#Summer #Camp as Sanctuary and Crucible
Some of the best memories of my whole life are from the seven years I spent at Camp Hawthorn, 1963 – 1969. This was a St. Louis-based, Jewish Community Center Association [JCCA, or “J”]-run residential summer camp in central Missouri. Camp Hawthorn was very rustic (no electricity in the sleeping cabins, no air conditioning even in the few buildings that had electricity except for the main office and infirmary, latrines instead of flush toilets, showers without roofs or doors, gravel roads).
Camp meant: campfires, friendships, canoeing, waterskiing, swimming; first crushes, kisses and dances; camping in tents and under the stars; games, sing-downs, folk singing and dancing; art projects, camp-crafts and nature walks; motor and sail boat rides and much more. Humid, sunny, summer heat filled our time, with the occasional thunderstorm or even tornado warning, for three- to four-week-long sessions. When I was lucky, I got to stay for seven weeks.
Camp was a sanctuary from my sometimes dangerous and often dysfunctional home life. Camp was also a crucible for my development as a competent, skilled, courageous feminist, comfortable in my body and in nature, able to make friends easily and become a leader.
Camp Hawthorn‘s property had been a fire and low-security prison before the J turned it into a summer camp in Missouri on the Lake of the Ozarks from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. Near a small town, Kaiser, Missouri, but not much else but forests and the lake, we felt as if we were millions of miles from “civilization.” Our dad had been a camper there in the 1930s. I and all of my siblings were campers at the JCCA camps, but only we three eldest were lucky enough to have been at Camp Hawthorn.
Housing only about 200 people, total, in four “Villages” of about 40 campers and 10 staff per Village, and one CIT [Counselors-In-Training] section for up to two dozen teens and six or more staff [which had its own camp for the last four weeks each summer, Red Bud, a few coves over from Camp Hawthorn], Hawthorn had some general staff cabins and bunkhouses, one “Mess Hall,” one outdoor amphitheatre, five “Rec” Halls (one for each Village and one central one), one swim dock/area next to the one “boat house” and boating dock/area on the lake, and some outbuildings for arts and crafts, nature, the infirmary and office and one central “Specify” bathhouse (to use it, one had to stand at the door and call out “WIC” or “MIC” [Woman In Camp or Man In Camp]: depending on the response from those inside, you could enter or wait (you had to match). You could walk all over its property, including “down the hill” to the lake and over to each Village’s furthest corner, in under two hours, easily. Camp Hawthorn was compact and knowable.
When the JCCA got kicked out of its rented space, it negotiated to purchase/buy out another Jewish summer camp’s property (Camp Wah-Kon-Dah). Sadly, after 1969, Camp Hawthorn was no more.
The J relocated its residential summer camp to a different part of the Lake of the Ozarks, morphing into the larger, much more modern and ever-expanding and -improving Camp Sabra starting in 1970, near Rocky Mount, MO. This coincided with my being too old to be a CIT and too young to be a regular staff member, so I had started working from home for the summer, resigned to working at the local pre-schoolers’ camp at the J, attended by my youngest sister (11 years my junior), until I got the call. The assistant director and his wife had a three-month-old baby but they both had jobs at the camp (she worked in the office) and needed a part-time babysitter to come live at camp and help out. Was I interested?
I took my leave from the pre-schoolers camp, said a tearful but joyful good-bye to friends and family, and took the next ride from the J to Rocky Mount. There, I was reunited with many of my beloved staff members and fellow campers (but only one about my age) and also “joined” my (begrudging) one-year-older brother (who worked there at the boating dock for a few weeks, but he got sick and had to go home), to work at Camp Sabra during its premier summer.
It was weird being there as the babysitter: not really staff, certainly no longer a camper. I had all the freedoms of being on staff, especially at night, but no actual affiliation to anyone who talked to me or worked with me (six-months-old Craig didn’t speak, yet). Seeing some of my beloved counselors from Hawthorn working at Sabra was almost great, but they were not there “for me,” which was also strange. We didn’t quite know how to relate to each other.
