By Larry Gordon
My last year in summer camp was in the great year of 1969. Just for the purposes of historical context, that was the summer the Mets made a remarkable comeback and became the Miracle Mets. The Manson family, led by Charles Manson, committed the murders of Gary Hinman in July and actress Sharon Tate and four others in August, following it up with the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next day. July saw Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon. One of my grandfathers passed away, and I attended my first funeral.
That was a summer jam packed with things to contemplate. More than that, it was a coming of age of a teenager — me — who crossed over to something resembling adulthood not due to any choice of my own.
Camp was somewhat regimented and even confining. One of the things I believe I objected to was the discipline that was probably a good thing but I certainly didn’t like it then.
My parents spent their summers in Israel beginning, I think, as far back as 1963 when my age was still in single digits. No, they were not neglectful. On the contrary they loved and cared for us deeply. But my father also loved Israel and as a widely read Yiddish writer, he felt it was important to be in Israel as it was miraculously developing. He wanted to be a witness to that incredible evolution.
What I can say about that now is that I understand that sentiment and can even appreciate it somewhat. My wife and I have been in Israel often over the years, but rarely for more than two weeks at a time, as there is always something back here that requires our participation or attention.
I think my father picked the summertime because he knew that while he was doing his thing in Israel, we were tucked away safely somewhere and with people he trusted.
Many of the readers will not be able to relate to the fact that back then, when people traveled overseas, they were largely unreachable; the best and most meaningful way to communicate was by writing letters and mailing them. The news on that count is that it took between seven and ten days for the letter to be received at the other end.
Can you imagine reacting to something someone told you in their letter and it takes a week and a half to communicate that reaction? I mean, what happens if you change your mind about what you wrote while the letter is being delivered? It is apparent that you would be best off not changing your mind about anything and instead just be ready to defend whatever opinion you were expressing.
Frankly, I think I am still analyzing the camp experience of the last century. I don’t think I disliked being in camp as much as I hated going to camp. It is a borderline Talmudic exegesis; in order to be in camp I suppose you have to go to camp. Go figure that one out.
Today, going to camp has been made relatively comfortable compared to the way it once was. Back in those years, a passenger bus left only from the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan. The bus terminal was a cold and horrible place, even back then. I recall that it was near evening when we were leaving for camp. We were running late and had to dash up some escalators while carrying our suitcases into an exhaust- and odor-filled garage. There was really no time for goodbyes. Just enough time to place the suitcase, or maybe it was a camp trunk, under the bus, plop down in a seat, and we were on our way. Just writing these words recreates that awful feeling I harbored back then as a kid.
As long as we are discussing difficult circumstances, let’s talk about that call from my dad toward the end of August when he told me over the phone in a trembling but determined voice that his father, my zaide, had passed away.
It was hard to emotionally digest the grim news. This summer will be a half-century since that phone call was made, and I can still recall every moment leading up to it, the call itself, and its aftermath: traveling into Brooklyn for the levayah.
That call steeled me and stiffened me emotionally to be able to receive calls like that in future years. I thought about that first call back in 1969, then when I was called about my dad in 1989, then about my mother in 2017, and, more recently, a few months ago, about my son-in-law.
You see, when you get these calls you just have to listen and somehow absorb the information and find a place for the news and the life-changing reality somewhere in your psyche. We are built to withstand these shocks, just like a 747 or the 787 Dreamliner is built to deal with turbulence at 35,000 feet.
To an extent, those events in 1969 created a certain kind of baseline for the future. After my zaide’s levayah, we were whisked back to camp a few hours later for the remaining week or so that remained of summer. Even though we were immediately returned, I did go back to the house where my father and his siblings would sit shivah.
I watched them set up the room in those pre-Misaskim days, where a family was basically on their own to do these things. They removed the cushions from the couch so that the seats would be low to the ground. Someone else brought in some toy-like chairs for some to sit on, and there was a meal set up on the dining room table. Then we were out of there, back to the baseball fields, the basketball courts, and color war. Life went on. Life goes on.
Here’s a concurrent observation about the Mets. After the 1969 miracle comeback to overtake the Chicago Cubs and win the World Series, it seems that any time in the future that the Mets were successful, it was always considered a miracle. Even today, the Mets are just not the Yankees, who have a tradition of success and superiority — unlike the Mets, who are either amazing or need a miracle in order to be successful.
And then there was the walk on the moon. Even though we were in camp and essentially disconnected from the world by design (not a bad idea, by the way), we did see the televised landing and walk on the moon.
The details are a little fuzzy, but someone in camp knew people in a nearby bungalow colony who had a working TV and we were invited to watch history being made. The transmission from the moon was, of course, in black-and-white. The location of the bungalow colony must have been close to camp because I recall walking through the woods at night with a flashlight in order to arrive there.
The end of the story is that we saw the moon landing and will always remember that historic moment. In some ways, while camp is probably very different today, there are also elements of the experience that will always be the same as they were.
It’s been 50 years since the Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York. Over that August weekend in 1969, we sat in shul in camp and watched police helicopters flying pretty low, just above our heads. They were watching over a gathering of half a million people who arrived almost spontaneously from all four corners of the world. We didn’t realize it at the time, but Woodstock was the threshold to the modern world as we know it today.
One thing I can communicate to this summer’s campers is that there will not be any moon landings, and the Mets will not be making a miracle comeback (it seems they need more than a miracle). But that does not mean that it will not be a great and memorable summer, on par, perhaps, with something out of this world — not dissimilar to those steps taken by Neil Armstrong a quarter of a million miles above us