Upper Jew Camp,
Where it rains every goddamn day
Give me a break
Give me a break
Give me a break
I ain’t had one all year
There’s only one place in the world where you would sing that song. Because there’s only one Upper Jew Camp.
And that’s Camp Coleman.
A place that is deeply imbedded in my soul.
I spent seven summers there. Four years as a camper and three as staff. Starting in 1977. I was 11 years old.
That first year, I went off to camp wearing my favorite gym shorts and striped tube socks, knowing only my brother and my BFF from home. (Well, that and knowing that the camp director had been my mother’s first boyfriend long ago, back in North Carolina.) And I started what would be one of the most formative experiences of my life.
Those seven years were full of singing, swimming in the lake (among the moccasins) and no-frills living. Metal bunk beds and open rafters in the cabins where, year after year, kids wrote their names. Plywood doors on the bathroom stalls. No air conditioning. Power outages caused by too many girls blow drying their hair in preparation for Shabbat and the many socials.
And learning a secondary use for nail polish: to suffocate the chiggers that would invade our skin at precisely the spots where it met our elastic underwear bands.
Ah, memories. So, so many of them.
I remember shaving my legs on the cabin porch with a mug of hot water, a can of shaving cream and a Bic disposable razor.
I remember eating cans of tuna fish, packed in oil, seasoned with juice from a lemon-shaped squeeze bottle.
I remember being woken up in the morning by the sounds of Boz Scaggs emanating from the speakers all the way on the Ad Building. Even now, if I hear “What can I say?”, I get that physical feeling of waking up when the mountain air was still cool. (And I still love Boz Scaggs.)
I remember the boys that I had crushes on. Even kissing a few of them.
I got my first period the third summer I was there and wrote my mom a letter that I folded in to a small package and inscribed “For Mom only” on it. I was too embarrassed for my dad to know.
I also met the guy who would, many years later, marry my stepsister and, even years after that, officiate at my wedding to my second husband. With the same humor he was known for as a Unit Head.
I still have the baby blue twin-sized blanket that I took with me all seven summers. My daughter knows it’s heritage and she takes it out of the closet from time-to-time and puts it on her bed. And I still have a dime-sized scar on the inside of my left ankle where the detached metal eyelets of my Topsiders cut me again. And again. And again.
My parents were married that first year I started. By my last year, they were divorced.
A lot can happen in seven years.
A lot happened to me. I grew up there. From a shy, insecure kid to a confident, outgoing young woman about to enter college.
I lived and breathed Camp Coleman in those years. Even when it wasn’t summer.
I was always crushed to leave, crying my eyes out when the whole camp sang “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane” on the last night. And I couldn’t wait for the school year to end so I could get back.
The reason I loved camp so much wasn’t because of the food or the weekly canteen or the outdoor Shabbat services. (Though I don’t think I’ve ever felt more comfortable with my Judaism than I did back then.)
No, what really made it were the people.
People that went back year after year, just like I did. People I stayed in touch with during the school year. A lot of the kids lived near me in Miami where I grew up. Even went to the same temple. And those that didn’t? We just wrote letters back and forth. And back and forth. I still have a lot of those letters.
And we all grew up together. And my camp friends were so much more than just my camp friends. When you spend that much time with people, in confined spaces, you really get to know them. And them, you.
So when I got an email from one of my friends, telling me that there was going to be a 50th Anniversary Reunion weekend at camp this summer, the plans started to be made. Four of us staying in a cabin near camp so we could be a part of the action but still have our alone time with each other.
Plane reservations were made. Multiple emails were sent back and forth. And then three weeks before we were to be together, a sister died. My friend’s older sister who had been battling ovarian cancer for four years. Both women were part of camp. And my friend decided that she couldn’t go. Too many memories. Too fresh. Too raw. Too hard.
So the reunion weekend found three of us driving from Atlanta to check in to our little cabin in the woods. Stopping in the pseudo Bavarian town of Helen for a few beers and some snacks. Getting re-acquainted. Looking at each other and immediately seeing the girls we used to be. And learning about the women that we had all become.
I slept great that first night and woke up Saturday morning with the anticipation eating away at my stomach. (Or that could have been caused by the fact that we ate only potato chips and cheese for dinner.)
I couldn’t wait to get back. Even after 29 years. Pulling down the dirt road that led to the Ad Building. That feeling of returning home. My heart was beating quickly and I had goosebumps up and down my arms. It was powerful.
True to form, we were late to the Shabbat services. But we made it for the second half. In time to hear memories of my friend’s sister. And in time to sing some of the songs that we used to sing.
And it was an onslaught. An onslaught of memories and faces. Of hugging and smiling. Of laughing and feeling my heart swell.
We walked around camp taking in all that had changed. And all that had not. There was a lot of “Remember when?” And a lot of talk about those who didn’t/couldn’t come. My brother wasn’t there but of course, everybody asked about him. (I’ll always be his little sister.)
But I wanted the day to progress in slow motion. But it didn’t. It never does when you really want it to.
And before I knew it, we were on our way back to the cabin, reminiscing about the day. Just like that. A year of planning and we were done.
I don’t know when I’ll be back again. (Thanks John Denver.) And it doesn’t really matter if I ever go back. Because what I realized that weekend? Coleman, because of everything I became there and everybody I met there, is in my heart and in my soul. And I am thankful for that.