At 8:45 a.m., the first bus pulls in. For these kids, camp has finally begun. Once the kinks have been worked out, Al says, the last bus will unload its cargo of campers by 9:05. But today, because of kids nervous to say goodbye to their parents and bus drivers losing count when they need to stop at the fifth house on the left and other such kinks, that won’t happen until 9:26.
While we wait, Al begins to talk about the origin of Park Shore. It’s 80 degrees outside, not a cloud on the horizon and there’s a line of buses waiting to pull in. He pauses. “Well, I have to go back a little bit. Do you have time?”
Al, one month shy of 85, was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens, where his job as a school teacher gave way to starting a travel camp. Each day’s itinerary consisted of busing kids to Hempstead Lake State Park in the morning and Jones Beach in the afternoon (first to a Park, then to the Shore…). The next step was to settle down and build a camp on a site, which he did in the late ’50s. Al acknowledges it was a risk, and at first, things were rough.
“You see that building?” he asks as he points to what is now the main office. “My wife, Bob and Chuck used to live in that building when we first started. We couldn’t afford rent at places, so we lived there.”
Park Shore’s inaugural Class of 1959 was 75 campers strong. As time went on, it grew, and in 1964 added a nursery school during non-summer months. Al’s sons were slowly integrated into the camp’s operations, first during the off-season while he and his wife would travel the country in a trailer. As the torch passed from Al to Bob and Chuck, it’s continued on to Michele, who Al says “controls it all.” But he’s comfortable relinquishing power, because it lets him enjoy other things.
“I was here by 7 o’clock to make certain everything is working. But now, they don’t need me. I’m here for the spirit.”
Then, while explaining the camp’s hierarchy of counselors and directors, the unthinkable happens: A parent drives their kids through the main entrance and drops them off. No bus.
“For reasons unknown to me, many parents want to bring their children,” he says. “I don’t know why.” Joshua would agree.
At 9:26, the final stray bus rolls in. Mission accomplished. “Group hug!” Chuck shouts, as he grabs Michele and Maurita, a nearby staff worker, to celebrate. Over their walkie-talkies, the message “All buses in” is repeated over and over.
Camp has officially begun.
Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah
Tracy Lee is singing camp songs. Her Color Wars song, to be specific. Color Wars is the camp equivalent of the Olympics, where everyone is split into teams that compete in various activities. It’s the one time of the summer where a typically peaceful campground turns into a battlefield. Masses of blue and yellow on opposing sides of a rope, pulling and yanking as if their lives depend on it. A sea of campers clad in red shorts and red shirts with red smeared on their faces like war paint, dodgeballs in hand, charging at a battalion of green soldiers. The rules are simple: There are no rules (except no headhunting). Last color standing, wins.
Tracy is singing the song that encapsulates all of this. She’s got a Camp Monroe T-shirt on and is flanked by a handful of similarly dressed friends.
She is 28 years old.
“We’re like lifers,” she explains. “It’s kind of crazy. The camp connection is kind of insane.”
Tracy spent a dozen of her summers, from age 8 to 20, at Camp Monroe, a sleepaway camp in Monroe, upstate New York. Before her first summer away from home, she spent a few Julys and Augusts at Park Shore. Already enrolled for another summer there, a tape for Camp Monroe showed up in her mail box. Her parents said she and her older sister could go there next summer, but that was a few hundred days too many to wait. Springing into action, Tracy and her sister made up “a stupid little skit” to convince them.
“We made up little lines to show them how much we wanted to go to this camp and ‘We know that we’re young and we’ll be responsible’—my sister is very, very responsible, she’s a tax attorney now,” she says today, 21 years after her first summer at Monroe.
Calling herself a lifer is not an exaggeration. Tracy absolutely loves her camp. She uses the “A good friend helps you move; a best friend helps you move a body” analogy to describe the relationship with the kids she met there decades ago, the same ones she was singing and laughing with days ago.
“These are the people who know you to the core where you don’t have to feel like you have to impress anyone,” she says. “You can be who you are growing up because that’s how they know you so well.”
Her 12 years at Monroe were split into eight as a camper, one as a waitress and three as a counselor. The biggest thing she gained from sleepaway camp—aside from her fellow lifers, of course—was social skills. Being in a foreign place day in and day out for eight weeks straight, she says, helped her get comfortable meeting new people. Much like her Color Wars song, these skills aren’t collecting dust.
“At 28 I’m going for my MBA. I feel comfortable walking into a room and introducing myself and networking,” she says. “And I don’t think I would have been able to do that as well had I not been away at a summer camp where every summer you have to meet people again.”
That’s something Jeff wants his kids Joshua and Samantha to experience. Also a former sleepaway camper, he’s eager to transition them. He and Keren aren’t ready to say goodbye for the summer yet—“They’re young, so it’s not up for debate yet”—but they know it’s a question of “When,” not “If.”
“It puts them in a different situation and they don’t have someone—at least their parents—looking over their shoulder every two seconds,” he says.