In search of a summer job after my freshman year in college, I found my way to an employment office on 42nd Street in Manhattan. My idea was to become a waiter at a resort in the Catskills, where I had heard the girls were easy. I took a wrong turn or opened the wrong door and found myself talking to Don Kauth, the director of Camp Kiwago, a welfare camp on Upper Twin Lake in Harriman State Park. Though I had some doubts, based on my experience of seven years as a camper at Camp Hlond, in Ramsey, NJ, where we spent entirely too much time praying, slept in dormitories, and an overnight hike often meant a trek to a protected area in the woods about five hundred yards from the camp proper, I decided to take a job as a counselor--$50 for the season, six two-week trips, and something extra for setting up and closing down the camp. Like college, this opened up a new world for me, and I spent three summers there, eventually becoming a unit leader and, years later, returning as director of the leadership camp of the sponsoring organization, the Boys’ Athletic League.
Opening camp was hard but enjoyable work. We carried metal beds and mattresses from the rec hall to double cabins spread over the landscape and aluminum canoes to the waterfront, tarred the bottoms of ancient wooden rowboats, floated and anchored the raft and safety lines, which became specialties of mine, planted posts for fences, rebuilt the council ring used for the solemn closing ceremony of each trip, set up tables and chairs in the mess hall, as well as the camp totem pole, bell, and flag staff. It was an adventure to take off in a pickup with a crew of four or five with shovels, axes, and other tools to slug away at some project. There were old hands, like Bob Brant, who doubled as a unit leader of four cabins and song leader after every meal; Jack Padian, my unit leader, who blew a raspy reveille every morning in his underpants, to the amusement of some of the girls at a camp across the lake, and Bubby Quimby, tough as nails, a natural leader. The newcomers among the counselors were a diversified group by any standard; they included Paul Toutlemond, a student from Paris; Timothy Lee, a six-foot Mongolian from mainland China; a retired school teacher in his sixties--everyone called him Mr. Grant-- Gregory Corso, then a would-be painter, later to become a well-known Beat poet; Harry Fox, an ironic African-American physical therapist who ran our craft shop, and me, the fledgling intellectual.
Camp Kiwago was one of six camps sponsored by two related organizations, the Boys’ Athletic League and the Girls’ Vacation Fund. Toward the end the week when the camps were set up, there was a dance for all counselors and staff at Camp Manitou, a girls’ camp down the road. When we learned it was to be a square dance, everybody complained, but we all had such a good time that we insisted on another square dance rather than a so-called ballroom dance at the end of the season. Everyone has fun at a square dance, and there are no wallflowers or groups of ignored girls-in-waiting among the courted queens. That the directions dosydoe and alaman were corrupted French only occurred to me years later when I was studying for a Ph.D. language exam.
When the kids arrived on buses from Manhattan for the first two-week trip, I had to learn a lot about ten-year-olds quickly. Heading for my cabin with a disorderly bunch, I noticed that Bubby was walking in front of his group, who followed him single file like ducklings. One or two of the new counselors could not control kids, most of us, including me, could control them when we worked at it, but a few, like Bubby and Jack Padian, has such command that the kids did what they were supposed to even when they weren’t around. And there was Gregory, who would sit atop a boulder reading Dostoevsky, oblivious of the kids raising hell all around him.
My cabin, whose shield-like plaque declared it the home of the Tokana tribe, was the closest to the main building which housed the rec and mess halls, and we were designated Table Setters the first day. About an hour before each meal, Ronnie, the cook’s helper, would ring the camp bell and shout, “Taaable Setters!” Since Don Kauth was a martinet about any number of things, the tables had to be set just right, with the plates precisely one inch from the edge and silverware lined up neatly and facing the right direction, as Jack Padian took the time to show me. At first I thought this regimen absurd, but I became a convert when I realized that many kids had never seen a set table or knew there could be different plates for soup, the meal, and dessert. The square tables sat eight, and there would be at least one counselor or staff member per table. After Bob Brant led us in Grace, the Table Setters would carry food to the tables, which was dispensed by the counselor, who also gave instructions when necessary about how to break and butter bread, which utensil to use, and the like.
After breakfast we had cabin clean-up, which included making tight beds with hospital corners, folding all clothing in the lockers, and raking up outside. Inspection, carried out by staff later in the morning, was taken quite seriously, with the day’s best cabin announced at lunch and awarded a pennant. On occasion, a cabin would have to clean up again during Rest Period and be re-inspected. I thought treating ten-year olds like soldiers in basic training was silly, but I changed my mind when years later I visited camps in the same organization where beds were half made and litter everywhere. The usual day featured morning and afternoon activities and swim and an evening program. I spent as much time as possible at the waterfront, where I took the life guard course and learned to do just about everything in a canoe, including gunneling it. I enjoyed teaching little kids how to swim--blow bubbles, do the dead-man float, float on their backs, and stay up in deep water with the doggy paddle. Non-swimmers splashed around in wooden cribs, with water about four feet above the planked bottom; swimmers, kids who had managed to get to the raft and back on their own, were allowed to swim in the deep water, dive or jump from the spring board, and swim to or lounge on the raft. Every five minutes, the lifeguard blew his whistle for buddy check, and the kids had about five seconds to get to their buddy for the day and hold hands, arms in the air.
One activity to be avoided was archery because the kids always lost arrows and all wanted to shoot at the same time though there were only three targets about twenty feet away and just one bow. I remember once when assigned archery with about twenty kids, they insisted I show them how from half a football field away. I took a wild shot, way up in the air, and managed to hit the bull’s eye--not the one I was aiming at, but who was to know?
