Turn On the Radio

David Fleischner
March 2016
Boys reading by flashlight.

The end of a summer day. We sit out on the front porch. The heat eases as the sky darkens and stars slowly emerge. The crackle of a radio broadcast punctuates the relative silence of the night, the play-by-play of a baseball game taking place hundreds of miles away. Someone adjusts the positioning of the antenna to pick up a clearer signal. Talk and laughter about the day’s events mingle with the action on a distant field.

United States circa 1950? Absolutely. But also Summer Camp 2015.

In recent summers, a tradition has emerged at Camp Scatico and become almost as much of a fixture in the day-to-day pace and life in our boys’ camp as morning flag raising and afternoon general swim. Baseball on the radio. Who could have predicted that the cutting-edge technology of the 1920s and ’30s, would help us achieve our 21st-century camp goals of unplugging and connecting more personally with friends?

Each night during the summer (except for the open dates around Major League Baseball’s All Star game), campers and staff come together to listen, talk, relax, and bond. Evening activity has ended and it’s that in-between time before younger campers head back to their cabins for the night. Our head counselor’s (HC) cabin in the boys’ camp is a long, narrow building strategically situated along one side of a main campus, ringed otherwise by camper bunks and a social hall. The HC cabin has an open porch about six feet deep running its entire length. There’s seating for close to 50 people and even more space for a lot of quality “leaning.” In the middle section, campers come at dusk to get milk and cookies before bed (just a bit Old School).

At one end of the building, the Yankee game is on the radio; at the other end the Mets game. Campers and staff flow in and out, tide-like, absorbing the action both on the radio and on the porch. A few key listeners for each radio, the serious fans, are stationed like soldiers on guard duty, ready to provide in-depth details and/or analysis when asked, “What’s the score?” or “Who’s pitching?”

Beyond providing a portal to a simpler, less-hectic time, the group radio-listening (GRL) creates a nightly haven for any camper to come and connect with other campers and staff. Some campers stop by and sit for ten minutes. Other younger campers, stay for the entire time between the end of evening activity and when they must report back to their cabins for the night (up to 45 minutes). A few older campers, with a later bedtime, ride out the action right until the game’s end, then recap highlights for morning lineup the following day.

For many younger campers, this becomes an important part of their nightly bedtime routine. Older campers and staff make them feel a vital part of the brotherhood. And while conversation does at times focus on the game on the radio, camp stories are also shared — funny and memorable moments from the day passed. Campers and staff marvel at the star-filled sky or even a prehistoric-looking insect that’s landed by a porch light. Everyone feels comfortable participating — or just listening.

Even the out-of-town fans are embraced: the campers from the DC area rooting for the Washington Nationals and the lone Bostonian camper who is a diehard Red Sox fan. There are lessons learned here too: how to root in a fun, competitive way, but always be gracious in victory or defeat.
A few cottage industries have sprung up around the GRL. We have a bulletin board mounted on the HC porch midway between the Yankee and Met sections. Box scores, game recaps, league leaders, and standings go up each morning. Walk by the HC during the day and you’re likely to see one or more campers analyzing yesterday’s games. Often it’s a group effort. The porch walls near the radios are also decorated annually in a jumbled collage of baseball cards, photos, and memorabilia. Each summer, campers arrive with donations for “The Wall.”

Like many great traditions that become ingrained in camp culture over time, the GRL lends its success to one part planning and three parts organic growth. About 15 summers ago, an assistant head counselor living in one end of the HC building (a lifelong Yankees fan) began putting a radio in his window so he could listen to games while outside on campus. He decorated the wall outside of his room with Yankee and camp photos and then moved a pair of authentic Yankee seats from inside the main building and placed them on the porch. (These seats were from the first Yankee Stadium renovation in 1973-74 and purchased in a Connecticut junkyard for $75 in 1978.)

Two summers ago, a new assistant head counselor living in the opposite end of the HC (and a lifelong Mets fan) thought it was time for equal billing. He decorated the outside of his side of the building, turned on a second radio, and even contributed a pair of Met seats (bought online and not at a junkyard, and not for $75). Game on!

No one told the campers to come and listen. To relax. To hang out. To bond. To laugh. To bring decorations to add to the porch wall.

Sitting on a porch and listening to the radio with fellow campers and staff has captured much of what we value in our summers at Scatico. Community, slowing down, and simplifying life. Feeling removed from the stress of the outside world and in the presence of the great outdoors. Who would have thought? Radio and camp — a nice double play.

Photo courtesy of Camp Scatico, New York, New York.

David Fleischner, with his wife Diana Wallerstein, is the owner and director of Camp Scatico. David’s career there began as a six-year-old camper in 1964. He has written articles on homesickness and camp counselors for The New York Times and Camping Magazine.