|Checked back into Camp
Dr. Frederick Gale
Dr. Frederick "Fred" Gale
My mother died when I was 8. That next year’s summer was my first at Hyde Bay, 1959. My only other experience at overnight camp was two weeks the year prior, where all I remember is wetting the bed most nights.
At a lofty 9 years old, I didn't wet the bed anymore, but I remember my first sunrise at camp: I had to find the mechanical kooks by myself. I made it there alright, but had a devil of a time trying to find the way back to Tent 7. Finally making it on my own was the first of many, many steps that Hyde Bay helped me take toward adulthood.
I showed up at camp with a cheap guitar, a love of tennis, and a fear of water. On my first day, I remember quietly praying, “Please God, please don't let them make me learn how to swim.” About a half-hour after my father and grandmother left, Bill Brooks came to tell me how soon we’d be having an opportunity to swim. Bill assured me that he was a natural sinker, and proceeded to prove it. That was good enough for me. I eventually learned how to swim well enough to be entrusted with all the boats, including the ST. Years into my adulthood, my father reminisced about dropping me off that first year. “You looked like a plucked chicken, and before I left, I met with the swimming councilor to be sure that you’d learn to swim that first year”.
Mac was one of my earliest big impressions at camp. First, he was the tennis councilor, which was important to me. Second, he hated swimming, which opened the door for an important bond as a role model. Finally and best of all, in addition to his well-known musical and piano talents for the theater, he was a charismatic and handsome entertainer who both played the guitar and sang on THE Hyde Bay stage between plays. Betty or Gramma Pickett mimeographed the lyrics for the audience. Although it was 50 years ago, I can tell you that the repertoire included The Rock Island Line, Irene Good Night, The Tia Juana Jail, Tom Dooley, and Charlie on the MTA.
Before my mom died, she had bought me a small guitar and a few lessons. My hands were too small to reach around the neck, so the teacher taught me Hawaiian style, across the lap. Once I got to camp, though, I was surrounded by great music, great musicians, and great teachers. I was a self-conscious kid, but Mac and Charlie Classen were both great guitarists and received me matter-of-factly as a musician-peer. I decided then and there it was time to hold the guitar vertically "like a man." They showed me how to tune it for this style, and -- one by one -- how to play chords, then songs. I was hooked forever. I hung around, couldn't get enough, and if they were ever tired of my admiration and earnestness, they never showed it.
With all the great musicians at camp, there was only one banjo player, and he was fabulous: Steve Cunningham.
By the time I was tennis councilor, I was happy to be playing lots of music inside the Hyde Bay theater. It was a time when:
- Jolly and Josh (later joined by Harry Turner and Skipper Hebb) were the theater men. Between plays, once a year Jolly interviewed me as the dumb baseball player promoting a Gillette razor (a stolen Bill Cosby routine): “That’s right, Mel. I always yooze…a razor…on my face, to shave…..it.”
- Rusty, Gotch, and I led songs between plays (nobody played a better electric broom than Dave Gotshall).
But among the best between-plays acts were:
- Pierre, doing his laughing / crying routine or conducting the orchestra with wig and step stool, and
- Jolly’s soul song. He’d sit backwards astride a chair and confide in the audience about how great his girlfriend was. He ad libbed against standard slow-song chords, starting quietly and sentimentally, before bursting into a wailing torch-rock, electric blues, working himself up into a frenzy of “She Left Me!”, until someone came to toss a cape around his shoulders and escort him off a la like James Brown. Also like the Godfather of Soul, he would throw off the cape and do another chorus or two before being successfully subdued. Rumor is, he hasn’t done this routine since being Headmaster at Gilman.
- John Diamond’s deadpan solo routine with a chair. He started out sitting, just sitting, until slowly, the chair began to tilt back…and eventually topple over. Without any fluster, John would slowly try to extricate himself, and wind up only weaving himself more thoroughly through the rungs. Without ever losing his dignity, he managed to pull off losing a fight with an inanimate object.
