To return to adolescence, here’s a piece I wroten apparently in July 2013. It doesn’t seem to have been published anywhere. Maybe I didn’t send it to “Broad Street” because “Stanley Kessler” wasn’t really named “Stanley Kessler,” and I knew it’s editor would disapprove, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else it would fit. It’s pretty good though, and here it is.
“Many things in the world have not been named…,” Susan Sontag began the famous essay whose title I have clipped; and, until I was fourteen, I was one. Or, rather, before my parents sent me to over-night camp in the Poconos, I was “Robert”; and ever since I have been “Bob.”
Camps, at least those in the Poconos, were a Jewish thing. (None of my Friends’ Central classmates attended one. They summered in Ocean City or Stone Harbor or Maine.) These camps were for the children of doctors and lawyers, car dealership owners and Food Fair executives. Campers came from Lower Merion and Cheltenham and Mt. Airy, with an occasional rare bird blown off course from Wilmington or South Philly. The camps taught how to paddle a canoe and survive a night in the woods, skills which seemed as useful at the time as mastering cuneiform. (If the camps were coed and had private corners to their canteens, they allowed practice of other activities in which we saw more of a future.)
The camps offered children the chance to test themselves outside the shade of their families’ umbrellas. And they freed parents from responding to cranky complaints of “I don’t have anything to do.” Fourteen was late to start camp, and I think my parents’ fear of releasing me from their oversight was finally overcome by concluding that my development required healthier influences than I might incline to behind my bedroom door or roaming West Philadelphia’s streets.
Camp Tacoma, their instrument of choice, was in its inaugural year – and would not survive its second. It enrolled thirty or forty boys, aged ten to fourteen, in a tiny town whose name my memory can not reclaim from any map. It had a softball diamond and basketball and volleyball courts but no archery or riflery or arts and crafts. Our cabins were of Architectural Digest (Stroudsburg Edition) quality, but our tub-shaped “lake” was a hollowed-out hill into which water had been pumped or piped or otherwise diverted and always seemed in danger of having its plug pulled.
I suspect Tacoma’s primary appeal was its owner, Menchy Goldblatt, a basketball All-American, at Penn, in the mid-1920s, when my father had matriculated there. Menchy had coached Bartram to two city titles and owned camps for years, but an acrimonious split with his last partner had led him to launch this ill-fated solo flight. (Many Philadelphia-area Jewish basketball players of similar vintage owned Pocono camps, and games between them were fierce. Red Sherr, who played several seasons in the American Basketball League, had one, Sam Cozen, Drexel’s coach, a second, and Harry Litwak, Temple’s, a third.) Menchy seemed a nice man of seasoned learning, but the only bit of his acumen to affect me directly was his telling my father to buy weights so I might build up my chest.
I learned much that summer.
How to clean a toilet. How to make a bed with hospital corners – and how to short-sheet one. I had never before felt sufficiently grown up to shave with a safety razor or shake hands with someone when we met. But most of my learning had to do with athletics.
At Friends’ Central, the prestige sports were football and baseball, with basketball barely nosing out wrestling for third. I was a decent defensive end, and good-hit, no-field first baseman; but as a tallest-guy-in-the-class center… It seemed every school had a skinny, four-eyed geek, whose lay-ups clanged off rims and dribbles trickled off his feet, and I was mine.
But the camps did not play football, and Tacoma could not field a competitive nine against opponents two or three times our size. (The volleyball team was fine, as long as we could hoodwink others into not rotating players’ positions, so our spike-capable six-footers could plant at the net and not be replaced by our more numerous five-sixers.) The major sport among the Pocono camps, as befitting their founders’ roots, was basketball. And there, if you had one star, you could play anyone.
Stanley Kessler was Tacoma’s NML Cygni. He was Menchy’s nephew and four months of age, one grade of school, and light years of worldliness ahead of me. A freshman forward on Central High School’s JV, he was the only camper to be picked into the counselors’s games. I was in awe of his feathery touch – and almost as wowed by his accounts of his not-quite-consumated goings-on with his neighboring Wynnefield girls. From Stanley I learned the un-Quakerly skills of shifting my hips when I set picks, using my rear to clear rebounding position, and leveraging elbows to gain general respect. He also taught me to pass him the ball if I grabbed it.
I suspect Menchy had asked Stanley to befriend me, so I would not pull out mid-summer and cost him half my fee. But we became honest friends. My batting average helped, plus we both had been knocked out by the cinematic adaptation of Kiss Me Deadly and admired the recorded artistry of “Flying Saucers.” My major appeal though was attendance at a school which enrolled debutantes, who glittered to Stanley like the green light on Daisy’s dock had to Gatsby.
Then there was our shared study of our elders.
Camps were traditionally staffed by a series of egg-to-butterfly like progressions. Campers matured to waiters, then C.I.T.s, and counselors, with a winnowing-out ensuring only the fittest survived. Believing that ascent held value, one sought to identify keys to the climb. Tacoma, emerging wholly-formed, had filled positions unnaturally, but still attention could be paid and conclusions drawn.
Our waiters, for instance, who seemingly had been swept up in one scoop from the playing fields of Overbrook High School were a colorful, outside-my-accustomed-range-of-experience bunch. Atlas-muscled Marty P. was destined for the Marines, and five o’clock-shadowed Ronny S.’s aspirations stopped at minor league baseball, and devilish Dicky W. cemented his notoriety by inducing a girl he had just met at the town roller rink to allow his hand into her panties.
One counselor had coached Wilt Chamberlain before joining the family baking business because it paid better. A second played ball for Haverford and a third Trinity. Another had been Senior Class President somewhere, and a fourth, who lacked any such resume-building credentials, held our bunk rapt one evening recounting his pick-up successes. “Jewish girls are the hardest to get to go down,” Uncle Burt instructed, “but once they go down, they stay down.” Sturdy, focused, these men marched unswervingly, without complaint toward dentistry or stock brokerhood.
Stanley and I collected and pondered our data like curiosities within cabinets of wonder. We could not always know what would gleam significant beyond that summer’s light, but we sensed what we were struck by measured who we were and hoped to become. The future seemed to require no more than a set shot or a line to coax a girl into the back seat of a car.
Then rang one discordant note. We sat on a courtside bench while counselors went three-on-three. Dusk closed; air chilled; bats hunted, helter-skelter, insects of the night. “You know how ‘good’ you have to be to be ‘good’?” Stanley said. He had given it much thought and did not need my answer. “Al Schwait was All-Public. And he can’t start for Penn.”
I returned from Tacoma insistent upon my new name. I stuck with razor blades until this day. I boxed out for forty years. I never forgot Stanley’s wisdom either.