From the time I was about 10, and for three or four years thereafter, I attended summer day camp at P.S. 73, a junior high school on MacDougal Street in Brooklyn. My mother went to the school as did her famous classmate, the Great One, Jackie Gleason. Summer Camp for kids today usually means some serene, bucolic place in the country, with dorms, counselors and singing songs around the campfire. My summer camp was the city version...concrete, brick buildings and traffic whizzing by on Rockaway Avenue.
I really didn't want to go, after all, summer was my time; no school, no homework and out in the street from dawn to dusk. I'm sure this is what worried my mother. She couldn't watch me every minute, and for sure I was a handful at that age. We would ride our bikes from my block in Brooklyn to Howard Beach in Queens, a distance of about five miles along some of the busiest streets you can imagine. Clearly, Mom wanted me under closer supervision.
Once at summer camp, I flat-out loved it. What kid wouldn't. They had other kids my age to play with, a great arts and crafts program (to this day I can weave a mean lanyard) and best of all, SPORTS. Every day we got to play softball or football in the school yard. They had organized track and field competitions in which I eagerly participated. Their sports program was run by a man named Norm Drucker whose full-time job was refereeing in the National Basketball Association. I guess the pay for refs was so poor in those days that he had to supplement his income with a summer job. Or maybe he just wanted to help city kids stay off the streets.
During those years there was a TV show called Junior Champions hosted by Marty Glickman, the great Olympic athlete and sportscaster. They selected kids from local day camps to come on the show and compete for prizes. I had recently fractured my left wrist in a camp high jump event, and was sporting a hard cast on my left arm. Despite that, I was lucky enough to win a basketball lay-up shooting contest and walked away with a new bike (see 9/23/08 post, "The Dream Bike").
That's not the point of this story. While waiting to go on camera, all the kids who were competing were being briefed by a staff person on what to do while on-camera. I guess I was around 12 at the time, a raging pile of adolescent hormones. Anyhow, the person briefing us was a tall, stunning redhead. After talking to the group, she came over, sat down next to me, and put her arm around my shoulder. I could feel the blood rush to my cheeks. She looked at me and began speaking: "You want to be a hit on the show, don't you?" she asked. "Y-y-y-yes" I stammered" She went on: "You want your family and friends to be proud of you" she whispered into my ear. "Y-y-y-yes" again was my clever reply. "Then you'd better zip up your fly" said red.
No hole was deep enough for me to crawl into. That was my first brush with women; its a miracle I didn't enter the priesthood then and there.
One final thought on day camp. Maybe once every week they would take us on bus trips to various places, like the beach at Far Rockaway or to Highland Park. For a local kid like me, this was like a week on the French Riviera. As if the bus ride wasn't enough, for these outings we got box lunches consisting of a sandwich, a container of milk and a piece of fruit. This was my introduction to mayonnaise. Living in an Italian-American home, I had never seen a jar of mayonnaise. The tuna we ate was the imported Italian type, canned in oil so powerful that any sandwich made with it could soak through a brown paper bag in ten seconds flat. At camp we got egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches made with mayonnaise! What gastronomic delight was this? To this day I love mayo, but what can I say about my first taste....ambrosia.
A belated "Thank You" to men like Norm Drucker and Marty Glickman who helped make summers memorable for boys like me. As for that redhead, well I forgive you, but I hope you never need a kidney.
(Originally posted 11/7/2008.)
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