It scoops these two up and, as suddenly as it appeared, is gone, off to bring relief to other campers. Once it’s full, Joshua and Samantha’s bus will hightail it to West Hills, pausing only for red traffic lights and eight-sided signs with the word “STOP” on them.
The sight of a school bus on a Long Island weekday is nothing new—it’s virtually impossible to go more than 15 minutes and not see one, even more so in the summer. But where do they go?
This time of year? Right now? They go to camp, a veritable Long Island institution. A place that invokes smiles and comments like “I wish I could go back” from people who’ve experienced it. A place that invokes confused faces and comments like “I wish I knew what’s so special about it” from people who don’t know what’s so special about it.
The kids go to athletics-focused camps like LuHi and run, jump and toss their way through more sports than a decathlete. They go to arts-themed camps like USDAN and learn to channel the spirit of Jackson Pollock’s paint-soaked East Hampton shack or Walt Whitman’s West Hills farmhouse.
They go to their rooms, pack as many clean clothes as possible, say goodbye to Mom and Dad for eight weeks and head off to sleepaway camp, located further than highway exits can count in the distant East End or a bridge and tunnel away in the sprawling mass we call “upstate New York.”
They go to day camps, the only 9-to-5 where the output is good friends and better memories, and everyone wants as much overtime as possible.
They go to places like Park Shore Country Day Camp, hidden away on the western side of Deer Park Avenue in Dix Hills behind a large brown gate. There’s isn’t much to see, at least on this side: just a wooden bear and a sign that says: “Park Shore.” On the other side? That’s a whole other story; a whole other world.
The First Day
It’s 6:45 a.m. The storefronts lining the southern half of Deer Park Avenue—save for a deli and two Dunkin’ Donuts—are quiet. The houses lining the northern half of the road—save for maybe a fidgety toddler and LIRR morning commuters—are quiet.
Park Shore—on the other side of that gate—is quiet. Mostly. The administrative staff, who begin showing up at 7 a.m., aren’t here yet. The counselors, who begin showing up at 7:30 a.m., aren’t here yet. The campers, who begin showing up at 8:45 a.m., aren’t here yet. But Bob is.
Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, Bob, who with his brother Chuck owns Park Shore, gets here before everyone at 6 a.m., not just today but for the entire summer. He won’t leave until almost 8 p.m. and will continue to put in 14-hour days for the first week or two. Once things have settled, he’ll start punching out at 6 p.m.
It’s still two hours before the first bus will show up, but it’s obvious there’s already something in the air. For the staff that put everything together, there has been something in the air.
“A lot of work goes into opening day,” says Andrew Adams, Park Shore’s maintenance director for the past eight years. He pulls up near the entrance on one of the camp’s golf carts—an essential means of transportation to get around the 15-acres it sits on. He says that feeling in the air is a mix of excitement and anxiety. Excitement, because the staff probably loves camp more than the campers do, and anxiety, because getting things ready isn’t an overnight process.
“Let’s see, camp ends August 21,” he says. “I’d say by the 28th, we start planning. Take a week off, then it’s back to the grind.”
With 650 campers and 250 staff, the eight-week camp is easily a 51-week operation.
By 7:30, it’s clear the first day is going to be a hot one—the sun is rising over the treeline surrounding the camp, and the sky is a sheet of solid blue. A T-shirt and shorts help, but only so much. Nicole Nagler knows this, and she came prepared.
“It’s gonna be hot,” she observes, taking a sip of an iced beverage from a Dunkin’ Donuts cup. She’s wearing large Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses to combat the sun on a cloudless day—further proof of her experience—and an orange staff shirt. Nicole has been a counselor for four summers and likens camp to the most wonderful time of the year.
“It’s Christmas in June,” she says. “The kids are all excited, the staff is all excited. It’s a fun place to be. You get to run around like a kid.”
Running around like a kid is exactly what Chris Cox has in mind, except he’s 17 and this is his first year as a counselor. He says friends recommended Park Shore because he’d have a lot of fun with the kids. He doesn’t know what he’s in for but isn’t too concerned.
“I think it’s gonna be pretty crazy,” he says. “Little kids are kind of wild, but I think I’m gonna enjoy it because I’m a little kid, too.”
Bob doesn’t stop. He multitasks like a supercomputer.
Walking through Park Shore, he explains why the trip to Disney World the Super Teens—the camp’s oldest group—take every year had to be swapped for a road trip to Ohio: Terrorism concerns in England made him worry if something similar happened here, the kids would be stranded in Florida. While explaining this, he listens to a question from a maintenance worker, who asks him where some supplies are located. Bob pauses from his explanation just long enough to answer him, by name, that they are in a different storage shed, before continuing.
A minute later, during a brief history lesson about the land surrounding the camp, he’s asked by two teenage counselors where to sign in. While still explaining that the 140 acres between Deer Park Avenue and Commack Road were once completely open, he points to his right, pauses, tells the girls, by name, to head to the office, and jumps right back in to add that when the land was bare, he could horseback ride all the way to the Smithtown Sheraton.
But then he stops in his tracks. Waddling around near the entrance are three Canada geese. Bob points to them and—not by name, although he says they were born here—tells them they need to move.
“They have to know, they can’t stay here today,” he says.
By now it’s 8:30 and the first bus is less than 20 minutes from arriving. When that bus pulls in through the brown gate that is now opened, campers will see Chuck and his daughter Michele directing traffic. They will see Al, Bob and Chuck’s father, who started Park Shore 51 years ago, sitting next to another wooden statue of a bear, where he’s sat every year on the first day of camp. They will see smiles on every face. Over a microphone, a counselor will shout, “Welcome to Park Shore Summer 2010!”