office, a vast board full of holes. Listed along the top are all 42 cabins, from Kiwis to CITs. Down the side are ranged all the activities available here, including music appreciation, kitchen (taffy pulls, etc.) and gaga, a game I have scheduled often but would not recognize if I saw' it.
Below the pegboard squat paper buckets ( We Switched To Paper Service, wrote JoJo in a camping journal this winter) full of colored golf tees. A bucket of a different color for each of the four “activity periods,” two in the morning and two in the afternoon.
It is the responsibility of each Section Head to “plug in” all his cabins first thing in the morning. Color by color, cabin by cabin. Reading down one can see where each cabin is at each point of the day. Reading across, how each activity area is occupied that day.
Conflicts are instantly recognizable: there are two red pegs in basketball! But no green ones. “Can Koala Girls’ six take basketball in first afternoon? They have a pre-scheduled sailing? Gnu Boys’ one will trade their sailing period in second morning with the Koala Girls? Pardon? If they can have a special snack tonight? Is that okay with you, kitchen? Good. All right with sailing? Come on now', no grumbling — done!”
It is a pre-mechanized computer and around it is the atmosphere of the stock market. On that board are programmed all the machinations of our microcosm. You can walk in at any time of the day and see at a glance where all 600 of us are, what we are about, where we have been, and what lies ahead. I have fantasized entering at midday — like God on a stroll through the Garden — scanning the plan, and capriciously pulling and switching pegs, causing bodies to fly up and away from their fields and docks, at a deft snatch altering events, eliminating social units, reordering our w'orld.
Still the Sixties. I am living in New York, going to graduate school. Another sumrper approaches. The Americans I knowhead south. To Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi. To fight for freedom. Freedom for downtrodden, still-enslaved blacks.
I head north again. But I have a mis sion myself. I have read SummerhilL the story of a free school, this winter. I am going to bring liberation to the unoppressed, overprivileged children of Toronto’s upper middle class. I too am a freedom rider, riding to White Pine ...
I have told JoJo and Gordy. No more routines. No more compulsory cabin activities. And no more cleanup. I know that cleanup is the crux for JoJo. The rest he can abide. But his vision is that a new Black Hole of Calcutta, even murkier, will fester up there in the Training Village if no cleanup is enforced. As though all humanity’s secret yearning, against which only eternal vigilance will prevail, is to revel in filth. That is their right. I argue passionately. With great difficulty, he acquiesces.
Donna and I have worked together and slept together this summer, her first affair during marriage. Her husband doesn’t know
For the next three summers, JoJo constantly and, I am convinced, consciously avoids my section of the camp. He is accustomed to being aware of everything in his camp, but he knows that if he knows what is going on up there — unmade beds, inactive campers — it will become unbearable to him. It will go, or his sanity will go, or I will go. So he chains himself in ignorance: a generous act, I feel.
I got married at White Pine. Or rather on a day off. (A more normal day off meant laundry at the Haliburton laundromat, butter tarts at the Kozy Korner, dinner at Sir Sam’s Inn, and a movie at the Molou.) We’d set the wedding for just past the summer, but the thought of two weeks in Toronto in September, to let relatives and doubt gnaw, was repellent. So we jammed it into the middle of the camp season, after Melanie’s fiveday canoe trip and before the Gnu Revue. We got two days off to go into Toronto and do the deed, and half the head staff tagged in after us for it. Even Gordy left his post by the pegboard.
Something was moiling deep deep down because the day before I chewed out everyone in camp from the cooks to the Kiwis. That last night we had scheduled Counselor On A Hot Tin Roof. (If anyone really wants to know how it’s played, they should write White Pine.) But onto the porch of the Rec Hall stepped Charlie Pachter in a tattered tuxedo from the costume rack in the Drama Hut he ran (Pachter’s Equity) and crowed, “Rick Salutin, This Is Your Life!” Voices of my most loathsome aunts and uncles, pre-taped in Toronto, and through a mothy curtain kids from the section dressed to resemble them. Then a “reception,” catered by “Aunt” Martha of the kitchen, who really did cater weddings and bar mitzvahs in the city — little crescent sandwiches and parsley and punch. The kids loved it. They gave me the best reviews I ever had for an evening program. I could have kept them happy all summer if I’d had a wedding once a week.
