Standing on a dark platform at Grand Central Station in June 1965, I saw a huge pile of black trunks with silver latch hooks and little locks just like mine. I had watched my mother pack my trunk with blue wool blankets, white sheets, shorts, pants, shirts, underwear, a few bathing suits, and a pink bathing cap with a strap. The trunks that all looked alike were ready to be loaded on the train. Girls were laughing and hugging each other in pressed blue shorts and crisp, buttoned-down, white shirts that were measured especially for each one of them at Saks Fifth Avenue. The sweater that I wore, a navy cardigan with an emblem over the heart, and all of my other garments, had a label inside — hand sewn on with love by my mother — with my full name in red. That way all my clothes would find their way back to me after being sent out to the camp laundry. I had my brand new, black PF Flyers with stark white laces on my feet. I believed I could run farther and jump higher with those sneakers on, but what did I really know back then, at nine years old, ripe with anticipation of boarding the train for my first summer at camp?
The first moment of touching the grass of Camp Kear Sarge is indelible in my mind. Like a brand seared into a bovine’s hide, it will stay forever. I walked down the road lined with huge trees with my counselor, Donna, by my side. There was a large brown building they called the “rec hall” and a flagpole with an American flag waving in the wind. Beautiful red and purple flowers were all around and antique sleighs and white wagon wheels decorated the grassy areas. We walked to bunk nine.
My bed was unmade with a stripped mattress and a metal frame. The wooden pine walls had girls’ names and dates written all over them with black shoe polish. My long wooden clothes cabinet had a hook to close it; etched in it was “Vicki Lieberman was here, 1962.” There were pictures on the walls of girls in my same uniform, although the photos were black and white. My photo and photos of my friends would be added there in time.
Decades later, I was standing in the Boston Decorators Building with my interior decorator, Judy Kahn. I’m sure she thought I was a difficult client because I had trouble making up my mind about design, color, etc., thus creating more work for her. She told me the next week we could go to the rug store.
“I’m available at the beginning of the week, but not at the end,” I said. “I’m going out of town to my camp reunion.”
“That’s so funny,” she replied. “I’m also going to my camp reunion next week.”
She answered with a smile, “It doesn’t exist anymore, but it was Camp Kear Sarge.”
“No!” I gasped, “I went to Camp Kear Sarge!”
In the middle of the design showroom, two women who barely knew each other were now hugging. We began to rattle off names of girls we had known and finally hit some we both recognized. It was an instant connection. We forgot about the furniture and fabrics and were lost in our Kear Sarge talk for over an hour. We parted that day saying we would see one another at the reunion.
Driving up, I began to feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Camp Kear Sarge had closed 20 years ago, after 58 summers of camp. Rhoda and Lee Booth, the owners, estimated that approximately 5,000 girls shared the beautiful experience of Camp Kear Sarge, which began in 1920 when girls piled into a Pullman car at Grand Central Station at 8 p.m. to arrive in Sunapee, New Hampshire, the next morning for eight weeks at their summer home.
I reached the White Mountains, and with Route 89 stretched in front of me, memories flooded my mind. I broke into song — “Oh the Army and the Navy should be friends. Oh the Army and the Navy should be friends . . . friends, friends, friends, we will always be . . .” — and before I knew it, I was at my exit and turning on to Route 114 headed into New London, New Hampshire.
Today was the Camp Kear Sarge reunion that Maxine Booth, the founder’s granddaughter, had carefully and tirelessly put together. After closing its doors in 1978, she had, through the grace of email, managed to bring us all together again. Quite a change from our camp days of handwritten letters, operator-assisted collect calls home, and a mimeograph machine with carbon paper to crank out the daily schedule for each bunk. I had no idea what to feel or expect, but I was excited to see everyone.
As I walked inside, women bombarded me with a loud chorus complete with hands clapping wildly and feet pounding: “We welcome you to Camp Kear Sarge, we’re mighty glad you’re here. We’ll send the world reverberating with a mighty cheer. We’ll sing you in, we’ll sing you out, to you we’ll raise a mighty shout — hail, hail the gang’s all here, and we welcome you to Camp Kear Sarge!”
I was meeting my closest friends — Amy, Missy, and Ellyn — at this reunion, women I had stayed in touch with all these years. We flew standby for $25 to visit each other, attended each other’s Bat Mitzvahs and sweet 16s, visited at college, went to each other’s weddings, some of us twice, and shared in the births of our children (six girls and two boys), and for me, the death of my dad. These girls knew me like no one else.
