by Chris Rostenberg
I went to Camp Dudley, a YMCA camp up on Lake Champlain the summer after the fifth grade, when my mother, sister and I moved off Old Mill Farm. I missed my mother at the camp and wrote her letters saying so, and she showed my letters to her co-workers at the Harrison Public Library. (She had gotten a job there so I would spend time there, which is how I became a reader. It made me really mad that she had shown my private stuff to strangers and I figured if I ever wrote about Dudley, I’d mention this and embarrass her right back.)
I began to regret that I had come to the camp. Going there had been my step-mother’s idea, and I wasn’t sure she liked me. I wasn’t sure anyone liked me, frankly. But when I showed up at Camp Dudley, the director, who I had never seen or heard of, came up and heartily greeted me by name as if he knew me. Willie Shmidt had requested photos of all the new boys along with our nicknames, and he had memorized them, so he could make us feel welcome.
Willie showed up in the dining hall with a big plastic Arkansas razorback helmet on, which is this plastic boar or something and my dad had one just like it, having gone to med school in Little Rock. Willie said, “Are you telling me your dad has a hat exactly like mine?” And I said, “Well, yes.” “Mine’s better,” he said. After our sporting events, we would cheer the other team: “Camp Dudley, Willie Schmidt, you guys really played like heck!”
Dudley was the oldest camp for boys in continuous operation in the country. They made an earnest attempt to bring out the best in boys. The camp was Christian and the people were genuinely better people than the people back home. Every year I would come back and it was like the camp was in a time-oasis like Brigadoon.
There was a Loch-Ness monster in Lake Champlain and we had an idol called Suck Wind. There was an out-door chapel with a cross made of trees and you sat on logs. Cubs – the youngest boys – were often diagnosed with a strange affliction called “earlobes,” and would be sent to the infirmary where iodine was applied to their earlobes, which were perfectly healthy, just to make the kids look silly.
The boys would go on overnight trips to Stacey Brook Country Club, but that was a scam too, just a bunch of lean-tos near a river and dumb cubs would lug around their tennis rackets and golf-clubs. I wore my sports jacket and when we built a fire, there was a lot of smoke and my counselor asked me to go get a left-handed smoke-shifter, but there is no such thing as a left-handed smoke-shifter. We went on a scavenger hunt to find a certain type of bug called a right-field base-creeper but there’s no such thing as that, either.
Some on the counselors had something wrong with them. You would yell “dead bug!” at them, and they would fall to the ground like a dead bug. Or you would yell at them “G.Q.!” and they would strike a pose from G.Q. Magazine. We had Saturday Night Shows in Witherbee Hall, which were serious, and Wednesday Night Shows, which were madness.
This was the era when Dan Aykroyd was playing a cone-head on Saturday Night Live and my cabin mates put on a performance of pylon-heads, wearing orange pylons on our heads. I had brought out a water pistol on stage, and got the bright idea to start squirting my counselor as he said his lines. He interrupted his monolog to say in character, “Stop it, Rostenberg!” then went on talking. The kids in the audience were so hot and sweaty, they called out my name, asking me to squirt them, and I obliged.
In one skit, a line of ten kids stood there silently on stage when the first took off his wrist-watch, popped it in his mouth, getting saliva all over it, then passed it to the next kid who immediately popped it in his mouth. He passed it to the next kid and some of the kids were really enthusiastic about getting spit and mucus all over the watch. The last kid chewed on the watch, strapped it to his wrist, listened to it and announced with glee, “Timex: it takes a licking and keeps on ticking!”
There was a Leader’s Serial, where the leaders (counselors) would have a new episode every Wednesday, when all of a sudden, a counselor shot all the other counselors with a machine gun from the back of the audience and all the counselors died, but of course, this was part of the performance.
At the end of the year, they put on The Big Show, which they had rehearsed all summer, about four big gods and one little god and the older kids understood the point of the play and the younger kids did not understand it and I was a younger kid, so I had no idea what was going on.