Next day I went into Toronto and got married. It was a White Pine first, JoJo liked to say. But then the divorce would have been one as well.
This summer JoJo asked Peggy and Bernice to take the Kiwi (eight-yearold) boys’ cabin. He promised them a washroom right in the cabin so they would not have to run a commuter service back and forth to the main washhouse. When the season opened they had the boys, but not the bathroom.
This morning they discovered a turd — a big one — in the centre of the floor of their cabin after the little ones had hiked off to instructional swim. It was dismaying. They talked to Dick. Dick has the cabin next door to theirs. He said he would talk to the boys tonight.
Dick is a rabbinical student from Cincinnati. He has had courses in psychology and pastoral counseling. He came in at bedtime and asked Peg and Bernice to leave. They listened from the porch.
“Now guys,” said Dick, “this morning one of you did a very bad thing. I am not going to say what it was, because I’m sure you all know, and I’m not going to punish you for it, but the one who did it knows who he is, and I want to know too. Now I’m not going to make you speak up in front of the other guys. I'm going to come around to all your beds and give each of you a chance to tell me in a whisper whether he’s the one who did it. And I promise I won’t tell anyone else. But as for the guy who did it and admits it to me, I want you all to know that I will really really respect him.”
Then Dick padded from bed to bed. leaning down to permit a whispered acknowledgement from each of them. Peggy and Bernice waited nervously. Dick stepped outside. Within the cabin, all was hushed.
“Well?” they said.
“Four of them confessed,” said Dick. “I guess they all want me to respect them.”
It is the end of a summer. I ride into Haliburton with the kids, to the train station, see them onto the train. Almost everyone is riding it in. I am not.
(At Union Station in Toronto, JoJo will lead this herd into the Waiting Rotunda, like the Grand Marshall of a parade. When he struts down that ramp, the parents will explode in applause.)
The train pulls away. I trudge over to the liquor store, buy a pint of apricot brandy and begin to walk the five miles back to camp, where I will pick up my things. I wind around the bay, across the tracks, and out of town. A sip now, a sip again. On the far side of the bay I step off the highway and squat on a rock, watch the train pulling out of sight across the water. A car stops behind me. It’s Tom and Donna. Donna and I have worked together and slept together this summer. Her first affair during her marriage. She “couldn’t help herself.” It was not a lot, not threatening to either of us. Nice though. Tom “doesn’t know.”
My . . . wife is somewhere in Europe. We are engaged in our first separation, into it about six months now. I am very lonely. Not for someone in particular, just alone, tasting that fearful state, the anticipation of which kept me in the marriage as long as it lasted. I offer them the little bottle of apricot brandy. They decline. We shake hands. Donna and I exchange a sad smile. They pile into their Volvo and head for Pennsylvania.
I amble on up the road. The bottle is growing lighter. So am I.
Here comes another car. It’s Barbara and Max. God love them. Warm Barbara, looney Max, the New Zealand artist. They shared a staff cabin with me. At 3 a.m. one night Max bellowed across the partition, “Salutin, do you believe Christ was King of the Jews?” I told him a good answer, but I forget it now.
They share a swig. As they re-embark, Max thanks me. For strolling back to camp drinking a half-bottle of booze. It’s freed something in him. He reminds me of it whenever we meet again. In the National Gallery in Ottawa, for example, which Max sweeps through saying, “I’d like one up there I think, and one there, and one . . .”
By the time I turn off the highway into the arched canopy of trees that lines the mile of twisting road into the camp, where I will pick up my own belongings and then head for the city, I am feeling amiable. O’