- McKee Lundberg was a wonderful Hyde Bay musician. We had great fun helping to arrange the soundtracks for some of the plays (Bossie and Clyde, Sleep). If McKee was ever treated to a piano that had 88 working keys with any consecutive 6 in tune, it wasn’t at camp.
- He and I eventually became the church musicians (of course, Mac had done this too). Remember the wonderful musty smell of the hymnals, and the honky tonky ill-tuning of the piano?
- As one of the camp’s few Jews, I remember quiet discomfiture during every meal’s grace given by The Director, and later by Mouldy: “Bless this food to our use, and us to Thy service, for Christ’s sake. Amen.”
- But I also remember what a privilege it was to play for the camp church services. For reasons I can’t explain, I remember “Onward Christian Soldiers” with particular vividness. To this day, that religious song moves me. Since we’re talking about church, I confess that once per service, McKee and I challenged ourselves to add a barely acceptable blues fill between the 2 chords for A-MEN… Apparently, we never crossed the boundary into upsetting Betty. By the way, if you remember a female congregant whose voice was too wonderful for the Hyde Bay Theater, that was Betty. She had a world class voice; classmates had signed her yearbook with “Good luck at the Met.”
1. Looking up to the UL's, and the magnificent privileges that came with their station: hanging off the dump truck for trash detail
2. Later being a UL on trash detail for real, and STILL thinking it was cool to hang off the truck for trash. Actually, I once outdid myself by sitting on the cab’s roof like a chair. Great idea, until we took our first corner, and I fell from the roof onto the camp driveway. Not sure how to explain surviving this, but a) I never even had to go to the Sore Shoppe and b) I learned more about physics in those 5 minutes than I ever did in high school and college combined. Strangely and best of all: in those simpler times and in the refuge of camp, no one even thought that I had been particularly stupid.
3. Burgers on English at Weiner’s
4. Pushing the bugs out of the way before using your stuff at the wash stands. No biggie.
5. Rusty and I getting Al Spaulding to trust us enough that he’d take us out in a Comet, and then snooze on the front deck so that we could sail without interference.
6. Years later, lying on the deck of a Comet with my own nose buried in the wonderfully sun-baking paint, just because enjoying life was this kind of possible.
7. “Real Marine ponchos, not postage stamps”. I was recently in an Army Navy store, and even the adults there had no idea what I was talking about. I can't believe they never snapped two of these ponchos together to make their own tents.
8. Clean CLamp Clothes
9. The old canvas canoes had mysterious layers of paint, authentic ribbing, and fabulous momentum. The aluminums were noisy and very un-Indian like, but lighter and indestructible
10. Phil Breedle teaching me which end of a hammer to hold. “Not that way. This way. There is no more exquisite pain than hitting your own thumb.” Right he was. Far worse than falling off a dump truck cab’s roof.
11. Shuffleboard in the campers’ lodge. Big Bertha. The sound of Big Bertha hitting one of the lesser metal pucks. Flipping the pucks left hanging over the edge at the end. The stuff we sprinkled on the wood to decrease surface friction. (What was that stuff?)
12. The hammer-like sound of the compressor at the showers
13. The simple joy of watering down the crushed surface tennis court. Also the drudgery of hand weeding the surface once a year, and then the fun of manually laying out the tapes, and hammering them into place with the reused aluminum nails. Getting to go with Mouldy to pick up the bags of calcium chloride that we used for hydrating the courts before the season.
14. Getting to go with Mouldy on an errand anywhere
15. Going to the end of the lake with the aluminum canoes on the one trip where we swamped them just for fun. The crowning glory: turning the canoe was upside down and realizing that we could breathe the trapped air underneath
16. The sound of the original camp horn, which I think was manually cranked by one of the cooks.
17. The even more obnoxious sound of the electric horn as we launched into the modern era
18. The intoxicating smell of fresh, good twine (yes, twine, with a “t”)
19. The pleasant smell of waterproof bags
20. The decisive snap of closing an ammo box (Josh patting his ammo box as we were gathering near the canoe trailers for a trip: “I’ve got the plastics. Who’s got the detonators?”)
