Not every baby boomer got to go to summer camp as a kid but if you’re one who did, you know that camp then was not camp now. Translation? It was simple. But as Seattle writer Ron Gompertz, author of Life’s Big Zoo remembers it from the 1970s, it might have seemed simple, but it still carried the baggage of the ‘60s.
It’s 1971 and my parents are worried that I’m whirling out of their low-earth orbit. We’ve walked on the moon, but they’re still spinning on Sputnik. I’ve got black-light posters on my bedroom wall and a scratchy Japanese hi-fi. My rebellion is contagious and there’s a 100% chance I will infect my siblings.
The thought of me rolling free all summer, riding my Schwinn 10-speed around the valley, haunting air-conditioned malls or hanging out at the park where a pair of hippies and two dogs live in a VW van, is a nightmare to the generation that grew up on Eisenhower and Sinatra.
They need to keep my mug shot off the “Ten Most Wanted” list until after my Bar Mitzvah. Then at least I’ll be 13. A man.
The solution is to send me to a rustic Jewish summer camp in Malibu. Camp is a noble attempt to tame, civilize, and influence our religion’s next generation. Campers’ parents hope this will build character and keep the tribe from dissolving in the surging waters of the New World.
Instead, we all go nuts with sudden freedom and surging hormones. Our folks don’t realize that the only worse influence on a kid than another kid is a long-haired camp counselor who was at Woodstock.
Friendship! Most kids hail from zip codes more posh than mine. They are trendy in their Adidas and Hang Ten shirts, and our counselors are even more colorful. Most of these so-called adults are Jewish hippies who have been to music festivals, love-ins, and riots. They are students from the University of California at Berkeley, where you can major in revolution, and the University of California at Santa Cruz, where you can major in macramé. They bring us up-to-date on the antiwar movement, the dangers of Nixon, and the wonders of Carole King’s tapestry album.
Beach Day! On the sands of Zuma and County Line Beaches we seek answers to life’s great questions like does God exist, and what makes a Frisbee fly. A day on the coast is fun for most of us, but there’s always some pigment-free princess who burns to a crisp in spite of her Coppertone. And one hyper-sensitive kid who is allergic to sand fleas, or a riptide rescue rat who pukes after swallowing seawater.
Religion! Our wooded chapel is nestled in a grove of tall sycamore trees. God himself could find religion here. We sing songs like, “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Even the inscrutable Hebrew prayers sound good at camp. Our old rabbi’s sermons harken back to a time when stories had morals even if people didn’t. He often talks about how a mild-mannered Dutch fisherman saved him and his parents from the Nazis. “You can never tell who the heroes are,” he says.
Rock and roll! Saturday nights are for dancing. In between Israeli folk dances, we stumble around to the Beatles and Sly and the Family Stone. The lights are low, the music is loud, and nobody really cares how stupid I look on the dance floor. If there’s a time and a place for everything, this must be it, so I flail around on the dance floor until I find a pattern that matches the beat. My grandmother was right: there’s more to music than meets the eye.
Romance! I work up my nerve to slow-dance with Miss Summer Camp, USA, the most beautiful girl our tribe has ever produced, just as the camp director announces that the last number will be the Hokey Pokey, a musical dose of romantic ice-water.
Some of us were getting a bit too hot, and that’s not what it’s all about.