Saturday, January 9, 2010

Another Reason Why I Can't Go Home Anymore

One more reason why trying out nostalgia can bite you in the you-know-where.

I sometimes surf around Facebook and type in stuff from my past, just to see what comes up.

Today I decided to type in the name of my sleepaway camp.  It wasn't just any sleepaway camp.  You see, as a child of public housing growing up in the Bronx in the early 60's, the fact that my parents didn't own a car, and their income made me a disadvantaged urban youth.  Luckily, I didn't know that growing up and I wouldn't have cared.

Through a elementary school friend, I found out about a camp in northern NJ called Camp Sussex.  My friend went there.  She lived in a different housing project so was disadvantaged, too. Since she was going, I wanted to also.  Three weeks away from home.  It would be my first time away from home, at this camp for poor kids.  So poor, we weren't even expected to bring our own clothes.  The camp provided them.  The camp provided everything, including transportation from Manhattan.

I went to camp and a couple of things happened that first day.

First, my friend treated me like I didn't exist.
The second was, I was massively homesick.  I ended up in the infirmery overnight, as I had somehow worked myself into a fever.  Literally.

I was shown a lot of kindness there, and reported to my bunk first thing the next morning.  I never looked back.  I survived being snubbed by my "friend" and made other friends.

This camp was located in a then-rural area of northern NJ.  It was surrounded by beautiful hills.  There was a lake.  There were hiking trails (rumored to contain quicksand pits and lethal snakes).  There was the opportunity to put on a camp musical.  Every dinner, before the prayer (yes, there was a religious element to this camp) we sang "Be Kind to Your Web Footed Friends".  I still remember the words.  We woke up to "Reville", made our bunks, had an inspection, watched the American flag raise, and listened to "taps" at Lights Out.

Many of the camp counselors were college students.  I became friends with one in particular, who went to Bryn Mawr.  We wrote to each other for months after that session but lost touch.

I had my first crush at Camp Sussex, and my first "boyfriend".

Years later, my cousin married someone who had gone to Camp Sussex.  And at work, for several years I sat feet from a former Camp Sussex counselor.  Problem was, she was born the last year I went.  So we didn't speak about it much.  I wish we had.

Anyway, I had known that the camp had never quite changed its mission, but had closed around 2005.  There were hopes to turn it into a sports camp, an "education through sports" camp.  Derek Jeter's father was somehow supposed to be involved.

Well, on Facebook, I found out, as Paul Harvey used to say, "The rest of the story".

The closed camp has been severely vandalized.  It was alleged that the local police had never been too happy about the camp being there (I guess we disadvantaged kids polluted the place?).   Over the years, the rural area had become urbanized and the local youth had their way with my beloved camp.  The camp hadn't been secured, anyone could just walk in, and the police didn't seem to care too much. (in all fairness, I only know one side of the story.)  Bottom line, it would take over a million dollars just to get the camp fixed up enough to even begin about reopening.

There were pictures on Facebook showing the damage. (there's even a 3 minute short on You Tube documenting some of the damage.)  My heart broke, seeing those beautiful hills for the first time in over 40 years. And, on two Facebook sites, discussions among some of over 400 people who belonged to a fraternity of former campers, counselors and even administrators, have taken place.  They loved Camp Sussex.  I loved it in some ways, too, because it showed me there was a lot more to life than the streets of the Bronx.

Know what?  I wish I could find out how all of us "disadvantaged youth"of Camp Sussex turned out.  How many of us are professionals?   People who have made life better for others?  And, for how many of us, did Camp Sussex make a difference?

I wish I didn't know about the vandalism, though.

Like my neighborhood, now a slum, now my beloved sleepaway camp.  Sometimes you just can't go back home.  How I sometimes envy people who can!

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