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at summer camp. I loved her recollections about that most formative of childhood experiences -- the camp “social.” Here’s some of my memories, all over thirty years old. Perhaps for you, as for me, some of the sights, sounds and feelings still linger. ****** I was 8 years old in 1971. I don’t remember much about the summer. Lewis and Tommy were my friends, and we played a lot of sports. Beyond that, I was what we would later call a “space cadet”, drifting about in the camp universe, oblivious to almost everything going on around me. I just wanted to survive my first summer away from home. As hard as that was, I was luckier than most. If I got in trouble, I had my 18year old brother there. He was one of the most popular guys in camp. That worked like a charm when it came to threatening to beat up the CITs, after they coaxed me into a laundry bag for “indoor sack races”, and then hung me on a nail in the wall, pelting me with tennis balls for an hour. But it didn’t protect me from every humiliation. Even he couldn’t save me from the emotional turmoil we all endure when we first encounter the opposite sex. Our first “social.” On a warm summer evening, we arrived by bus at our sister camp. I stepped off the bus and immediately confronted a picturesque waterfront haven. But something was wrong, slightly “off.” That pristine lakeshore was postcard perfect but for one jarring hitch – the pink cabins dotting the shore. Pink cabins? That’s not summer camp! And so, I had my first stirrings of an understanding that there was something different about girls -- my first encounter with that vague, exasperated feeling: Ughhhhh, girls! We were marched into their rec-hall and told where to sit, and that’s just what we did. We sat. And sat and sat. And waited. And sat some more and listened to “The Locomotion” and a few other songs. That was about it for the first 45 minutes. Never had the word “social” been so poorly chosen to describe an event. It was the anti-social. And it got worse. As we were sitting there, the girls suddenly started cheering. Not random yelling, but high school-style cheerleader-esque, sing-songy cheers, but without the gymnastics part. 2,4,6,8 who do we appreciate, but with a lot more creative flair. We were frankly a little scared. We were being taunted. And challenged to a duel. Our response was predictable. We tried a cheer of our own. Sha-hee, Sha-hah
Sha hack-a-racka. Boom-a-raka Roll a bowla firecracker Sis Boom Bah Goldstein, Goldstein, Yay! And from there, we entered the world of tribal “Sing-Off.” It didn’t last long. It quickly became clear that this was not going to be much of a battle at all. We were completely outclassed. After Sha-hee, Sha-hah, we were spent. Out of ammo. We tried our best. Knit one Pearl Two, Susie Applebaum Yoo hoo. But it was lame. And then it became a slaughter. They took the ball and ran away with it, with cheer after cheer after cheer. We had no response. A cheer, another cheer, a fight song, an alma mater, singing in a round, even an operetta tossed in for good measure. It was humiliating. We sat defeated. In all candor, I would have been fine just sitting there, listening for the rest of the night. At 8 years old, I was clueless about girls. My older sisters were 18 and 21 years old, already out of the house at college. I was petrified by what was sitting only 25 feet across from me. I wanted nothing to do with them, and more importantly, I wanted nothing to do with them in front of everyone else. Besides, I liked listening to the Beach Boys. As the DJ played, “Fun, Fun, Fun,” I almost relaxed for a minute. I was halfway through the ordeal, and I’m thinking that I can make it the rest of the way. Its not fun, fun, fun, but its not bad, bad, bad either. And maybe we’ll even get lucky, and her daddy will wanna take the T-Bird away by ending the social a little early. Oh, those days of youthful folly. Now I know better than to expect life to provide the easy way out. It didn’t that night. As any experienced camper will tell you, things can change quickly at a camp social. The DJ stayed with the Beach Boys, but moved to Help Me Rhonda. I heard a guy pleading with Rhonda for assistance; begging her to help him get another woman out of his heart. The words don’t make a lot of sense to me. At 8 years old, I don’t want a woman anywhere near my heart in the first place, so I certainly didn’t need to
figure out how to get her out. that kind of advice anyway?
