In the next few weeks, we will send our children off to camp, hugging them until they break free of us and disappear into the bus. We will wave and they will ignore us, absorbed into a happy knot of friends and soon-to-be friends.
I’ve done this year after year and the ritual always leaves me weepy. I’ll miss my child; but more than that, I’ll miss camp, that stretch of lazy days and dirty feet, when the only responsibilities we had were written in crayon on a chore wheel tacked to a cabin wall.
Summer camp may be the time and place where we connect most deeply with other people. It is where we take our first steps in becoming our true selves — without our parents there to watch — and pick up important social and survival skills like sharing a bunk with a stranger, short-sheeting beds and carving our names in the cabin wall.
I pondered my connection to camp during a recent planning meeting for a Camp Sea-Gull reunion on Sept. 23 at the lodge-like Camp Ticonderoga in Troy. We are hoping for the same enthusiasm that brought more than 300 former campers to the first Sea-Gull reunion 10 years ago at Joe Dumar’s Fieldhouse (owned by Brian Siegel, a fellow Sea-Gull alum and CEO of the Jewish Community Center).
The evening was a blast, a reminder that despite our aging shells, our true selves haven’t aged much. Fill in the same adjective in this Mad Lib: “At camp, I was a _____________ kid. I’m now a ______________ adult.”
We laughed until our sides hurt. And many of us see each other all the time, our friendships forged on the shores of Lake Charlevoix many years ago.
Taking up a pen to jot notes for a possible story in the Jewish News, I asked the women — Lisa (Mark) Lis, Nancy (Rivkin) Winer, Lisa (Fishman) Langnas and Wendy Kirsch — what they remember most about camp.
We recalled horseback riding, the red flatbed truck with the mattress that they hauled us in, the delicious cookies at cookies-and-milk time, the talent shows, the “motzi” song, dressing in white for Shabbat, lying on the athletic field watching stars shoot across the night sky.
There were daring midnight raids, playing jacks on the sandy cabin floor on rainy afternoons, comic books, hiking the five miles to the Horton’s Bay General Store for candy we wouldn’t have touched at home, Olympic Day, diving into the salami somebody got in a care package, plunging into the cool turquoise of Lake Charlevoix, listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Lou Reed and Traffic on the counselor’s record player. Sublime times — and I was a short-timer with only three summers under my belt (1972-74).
“Camp is a life-changing experience,” said Lis, a full summer Sea-Gull camper from 1970 to 1978. “It permeates your mind and inspires you to connect with friends decades later.”
Wendy Kirsch, a Sea-Gull camper (1975-81) and a staffer (1983-88), said, “It was a little city of just us. It’s where I had all my firsts, good and bad.”
Winer (1970-79) said, “For most of us, camp was the most important part of our lives. It’s where our personalities were formed … For my entire life, Sea-Gull has been the most beautiful place on Earth.”
Langnas, a camper (1971-1977) and staffer (1979-80), said, “Camp is a magical place where lifelong friendships are made and everybody is accepted for who they are.”
If everybody would have had the opportunity to spend a month at summer camp, I bet the world would be a more civil place. Seriously.
Two summers ago, during a week’s vacation in Charlevoix, I coaxed my husband and kids into driving with me to the camp (Sea-Gull closed for good in 2011). A sign outside the entrance announced an auction the next day of the remaining buildings; Hayes Township had bought the property and intended to turn it into a public park. It would not become a gated condo complex or upscale resort but a place that everybody could enjoy. That made me happy.
We parked on the athletic field and picked our way through the grass. The amphitheater where we gathered each day was a bit tattered. The old staircases were overgrown but functional. The lake had claimed more of the shore but a familiar wooden bench sat there, undisturbed by the encroachment. The buildings were padlocked but otherwise intact. I peered into a cabin and saw the scratchings of kids who were bored or in love.
As I pondered the serendipity of stopping by just a day before this dear place would be dismantled, I realized I might be the last Sea-Gull camper to see the camp before it disappeared into its next incarnation. I thought I might write about it one day.
Alumni of other camps — Tamarack, Walden, Tanuga, Ramah, Maplehurst and Tamakwa, among them — will no doubt say theirs is the best.
But Sea-Gull had the song to prove it: “North, south and east and west, our camp has always been the best …”
Julie Edgar Special to the Jewish News