Camp Stories | Color War Remains a Camp Tradition


Summer camp 2019 series“Guys in the back, you’re going to make us lose points!”

That warning, delivered by a general for the blue team at Camp Kef’s color war, is strained, barely audible over the chatter of the team and said with utmost seriousness.

Color war at Camp Kef, the Kaiserman JCC’s summer camp, is in its final day, and the blue team — Blue Earth, to be exact — leads Silver Outer Space by 1,000 points. To an outsider, that may seem an insurmountable deficit, but Aug. 2 brings the big-money events, the ones that can turn around a week of frustrations: the song, the plaque and the marathon, which is actually a many-legged relay race.

It’s actually friendshop song/fight song practice, to be exact, and the distinction seems to be the force with which the lyrics are yelled/sung. Blue Earth’s friendship song is to the tune of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and, as it goes with the general population’s experience with a radio-friendly hit, everyone seems shaky on the verses and very solid on the chorus.

To get the kids sitting back down, the harried generals at the front of the room use an elaborate hand gesture and a command: “Blue – Earth – Is – Cool!” The youngest kids assume the position up front — criss-cross applesauce — and the older kids splay their legs out in the back. Before they begin fight song practice, the generals instruct them to cheer for the other team, which each belligerent in the Color War must do to stay in the good graces of the judges and referees.

Down the hallway from the practice room, a handful of older kids on the Silver Outer Space team are putting the finishing touches on the plaque. “Plaque” is even a bit of a misnomer, because the wooden board that they’re working on is probably 6-feet-by-6-feet.

In here, away from the judges and referees — i.e., camp administrators and senior counselors — campers seem to feel that they can speak a little more freely. As one camper delicately smooths the curve of a painted Mars with his brush, he mentions that someone on Blue Earth told him that “Silver team sucks,” a clear violation of the governing speech code of the Color War. Another Silver Outer Space member mentions that, in the boat race, held in the outdoor pool, Blue Earth launched their vessel on the first whistle, when they were supposed to wait for a second whistle. That this is analogous to a classic Seinfeld episode is, regrettably, lost on her.

The marathon is slated to start in about 15 minutes, which already seems optimistic. An administrator barks into his walkie-talkie: “I’ve deputized the kindergarteners,” and he is indeed trailed by a line of them. A few minutes later, the same administrator, walking in the other direction down the hall, now sans-deputies: “One of the puzzles is missing a piece, but we don’t know which puzzle or which piece it is.”

It starts to become obvious what a production this is, even compared to the other events of Color War. There are pages and pages of stops on the marathon, and each event will necessitate large groups of children running from one place to the next, following their generals. One must remember that children are innovators in finding ways to accidentally hurt themselves; I watched a little girl trip on a water bottle that she was holding in her own hand.

The beginning of the marathon is 10 minutes late. Blue Earth’s generals do a West Wing-style walk-and-talk as they animatedly backhand their marathon schedules.

Flaming wooden letters B and S mark the end of the Color War marathon
A wooden frame – B for blue and S for silver – marks the end of the marathon at Camp Kef’s Color War. (Photo by Jesse Bernstein)

Finally, 15 minutes after the original start time, the marathon begins. You can’t tell from outside, because the initial events take place inside the building. After a few minutes, a Silver Outer Space marathoner comes tearing out side, trailed by his team’s generals. He hands the baton off to his teammates under the tent, who must carefully and completely remove Barbasol shaving cream from a balloon without popping it. A Blue Earth representative quickly joins the table. Before long, they’re off to the playground, to find a hidden totem of their team.

Around the field they go, coloring in a large square with chalk, leap-frogging as quickly as they can, weaving tricycles between traffic cones, putting a puck in the back of the net and navigating a jungle gym. Blue briefly takes the lead after a soccer shoot-out, only to lose it at the pool, where a girl on Silver Outer Space glides halfway across the pool on her initial dive to make up a half-length deficit. All the while, campers who finish the event must run over to Bridge Field, where the final leg will take place.

One of the final legs is at the archery range. Three campers from each team are tasked with piercing two balloons, from 10 feet away. Between the two teams, this takes about 60 attempts, but it is Blue that finishes first. They sprint over the footbridge to Bridge Field, for the 14-legged race. By the time Silver gets there, Blue is nearly halfway to the finish line. Blue’s compatriots are already jumping up and down, celebrating the victory.

But Silver was not finished. In a burst of speed, they quickly catch up to Blue and, just feet away from the finish line, they are literally neck-and-neck. The campers are going ballistic. The finish line is ill-defined, and it’s not initially clear who crossed first.

But then, Blue began to pump their fists and cheer, and ran over to their team to announce victory. It seemed that Silver had mistakenly missed an earlier leg of the race, thereby making Blue the winner by default. Blue Team picks up 1,000 points, and Silver is given 500. The deficit has grown to 1,500. Silver will need to win every event for the rest of the day just to tie — including both Silent Lunches, where the team that eats in greater silence can pick up 200 points.

Past the finish line, a wooden frame of about 18 feet is festooned with a large burlap “S”, and a matching “B.” The idea was that the team that finished first would have their letter set ablaze first, but there seems to have been some sort miscommunication. Both flaming letters make the hot day even hotter, and the campers begin to trudge back to the building for Silent Lunch.

For what it’s worth, Blue held on to win color war 2019.

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