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Summer Camp

If you happen to be in Grand Central Station on a Friday or Saturday morning this summer you might witness an old ritual, young children gathering with their parents as the children set out on the train for what to most of them will be a life altering experience -- separation from their parents to participate in adventures in the woods, on the water, and on the playing fields or courts where they will make new friends, experience new challenges, test their skills, and learn to fend for themselves.

I recall that experience in Northwest to Huguenot, a short story recently published in the Delmarva Review (Vol. 8, 2015).

Northwest to Huguenot

I heard them talking in the kitchen, “It’s not a Catholic place – he shouldn’t go. Find a Catholic camp,” aunt Katie said.

“It’s a YMCA camp. What’s so wrong with that?” Mother said.

“He should be with his own kind,” Mollie Corr, a neighbor, said.

“He plays with a lot of Protestant kids now," Mother said, "Everyone around here isn’t Catholic,”

“Well, he’ll miss church on Sunday,” Aunt Katie said.

Mollie Corr laughed. “So do most of the men around here.”

“I checked. There’ll be Catholic services on Sunday,” Mother said.

I was sitting on the living room floor struggling to read my first book, a birthday present, Jack London’s Call of the Wild. I had begged for that book after seeing the movie. I hesitated to listen to the conversation just when the book’s central character, a heroic dog named “Buck” was about to be shipped from Seattle to the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

I was about to be shipped north to Camp Talcott in a place called Huguenot, New York, near Port Jervis. It was 1945, I was eight years old, and aside from overnights at one of my aunt’s apartments, while our apartment was being painted or when mother was having another baby, this would be my first time away from home not staying with a relative. Like Buck, I would be travelling by train, but unlike him, I wouldn’t be in the baggage car in a crate.

“Rose, I hope you’re right about this Protestant camp …”

“YMCA camp, Mollie.”

“Well, anyway, I hope you’re right about the place.”

“I think it’s more important that he enjoy the experience.”

That was it. I was going. I got back to Jack London and Buck’s journey to the Yukon. But as I read on I began to have second thoughts about camp. Would I have to battle to survive like Buck? Would I be mistreated like him? How would I fit in?
I wasn’t too excited about camp if it was going to be anything like the Yukon. I didn’t know what to think as I prepared for camp, watching as mother sewed name tags into my underwear, socks, T-shirts, and short pants. Then there was the lecture about older boys trying to touch my private parts or having me touch theirs. What’s this all about? I wondered. “You mean to help me pee, Mom?”

“No. They have other things in mind.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, they might try to get you to help them pee.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know. Just don’t let them try anything with you.”

“Is it because they’re Protestants?”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Well, Aunt Katie and Mrs. Coor sounded scared about Protestants.”

Mother smiled. “I don’t think religion has anything to do with it. Just you watch out for yourself.”

Two days before I left for camp, the Railway Express man came to our apartment to pick up my trunk. It would be waiting for me in my cabin when I arrived at Camp Talcott. On the morning I left for camp, Dad took me on the subway to 42nd Street. I was dressed in my new Cub Scout shoes, short pants and a short sleeved shirt. As we walked east on 42nd Street, just past Fifth Avenue we stopped for a hot dog and a soda. It was only 10:15, but the hot dogs looked good. “You’ll get hungry on the train,” Dad said. When he got the change he handed me two dollars. “You can use this at camp, but don’t buy any gum.”

When we entered Grand Central from the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance I got excited. I’d never been there before. It was enormous. I thought about the radio program, “Grand Central Station,” where the announcer described it at the opening of each show as “the crossroads of a million private lives, a gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily.” It sure was gigantic. Looking down at the mass of people, some highlighted by the wide bands of sunlight streaking through the windows high above the station’s stone walls, I was awed as we walked down the impressive staircase. It was certainly a drama for me that morning as Dad led me into the endless stream of people passing through the huge reception hall.

The place was filled with sailors, solders, and marines – hundreds of them along with their loved ones. And there were hundreds of kids going to camp, all gathered in groups around signs fastened to wooden stanchions showing the name of the camp. Camp Talcott had the largest contingent. Dad introduced himself to a few of the men and me to their sons. I had friends before we even boarded the train. Dad was pretty good like that. He had an outgoing personality.

Looking around, I also saw people with dogs. They were putting the dogs into crates and handing them over to the baggage men called Red Caps, who carried them, along with the luggage, on large carts to the baggage car. Wow, I wondered if there would be dogs on our train.

Dad walked me down to the noisy platform where amidst the shouts of conductors and the hiss of steam from the coal fired locomotives about to depart, I boarded the Erie Railroad car for the ride to Port Jervis. The windows of the car were open, since there was no air conditioning, and within minutes after the train came out of the tunnel leading out of the terminal our faces were covered with soot since we were hanging out the windows. The train ride was real fun, but not for the poor dogs like Buck caged in the baggage car uncertain about where they were going. I was pretty excited. Other than subway rides, this was my first real train ride. We travelled north about 40 miles to Suffern, where we stopped briefly, before we headed west along the New York-New Jersey border another 45 miles to Port Jervis. When we got off the train, many of us looked like 19th Century child miners – our faces and clothes smudged with soot.

