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Friday, July 24, 2015

The Misery Of Summer Camp–Involuntary Internment

Camp Saquatucket was a summer camp for boys on Lake Mashpee, Cape Cod.  It had the usual camp activities – archery, volley ball, riflery, badminton, softball, and water sports. Jenk Wittold hated it.

Lake Mashpee


The camp was run by a retired preacher who ran it with old-style discipline and evangelical fervor.  “Jesus Christ is with us today”, he said before blessing the meal, “so let us bow our heads in silent prayer to thank him”.  He walked down the rows of 100 campers with a rolled towel. “Bruce Bagby”, he yelled to the fidgety boy. “You are becoming an infidel” and whacked him on the top of his head. “Get down on your knees, boy, on your knees.”

Poor Bruce’s parents had made a bad mistake when they sent their son to Camp Saquatucket. “Non-denominational” the header on the brochure read and, taken in by the summer scenes of sailboats on Lake Mashpee, outings to the shore, and endless group activities in a wooded setting, they sent their son off for a month.  The Bagbys were nominal Protestants, and neither they nor the Wittolds had any idea what their sons were in for.

Pastor Roberts deliberately played down his evangelical role, even dropping ‘Pastor’ from his title.  He looked at the camp as a refresher course for young Christians, and a boot camp for Jews and Catholics; yet was savvy enough to keep the public grounds free from religious imagery to attract all comers. Because of the fact that he had to hold his religious exuberance in check on camp grounds, his private rooms were filled with as much Christian symbolism as his evangelical sect and space would permit – bare crosses, woodcuts with “Love” and “Grace” etched large, fish symbols, and open, well-used Bibles.  The Director’s Office, however, was kept spare and secular in case any parents came to visit.

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Roberts prayed to the Lord, asking for forgiveness because he had been so restrained in his public show of faith; but he explained that he must work in mysterious ways to collar and reform the unfaithful.

Sundays were the worst. Every camper, counselor, and staff had to attend an hour-long Christian service under the oak trees by the Lake.  All dressed in white (“God’s color”, said Pastor Roberts, “pure as the driven snow”) campers listened to Bible readings, sang hymns, and prayed to Jesus Christ for forgiveness.  Summer camp was supposed to mean a vacation from church, even the more devout boys complained, and here they all were hewing to a religious line far more severe than preached in any church at home.

Jenk was especially unhappy because as a Catholic, a Protestant ceremony didn’t count as a replacement for Mass.  In fact it was heretical and sinful, so Sunday was Triple Indemnity Day.  Pastor Roberts’s services for the remission of sin.  Holy Mass to pray for forgiveness for having  participated in a Protestant ceremony, and three hours of a good, warm, August day totally wasted.

Jenk Haskins never should have been sent to summer camp in the first place.  He liked his parents, his home, and the lazy days of summer.  Baseball on the green, walks in the woods, wading in Stanley Quarter Park, and playing with the dog were just fine with him. He was an independent boy, happy reading, biking, and listening to his crystal set; and saw no reason why he should be sent away.

Image result for image stanley quarter park new britain


His parents saw things differently.  They were the first members of their Polish-German family to have made it out of the tenements of Bridgeport and to the West End of New Brighton – an Anglo-Saxon enclave of white picket fences, a golf course, registered colonial houses, and a quiet, stern, but very civilized appeal.  Summer camp was less of an opportunity than a commitment. If the grandchildren of immigrants were not to work on the factory floor as their forefathers had done, they were not going to be permitted to loll around and be indolent. Camp taught moral rectitude, discipline, the social importance of camaraderie, and the value of physical fitness.

Jenk Haskins resented being taken from his boyhood friends, his mother’s cooking, and slow, happy days. The whistles, chants, marching orders, and prayers of Camp Saquatucket were insufferable. Reveille, taps, lights out, swimming lessons, loud refectories, and Sunday prayers were all twisted bits of a bad nightmare. He begged his parents to come and get him, but they refused. “It will make a man out of him”, his father said, worried that his son might be a sissy and not able ‘to take it’.

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Jenk, however, was neither a whiner or a crybaby.  There was simply something unnatural and badly awry about the regimentation and discipline of a summer camp especially after nine months of school. If his parents wouldn’t release him from this gulag, he would do something about it.

