There I was at Camp Columbus. It was the summer of 1964. Somehow, I had passed the fifth grade and Mom and Dad were sending me to a one-week sleepover camp way out on Owasco Lake. Sunday to Saturday. “It will be fun.” They said, “You’ll make new friends.” “Swimming, hiking, wiffle ball.” “Rats,” I mumbled, because I didn’t know how to swear yet.
“Rumplestilskin” with the ACT Wagon was coming to Lincoln Playground that week. Gonna miss that. Back then I only went out in the sun if the Boondoggle Truck or if the ACT Wagon pulled in. I was perfectly content to spend the month of August in our dim and cool basement on Peacock Street and catch up on my Highlights Magazines and re-read the lessons of Goofus and Gallant.
But no. The little suitcase was packed. The swimsuit, the sneakers, the socks, the underwear, the sweatshirt, the clam diggers, the pajamas, the toothbrush, the Pepsodent, a bar of Palmolive and the comb. Marked on the kitchen calendar, the dreaded day arrived. After nine o’clock Mass at Holy Family, Mom reminded me to please hang up my dress and fold my chapel veil and put it in the top drawer and to get ready now. She had laid out the hand-me-down shorts and top that our next door neighbor Ann Shaw had brought over yesterday. My traveling suit. This two-piece outfit was pea green, patterned with a happy design of apples and cherries.
Ugh. I wanted frayed cutoff jeans and a madras blouse. “Joanne! Hurry up! We are leaving! Now!” Mom shouted up the stairs. I wanted to stay home and play jacks and work on my “In-The-Coop” and “Over-The-Fence.”
But no. We got in the station wagon and drove out past Green Shutters, the Merry-Go-Round Carousel, The Indian Village and the Pump House, all the way out to somewhere in the country on the lake, and turned down a driveway by a Mary shrine. It was so humid that afternoon. It always is in August. Getting out of the roasting car, I peeled the back of my legs from the hot vinyl seat. Now what? Throwing up came to mind.
But no. I said good-bye to Mom and Dad and answered the whistle for a meeting in the field, where in the blazing sun we sat on our suitcases and listened to the counselors who gave us the lowdown, the what’s what and our cabin assignments. The cabins were named after the Christopher Columbus fleet. The Santa Maria, The Pinta and the Nina. “Were there others?” I wondered. A detailed email from long time camper Tom Boedicker, who attended the boys section during Julys, noted that the other cabins were named The Isabella, The Ferdinand, The Christopher and The Port of Spain. For a couple of years, the Craft Lodge, behind the Queen of Peace Chapel, was used as a cabin named the Santa Domingo. Well, I was in The Nina. It was an oblong cabin with about 14 beds; seven on each side. I was near the back on the right, far from the two little windows that were in the center of the room. And no fan. On my left was a girl from Geneva. Geneva! “I know Geneva!” I told her. “That’s on the way to Hornell where my Nana lives.” As I remember, that’s as far as our conversation went.
There must have been a walk-around tour of the camp that afternoon. First stop, no doubt, was the latrine, where under an archway, there was a circular fountain activated by a foot push- pedal at the bottom. This is where we were to gather around in the mornings to collectively brush our teeth before Mass. Was I being prepped for the convent? Mom always hoped I would get “The Call” “If only …” she would say. Perhaps to entice me, we would watch “Song of Bernadette.” But I did not want to join the nunnery. I wanted to go to Hollywood, and be a movie star like Jennifer Jones, and play Bernadette.
That Sunday afternoon there was a “Getting To Know Each Other” event — a relay race hopping in an itchy burlap potato sack. “Was this supposed to be fun?” I wondered. Everyone else seemed to be having a good time. What’s for supper?
The food, as I remember it, was fantastic! But no Mountain Dew. And we could take one candy bar from “The Store.” One?
After supper, we went back to our cabins and got our sweatshirts from our suitcases, walked to the lake and found a seat on the giant trees that decades ago had been cut and laid out like bleachers by the bonfire. It had cooled down and the crisp evening lake breeze felt wonderful.