Besides, who in their right mind would ask a girl for
And yet that was the background music, as my world was about to come crashing down. Only a few seconds later, I would be looking for all the help I could find, from Rhonda or anyone else. The counselors emerged from their pow-wow with a solution to the “What is the Meaning of Social?” problem we were having. The dreaded snowball dance. Start two dancing. Stop the music and make ‘em get a new partner, start again, ad infinitum until the dance floor is full. That’s the plan, and emerging from the group and walking straight toward me is my brother. With a warm smile and an outstretched hand. Something is clearly amiss. I smell the rat. He thinks he is going to use me as the guinea pig to get the party started. He thinks he’s going to drag me to the other side of the floor and set me up to dance with a girl. He has no idea how wrong he is. I do the only reasonable thing in that situation. I resist. Loudly and with vigor. It only draws more attention, as all eyes turn to our emerging struggle. He has me by both wrists, as I try to keep my rear-end firmly attached to the chair I’m sitting on. He applies a little pressure, yanking my arms, and pulling me forward into the classic tug-o-war position known as “the water-skier,” the bodily position that any tug-o-war aficionado knows means imminent defeat – no leverage, and one more tug from having to lurch forward to avoid falling flat on your face. Resistance is futile, the outcome inevitable. And worse, my brother now knows I have no intention of going peacefully, so I’ll probably be thrown over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and carried across the floor. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I bite him. Hard. Or at least hard enough. And right on his wrist. He lets go. I make a run for it. I break to the back of the rec-hall and quickly scan my options. The doors are closely guarded, but to my left, I see a giant fold-up trampoline, laying on its side against the back wall. Can I get behind it? There’s only about 8 inches separating the tramp from the wall, but it just may be enough. I dive toward the space and burrow in against the wall as deep as I can, just out of my brother’s reach. I spent the next hour there screaming and crying and telling him to go away. ****** I was off to a horrendous start in my social life, and things didn’t get a lot easier over the next few years. From age 8 to 16, I really didn’t have a lot to do with girls. We avoided and loathed them in my elementary school, and by the time I was
ready for junior high school, I was off to an all-boys private school right through my senior year in high school. I had only limited interaction with girls during the school year, so if I was going to have any chance of coming of age with the fairer sex, it was only going to happen at summer camp. We all improved our “social” skills at least a little by age 12. By that time, we were well into experimenting with the science of preparing for the social. The “20 to 1” rule was in effect. No, those weren’t the odds of getting a girl to dance with you. It was the facts of the birds and the bees at that age. For every 20 minutes of “primp and prep” to make something happen at the social, there would be only about one minute of that something actually happening. At best. A dense fog formed in the lower part of camp, as the pungent vapors of 15 competing brands of deodorant wafted through the air. We boarded the bus to a social at the other girls camp on our lake. This wasn’t our sister camp, so the evening held more promise. These were New York girls. I’m not sure why that was supposed to make a difference, but we were all convinced it would. We figured they must somehow be more exotic, experienced. And probably “easier” too, as if anything about this process would ever be “easy” for us. We entered their social room, a small, intimate setting with a shag rug floor and lacquered wood paneling. And most importantly, dim lighting. The days of sitting on our hands for 90 minutes were behind us. Instead, we milled about aimlessly in packs of 4 or 5 kids, doing our best to make sure the girls saw that we were “into” the music. There were no CDs or MP3s. We played cuts from LPs and spun 45s. We were the “8-track” generation. And as we listened, we jammed on our air guitars. Let’s face it, not even the BeeGees were gonna be able to help us “Get Down Tonight”, but we figured we could still be cool if we could “Play That Funky Music, White Boy”. Even at 12, we were still so self-conscious that the evening was destined to be another one of those fierce inner battles in which you try to psyche yourself up to go over and ask a girl to dance. In front of everyone. With all the risk of rejection that implies. We’d all been through the battle before. And lost. The time for action is upon me. I respond in kind. I procrastinate. One more meeting with my buddies to discuss the best approach, the surest methodology. Do I go the simple route with “Hi. You wanna dance”? Or do I go with witty repartee, like “Hi. I’m Phil. How do you like me so far?” I don’t remember what I actually said that night, but I remember the result. I got a raven-haired lass from Wellesley Mass named Becky D to dance with me. She had just run in from the horse stables, barely in time for the social – out of the barn and into my heart -- and I was smitten. As Frankie Valli was singing “What a lady,
what a night”, I was feeling it. acne-anderthal ball of angst!