The camp counselors who met us at the station just shook their heads when they saw us. “You kids need a good scrubbing,” one of them said as we were led to the white school busses that would take us another ten miles to Huguenot and Camp Talcott. When we got to our cabins we put our sooty clothes in the laundry boxes that we would send home each week for our mothers to wash and iron. After that we put on our swim trunks and with our towels and soap we headed to the lake to clean ourselves prior to the afternoon activities.

My six weeks at Camp Talcott were idyllic. I put Buck’s travails and the Call of the Wild behind me. For me, this was an enjoyable adventure. I was busy from sunrise to sunset, starting with a morning swim before breakfast, then arts and crafts, baseball, swimming and boating, and archery. The food was good as was the friendship and none of the older boys asked me to help them pee.

Every night there was a campfire down by the lake. All the campers and counselors would assemble on a circle of benches to listen to stories. The fire was lit in a magical fashion. A rag soaked in kerosene was wrapped around a lead fishing sinker and attached to a barely visible zip line. Someone would shout, “Let there be fire,” and the flaming rag would race down the wire into the base of the stacked wood and within minutes the flames would be a few feet high.

Some of the counselors were war veterans, Marines who had served in the island battles of the Pacific and G.I.’s who had fought their way across Europe. Recently discharged, they had recovered from severe wounds. One of the swimming instructors had a wide scar that ran down from the inside of his thigh to his knee along with a large one on the calf of his other leg.

At the campfire we were told stories about the fighting in Europe and the Pacific. I vividly recall the stories about Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. After the airstrip had been secured by the Marines, every night they would be kept awake by a Japanese bomber pilot called “Washing Machine Charlie,” who flew a plane that sounded like a washing machine, since the plane’s twin engines were not synchronized. The counselors claimed that the Japanese plane had this signature noise to keep everyone awake at night to scare them and to remind them that the fighting wasn’t over yet. We also heard stories about “Tokyo Rose,” an American woman of Japanese descent who would broadcast every night from Tokyo in a sexy voice claiming that the Americans were losing the war.

The last story was usually a ghost story either about Indians in the woods around the camp, huge black bears and wolves lurking about, or maybe the headless horseman who galloped about at night on camp trails. These stories made me think of Buck roaming the Klondike with a pack of wolves. Were there wolves around here? I wondered. Sometimes the kids were really scared as we walked back to our cabins in the dark.

Yes, there was a Catholic Mass on Sunday. My parents visited that first Sunday to make sure there really were Catholics at Camp Talcott. There were quite a few, probably about a third of the campers. After that first visit, they came every other week. At every visit, Mother would pull me aside and ask me if any of the older boys had tried anything. I would shake my head and usually tell her that none of the kids needed any help peeing except for one kid in my cabin who always wet his bed.

Some of the fathers or the brothers of campers visiting were in uniform. I looked at them in awe. Dad was too old for the armed forces, but as a young sailor in the late 1920's he was the lightweight boxing champion of the Atlantic Fleet.

Mid way through the camp session, much to my surprise, Dad arrived, stayed at the camp for a few days, and gave boxing lessons. A former professional boxer, he even had a few exhibition matches with some of the counselors. Dad’s visit increased my profile, but once he was gone, the downside was that some of the kids wanted to fight me. I held my own in the few tussles that resulted, and thanks to my counselor most of the kids left me alone.

On August 6th, two weeks before the camp session ended, we assembled in the mess hall late in the afternoon to listen to the radio reports of the Atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Atom Bomb? No one knew what that meant, including the counselors. A few days later, there was a report of another Atom Bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. The next day, at lunch, we learned that the Japanese would surrender. A big cheer went up. The camp counselors who had served in the war had tears in their eyes. It was a memorable day. We had apple pie with ice cream for dessert that night.

I had mixed emotions when camp ended. I missed the kids in my neighborhood, my wolf pack. Like Buck, I wanted to see them again, but I would also miss the camp activities and all the Protestant friends I had made. And, to Mother’s relief, nobody had tried to make me help them pee.

I looked forward to the train ride home, and this time I was smart enough to stay away from the open windows. When the train turned in from the banks of the Hudson River at Spuyten Duyvil, the huge rock formation alongside the Harlem River, and headed through the Bronx towards the heart of the city, I closed my eyes, searched my mind, and found the dramatic and rapid voice of the radio announcer:

“As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country
are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city.
Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night, great
trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for one
hundred and forty miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement
houses south of 125th street, dive with a roar into the two-and-one-half mile
tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and
then …” There is the sound of steam and the screech of the train brakes
being applied as the announcer calls out, “Grand Central Station…”

I shook my fists in excitement and opened my eyes to take it all in. The sound of the train rushing by the tenement houses in Harlem, the baffled noise of the steam engine in the tunnel, and the gradual shushing of the steam engine’s pistons as the train slowed before braking to a stop were just like those I visualized listening to the radio show.

The conductor led me and my fellow campers, my new Protestant friends, into the huge reception hall striped throughout with rays of sunlight where Dad was waiting for me amidst the hundreds of servicemen coming and going and milling about.
Camp was over. The war was over, and everyone was going home. I was luckier than Buck since I had a real home. Poor Buck was a now a ghost dog roaming the Yukon woods.
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