I had a terrible overnight camp experience. I like to blame it on the camp itself. My father, not wishing to have to spend too much money to send my brother and me to the Poconos, found a YMCA camp that did everything on the cheap. The bunks were spartan, the plumbing ancient (the toilets overflowed into the bunk at least once every other day), and our counselor was an incipient sadist.
Not that I was such a prize. I had some innate skill as an athlete, especially when it came to basketball, but no one had ever taken the time to nurture it, or just stop and show me the ropes. I was considered the scholarly, sensitive type, and so gym teachers steered clear of me, as I did of them. (Camps at that time were not set up to work with each child and find his particular strength.) Tough love was the philosophy of the day – and I wanted none of it.
But the more practical problem for me, vis-à-vis basketball, was that I was still short, skinny, awkward and not particularly aggressive – or "scrappy," as the lingo back then had it. If I'd gone to this camp a year later, when I shot up to my adult height of nearly 6' 2", I might have been an asset on some team of age-appropriate players. Needless to say, I didn't give the place a chance. I left early that first summer and never looked back.
The larger point I wish to make here is that, in general, my experience is anomalous, especially in my own family. My brother loved that camp and returned for several summers, until my father got him a summer job. My wife and brother-in-law had stellar camp tenures, which they still talk about with dreamy-eyed devotion. And my children, once they found the kinds of camps they liked – ones tailored to their interests in a way that was unheard of when I was growing up – they blossomed, and they recall the time with deep affection.
A Formative Experience
Which brings me to Sleepaway, a collection of fiction and nonfiction pieces about overnight camp, published recently as a paperback original by Riverhead Books to coincide with the summer months. There are a few naysayers and curmudgeons among the various writers gathered here, some of them well-known, some just starting out. But for the most part, the tone in these pieces is celebratory, whether the story is told as truth or illusion.
Not too surprisingly, many of the writers on display are Jewish. Some might even argue that the camp experience, day and overnight, may just be a Jewish convention that America has adopted, whereas camping out in the woods is a gentile habit only a few Jews have taken up with any real gusto.
Sleepaway has been edited by Eric Simonoff, one of several Jews associated with the project. He's been a literary agent with Janklow & Nesbit Associates for 14 years and attended Joseph and Betty Harlam Camp, located in Kunkletown, Pa., for 10 straight summers when he was young.
In his brief introduction, he notes – with the kind of affection and exuberance my wife and children all express – that he spent birthdays 8 through 18 at Harlem, and there was no place he would rather have been.
"Every year I bided my time during the intervening 10 months," he writes, "eagerly awaiting the day I could pack my ugly black cardboard trunk, stuff my sheets and scratchy army blankets into my duffel bag, load them into the family's Ford Country Squire station wagon, and head for the Poconos, where I knew I wouldn't be that weird, bookish kid who always had his hand up in class – where, instead, I would be the popular kid, the lifelong camper who knew all the counselors, all the camp songs, all the camp lore. I loved camp. Camp loved me."
For Simonoff, as for most of the writers he's gathered together, camp was a formative – as well as a transformative – experience.
As might also be expected, the numerous pieces by Jewish writers are also some of the best of the lot. Not one is actually problem-free, and some are more expertly executed than others, but all are worth a look. (And once you're finished with them, you can then check out some talented non-Jews, like the up-and-coming ZZ Packer, the ever-popular David Sedaris, the formidable Margaret Atwood and the always surprising Ursula K. Le Guin.)
Lev Grossman's "Cello, Goodbye" is an overly sweet, somewhat thin look at the phenomenon of musical camps, and the romances and rivalries that thrive there among the talented and the just slightly less so (the author among them). His summer experience is one of reckoning with his middling abilities, and facing up to this harsh truth after so much practice and striving.
"Summer Memories of Egghead Camps" by James Atlas is fun and sometimes funny, if a bit predictable in its inevitable "punchline." The author first talks about having had to withstand three summers at Camp Willahwagen, a "barracks-like, sports-obsessed institution" near Drummond, Wisc. Such an "authoritarian" place was tolerable when he was 12 or 13, but by his 15th summer he had discovered the finer things in life – music, literature and poetry. So he headed off to Stockbridge, Mass., and an "egghead camp," where he could read and discuss Kafka's The Trial, Joyce's Dubliners and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Ah, such, such was heaven!
Of course, after a few weeks at that camp, Atlas started longing for a simple game of softball or a little roughhouse in the bunks; there's only so much rarified air you can take in at one time. Ah, such, such are the contradictions of life.
Diana Trilling, the late literary critic and one-time doyenne of the New York Jewish intellectual crowd, contributes "The Girls of Camp Lenore," which is far too long and ponderously detailed, but toward the end discloses the secret life of one of the longtime camp staff members and the scandal that darkened her life – and these few pages are well worth all the effort.
The only distinctly distasteful piece among these is Ellen Umansky's short story "How to Make It to the Promised Land," which tries to be provocative and "ironic" by likening a camp game to survival in a concentration camp. The only reward in this sadistic game is what the title refers to, which is right in line with all the other trivializing of the Holocaust that happens throughout the story.
My two absolute favorites in Sleepaway are "At August's End: Serving Time in Leftist Summer Camps" by Mark Oppenheimer and "The Brief Summer of Amir and Ariella – An Allegory" by Josh Lambert, one of the few real successes among the works of fiction in the collection.
What's wonderful about the Oppenheimer piece is that, unlike the Atlas essay, it works against type. I've read far too many starry-eyed pieces by too many staunchly committed red-diaper babies about all those warm and runny months spent learning to sing folk songs, the right tactics for running an effective picket line and exactly how to emulate the Soviet proletariat. Oppenheimer doesn't have a nostalgic bone in his body, and from a young age thought his idealistic parents had a screw loose for sending him to a left-wing camp to inculcate him with the "correct" ideals. He provides a dead-pan rendition of all the earnest people who tried to shape him into a true-believing comrade.
Lambert's brief story is, like much of the most vivid writing in the collection, about the discovery of self, sex and the nature of desire. Camp – being a place where states of undress are frequent – is a land of dreaming and longing. The title characters are one of those golden camp couples everyone knows, who meet and become an ideal that the others wish they could live up to. Things are wonderful at first for this glorious twosome, but it turns out badly. That's where the allegory comes in.
Amir and Ariella, in all their beauty and perfection, sum up what camps are all about, both for those who love them, as well as for those who couldn't wait to leave them. Their tale is perhaps most emblematic of the elusive qualities Sleepaway seeks to capture. That the collection manages to succeed – as well as entertain – more times than you might imagine is an accomplishment in itself.