A girl actually agreed to dance with this poor little
Much to my surprise, it’s fine. I can dance…as long as I relate it to basketball. All at once, I summon my inner Havlicek, become as one with my feminine, NewtonJohn side, and I figure it out. I pretend that little Becky D is an opposing forward, and it’s my job to guard her. As she dribbles right, I step right. As she dribbles left, I step left. Step to the left. Step to the right. Keep to the music. Step to the left. Step to the right. Keep to the music. Do that about 643 more times for the next hour, and don’t fall flat on your face. Congratulations. You’ve mastered “The Weeble.” I was pretty musical, so I could keep to the beat. I wasn’t, however, graceful. Bruno and Carrie Ann would have given me 7s for basic technical proficiency, but Len would have pummeled me with a 3 for my passionless lack of any joie de vivre. That first dance ended, and there came a critical moment. I spent so much time torturing myself over how to ask a girl to dance that I was totally unprepared for an even bigger risk. Asking a girl to dance AGAIN. Yes, truth be told, the second dance is even harder to ask for than the first. Let’s face it, most girls of any social graces are kind enough to agree to dance with you once, no matter how big a yutz you are. But it takes someone who actually doesn’t despise you to dance a second time. Luck was on my side that night, and Little Becky D agreed to dance again. We spent the next 30 minutes, Weebling away to the sounds of “Mama Kin,” “Lady Marmalade” and “The Hustle”. But suddenly, without warning, I find myself facing another big rite of passage. The lights dim, the crowd hushes, and a great migration off the floor begins. Another moment of truth. In 20 seconds, as the guitar intro to Aerosmith’s “Dream On” begins, everyone will know who stayed on the floor for a slow dance. I wish I knew something about the chemical processes that rack a 12-year old body at a moment like that. Whatever the physiology, I know it triggers the broadest range of emotions: terror, excitement, desire, anxiety, all of them equally intense. You could spend a lifetime trying to learn how to control them. I’m sure I didn’t do a great job. So chaotic was the moment that I can’t even recall the movements that got me from being two feet away from her to right up against her with my arms wrapped around her. But all the sudden, that’s where I was. And boy was it incredible! She felt great, and her hair smelled incredible, like fresh strawberries; with only the faintest hint of the horse manure she was likely trampling through only an hour earlier. I was beyond joy.
And then a sobering thought. Ok, I gotta keep cool. Gotta stay focused. I still need to actually dance. I instinctively knew that “The Weeble” wasn’t going to work well, when I’m attached to someone else. The back and forth becomes awkward, and your feet can get tangled. I don’t even want to think about what everyone would say if I fell. I need a strategy, desparately, and once again, basketball saves me. I pretend I have the ball, but I’ve stopped dribbling. It’s a fundamental rule. When you stop dribbling, you can’t walk or run anymore. That’s a traveling violation. All you can do is “pivot.” You choose one foot, and pretend the toe is nailed to the ground. And then you just swing, or pivot, around it. No need to move around the floor. No need to dip her, or twirl her. Just keep moving around your own personal axis. Push or pull her in the direction you want to go, and if she’s good at it, she’ll rotate with you. I try it. It works! Sing with me, sing for the years Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears. Oh, the relief! I’d been laughed at before and I’d shed some tears, but now it was all worth it. I closed my eyes, and rejoiced in Steven Tyler, urging me to “dream on, dream on, dream until your dreams come true”. As the song came to its end, I knew I had to do something. I tried to maneuver Becky into the shadowy corner by the bookcases for my first kiss, but when I finally got her there, I couldn’t muster the guts to actually do it. I had figuratively lost my pivot foot. Travelling violation. Then the lights went on again, and it was over. Things began happening too fast, as counselors started pushing us out the door. I smiled and waved goodnight and levitated all the way to the bus for the drive home. Afterwards, back at our cabin, we all swapped stories about the girls we had met. Over the next week, we talked often of our exploits, of our dancing prowess, our clever banter with our respective partners. We embellished the reality with a healthy does of lusty commentary, none of it creative, all of it filled with coarse double entendres. Boyhood bonding, at its best and worst. Fifteen years later, I was a director at the camp, and I visited that very cabin late one afternoon. As I stood there, the walls echoed with those late-night discussions, those tawdry tales of old. And it wasn’t just echoes either. Those walls literally spoke, telling you where Joey Slotnick slept in 1972, and that Alan Wayne thought “Lynyrd Skynyrd Rules” in 1974. And as I stood there that day, I realized that those walls spoke a lot about a girl named Becky D, too. On one part of the wall, you would have seen the little heart with our initials and the year 1975 in it. I can’t remember if I drew that or not, but I may have.