There were these two marines, John Lowry and Chris Davies, and I worshipped these guys. John used to do push-ups with me on his back and Davies used to say to me, “Chris, is your spider-sense tingling?” There was this nice, crazy guy named John Canning and his brother Regis was crazy too and their third brother, Tom, was the straight guy in the family, like Marilyn from the Munsters.
There was a Polish counselor who thought he was going to get me interested in sports and he made me play soccer. When he realized he couldn’t get me to run up and down the field, he made me a fullback, a position that could be played by a quadriplegic. Athletics suck and if the Europeans keep calling soccer “football,” we should invade them again and replace their metric system with whatever our system is called.
There was a kid who called himself, “Marty the Martian” and he wore his underwear on his head. One boy I didn’t know arrived at the camp in a helicopter and he brought with him dozens of masks, which he wore all the time. When I went swimming at the beginning of the summer in Lake Champlain, the water seemed so cold that my throat clogged up. But the helicopter kid thought the water was just fine because he was from Canada and he could handle colder water due to evolution.
The kid who posed for the painting on the box of Honey Comb cereal went to Dudley, and I saw a photo of him holding the box with his painting on it. He said that when he posed for the painting, the “milk” in the cereal was really glue. Another celebrity who went to Camp Dudley was that actor Burgess Meredith who played Micky in the “Rocky” movies. He was killed by Mr. T. I don’t have his autograph but I had the autograph from the Honey Comb kid until I spilled milk on it and had to throw it away.
They sold frozen sodas in cups at Camp Dudley, which should catch. I once ate eleven Reece’s peanut butter cups at camp and knew that someday I would be fat. You weren’t allowed to bring candy back to the main campus and they would check you at the tunnel going under the road. So I bought way more candy than I was allowed to and snuck down the road till I found a drainage ditch and crawled through. I was wearing shorts and on the other side of the road was all this tall grass that tore up my legs and I called the grass “witch’s grass.” I found a rodent of some sort in the witch’s grass, put it in a box and the next day it was dead. I saw a bat sleeping on the outside of my cabin, took off my shirt and caught the bat. Someone asked me what I was doing, and he didn’t believe me until I let the bat fly off. Then he still didn’t believe me and said it was camera tricks.
Unfortunately, all the time alone on Old Mill Farm had affected my personality: I couldn’t remain normal for more than 45 minutes, so I said, “To hell with it; I’ll be abnormal.” I once asked a fellow camper if lunch was going to be at 12:75 and I meant it. My idol was Peter Brady, who was always funny, and I tried to be funny all the time, but really, it just annoyed people. Hard habit to break, actually.
I focused my creative juices into making a comic book. I read the comic to my friend Russ Matthews, who liked it. He was always going on and on about raising the Titanic and because he was from New Jersey, he was always ranting on how we should all drive on the other side of the road.
We had a contest down on Cub Beach to see if we could make costumes for ourselves out of things we found and the winner would get a frozen soda. Someone had found an egg floating around in the lake and I figured, “If I smash that egg on my head, I’ll win the frozen soda!” So I did it. And the egg was rotten. I had smashed a rotten egg on my egg and it smelled horrible.
Then I had to stand there, reeking, with the other contestants as the judges judged us. Then I ran up to the “Institute” – which was the bathroom – and took a shower with the Prell, which was the best shampoo ever until it was taken off the market because it contained radioactive material, which should have been obvious. I left the shower but I still stank, so I took another shower. Then a third. But I still stank. Then I realized I had put on my shirt and there was rotten egg on the shirt.
Up the path came Neil Parker. I thought he had a funny name and I was always announcing things in a Guy Smiley voice things like, “Welcome to the Neil Parker show! Thursdays on NBC!” He hated my guts. I was very concerned that the judges at the contest had awarded me the frozen soda. Neil told me the sad news that the judges had determined I had lost. This was mean of the judges – they were making fun of me. Then I learned I had actually won, Neil had lied just to be mean, and I gave him a wedgie. All the kids circled around, chanting, “Wedgie! Wedgie! Wedgie!”
