University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik looks back on the summer camp that helped define her sense of self — she even pays the director a visit.
Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the Woodstock Writers Festival. Arriving in town moments after the news broke of the death of Levon Helm, I found the populace in tears. Somehow they rallied for the story slam scheduled that night at Oriole 9. Sponsored by Woodstock’s popular TMI Project, a relation of Baltimore’s Stoop storytelling series, the slam had the following rules: the stories had to contain the line “By the time I got to Woodstock” and had to be exactly three and a half minutes in length. The organizers had a gong that could have woken Angkor Wat, and were not afraid to use it.
We heard from a sweet older lady who had been Jerry Garcia’s girl on the side; from a slip of a thing who had peed her pants rather than visit the infernal port-o-potties at Woodstock ’99; from a young man raised in a local religious cult where rock and roll was forbidden. The bright spot of his childhood was when the cult was engaged to pick up trash at the concert grounds.
Later in the weekend, another delicate-looking senior citizen told me she’d like to work on an essay about a party her husband’s band gave in 1969 in New Jersey. Dubiously I said, “Do you think readers will be interested in that?” “Well,” she ventured, hesitating, “the band was the Velvet Underground.”
Meanwhile, an enormous day-long 420 party was gearing up down the road. Welcome to Woodstock!
The following is the piece I read at the slam.
Not long after my mother’s death, I played backgammon with her lifelong friend Marilyn, a blond beauty I confused in my childhood with Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn attended sleepaway camp with my mother in the late 1930s and 40s, and shared recollections of Mom’s career as alpha girl of Camp Nawita. She was the best at everything, Marilyn proclaimed, baseball, tennis, swimming, horseshoes. (Marilyn herself, now 85, remains exquisitely lovely — and unbeatable at backgammon, which she took up when hearing loss ended her bridge career.)
For someone as athletic as my mother, who won a golf tournament a few months before she died of lung cancer, a traditional all-girl summer camp was paradise. When the time came, she could not wait to send her daughters. But for me, so uncoordinated as to be nearly special-needs, camp was a gauntlet of humiliations. During my incarceration, I would make lanyards, fail the lifesaving test, and try to conceal my urine-soaked bedsheets. I never went back to the same camp twice, until at 13, salvation appeared.
There in the classifieds of The New York Times Magazine, floating like a pristine lily among smeary images of leaping youth and archery equipment, was an ad with two lines of type in a plain white box.
for young people
interested in doing things
That, and the address, was it. I was sold.
Camp Greenfields was located in a fairytale meadow outside Woodstock, New York. It took 10 girls and 10 boys between the ages of 12 and 16, housed them in bungalows with flush toilets and hot showers (a freaking spa!) — and was completely free of camp hierarchy, camp songs and camp traditions. No sports were required, activities consisted of classes with local craftspeople, and outings took us to rock concerts at Saratoga. My mother was dubious — no baseball? — but eager enough to get us out of the house that she ignored the naked babies, effeminate muralists, and high school refugees roaming the grounds.
Rudy Hopkins, the director of Greenfields for its five-year run in the 1970s, shepherded us campers through what might have been the cruelest summers of adolescence with good humor and tough love. He dealt with our Boone’s Farm and marijuana experimentation, our melodramas, and our inexperience with chores. He dragged us up the side of Slide Mountain, into Devil’s Kitchen and off the edge of the Spillway. And he was still there on the property when I peeked my head in 35 years later. His curly hair had grayed and his face had weathered but his sarong-wrapped, leonine appearance had lost none of its roar.
“How is your head?” were the first words out of his mouth when he saw me. I knew exactly what he was talking about. My last summer at camp I had nearly scalped myself in jewelry class, having brushed back my hair with a silver-polisher running in my hand. The tool caught up first one lock then another, wrapping them round and round, tighter and tighter, as I stood shrieking. Honestly, I was lucky to keep my eyebrows.
(Probably this accident comes as no surprise to regular readers of this column.)
My hair grew back, but my head was never the same. Just as my mom found herself at Nawita, I found myself at Greenfields. By the time I got to Woodstock, I knew so much about what I was bad at but little about where I fit in. Well here, of course, with the naked babies, effeminate muralists, and vegetarian philosophers. It was my job to pay close attention to everyone’s personal business, sit in the library and write poems about it, then jump up at dinner and read them. Like my mother, I’ll probably have to be dragged away from these pursuits when it’s time to die.
Even when you are deaf, you can kill everybody at backgammon. It’s really just a matter of finding your game.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.