Other parts of the wall were more perplexing. If you read that wall that day, you might have gotten a strange impression about little Becky D. You might have gotten the impression that little Becky D spent quite a few evenings inside that cabin during 1975. You also might have gotten the impression that little Becky D was quite mature for a girl her age. Thanks to the imagination of one of my bunkmates, you might have even gotten the impression that she and I might have a real future in porn movies some day. None of it was true. I didn’t write any of it, and I can’t remember who did. But I also didn’t erase it, either. I don’t know why. In hindsight, maybe I still wasn’t sure anything like little Becky D was ever going to happen to me again. Maybe I wanted some lasting proof that somewhere in the vast universe, there had once been a girl misguided enough to want to spend a few intimate moments with me. ****** Like everyone else, I went through a lot of physical changes between the age of 8 and 16. I was almost six feet tall as the summer of 1979 began. At home in high school, I was playing on the soccer and basketball teams, and I was a more confident kid. I was a CIT, one of the oldest kids in camp, and it was our year to shine. I had gotten to know a couple of the girls from the girls camp, because their brothers were my best friends. The girls almost treated me with respect. Almost. The first social of the summer was again at their camp, and as I was busy talking with my counselor, I looked over and noticed the girl with the flower in her hair. It wasn’t long before I asked her to dance, and dance again, and dance again. I spent much of the summer hanging around with her at socials. So at 16 years old, when you’ve mastered dancing, then slow dancing and even gotten your first kiss already, what else is left? Within a year or two, I would know there was plenty left, but in those days of my relative innocence, I set my sights to what was seemingly achievable. The next step on the ladder of youthful indiscretion was getting a girl outside, away from the social, where you could be alone with her. From there, who knows what might happen? The time to try it was the last social of the summer. We were heavily into John Travolta, the Saturday Night Fever days. We borrowed from New York City, and made the theme of the social “Studio 54 and ½.” It was a glorious night. The disco ball spun and bathed us in broken light, as I chatted with the girls I had met that summer, my new friends, Cindy and Laurie, and Jenny and Carolyn. I danced all night with the girl with the flower in her hair. It was a blast. The moment of truth had arrived. Twenty minutes left in the social.
Jimmy Page begins the guitar introduction to “Stairway to Heaven.” At 8 minutes and 2 seconds, the song is longer than long; the ultimate slow dance; with just enough time to take stock of my situation and plan my next move. But that will come later. Right now, I’m in the moment. I pull the girl with the flower in her hair to me, and bask in the glow of the last slow dance of the summer. My arms around her. Her head on my shoulder. Fireworks. Explosions. Fill in your cliché. I focus. Remember your basketball. I pivot. A quarter turn to the left, quarter turn to the left, quarter turn to the left. There’s a Lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold And she’s buying a stairway to heaven I am momentarily distracted by the song. Who is this lady? Is she an idiot? Has she never heard the old adage that ‘all that glitters is NOT gold’? And it makes me wonder. I try to snap out of it. But it’s not easy. I’m wrapped around a lovely girl, and if I held her any tighter, she’d be behind me. I’m starting to get a lot of strange feelings. If there’s a bustle in the hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now It’s just a spring clean for the May queen I hear these words, and I momentarily stop and realize I have no idea what this song is about. It totally baffles me. But I was bursting, and I’d be lying if I said I could keep ignoring the bustle in my hedgerow any longer. All at once the song seemed to come together for me. The lady that built the stairway to heaven wasn’t an idiot. She was an optimist. And what’s wrong with that? And then and there, I knew I wanted my own slice of heaven, and I wanted it now. One way or another, I was breaking out of that joint. Quarter turn to the right, quarter turn to the right, quarter turn to the right. I summon the courage to ask her, “Would you like to go down to the waterfront with me?” And she says ‘yes.’ Yes! But how? That kind of thing is not allowed at camp. Before every social, the directors of the camp called the counselors together and passed down the word. None of the boys get out of the rec-hall! Bad things happen if the boys got out of the rec-hall! And so the rec-hall became our personal Alctatraz. I begin to case the joint, to assess my options.