One night I was walking along and saw a black cat on the other side of a puddle. I figured it would be funny to run up, jump over the puddle and scare the shit out of the cat. So I did it. And in mid-air, I realized it was not a cat but a skunk and it sprayed me and I had to go use the Prell again.
Now, we were supposed to do basic house cleaning in our cabin and clean our bunks because of civilization and everything, but I was lazy, and besides, this was a boy’s camp and I was a boy. So we’d get inspected and the counselor would often write, “Cub Beach in Rostenberg’s bunk” because it was always so filthy.
So I got tired of this reputation and entered girl mode and cleaned my bunk for a few days. And the counselor inspector wrote in the report, “Cub Beach in Rostenberg’s bunk,” and I realized he had stopped bothering to inspect it. He had a really cool sling-shot called a wrist-rocket and I stole it. Even today, my mother says, “I don’t like your attitude! You’re 53 years old! Go clean your room in the basement!” And I’m like, “Yeah, mom, I’m gonna go ‘clean my room’ – right after I floss my rectum!”
One day I found a mop handle and decided to use it as a walking stick. I’d make my reputation as the guy who used a mop handle as a walking stick. My counselor got tired of seeing the mop handle sitting around and he tossed it in Lake Champlain. Incredibly, a friend of mine went canoeing in the lake, saw the stick, knew it was mine, retrieved it and gave it back to me. I couldn’t believe it. Then I lost it again and got it back again, although I forget how, and I figured it was a magical mop handle and I would keep it for life. Then I played stick-ball with it and when it hit the ball, it broke in half and that was that.
One night I woke up to use the Institute and there were so many stars I couldn’t believe it. I said, “I’m always going to remember this.” That was 40 years ago.
Camp Dudley was right near a town called Plattsburg which they thought was a city and all the people from Plattsburg were really nice but they had an accent that made them sound moronic. One of my counselors was from Plattsburg and I spoke to him in his moronic accent and he didn’t notice it, but everyone else did and it was really funny. I went to a really good used bookstore in Plattsburgh and bought some science fiction books including “Bio of a Space Tyrant” by Piers Anthony, who has the most creative mind I have ever encountered.
We learned how to canoe and years later when my family and I rented canoes at Rye Playland, my mother and sister applauded me because I knew how to do it. Jesus. Did you know that if a canoe sinks, you can rescue it if you can turn it upside-down and push it onto another canoe? We had to portage with our canoes, carrying them on our backs a long way. Portaging sucks. One time while portaging, we came across of European kids going the opposite direction and this French kid said to me, “You’re from New York? Do you know Brian? He’s about your height.”
We went on a three-day canoe trip up the Marion River where the physiques of the inhabitants made me suspect there was something wrong with the water supply. It rained on us in our canoe for three days. All the campsites were taken. We had to pitch our tents on this sand bar covered in dog feces. I named the place Doody Island. Our tents filled with rain and I slept in a puddle. Nobody else had drinking water, but I had saved my canteen and sipped a little. The other guys wanted some water and I told them to conserve it, to just wet their lips and not gulp. They all did what I wanted, except this one guy, Carl Zuckerberg, who gulped it all down. He had been left behind a year in camp, which I had never heard of. I once offered him a Snickers bar … he sniffed it and gave it back.
Years later, we were in Witherbee Hall watching a play, and I was really thirsty. I had brought my canteen and took a sip. The guy next to me was thirsty too, and the guy next to him too. I told them all to just wet their lips and they did what I asked, except this one guy, who gulped it all down. And I thought, “This guy reminds me of Carl Zuckerberg.” And it was Carl Zuckerberg!
The point is the kids at the camp thought I was weird. I was 11 and still playing with micronauts. My campmates called me Rostenspace. “Rostenspaaaaace!”
I had some of the best times of my life at Camp Dudley. It was the first time in my life I felt my peers really liked me. When I left the first year, I cried my little eyes out.