In the summer of 1969, the year of crystal blue persuasion and good morning starshine, the Apollo 11 team of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made cosmic history by stalking the surface of the moon. But down on earth, Robin stalked me. Her favorite hobby was hitting me on the head with her cast. I’d known her since we first started six years earlier as Lakeside campers at the all-girl New Jersey “Y” camp, Nah-Jee-Wah (named in honor of New Jersey Women), in Milford, Pennsylvania. She had long, kinky, sun-bleached blond hair tied back into a ponytail with a piece of white yarn that we were all so crazy about then. She was thin, tanned and gaining new freckles every day. She could wear whatever she wanted while I had to make do with anything that fit from Lane Bryant’s Chubby Department. Looking good just wasn’t possible.
Robin and I shared a bunk bed and she took the upper. Whenever she jumped off her bed and my head had the misfortune of being in her way, it’d get punched—accidentally on purpose—with layers of hardened plaster. When I first got to know her years before, she had seemed like a nice girl. She even invited me for a sleepover during the school year at her house in Linden, and her mother walked around in a black slip. My mother would never do that in public, especially in front of my friends. Her mother had blond hair, too.
But that summer it was good sporting fun to bully me, and Robin, who had been my camp friend for six years, turned on me. Last year, Ellen had been the target. This year, me. This year I wore tortoise-shell glasses, all the time. Bonk. We were never friends, Robin said. Bonk. She would never be friends with a fat girl. Bonk. Especially one who can’t get her face out of a book. Bonk. And one with hideous glasses. Bonk bonk.
Our men went up into space that July and we had awful thunder storms, I presumed, as a result. On such a day, as the rain dripped off the bunk roof, Robin bored of writing letters home and playing War with her deck of cards. It was far more fun to taunt me, kicking me as I tried to read or nap. Sometimes she roped in her new friends—Happy and Pokey, and I’m guessing there were five other dwarves around—to join in on the game. Happy (aka Joyce) and Pokey (aka Hildy) had developed a penchant and talent for pouting. Both had straight blond hair, but Pokey tanned and her white glasses showed it off. Yet, her glasses, more cat-eyed than round, were the kind that usually framed sunglass lenses. No one dared call her four-eyes.
On the same rainy day lightning hit the tree behind our bunk. A crack. A sizzle. A thud like Stumbo the Giant from the Harvey comics stomped through the grounds. We all ran first to the bunk diagonal from us. Then we found the courage to investigate. My heart was thumping. I may have grabbed my sister’s hand—she was in that bunk. The tree behind our chocolate brown bunk looked different. Its crown, with all the branches and leaves, now rested on the trunk, upside down, with the splintered end reaching up to the sky. Burning cinders dotted the roof of the bunk. What the heck were Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin doing up there? Robin, Happy, and Pokey did not share reassurances that all would be all right. They were just as scared as the rest of us, and I was glad. Natural disaster could be a great way to level the playing field.
Back on earth, outside the bunk I had my twin sister for support. Inside the bunk I had nobody. We were Bunk 23, chocolate brown wood (just like Lincoln Logs) with mint-green trim. We named our bunk Birnbaum’s Bums, because our counselor was Rita Birnbaum and our counselor-in-training (aka waitress) was Donna Gottlieb. They seemed so sophisticated and mature as college students. University of Louisiana student Rita wore her chestnut hair coiffed into a teased pageboy with plenty of hair spray, a look only possible because she went to bed every night with a head full of pink rollers, the hard kind, not the spongy ones. When sawing wood with Pokey and Ellen, her hands were busier with her hair than the wood. She wore pale pink lipstick (who does that at camp?) that seemed almost white in that Yardley way. Come to think of it, she wore white eye shadow (at camp?). Donna, who wore New York University sweatshirts, had short, dark hair, in a flapper-style bob. Her skin was darker, too. When lights went out they disappeared to have their own good time. One night, when they were out, apparently Robin and her posse dreamed up an innovative strategy. By the time I woke up in the morning, I was covered in Crazy Foam and neon pink Silly String. I bet the men on the Apollo didn’t have this trouble. Their worst nightmare was letting go of their Tang and grasping for it as it floated around them.
In 1969, without any previous notification at least to long-time campers, this girls’ camp integrated with boys, previously housed at Cedar Lake Camp (CLC) across the lake. Our new division, previously known as Brook Valley, was now called Hannah. The constant presence of boys added more pressure. Skinny-dipping was definitely out. But even with a lock, the bunk wasn’t safe either.
