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Commentary & Opinion

You Can Go Back To Summer Camp

Jim Root at Lone Pine Camp in Paul Smiths,NY
Ralph Gardner, Jr.
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Jim Root at Lone Pine Camp in Paul Smiths,NY

You can visit the past through books and movies, but rarely does the opportunity arise, as it did this week, to do so in person. I drove three hours north from our home in Columbia County to Lone Pine, the summer camp in the Adirondacks that I attended and last saw in the 1960’s.

I’d been poring through letters I wrote my parents from camp in 1966 for a project I’m working on, when it occurred to me that even better than the letters, where I documented my triumphs catching fish and earning my Marksman First Class patch down the barrel of a .22 rifle – by the way, do summer camps use live ammunition any more? – I realized that I could better jog my memory by actually showing up.

Lone Pine, in Paul Smiths, NY no longer exists as a camp for boys between the ages of seven and fourteen. But the cabins and mess hall overlooking Osgood Pond remain, turned in 1983 into a co-op with seven shareholders. They include Jim Root, the son of William Root Jr., the camp’s longtime owner, and grandson of William Root Sr. who founded the camp in 1921.

Many of the forty or so campers that arrived each season, myself among them, were students at the Browning School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where Bill Root Jr. served as its well-liked fourth grade teacher. I wasn’t one of those kids so devoted to camp that I returned every summer and became a counselor when I was too old to be a camper. I attended one full summer, taking up residence at Cools Cats Casino with eight other twelve-year-olds, and half of a second summer when I was neither a camper nor a counselor. I was more like a boarder, though I did take over the solemn responsibilities as assistant tennis coach, undoubtedly adding immeasurably to my self-esteem, when the tennis instructor sprained his ankle and could no longer teach.

What I found remarkable about my camp letters, which I only discovered recently, is how little I remembered. My memories were more like hazy snapshots than a Technicolor movie: catching a pike on Osgood Pond with my lifelong friend Aris, only to have it pass away by the time we managed to extract the hook from its mouth; running the nail-biting first leg of the night relay during color war; and perhaps most profoundly of all transforming myself from a child with debilitating homesickness when my parents dropped me off in late June to a devoted camper by the time they retrieved me in August.

What did I hope to achieve from my recent trip, besides an overnight in the Adirondacks? Perhaps to shake loose a few more memories. But more than anything else to perform an experiment; to determine the power of sound and light, of pine trees, shaded cabins and boat houses stacked with canoes, of nature’s mystic chords, to trigger long dormant synapses and connect me to my poorly remembered past.

The camp – at least the neat row of seven cabins (five of them for campers; one each for Bill Root Jr. and his family and one for Bill Root senior) – seemed simultaneously unchanged and completely different; that difference being that it was devoid of campers and counselors, and the daily Lord of the Flies rituals that define summer camp.

Another memory: jogged when Jimmy gave me a tour of his family’s cabin, the one his parents occupied when I attended Lone Pine. Among the Roots’ annual visitors was Charles Cook, the fearsome headmaster of the Browning School. The personality change of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde was no less breathtaking than Mr. Cook’s when armed with a cocktail and relieved for the summer of the pressures of running a private boys school. Jimmy told me that the headmaster fondly referred to his parents’ screened in porch, where he enjoyed Osgood Pond’s sunsets, as “Martini Point.”

The only other shareholder that was visiting was Jonathan Miller, a New York City real estate communications consultant, but more importantly a former Lone Pine camper a year younger than me. While I was fending off pink bellies at Cool Cats Casino – a hazing ritual involving toothpaste applied to the belly by your bunkmates -- he was presumably doing the same next door at Lone Pioneers. It was Jonathan who devised the strategy to save the camp by turning it into cooperative ownership.

I neglected to ask him to what he attributed his attachment to Lone Pine. But it wasn’t hard to piece together. It’s a beautiful place, all the more so without the cacophony of camp activities. In the late afternoon my wife and I kayaked down a serene creek that flows into Osgood Pond, and wasn’t one of the activities offered when I was at camp. The following morning we canoed across the pond, the size of an ample lake, in the company of a loon and two of her chicks.

I’d heard the eerie call of common loons during the night but curiously had no recollection of them from childhood. Perhaps because I was too busy navigating the shoals of bunk friendships.

What I discovered is that you can go back to camp again. Relieved of the baggage of childhood, the fears and insecurities, the pressure to live up expectations, your own and those of parents and counselors, it’s even more fun and far more relaxing. At least it was for one Lone Pine camper.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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