Of course, the other alumnae were also sisters of sorts. These women felt like family I had grown up with. As I walked inside, I saw women hugging and crying tears of mirth. There were women like us, edging toward 40, and other women approaching 70. Photographs were strewn about, songbooks were open, and all around me were familiar faces — Karen, who rode the water-ski boat; Joy, with the beautiful voice; Leslie, who was voted Miss Kear Sarge the year before my best friend Amy.
Camp was instrumental in the social and emotional development of each and every one of these women’s lives. We all spoke the same language, the language of camp — the songs, the private jokes in the mess hall, the “dedications” during meals . . . . Camp was our country. If you had been there, it was deeply locked inside you; if you had not been there, there was no possible way to understand it. Whether you experienced it in 1934, 1950, or 1972, the memories were similar, the connection intimate and formidable.
Before dinner, we all drove over to camp. It was difficult to find the road in, now overgrown and the regular markings of wagon wheels no longer there. Actually, the camp had been sold off in 2.2 acre parcels in 1980. The camp owners’ son had called me while I was in graduate school and offered me a parcel of lakefront property for $89,000. At that point in time, I didn’t have a dollar to my name, but I felt compelled to call my dad and tell him about the offer, hoping he would jump at it. Instead, he said, “Nancy, I’m not paying $89,000 for a bunch of grass without any plumbing.”
The flowerbeds from camp were no longer there, but the flagpole was. The lake was still crystal clear. The antique sleighs and wagon wheels that were around the camp grounds were gone, as were the swings and seesaws. (Truth be told, that was fine by me. Those were made of wood and in 1965 I had gotten a huge splinter in my backside. I had to go to the infirmary and have the nurse remove that sliver of wood.) Maxine, a former waterfront counselor, could never resist the glistening water of Pleasant Lake and she dove right in, clothes and all. She looked exactly like she had at camp those many years ago, except she was missing the zinc oxide covering her nose.
We sat at dinner later that evening catching up with one another. We laughed as we reminisced and the older women shared with us what camp was like when they were young girls. We dedicated this and that to each other during dinner like we used to do at camp and put our finger on our noses until the last woman who did not catch on was called “pig.” Why this was funny I have no idea now, but somehow to our nine- to 14-year-old selves, it was hysterical.
We shared a beautiful meal looking out onto Pleasant Lake. We toasted Maxine for putting this incredible evening together. I raised my glass and said, “Thank you for giving back to all of us a little slice of our childhoods.” My bunkmates stood with hands on hearts and gave the old Kear Sarge cheer: “Dear Maxine Booth, our hearts to you, our hands to you. Dear Maxine Booth, our hearts and hands to you.” Thankfully, we had the dining room at the inn to ourselves as we broke into song after song.
This day and evening brought us all something we had not expected. We were all transported back in time to a place that was innocent, safe, fun, and intimate. For a moment we were little girls again without parents telling us what to do. We were pre-teens figuring out about boys, clothes, body parts, and camaraderie. Teenagers toying with smoking, kissing boys, and finding out how to resolve arguments. The bonds of summer overnight camp were unbroken and cherished.
At camp we’d learned to share our things, fight, and resolve our differences. There was no television for eight weeks, so we’d entertained ourselves by reading books and comics, usually by flashlight, and playing jacks and multiple card games. We wrote jingles and sang them to each other. We wrote letters home and looked forward to receiving letters from family and friends. We thought of fabulous practical jokes, like the evening we put head counselor John Staff ord’s bed out on the far dock (we got it there by row boat). He’d taken one look at it, looked back at us, and jumped in the lake; he swam out to the dock and got under the covers. Another well-thought-out joke was to quietly take our cabin mate’s clothes and towel out of the shower house while she was showering with her “soap on a rope” and washing her hair. We could envision her walking back through camp stark naked. She was ingenious and tore down the plastic shower curtain and walked into the cabin with it wrapped around her, mad as hell. We had tons of innocent fun.
Yes, for a few hours at this reunion, we touched our childhoods once again. It felt fantastic. The loss I’d felt when I couldn’t purchase the parcel of land in 1979 was no longer an issue. I already owned a piece of camp; I just didn’t know it until the reunion.
Now, when I close my eyes, I see 5,000 ghosts of smiling, laughing campers running over the hills, past the flagpole, and down to the lake. Camp is inside of me. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I can go home anytime. The bonds of camp friendships are like no other. At the Camp Kear Sarge reunion, we all came home.
Nancy Feldman Rosenhaus was a camper/counselor from 1965 to 1975, making lifelong friends that remain in touch today. She is a social worker in Boston and is the mother of two adult daughters who also experienced overnight camp. Nancy dedicates this to Amy Cohen Soscia, whom she met in 1965 and “who remains in all of our hearts.”
Photo courtesy of Nancy Feldman Rosenhaus