I shared my troubles with Rita and Donna, but though nice enough, they didn’t a) believe me about the bullying; and b) much care. Ensuring my safety was evidently not as much a priority as meeting up with the male counselors. No one wanted to hear about let alone handle problems.
The problems were new to me, too. I had seen myself as a happy camper. From the time I started at age six in Lakeside, I progressed through the camper ranks. I longed to be in Brook Valley, the gateway to the upper divisions of Mountainside, Skyland, and Heaven. But just as I neared the nirvana of Brook Valley, everything changed. Now Hannah and its male equivalent Levi were the last divisions at Nah-Jee-Wah. Every other summer we stayed for the whole eight weeks. In 1969, this was the case. I had never been homesick before, but this year, I wanted to come home. It never dawned on me that my parents wanted to get rid of us for the summer. I thought they wanted us to have a good time. My mother wrote every day and she had the most beautiful handwriting. On visiting day, she’d bring us two different kinds of chicken wings, sweet and sour for my twin and roasted for me. Since my father owned a chain of grocery stores, we got a lot of goodies and frankly, I used it as currency in the bunk.
Tortures, however, were not restricted to the bunk. Now boys and girls cohabited the camp. For a fat eleven-year-old with glasses, this was not good news. I remember an outing on a rowboat on the lake, teamed with two boys, Howard and Marshall, the latter of whom did not have all his cups in the cupboard. The evening’s activity metamorphized into a double date instead of searching for milk cartons, those little ones, bobbing along the surface of the lake, some of which held the treasured watermelon, as if milk and watermelon made a tasty combination. Every activity seemed to include boys. As if my weight weren’t enough, I towered over most of them, so it was no surprise at mandatory dances, no one asked me to dance. Marshall, however, was tall and that gave Robin and Pokey more ammunition. That summer, the camp song lyrics seemed particularly appropriate: I come from Nah-Jee-Wah, so pity me. There ain’t a decent boy at CLC, and every night at nine they lock the doors. I don’t know why, oh why, I ever came before.
Nah-Jee-Wah in the year of Hannah was not the camp I remembered from years prior in Lakeside, Glenwood, and Cliffside. Although Friday nights remained sacred, gone were the days when all the girls showered in the mikvah after swimming and dressed in all white for Shabbos. We all walked to the mess hall in a kind of informal procession and we knew the meal would be special: chicken soup, challah, roast chicken. Even the bread-cutting ceremony demanded spiritual attention. Matt Elson, the director of the camp, stood like a Kodiak bear, recited the prayers in a booming alto, and cut the challah. I guess this was more special to me, because we didn’t celebrate the Sabbath this way at home. My mother always covered her head with a kerchief and lit the Sabbath candles, circling her hands around the flames three times before placing her fingers on her closed eyes for her private prayers. But we did not say the blessing over the bread. In fact, we never ate bread with dinner. At Nah-Jee-Wah, the sliced challah was passed to every bunk’s table. There was no butter, because we were eating meat and that wouldn’t be kosher. There was, however, the ever-present bug juice that tasted like Kool-Aid.
Now here at Nah-Jee-Wah everyone was Jewish. Everyone was dressed in white. Everyone spoke Hebrew prayers even if we learned them there. After dinner we trekked further up the hill to the amphitheater in good weather or to the rec center when it rained for Friday night services. Steve Zowell, the music director, rehearsed with the division or bunks responsible for that week’s service. That’s where I learned “Jerusalem, City of Gold,” in Hebrew and “The Cat Came Back.” When services were over, we practically ran down the hill to the lawn in front of Lakeside for dancing. I learned the Salty Dog Rag. When we danced the Miserlou, we held hands in a circle and celebrated our unity. We danced to a song whose title is forever lost, but whose lyrics went something like this: “To the right and to the left, forward side together. To the right and to the left, forward side together. Dadadadada, dadada jump hop.” Of course, we danced the Hora and the rain dance, Mayim. We had an Oneg Shabbat and ate little cakes. Friday nights were both solemn and joyous, a celebration of Jewish life that I had not really known at home. Here there was music, the smell of the grass and pine trees, moonlight, and the intermittent glow of fireflies.