I also became a good storyteller, absorbing the traditional tales like “The Man With the Golden Arm” and, using Indian names and settings, lifting plots from classics such as Macbeth. Kiwago was known for our All-Day-Programs, one each trip on a different theme. On Martian Day, for example, during breakfast there was a loud explosion in the offing and an announcement that a spacecraft had been spotted in the area. The search for the space ship (a painted boiler done up with gadgets and set on fire) began immediately, and the day was spent searching for the Martians, who were kind enough to put on a play for us that evening. At breakfast the following day one skeptic complained about the play. “They wasn’t all Martians,” he said.
“What about the rest of the day?” I asked.
“Well, we caught the real Martians, all right. But they wasn’t all in the play. It was mostly counselors.”
Perhaps the most elaborate all-day-program ever was Wild West Day, the only time a program included all six camps. It was Don Kauth’s idea. Everyone at the other camps thought he was crazy, insisting that all the kids learn to square dance, throw a lasso, and sing folk ballads, but he got his way, maybe because his father was the CEO of the camping associations. It was quite a show: kids and counselors in cowboy or Indian costume; the athletic field rigged with loud speakers, recorded music, and boys and girls from six camps square dancing all together!
This was a healthy life, and after only a few weeks I was tanned, slender, with hardened foot soles, so that I could walk, even run, barefoot on hardpan or gravel. It was an escape from city streets and books. The only thing I remember reading that first season were heavy, worn editions of Cooper’s Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, which I found in the Counselors’ Lodge. They were just the right thing for this sylvan setting. I ignored the pompous style, preposterous dialog, and pathetic attempts at humor, and responded to Cooper’s lush and at times panoramic vision of the forest, the lakes, and mountains. My favorite character, perversely, was Magua, the villain of the Mohican book, who had the dignity of a tragic hero, even though Cooper didn’t seem to know it. One evening, walking back to my cabin alone under the stars I saw through the dome of the night sky and experienced myself as eternally young and immortal. Though, like Melville, I was suspicious of such seeming moments of illumination, at least I knew what Wordsworth had lost, what Whitman felt lying in the grass, and could make sense of Emerson’s transparent eyeball and Keats’ reaction to the carol of his nightingale.
At the end of each trip, the night before they were to return to the city, the campers made their way by tribes along a narrow path, single file, each with a feathered headpiece and carrying a candle, to the ceremonial Council Ring half a mile away, where each tribe was solemnly greeted by a staff member in full Plains Indian regalia. When they were all settled, the Welcomer shot a flaming arrow into the lake some fifty yards below, signaling the arrival by canoe of the Chief (Don Kauth) The Chief offered solemn prayers to the four winds, symbolized by four corner fires, and called upon the great Wakondah to light the enormous central fire. Although I had helped rig the chemicals and connect the wire through an underground pipe earlier that day, I was almost as impressed as the wide-eyed kids from Harlem and Bensonhurst when with an explosive burst the central fire spontaneously shot some twenty feet into the air. “Rise up old flame, by thy light glowing,” everyone sang. “Show to us Beauty, Vision, and Joy,” and “We are the red men, tall and quaint, in our feathers and war paint, powwow! powwow! We are the red men, feathers in our head men, down among the dead men, powwow!” I do not think the spirit of any Algonkian warrior haunting the woods thereabouts would have been insulted by this ceremony. The campers, finally, were told to keep their candles, bring them home, and relight them next winter, at Christmas time, in remembrance of their summer at Kiwago and the gifts of the great spirit, Wakondah.
We had a night out every trip. The camp driver would take a group of us into Highland Mills, where we would play shuffleboard at a roadhouse all the area camps patronized or to Newberg where most would take in a movie while reprobates like Bubby and me would spend a few hours at a pub deciding the fate of Camp Kiwago and the rest of the universe. Bubby and I had taken an instant dislike to each other, but after a few convivial beers at the Main Street tavern in Newberg, we became buddies and stayed so until we lost track of each other some fifteen years later. About twice a season we would get a weekend off. At first, I’d go back to Brooklyn, once sleeping on the unattended marble information booth at Penn Station, but later I’d stay in or around camp. I had gotten to know every trail and campsite in the area by taking the 16-year-olds on four-day overnights, and I’d spend my free weekend trekking to nearby camps, mooching meals, and camping out on my own in the woods. One adventure in particular is etched in my memory, the time Bubby and I took a day off together: We walked to Lake Sebago, climbed the hill and tramped through the woods to Camp Sebago for lunch, stopped off at Manitou, hanging out with the director until she invited us to dinner, and then hitchhiked to the pub in Highland Mills.
We knew all the old hands at each of the camps and, if you were wearing a camp shirt, anyone would give you a ride. There were two girls at the roadhouse from Camp Robinhood, on the far end of Upper Twin Lake. After some small talk I found myself dancing with Ruth, and Bubby was with her friend Bobbi, until at some point after a maneuver by the girls, I was with Bobbi, who struck me after such a great day as the most beautiful girl I’d ever met. After an hour or so, we called for our camp station wagon and gave the girls a lift back to Robinhood. The next day Bubby and I rowed over toward Robinhood to meet the girls, who had also come out in a boat. We chatted. Bobbi, I learned, was a junior counselor in the craft shop, a student at Music and Art High School, and even more lovely in the daylight. She was all of 15. In 1958 after an on-and-off courtship via subway from Bay Ridge to the Bronx, via airmail from Switzerland to Northhampton, and via train from Boston, where I was a graduate student and T.A., and Smith College, where she was an undergraduate, and again via mail when I spent a year as a lieutenant in the Army, we got married, even though I hadn’t finished my M.A., didn’t have a job, and was broke. In August, 2008, we celebrated our 50th anniversary.