21. Turning one of the batteries around in the flashlight so that wouldn't turn on accidentally in transit
22. Three loads of firewood
23. The dock having the words “Walk Don't Run” staggered one by one over several cross boards
24. Hyde Bay green
25. Gramma Pickett driving nearly as fast and furious as The Whale.
26. Betty's reassuring way of framing the world: “If you have to make a decision on a trip and can’t reach us, it is OK to make your own decision. You are councilors here because we trust your judgment." Which brings us to...
27. Coming in so late after a night on the town, that we asked to be let off at the top of the camp road in order to sneak back in safely. Did I say safely? On one of these occasions I was alone, and it was nearly pitch black. I had to feel my way down the combination of dry dirt and scattered stones that passed for the camp driveway. I gotta admit: my mind was real busy thinking about William Clark, the Nebo monster that pegged the central parts of faces to trees, Howe Caverns with the lights off, and the water heaters on Rum Hill.
28. Once coming in so late that we could hear the cooks rattling the silverware for breakfast
29. The infirmary toilet had the distinction of being the only chemical toilet in camp. Still don’t know what that is.
30. The two-seater and three-seater. Apparently, we were a sociable bunch. Did girls’ camps have multiple seaters? I doubt it.
31. Kerosene lanterns
32. Medicine pills distributed in undersized, uncoated paper cups crush-closed at the top. After over a decade of medical training starting over 30 years ago, I still do this sometimes. Some things just can't be improved.
33. Having to take turns in the camp phone booth, and logging our time and charges
34. At 16 being allowed to experience Cooperstown After Dark. You know, to be an adult: learning to smoke, pick up girls, talk about how the Townies would definitely be humbler if only Henry were with us. Other adult stuff: scooping up the deposit-returned glass soda bottles from the laundromat for target practice from the camp car. If you had to explain this to your kids now, where would you even begin? Or if you had to explain it to Mouldy back then? Actually, Mouldy might have understood. But I wouldn’t want to have tried explaining it to Betty.
35. Utica club, which we drank only because it was a nickel cheaper.
36. If you ran out of gas in Cooperstown at night, the policeman had a key to the (?Mobile) pump’s padlocks, and could help you out.
37. Mealtime progress: no more liver on the menu, ever!
38. Mealtime loss: no more cereal at dinner
39. The secret to getting straight 10’s in tent inspection: remember how we would always lay the broom sideways and "windshield wipe" under the bed to clear the dust? And then, remember how the inspector would always come in and blow under the bed to watch the remaining dust fly? So, forget the broom entirely. Just remove all the crap from under your bed long enough to blow the way you know the inspector is going to. When no more dust flies for you, none will betray itself to him either. Here's another tip: when getting out of your bunk, don't just throw the covers back and barge out the side. Do most of your straightening while you're still in the bed, and then slither out the top. Then go around and refine your work. Hey, don't laugh: you wanna get to go to town with the mail and SPEND 25¢ ON CANDY, or not?
40. Henry’s greatest line ever, when a waiter brought back a dish of Hershey’s chocolate sauce with a dead fly in it: “Well, boy, if it’s good enough for the fly, it’s good enough for you”. Of course, he gave the waiter a new dish anyway. But point taken.
I have 3 daughters: a teacher of theater arts in California, a first year medical student in Massachusetts, and a college sophomore in California.
Years ago, I had cancer of the tonsil (nope, I hadn’t heard of it either – not even in medical school). Anyway, the medical community saved me, but there was plenty of work for me to do to save myself. In my toughest times, when I needed respite from reality, you know what I thought of? The safety of Hyde Bay. My mind would start with the image of the Otsego Lake after supper, when it almost always turned into a sheet of glass. That's right: the image of the lake as the Glimmerglass, and the sights and sounds of the people and places at Hyde Bay. It was so calm and beautiful that it begged you to learn to water ski if you hadn’t already. It turns out that the place that helped rescue me after my Mom’s death, that connected me to Pierre after he lost his Mom, the place that taught me how to find my way back from the bathroom, and that taught me how to play guitar…that place saved me all over again 30 years later.
Thanks again Hyde Bay, for treating us all like we mattered, and for bringing out the best in us.