A vintage view

A summer camp counselor's memories from 65 years ago

by Len Lear
Posted 3/21/24

When I was a child, I never went to summer camp as an actual camper because my family could not afford it. Later, I became a camp counselor.

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A vintage view

A summer camp counselor's memories from 65 years ago


When I was a child, I never went to summer camp as an actual camper because my family could not afford it. There were five children in our family, and my father had dropped out of South Philadelphia High School in the ninth grade because his father had died, and he, as the oldest son, was expected to go to work to help pay the bills. 

I always envied the kids who came back from summer camp rhapsodizing about the great times they had experienced while I was making change in a penny arcade at Broad and Erie and delivering newspapers in our West Oak Lane neighborhood. The two jobs brought in about $10 a week, not quite enough for that beautiful new red Schwinn bicycle I had my eyes on.

I was determined to find out what summer camp was all about, though, so when I was in college, I applied for and got a job as a camp counselor for two straight summers at Camp Kittatinny in an upstate town named Dingman's Ferry, which is in Pike County. You can only imagine the jokes that the teenage boy campers came up with about the names Kittatinny and Dingman's Ferry. 

I don't know how much parents were paying to send their kids to the camp, but it was a lot. I never even knew anyone who attended a private school until I met these campers, many of whom went to private schools, quite a few from the Main Line. I was in awe when kids told me about their travels in Europe with their parents. The farthest I had ever been from home was Millville, New Jersey because we had a cousin who had a small farm there.

The first year, 1959, I had eight-year-old campers, and the second year, 1960, I had 14-year-olds. Most of the boys were pleasant enough, but one 14-year-old from New York City whose father was a corporate executive was a thoroughly obnoxious kid, complaining about everything. The food was not nearly as good as he was used to, he said. The counselors were stupid, according to him, and he did not take losing in basketball well at all, although strong sports schools were not exactly lining up to recruit him.

The other kids did not like him, either. He definitely did not listen to anything I had to say, and when I mentioned this to one of the administrators, he told me “His parents are extremely rich, and he has been given everything you can imagine since he was born. He never heard the word 'no.' We told his parents last year that we did not want to take him back again, and they said they would pay a lot more than any other parents, and they have. Money talks. Maybe when he grows up, he will have an employer who will finally say no to him, but then his father will probably buy him a business he can run, and then he can tell everybody else what to do again.”

The camp always put on a musical play at the end of the season. In my second year, it was “Guys and Dolls,” a huge Broadway hit in the 1950s, based on the hilarious short stories about New York gamblers and gangsters by one of my favorite authors, Damon Runyon. It was later made into a terrific 1955 movie starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando.

It was definitely not politically correct. For example, the main character, gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando), says, “The companionship of a doll is a pleasant thing for a period of time running into months, but for a close relationship that can last through all the years of our life, no doll can take the place of a royal flush and a full house, back to back.”

I played the character of Nicely-Nicely Johnson, who was played on Broadway by Stubby Kaye, an obese, jolly fellow. I had to put a pillow inside my shirt so I would look a lot heavier, but it kept shifting around, and I felt as if a squirrel was running around in my clothes.

The show was lots of fun except for the fact that about halfway into it I completely forgot a line and stood there like a statue while everyone on stage and in the audience waited for me to speak. Finally, someone backstage yelled out the line so loud it could have been heard in New Jersey. Of course, this elicited raucous laughter from the audience, and even the other counselors, but I found it to be quite humiliating. Afterward, everyone tried to console me. “Don't worry; it happens to everyone,” several people said. If I had ever considered a possible career as an actor (I never did), that “frozen” experience would have put an end to such a plan.

One thing I remember clearly was getting ready to go on a boat ride with the kids on a lake. I was leaning against a tree when I looked up and saw a huge gray owl who was staring at me as if to say, “Do you mind, young man? I was here first.” After the canoe ride, I was leaning against another tree when I looked up and noticed another grey owl, staring straight at me with a menacing glare. I asked the owl if his parents had paid for him to attend the camp. I cannot recall his answer, but I do recall both owls' intimidating stares.

The camp was a blizzard of activity – high ropes, zip lining, skits, songs, dancing, swimming, canoeing (and other boats), rock climbing, making friends, fireworks, making bracelets, and seeing all the stars at night – which made it a rewarding experience for most of the kids. Some of the younger kids complained about being homesick and even shed some tears until a couple of teenagers would tell them what “babies” they were.

Kids are easy laughers. I could always get a laugh out of them by saying something like “I'm trying so hard to save money that I only floss every other tooth” and “You'll never hear a cat complain about being dog-tired.” One time we had a pun contest with outdoor themes. Kids love puns, and I do, too. At the end of the season, these were the winners, each of which won a ribbon for the punster: 

Q: How can you tell the ocean is friendly?

A: It waves

Q:. Why is grass so dangerous?

A: Because it’s full of blades

Q: Why did the sun go to school?

A: To get brighter. 

Q: What did the trees wear to the pool party?

A: Swimming trunks

Q: What do you get when you cross a cat with a lemon tree?

A: A sour puss

  1. How do you cut a wave in half?

A: Use a sea saw

Q: How do hurricanes see?

A: With one eye. 

Q: What kind of shorts do clouds wear? 

A: Thunderwear

  1. What happens when it rains cats and dogs?

A: You have to be careful not to step in a poodle. 

Q: What is a tree’s least favorite month?

A: Sep-timber

I don't know if other camps do this, but ours had a “Scary Story” night. The kids usually didn’t have any, but the counselors, who had been thinking and preparing for weeks, sometimes did. There would be a vote at the end, and the “Best Scary Story” teller would win a statuette with his name engraved in it later.

Of course, I do not remember the winning scary story from an older counselor, Jason, word-for-word, but this is pretty close: “I went to my high school reunion last year in Ohio. I flew to the nearest airport and rented a car. The distance was about 35 miles through a very rural and almost abandoned part of the county. About three miles outside of town, I saw someone on the side of the road, flagging me down. It turned out that it was one of the guys I had attended school with, named Paul, who got into the car, and we started talking. 

“I had not seen him in several years, but he still looked exactly the same. We got to town, and I asked him if he wanted to come to my favorite bar, Murphy's, and have a drink. Paul said, 'No; just take me home.' Paul's parents had lived only a few blocks from my grandmother’s house, and I turned in that direction, but he said to take him to the outskirts of town. There was a mobile home park out there, and I figured that was where he lived. When we reached the end of the turnoff he said, 'Just drop me here. It was good to see you again,' and he walked off into the night.

“I went to Murphy's, met some of my old classmates, and we started to talk. As we were talking about who was coming to the reunion, I mentioned that I had just picked Paul up three miles east of town and had dropped him off. Everyone got quiet; even the guy singing karaoke stopped and put down the mike. My cousin became as white as a new t-shirt. 'Jason, I'm sorry to tell you this, but Paul died on that curve eight years ago. He was speeding on a rainy night, and his car skidded, rolled over and slammed into a tree. We were all at his funeral.'

“I started to feel really dizzy and went to the car to take some deep breaths. There on the seat was the local newspaper, printed seven years before, containing Paul's obituary. I still have the paper.”