The summer’s going fast. Too fast.
In the years preceding my college days, summer was all about one thing.
And the final week of the eight-week camp season was all about Color War.
Some of you may be nodding and smiling fully understanding what I’m talking about. Others, probably most of you readers are shaking your collective heads wondering what the heck is this guy writing about?
So let me explain.
If you grew up in or near the city, you attended summer camp July and August in some mountainous or lake area or both a few hours from where you lived.
It was all about getting away and living in a bunk with ten kids or so, playing sports, doing arts and crafts, awaiting the daily free swim period in the pool and things like that.
You had to make your bed, clean the bunk, face inspection.
There were hundreds of kids at camp and it was a terrific way of getting along with others your age.
Your parents loved camp as well. Not for the same reason, of course.
They were happy to see you out of the house for two months so they could have peace and quiet.
It was a win-win situation, for sure.
I was a camper for several years, and then when I was too old for that, I returned as a waiter in the dining room for the three meals served, or as a counselor, living in a bunk with 10 campers, in charge of them. They were your responsibility from Reveille (wake-up) until Taps (lights out)!
I got a job as a waiter in the summer of 1957 at a camp named Washington Lodge.
There were only 100 youngsters, a relatively small number for a camp, located in Bellport, Long Island. The grounds were beautiful and huge. It used to be an estate run by an old coffee company known as G. Washington Coffee. It was popular back in 1914, sold by the original owners in 1943, and discontinued in 1961.
There were six waiters for the dining room to feed the campers and counselors.
I was one. So was Paul Simon. Yes, THAT Paul Simon. The brilliant, legendary singer-songwriter, whose career has spanned seven decades, teamed with Art Garfunkel for most of them. The duo of Simon and Garfunkel produced countless standards that will live forever, including “The Sound of Silence”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and “Mrs.Robinson”.
Anyway, Paul, who grew up in my neighborhood in the borough of Queens, outside New York City, had just started his music and singing career with Art and had recorded a rock and roll tune called “Hey Schoolgirl”. The two were called “Tom and Jerry” at the time, and their first hit reached as high as number eight in the weekly rating of the top hits played on the rock stations in the city.
Hey, these guys were famous! Imagine, reaching number eight?
The song resembled the style of the then big-time national duo of The Everly Brothers.
Paul wrote the song, as he did for practically every one they recorded in their history. And he played a fierce guitar as well. He also sang, making him one of the great triple-threat artists of all-time.
The Paul Simon I knew then, and the one people have known for decades, is quite different. I can’t swear to it, but I believe Paul Simon had a try-out as a pitcher for the New York Yankees. Whether he did or not, the Paul Simon I remember was a sensational athlete, who was muscular and agile, a tennis player, who could run anything down in a tank-top shirt and shorts. At night he would do what we all did: place a baseball in our glove, this after softening the glove with linseed oil, before using a rubber band around the glove. The idea was to produce a deeper pocket and leave it overnight for the next day of ball.
Paul Simon was a jock. Pure and simple. And we had laughs.
Being a waiter was a great job to have at camp.
You would have to go to the dining room a half hour before meals, three times a day, serve the food on big trays, clean off the table, and set them for the next meal.
The rest of the time we were free.
Often, after dinner, Paul would bring his guitar and play and sing rock and roll.
Other than his many charitable performances in Central Park and elsewhere, it might have been the last time Simon performed for free. But that may be a stretch.
The camp closed after another year. But that’s not the end of the story.
We went our separate ways, and I always wondered what happened to Paul Simon. We had such a blast in the 50’s.
In 1965, a year after graduating from Syracuse University, I was in Philadelphia working my first full-time job at KYW-Radio, as part of the all-news format the station had recently adopted. One day I noticed him on the cover of an album recorded in England.
He had done a new version of “The Sound of Silence” and it had reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon
So that’s what happened to my fellow-waiter at Camp Washington Lodge.
The story gets even better.
Fast forward to the 80’s. Now I am a sports broadcaster for CBS, with my principal task as the lead play-by-play announcer for the NBA. As I’ve indicated before, the 1980’s was a special time for the league and for CBS. I was in the midst of covering those remarkable Celtics-Lakers Finals, when I visited the wonderful tennis cathedral, Wimbledon, outside London.
One afternoon, while relaxing at the NBC hospitality tent, I noticed Paul Simon sitting next to a woman, just the two of them, at a big table.
I went over, introduced myself, and said hello. It was an unexpected highlight to see him again.
I reminded him of our brief summers at camp when we were waiters and played ball virtually every day.
My smile evaporated in a hurry when he gave me a puzzled look and asked me what I did for a living (Simon was and probably still is, a huge sports fan, who has thrown out the first ball at Yankee Stadium).
He asked me about the camp and the year we worked together and you have to imagine how awkward it is to lean over a big table and feeling as if you’re a gate-crasher.
I told him the year we met was 1957, and that the number one song that summer was a song called “Tammy”. He turned to the woman and asked her what year “Tammy” was the number one hit. The woman would know, since she was Carrie Fisher, and was Paul Simon’s ex-wife. And she would certainly know, since it was her mother, Debbie Reynolds who recorded the popular tune.
Carrie Fisher answered, “1957”. I was breathing a little easier.
Instead of prolonging this weird moment, I simply told Paul that I just wanted to say hello and started to move on.
As I was walking away, he shouted, “Dick, the camp isn’t there anymore. I drove by where it was, and it’s gone”.
I gave him a salute, kept walking, and wondered why he had acted the way he did. I suppose if you’re a true genius in what you do, you can act anyway you like.
My final years at camp was as a counselor in Monticello, New York. The name was Camp Kennybrook and I loved every minute of it.
The highlight each summer, as I indicated at the start, was Color War.
Color War was a three-day event where the camp was divided into two teams.
Kennybrook’s colors were blue and gold. Each team had to adopt a nickname.
It was an Olympic-type competition, inspection of the bunks, with points awarded to the winners of the many events. Track, tennis, swimming, basketball, you name it.
And it all concluded with the final night where the camp would gather around and the Blue Jazzman and the Golden Rebels would engage in a presentation of three songs. The alma-mater, the fight song and the comic song would be judged.
Points were awarded, a winner was declared, and at the end everyone would join arms and sing together.
It was the most fun I had.
That was until my father informed me that my camp days were over.
Next summer I had to get a real job. And I did.
I was extremely fortunate to work the next summer at CBS Television Network as a production assistant for their renowned documentary “The 20th Century”, hosted by Walter Cronkite.
Yes, it was time to grow up and really get moving in my career.
But I sure loved those earlier years at camp, and Color War, at the end of August.
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