I liked to bug my older sister when I attended B’nai B’rith Camp on the Oregon coast and learned what the “F” word meant. My sister qualified as an Older Camper and lived in the sunbelt of the camp away from the freezing lakeshore. I was permitted to visit her occasionally.
I enjoyed watching the older girls reading on their beds, writing letters or playing sweet, simple games such as Chutes and Ladders, Uncle Wiggily or poker at $1 a chip. They read sophisticated periodicals including Photoplay, a movie magazine that featured stud muffins like Rock Hudson.
Though my reading level was more “Little Lulu,” I liked to borrow comic books, like “Archie,” which gave me a window into high school dating and a reason to be optimistic: While Little Lulu had to settle for shlubby Tubby, Archie pursued Veronica, whose hair was dark, rather than chasing blond Betty or possibly Jughead. “Archie” gave us brunettes hope.
Confession magazines also abounded, including “True Story,” “True Confessions” and “Modern Romance.” For teenage girls in a single-sex camp, the confession magazines were hot property, delivering suggestive stories in a tense, breathless narrative. Typical stories concerned such shockers as an unwed pregnant teenager’s liaison with a married man, a cheating husband’s tryst with a pregnant teenager, or a woman’s torrid affair with a parakeet.
Other than two college-age kitchen helpers, the only males I saw at camp were the camp director and, if a nurse wasn’t in residence, the camp physician. The beloved director believed firmly in fresh air, exercise, outdoor sports and a good cigarette. He always wore a white T-shirt and white pants. When he walked outside on a chilly moonless night, encased in cigarette smoke, he resembled a ghost. This worked well with the youngest campers, already stuffed deep in their sleeping bags, listening nightly for sounds of thrashing water from the Sea-Creature of Devil’s Lake.
Meanwhile, I scrupulously avoided the other adult male, the camp physician who inhabited the infirmary. I feared that he, like my pediatrician, would glance at me, then immediately rifle through a drawer and miraculously produce a prepared hypodermic horse needle, personalized for me, to meet his daily quota of shots.
Initially all campers were required to drop off their medications at the infirmary. In an act of bravery, defiance and avoidance, I hung onto my allergy pills and buried them in my suitcase. I worried what would happen if I got caught.
If kids were really ill, they were (said in a hushed voice) “in the infirmary,” the camp black hole where they disappeared for the rest of the session. A few remained, never claimed by their parents.
I know that’s true about camp infirmaries because of the last camp I attended. I was in my early 20s, hired as the girls’ head counselor. It was a Conservative Jewish camp and so strict that I broke a number of rules unintentionally. While sex education is the assumed product of a valuable summer camp experience, I was certain that in such a structured environment — the camp was policed by the resident rabbi and his diminutive but tough wife, Rose — there was limited opportunity for hanky-panky.
However, early one morning Rebbetzin Rose signaled me to follow her to a cabin of sleeping 12-year-old girls. Rose burst into the cabin and stormed up to a mattress on which a counselor and her boyfriend were lying inside a sleeping bag. The rebbetzin, muttering the beautiful, inspiring quote from the Book of Job — “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away” — ferociously unzipped the sleeping bag, flung off the cover, yanked the boyfriend out of bed and marched him off to the camp infirmary, where he was never seen again.
After all my experiences at several Jewish summer camps, I’m aware that camp rabbis and staff face considerable challenges in imparting Jewish values to the young. Unfortunately, when campers also view camp as the place to learn about sex, it can be difficult and costly. For one thing, the “Activities” list in the brochure must be changed.
Trudi York Gardner lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.