With each log thrown on the fire, the sparks crackled and jumped in the dark and lit up the night sky. Song sheets were passed out and our Hootenanny began. “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Da, rounds of “Row, Row Your Boat,” “B-I-N-G-O.” OK. Now I’m having fun.
Monday morning, not so much. The smell of breakfast bacon from the cafeteria wafting in the chapel windows got me through seven o’clock Mass and those awful wooden kneelers. Before lunch came the swimming. We changed in the bathhouse. I wore a bathing suit given to me from our neighbor Ann Shaw. It was a green checkered one piece with a ruffled skirt. At the water, there were three sections. The Crib. The Mid. The Raft. I was drawn to The Crib, but no … they delegated me to The Mid. Ugh. We were each assigned a “buddy.” Hand in hand, the buddies jumped in. The water was ice cold and choppy. Rocks on the bottom. Shivering … the cold air that we enjoyed last night had lingered. Again I wondered, “Was this supposed to be fun?” The lifeguard blew her whistle and with her megaphone bellowed, “BUDDY UP!” We scrambled for each other. Ta Da! Holding hands, we raised our arms like champions. Now can we get outta here?
Later in the week in the scorching noon sun, we hiked all the way down Rockefeller Road, then up Sam Adams Lane and took the downhill trail to the Girl Scout Camp on the lake. And back. The little campers got a ride on a hay truck. We walked. I guess it prepared me for life in New York City, where for 41 years, I walked.
Founded in 1933 by the Rev. Msgr. Frederick Straub of St. Alphonsus Church, Camp Columbus was advertised as a “Waterfront Camp for Boys and Girls of All Faiths, with Expert Swimming and Waterskiing Instruction.” When I asked my friend Cate Porten Didion if she had any memories to share about Camp Columbus, she said, “Oh My God, yes! My grandfather Fred Porten and my dad, Dave Porten, built the Mary shrine. My brother Dutch was their helper. Every spring my grandmother Dorothy ‘Dot’ Porten would take me with her to the shrine to clean up the leaves and the pine cones. And when we swept them away, there they were. There they always were” my brother Dutchie’s hand prints in the cement.”
The days of the week moved on. Those counselors kept us busy. But I felt something important was missing. And it grew on me, especially around four o’clock when we had our nap time. Was I the only one awake? Missing was the thud that every afternoon arrived on my front porch at home. The newspaper. The funnies. How was I to keep up with Brenda Starr if there was no paperboy to deliver The Citizen?
The future is uncertain for Camp Columbus, a 5.3-acre summer camp for people with disabilities on the edge of Owasco Lake, after it was sold t…
There was a movie night. There was story time. There was the Craft Lodge. OK. I’ll take a look.
Is it possible it was in a log cabin? I remember it as woody, dark and cool. Popsicle stick baskets, weaving pot holders … I don’t think so. But boondoggles, yes! There was a counselor who really tried to teach me how to make a “swirl knot.” But no. My whistle and skate key were destined to stay in my pocket.
Friday night we had our last bonfire and singing. We no longer needed the song sheets. Keeping us away from the fire, the counselors passed around toasted marshmallows on sticks.
After a send-off pancake breakfast the next morning, the field filled up with station wagons of moms and dads. I said good-bye to the girl from Geneva. Dad got my suitcase. Mom told me that the sun made my freckles pop. We were all eager and glad to see each other. And when I got home to Peacock Street and opened the fridge, there was the Mountain Dew. Looking out the window, here comes Tim Shea, our paperboy.
Auburn residents Joanne O’Connor and Teresa Hoercher are the contributors of the bi-monthly Legends of Auburn feature published Sundays in The Citizen and at auburnpub, carrying on the work done for 26 years by Ormie King by highlighting unique people and places in the Auburn area. Joanne O’Connor can be reached at [email protected].