My daughter Leah is away at summer camp for FOUR weeks, the longest period of time I won’t be seeing her since she was born. We can email in and they print out the letters but the campers can’t email out. Leah can write us by regular mail but we haven’t heard from her yet and it’s been six days. I’m trying not to morph into my father who, even though I’m 46 and have lived thousands of miles away from him for the past 20 years, still goes into a panic if he doesn’t hear from me every day. Yesterday I got a call from my brother who could barely spit out the message he was asked to convey because he knew how ridiculous it was: “Dad wants to know if you’re okay. Please call him.” I had talked to my father at length the night before, but in his defense, it’s true that since that time I could easily have been struck by a small meteor that had entered our atmosphere or dragged away by an Australian dingo that had escaped from a nearby film shoot. Oh, I’m not complaining. No matter how annoying my father’s fear-based parenting can be, it clearly comes from a place of immense love and concern. Of all the dysfunctional tap dances that make up the parent-child relationship, I much prefer having a dad who is overly concerned with his children’s welfare than one who doesn’t give a damn.
But that doesn’t mean I want to emulate his crazymaking protectiveness with my own daughter. I’ll try to keep myself from putting Leah’s camp nurse on speed dial or arranging a daily helicopter fly-by over the Sierra Mountains retreat. Leah found this camp herself and doesn’t know a soul there. We checked it out as much as we could but how do we really know what’s going on? Is Leah not writing because she’s so exhausted after her 16-hour shift stitching soccer balls for Wal-Mart? Sure, they say they’re a peaceful getaway in the wilderness, but is that just a euphemism for an outdoor slave labor camp?
Despite the occasional panicked thoughts that have been drifting in and out of my head this week (“How easy is it for a kayak to overturn?” “If a child falls off a horse, what are the chances of the horse doubling back and stomping on the kid's head?” “How many wild, rabid animals live in the California Sierras and are they particularly attracted to redheaded girls?”), I’m so happy that Leah welcomes new challenges in her life. She specifically wanted to go to a camp where she knew no one and would be exposed to a multitude of new experiences. She looked a little nervous when we put her on the plane (alone!) but she was eager to face her fears and make new friends. Hooray! (So why isn’t she writing?)
I never went to overnight camp and I sort of regret it. I’d like to blame it on my scaredy-cat dad but I can’t because I actually remember him encouraging me to go. For whatever reasons, I adamantly refused to consider it. Was it because I was content to just lounge around with the other Drake Kids all summer? Was I wary of the organized team sports that I was not very skilled at? Was I already entrenched in the cynical “I am above this nonsense” attitude that I would hang onto all during high school? When I think of the experiences that Leah has already had at the age of 11, I am sad for that boy who closed himself off from much of the world. I was so emotionally numb when I was Leah's age that the idea of bonding with other groups of children held no appeal for me at all (as opposed to today when I am constantly looking for ways to bond with a community, any community—do they have summer camp for adults?). Back then I turned down every opportunity to make new friends and have new experiences. And yet, as I write that, I remember that at the age of 14 I went off to France to spend the summer with a penpal I’d never met. I was too terrified to talk to someone new in my own neighborhood but my very first trip away from my family was halfway around the world. Go figure. It was great experiencing a different culture at a young age but I wish I’d also been open to the unique experiences that a good ol' American summer camp might have provided.
Not that it was always idyllic. My mother often told us tales of her years spent at summer camp. She was sent from an early age (way too early, according to her) to Burr-Oaks Camp in Mukwanago, Wisconsin. Established in the 1920s as an exclusive girls camp, rich girls would arrive by train from the east coast with their horses in tow for a summer of riding lessons and equestrian events. My Chicago-based mom did not own a horse and felt ill-at-ease with the wealthy New York contingent. One summer she got into a tussle with a popular camper that resulted in the girl’s breaking her arm. My mother was blamed for the rich girl’s accident and became the scourge of the camp that year.
She did tell us some amazing stories about Burr-Oaks. Apparently the two women who ran the camp had family connections to Balaban & Katz, the theatrical group that ran a chain of magnificent movie palaces throughout the Chicago area. One night every summer, my mother said, the girls were woken up in the middle of the night and marched, bleary-eyed, to the middle of a field where the Balaban & Katz folks projected scenes of translucent fairies and elves dancing around the outdoor scene. She said for years she believed she was really witnessing the Dance of the Fairies—until she was older and saw the movie projector that was hidden in the brush.
Do summer camps in the Midwest still revolve around Indian themes? Here is my sister at a powwow at Mac-Do Lodge, another girls’ camp in Wisconsin. The girls frequently wore Indian headdresses and spouted off heady native wisdom. It was common for most of the camps in Wisconsin to focus on one or more of the tribes that used to live in the area (but which had long since been moved to faraway reservations or disappeared altogether). I'd lay money on the fact that none of these camps ever had a single Native American camper.
My brother attended Camp Ojibwa in Eagle River. This boys camp, in operation since 1928, still exists but I’m sure the demographic is different from its former concentration of Jewish city boys. My mother’s younger brother went to Camp Ojibwa for several years in the 1950s, paving the way for my brother. Among the cache of family memorabilia we recently rescued, we found carousels full of slides taken by my grandfather, including a bunch of images from parents’ weekend at Camp Ojibwa.
We dragged out the old slide projector and screen and had a family slide show during my trip to Chicago last month. When we got to the slides taken at Camp Ojibwa, I marveled at the beautiful surroundings and the sense of brotherhood that was apparent in the visuals. My grandfather labeled most of the slides so we learned about the various themed events at Camp Ojibwa such as “Circus Day” and the “Coca-Cola Parties.” But nothing prepared us for the culminating event of parents’ weekend: a full-scale, student-produced MINSTREL SHOW!
Remember that purely American spectacle of white performers donning blackface and depicting African Americans as ignorant, lazy, and lovable buffoons, singing about life in dear old Dixie? Minstrel shows were once the most popular form of entertainment in this country with Al Jolson as one of the best known proponents. I hate to overlay our modern sensibilities on another time and place but you’d really think this phenomenon would have faded into oblivion by the time of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rapidly growing civil rights movement.
And yet, year after year, here were these Jewish boys at Camp Ojibwa slapping on blackface and putting on minstrel shows to the delight of the visiting families. What were the camp directors thinking? I wonder if any of these photos ever came back to haunt the innocent campers.
Among the slides from the camp was one of a boy I didn’t recognize. When I pulled it out of the carousel, I saw my grandfather’s label: “Steve Spielberg, 1954.” Hmm, could it be? The age would be right, and he was a Jewish boy growing up in the Midwest. My uncle has no memory of this camper and it’s probably not the film director, but what do you think photos of Steven Spielberg in a minstrel show would fetch on the open market? “Color Purple Director Makes Stage Debut in Blackface?”
I wonder what Leah is up to during her first weekend at camp. I’m sure it has nothing to do with forced labor for Wal-Mart or offensive parodies of ethnic groups. But in the unlikely event her camp does put on a minstrel show, I hope she’ll….go for the lead! Sing it, baby:
Swanee! How I love you, how I love you!
My dear ol' Swanee
I'd give the world to be
Among the folks in
D-I-X-I-E-ven now my mammy's
Waiting for me, praying for me
Down by the Swanee
The folks up north will see me no more
When I go to the Swanee Shore!
[Tumultuous applause can be heard as Leah triumphantly wipes off her blackface and stands in solidarity with the NAACP marchers who have infiltrated the camp.]