His guerrilla campaign was impressive.  No one suspected him of putting pink dye in the vat in which the Sunday whites were soaking.  When Pastor Roberts discovered the tinted wash, he ordered the laundryman to bleach the clothes and make sure that they were ready for Sunday.  The laundryman, fearing that Pastor Roberts blamed him and wanting to make amends, poured far more bleach in the vat than was necessary; but instead of whitening the shirts and ducks, it simply mottled them with large, splotchy pinkish stains.  It would have been far better had they remained shocking pink.

“No whites tomorrow”, said a big sign in the refectory, and the boys all clapped and hooted; but Pastor Roberts had no intention of letting them off easily.  His Sunday sermon was all about treachery, perfidy, and raw insult to the Lord; and he extended the service by an hour so that sufficient time could be allowed for penance.

Jenk, who had the keen eye and steady hand of a sharpshooter, never aimed at the targets on the rifle range, but on the beveled iron clasps holding them.  When the bullet hit the edge of the iron, it sprayed in a semi-circle, neatly cutting the target from its holder.  Jenk was such a good shot that he could shoot down all the targets of his fellow shooters before Mr. Pilkington even noticed.

He shot one out of every three arrows at the squirrels in the pine trees behind the archery range; and as in riflery he was so quick and deceptive in his moves that he was never caught.  He always took a post at the far end of the range, farthest from Mr. Battles and closest to the trees and the squirrels.

Image result for image summer campers fifties archery range


He took three tablespoons of sugar from the communal bowls on the long breakfast tables every morning, and when he had filled an empty quart bottle, he dumped the sugar into the gas tank of the lone generator on campus, the one that provided electricity for the Director’s Office, the infirmary, and the kitchen.  Because the Director was so parsimonious and the summer days were so long, the Director forbade any lights on until 9pm; so Jenk’s prank was not noticed until the next evening when the generator coughed and spluttered for a few minutes before dying completely. It took two days for Pastor Roberts to get a technician down from Boston, but the sugar had so gummed up the works that he had to buy a new one.

Jenk was never caught, but his Final Camper Review suggested that he might be behind the mischief. “Jenk is a very willful boy”, Pastor Roberts wrote, “and while he seems to be a dutiful young man, I do not think his attitude is right for Camp Saquatucket”.

Summer camp was really a miserable place, a forced internment, a breach in the American Summer Idyll. Summer vacation was supposed to be the lazy life of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, pick-up games like Homer’s Cracking The Whip, or swimming in the water hole and instead it had become purposeful.  It was anything but.

Homer whip


If anything, summer camps have gotten worse.  Whereas Camp Saquatucket simply regimented fun, camps today are far more goal-oriented and productive.  Children go to camp precisely to be interned.  Math camps, language camps, weight-loss camps, and creative writing camps are designed with goals and set up with performance standards.  Parents are paying for achievement based on objective indicators.  Fun is not a variable in the equation.

Image result for advertisement for weight loss camp


The real beneficiaries of summer camp are the two-income parents who can finally relax, drink, make love at any hour of the day, barbecue, and play golf every weekend. Sending a child to camp is a welcome relief from the incessant, time-consuming, and stressful rounds of extra-curricular activities during the school year.

After Jenk’s parents had received the letter from Pastor Roberts, they immediately wondered what they were going to do with him next summer.  They couldn’t just let him ‘hang around the house’, although this is what they knew he wanted.  They didn’t have the money for the long summer vacations to Martha’s Vineyard that their neighbors took; but frankly they, like most other parents, wanted some peace and quiet.

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The real problem was that most of Jenk’s friends had also been sent to camp.  The ball fields and swimming holes of New Brighton were increasingly empty.  Even if he managed to convince his parents to let him stay home, he would have no one to play with. Times had changed.

Jenks and his parents compromised. He enrolled in a summer arts program in West Hartford for gifted-and-talented students.  He went three mornings a week, spent the afternoons painting at home, and met new friends. Art for Jenk was never work and sketching was far more fun than archery or kickball, so the arrangement was ideal.  His parents fussed about the driving; but were happy he was doing something productive. As for Jenk, he got a head start on his profession.  He easily gained acceptance to Cooper Union, became well-known in New York art circles, and eventually moved to Montana and opened an art gallery in Livingston, lived on a ranch, and invited his grandchildren every summer to fish, ride, and hike. 

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Everything works out in the end, Jenk always said; and if it hadn’t been for the misery of Camp Saquatucket, he might never have ended up this happy.


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