Quarter turn to the left. There were four exits to the rec-hall . One at the back, one on the side, and two at the rear on either side of the stage. I am now looking at the main door, at the back of the hall. It’s surrounded by a phalanx of counselors all night. Getting through that would require some serious firepower. I momentarily regret that in 8 years of camp I never signed up for instructional riflery. Quarter turn to the left, Quarter turn to the left. I now see the screen door to the side of the rec-hall. Equally imposing. But if you could make it out, the woods are only 20 yards away. A quick sprint and you might have a few minutes to get devoured by mosquitoes together before someone could find you. Too risky for the reward. Quarter turn to the left. Quarter turn to the left. The back doors. That’s the route. If there’s going to be an escape, it would have to be through either the one of which led to the DJ booth or the one that led to the bathroom. I wasn’t stupid. I’d seen this drill before. You don’t get out of maximum security on a whim. You had to plan. You needed help. I was prepared. I enlisted the Ranger, a counselor 10 years my senior. He was on my side. He enlisted 13-year old Wally. Wally was the x-factor. He was devious and smart. He was also a space cadet, the type of kid who steps off the bus at the end of the summer to meet his parents, wearing no socks and two mismatched sneakers. He was more than capable of creating the type of distraction that I’d need to open up my exit route. He was also more than capable of getting distracted himself and forgetting the assignment. Wally was always a 50/50 proposition. Quarter turn right, quarter turn right. Gosh its hot, and gosh she still feels great! Maybe I should just back off this crazy quest and enjoy the moment? Robert Plant thought otherwise. Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know. The piper’s calling you to join him. That’s a sign. It has to be. I can’t ignore that. I’m coming piper. I’ll be right there. But I got Uncle Joel over by the DJ booth and Uncle Bob over guarding the bathroom. Now is not the right time. Quarter turn to the right. Wait a minute. There it is. An opening. A switch in the door coverages.
Bob and Joel are replaced by Nosel and Razz. The perfect set-up. Nosel and Razz! I immediately knew. The plan was obvious. Nosel would be duped and Razz would be bought. Wally went to work. Nosel was sitting inside the DJ booth. If he stayed there, I was doomed. No way to get past him to the door, and if I chose the other rear door, he’d still see me trying to leave. He had to be taken out. Wally meandered over to him and dangled the bait. I don’t know if he insulted his mother, or enticed him with an old standby, a classic camp argument over the merits of a particular professional wrestler. I just know it worked. Nosel was a nice guy and about 10 years older than Wally, but he was no match intellectually. He got sucked right into the fray. The argument quickly got heated, and Nosel began to walk menacingly, out of the DJ booth and toward Wally. The whole mass of two camps shifted toward the ruckus. It looked like it was going to get physical. Chaos was near. It was go time. I grabbed the girl by the arm and we were off, the flower falling from her hair to the floor behind her. As we high-tailed it toward the back door by the bathroom, Ranger reached in his pocket and slipped Razz a crumpled five dollar bill. Razz turned and looked the other way. We skedaddled out the back door, down the road and on our way to the waterfront. Free at last, free at last… I wish I could tell you something magical happened down by the lake that evening, but I would be lying. Nothing much happened at all. We sat. We talked. It remains a lovely memory. **** Over thirty years of my life has passed since then. The people I shared these experiences with have all grown up now. On some level, camp helped us all chase our dreams, achieve some share of success or fame, and handle some of the inevitable misfortunes of our lives as well. In hindsight, I’m sure I could have avoided a problem or two later in my life, had I just taken a moment to find a handy trampoline to hide behind. Of course, in the end, it was all for the best. I wouldn’t trade anything for the good times and the bad that I’ve had since I spent those beautiful summers by the lake. But it’s sometimes nice to remember a simpler time, when the stairway to heaven was nothing more than sitting on the beach, watching a beautiful sunset with your arm around a girl.
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