But what I did know at home was my mother’s mantra when kids in my class bullied me: They’re just jealous because you’re Jewish. At Nah-Jee-Wah, everyone was Jewish. My mother had a response for that, too: They’re just jealous because you’re smart. At school, I stood out for being fat, being Jewish, and being smart. Here at camp, I just stood out for being fat, a relatively recent occurrence, the result of staying up late on school nights and snacking. Being smart meant absolutely nothing. I couldn’t be teacher’s pet—always my mission. To be a good camper meant physical ability, very little of which I had. But I made a Jewish pieta (not knowing the word at the time) of a mother and child, glazed in a deep turquoise. I made bookmarks of glue-soaked tissues pressed against dried flowers. I got the role of one of the nuns in our camp production of “The Sound of Music,” although I had tried out for Maria. I passed swimming test after swimming test, although diving petrified me and I never passed that. I was really pretty pathetic. Still, I did like tetherball, archery, and modern dance.
I could believe my mother’s assertion that I was bullied because I was Jewish. I grew up believing that being Jewish was something to be proud of, something I had to fight for when a teacher wanted to give a major test on a High Holy Day. But when everyone was Jewish, what then? What could I be proud of when intelligence didn’t matter? At the same time, a mere 35 years or so after the Holocaust, here we were, a group of Jewish kids celebrating our Yiddishkeit. How different that was at Tena Harris Nursery School when Graceann told me I killed Christ and in 1977 when Franz, a fellow student at the University of Konstanz in Germany asked me to come to Christmas mass. I said, “No, thanks, I’m Jewish.” He responded, “Oh, I didn’t know there were any left.”
The men in space were used to overcoming obstacles, and they were smart. They couldn’t have qualified for their mission without some degree of higher-level thinking. Had they ever been forced to hide it so they could get along with others? I don’t remember if we were gathered to watch the live telecast from the moon. If we did, it did not make an impression on me as much as John Glenn’s June 1963 journey around the Earth. I was in nursery school then and the teacher propped up on a chair a transistor radio which crackled his progress. Still, in July 1969, in Nowhere, Pennsylvania, an eerie feeling came over me whenever I saw the moon, knowing American men were stepping on its surface. I wondered whether any of them had been bullied in their youth. They weren’t Jewish, but they were probably geeks like me before the term became fashionable.
By the time Apollo 11 splashed down on July 24, I’d made a decision to cut my time at camp short. As the camp song lyrics attested, I’m gonna pack my bags, go homeward bound. I’m gonna knock this camp right outta town. I’m gonna smoke, and drink, and neck and peck, what the heck, to hell with the whole damn camp!
My father came for us at the end of July. He had never picked us up before. We usually took the buses back to the Northfield Y in West Orange, New Jersey and he would collect us there. It was a Friday. I don’t know why, but while I waited for my father, I asked Robin to pose in front of the yellow-and-blue Hannah sign posted to a tree. She agreed and I took her picture with my Kodak, forever capturing her with her ponytail, sleeveless white blouse, and flowered shorts. She apologized for all her meanness. Nevertheless, I still wanted to leave this place forever. My father pulled up in the station wagon, and my sister and I climbed into the back seat. We were so happy to see him. We didn’t argue when he said he needed to stop at one of his stores on the way home. I rolled down my window and let the breeze hit my face as we drove back to New Jersey. It was the end of my time at the Jersey Y camps, the end of an era, the end of a decade, the end of humanity restricted to Earth. And when I opened the door to our house, I could smell the chicken roasting. It would soon be Shabbos and my mother would be lighting the candles.
Barbara holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing in New Jersey. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in “Michigan Quarterly Review”, “Nimrod”, “Whale Road Review”, “Jewish Women’s Literary Annual”, “Jewishfiction.net”, and other publications.
Oh yeah, Nah Jee Wah, so painful in Mountainside, , 1963 with a terrible counselor. Fortunately, I had the best counselor in Skyland. She made all the difference. Sadly, it was a very cliquey camp.
This was a beautiful, poignant reflection of those emotionally conflicted summer days at summer camp. I was right there with you, pain and joy.
I hope Robin et al — and all the hurtful girls we knew way back when– read this essay and recognize the silliness of their younger ways.
I hope your words affect them. It’s not too late for them to turn into good campers on this earth. 😉
Great read. Thank you for sharing.
My granddaughter, age 9, left Jewish sports camp today, and she was all smiles, had a great time. Fingers crossed she never runs into a a bully with a cast or becomes one. We all need to teach our children a new mantra, “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”
This brought back wonderful memories for me, too. Sorry camp was such a sucky experience for you. Here in the Bible Belt, it was the one place where I could feel like I really belonged and mattered, and had found “my people.”