A Belated Letter From Summer Camp
It can’t be the end of summer if there isn’t a story about summer camp
It was 1961, and I was a wide-eyed seven-year-old setting out on my first summer camp adventure at Camp Nominingue in Quebec. The train ride from Montreal to camp felt like an eternity, and the sight that greeted us at the camp was a sprawling vista of fields and a lake that seemed to stretch into infinity. It was disturbingly small when I revisited it 20 years later.
Nominingue was a rudimentary camp, established in 1925 and run by the Van Wagner family. We slept in canvas tents, marched naked (it was a boys’ camp) down to the shore of Lac Nominingue each morning with a towel, soap in a plastic rectangular box (designed to minimize any traction with a wet hand), and a toothbrush. Following these bracing ablutions, we got dressed in our camp t-shirts and shorts, had breakfast, and began our long day of activities.
Food was hardy, simple, and completely forgettable, except for the sole beverage—Bug Juice, a faintly coloured and sweetened form of water.
The outhouses, about ten single-holers in a row, were referred to as the Parliament Buildings and carried legends of boys who “just the previous summer” had fallen into the putrid abyss.
Tent life consisted of endless bunk and trunk inspections, reflecting the paramilitary traditions of the two boys’ private schools whose students made up the majority of the campers. I quickly learned that if I wore only the clothes from the very top layer of the navy blue trunk with fake brass trim that my mother had so carefully packed for me, my inspection preparation time was minimal. Indeed, about 85% of the contents were untouched for the month I was there, a time-saving technique I subsequently tried to reproduce at school by sleeping in my entire school uniform except for my shoes.
It was also a setting for enforced letter-writing, one of those disciplines, like mandatory piano lessons, which pays off for a small minority (the remainder, as adults, say, “I wish my parents had made me stick with it”). Camp was my first exposure to literally dozens of boys named David, that name having been popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, attributable at least in part to the commanding TV presence of Fess Parker as Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Among this plethora of Davids, I decided to sign my letters home as David Goldbloom; otherwise, how could my parents possibly know which David was writing from a camp overrun with them?
But most of our time was in the great outdoors, and our camp was replete with Indian-style legend and tradition.
We campers were assigned to different tribes—Iroquois, Mohawk, Cree, Huron—for our group affiliations, decades before we had a clue what cultural appropriation meant. The induction ceremony involved being blindfolded, wrapped in blankets, and led to the Tribal War Council area deep in the woods. This setting involved a small circular clearing surrounded by bleachers and dominated by a totem pole.
There, on a magnificent throne, sat Mr. Van Wagner, the head of the camp, in a buckskin suit and a headdress. We sat among our various tribes with a great fire blazing and listened to compelling stories as the skies grew dark and the temperature dropped. I was transfixed and vaguely terrified.
Nominingue acknowledged accomplishments by awarding metal feathers attached to a small brass Indian headdress plaque on a wooden base. Mine still hangs proudly, with my wife’s approval, on the inside of the door of a utility cupboard in our furnace room.
It was at this camp that I learned to swing an axe. We were officially told that once again, “just the previous summer,” a camper who had not paid attention to the follow-through of his axe had lodged the blade firmly and deeply in his right leg and had almost died. Unofficially, we also heard that in that same casualty-ridden summer that we had barely avoided, an axe blade had dislodged itself from the shaft during the backswing, hurtling through the air and implanting itself directly in the forehead of another hapless camper. My main consolation was that, as a 7-year-old, I had been too young to attend the previous year—and I certainly fixed my gaze firmly on the log into which, over the process of a mere couple of hours, I had hacked a small wedge.
In the craft shop, I learned to hammer a sheet of metal into a flat metal ashtray, a skill I might still be using today if I were a convict somewhere in prison. An appliqué of the Nominingue shield made this a distinctive gift item for my parents. They put it somewhere prominent in our living room for at least a couple of hours on the day of my return before finding a more suitable spot under summer bed sheets in the linen cupboard.
Most of the other campers, of course, had fathers with workshops in their basements, garages or cottages, heightening the relevance of these acquired skills. I kept my father’s skill at Japanese miniature gardening pretty much to myself.
It was an early exposure to the reality that there is life outside the city, community outside my immediate family, and pleasure in doing things even if you’re not really good at them.
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