After a few weeks, I even dated one of them, a young man I had known while a camper with him on the staff at Hawthorn (he is almost 6 years older than I). We had brief somewhat chaste sexual encounters and hurried conversations that didn’t go well. Extremely surreal. For me, it was like dating a teacher or something equally bizarre.
He claims not to remember this….I remember a lot.
I left that summer gig at Camp Sabra near the end of August, just before my 16th birthday, to get my driver’s license and get ready for my junior year. Even though I was hired (by that very same young man, later Camp Sabra‘s director for many years) about seven years later to be a Village leader, I never did work at Sabra again, because the Missouri camps’ schedules for staff didn’t work for me, who was then working in Rhode Island: I couldn’t go to staff training week because I had to finish out the school year at my teaching job.
I held on to my memories of Camp Hawthorn and attempted to “find” it again by working at several other camps (in New York, Maine and New Hampshire), and another day camp at the St. Louis JCCA. Throughout college and my young adult to middle-aged adult life, I tried to replicate my experiences at camp, but nothing I ever did or anywhere I lived for a summer felt as great as being at Camp Hawthorn had.
However, the abilities I developed, the sense of myself as strong and capable, having so much fun while being busy every day, being outdoors most of the hours for weeks at a time, making such great friends (several are STILL my friends, 50+ years later!): how great is all that for youth? Irreplaceable, for sure.
Are you an alum of one of these or another great camp? Find your former bunkmates and counselors, donate photos and funds, enjoy reunions and family weekends at Camp Sabra (or yours) and more: http://www.campsabra.com/alumni/
Aubrey Herman, one of Camp Sabra‘s first Directors and former Camp Hawthorn staff (and that erstwhile boyfriend I mentioned, but he denies it…), with long-time Camp Hawthorn and first-year Sabra Director, Mike Lainoff [his wife and office manager for the camp was recently deceased, 11/29/15; miss you, “Fritzi”!], 2012
I vividly remember the wonderful smells of the lake and rivers, the views of the tendrils of fog and dew rising from the early morning water and grass, the soft sounds of our canoe paddles in the water when no motorboats were around. The scent of an outdoor fire, the smell of motorboats running on freshwater lakes, young kids’ sweat and earnestness when trying hard to learn new skills all bring me right back to being at summer camp, every time.
Shabbat [Jewish Sabbath, Friday night service], campers all in white, Camp Hawthorn, 1950s or 60s One of the only times I didn’t mind attending Jewish rituals were these Friday nights at Camp Hawthorn. The services were blissfully brief, and we then sang, danced, did skits and had fun. Perfect.
photo from Camp Sabra website, sailing on the lake
I thank you all (most are nicknames), and sorry if I forget anyone!
STAFF: Big Mike, Fritzi, Bunny, Maxine, Big Mama, Stolie, Soapy, Nate, Ned, Pinky, Twinkle, Howdy, Nix, Ron, Susie, Jay, Frank, Corky, Brenda, Chuck, Aubrey, Woody, Paula, Mimi, Big Al, Randy, Craig, Vicki, Sue, Melanie, Nancy, Linda, Candy, Buddy, Aaron, Glen, Bobby, Mark, Amy, Joanne, Fred, Rich, Vic, Gary, Frank, Cookie, Bobbi, Stan, Frank, Jerry, Barry, Smokey, Fritz, Danny, Sue, Johanna, Little Mike, Hawk, Katie, Kim, Renee, Mark.
CAMPERS: Suzanne, Terry, Terri, Diane, Janet, Sam, Joyce, Marlon, David, Jeff, Sheldon, Glenn, Jon, Walter, Bob, Jack, Steve, Marty, Beth, Marcy, Debbie, Sharon, Ronnie, Katie, Kathy, Melissa, Jay, Elice, Diane, Phyllis, Wendy, Judy.
Want to send your child or sponsor another child to attend camp this or any summer? NOW is the time to register! http://www.campsabra.com/