Image by Jason Blair via Flickr.

Midway through the summer of 1968, just after the Little League season ended in my New Jersey hometown, I climbed into our family’s station wagon for the trip to sleepaway camp. While my parents were headed to Europe for the first time, I was going to spend two weeks in a rolling, wooded corner of the state. A few months shy of 13, I thought of camp as my own kind of respite.

I had never been much of a camping kid growing up—more of a vacation homebody—but the preceding summer I had surmounted my characteristic caution to have my folks sign me up for a week at YMCA camp, mostly because my best friend Brandon always went there. That summer, 1967, was the season of Haight-Ashbury hippies and riots across the country, including in Newark, not so far away from camp. Yet, to my relief, nothing intruded on my heady sensation of being all—well, at least partly—grown-up. 

From my prosperous classmates in Highland Park, I knew there were summer camps way up in New England with water-skiing and well-equipped theaters. The Central Jersey Y camp outside Blairstown was not such a place. It had a humble lake clogged with lily pads, a wooden-plank dining hall, and three distinct clusters of bunkhouses—Algonquin for the little kids on the flats near the flagpole, and Iroquois and Sioux for the tweens and teens on opposite sides of a gravel road that ran uphill from the dining hall. The road ended in a kind of high meadow that was marked off for soccer and softball, and for the rows of benches used for Sunday chapel.

I didn’t get my wish that first summer to be assigned to Brandon’s bunk, and I spent the first afternoon after drop-off wandering the campground, lightheaded and feverish. The nurse at the infirmary diagnosed me with homesickness, but was kind enough simply to report that I had no fever. Over the next days, I fell into the routines of softball games, swimming tests, and lanyard-making. I learned to love the corn fritters that the camp cooks, all Black men, deep-fried by the basketful. And as the child of Jewish atheists, I found the earnest, folksong Christianity of chapel positively exotic and unexpectedly comforting.

Brandon was in a bunkhouse near mine in Iroquois Village, and his was notable for the counselor with the magic name: Bobby Kennedy. He was in his late teens, from the middle-class Black community in Princeton. He played folk guitar and told the scariest ghost stories. My goal, when I signed up for two weeks in the summer of 1968, was to be in Bobby’s cabin.

By the morning my parents and I approached the camp, I knew I had gotten my wish. Bobby’s name, though, now had an entirely different aura. Just a few weeks before camp began, on the morning after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, my mother gently stirred my shoulder to wake me for school instead of letting the alarm clock do the job. “Something terrible happened last night,” she told me. All I could imagine was that my father had died. “They shot Bobby Kennedy.”

I was a paperboy all through 1968, delivering the New Brunswick Daily Home News, and I had already borne the awful task of carrying the solemn headline of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Now, on this early-June afternoon, I trudged along with my canvas sack stuffed with 70 copies of the afternoon edition with its front-page report of Bobby Kennedy’s murder. One customer asked me incredulously, “How can they put out the paper on a day like this?”

Several days later, Kennedy’s funeral train passed right through Highland Park on its somber route along the Penn Central tracks. My townspeople stood on the sidings, holding flowers and weeping. I was not among them that afternoon, though their grief radiated to me through my mother’s mournfulness at home. Coming so soon after King’s assassination, Kennedy’s murder imbued me with the kind of foreboding of larger disaster that no 12-year-old ought to feel. 

Highland Park liked to think of itself as a proudly liberal place, a bedroom community for Rutgers faculty. But we all knew it practiced its own brand of segregation, with Blacks only sold or rented homes in one corner of town—not by law, but by unspoken practice. Even though Brandon’s mother was a Rutgers administrator and his father a jazz musician, the household firmly anchored in the middle class, their family lived there too. Across the Raritan River, even a seventh-grader like me could see New Brunswick, with its large Black population, turning into a smoldering, enraged place. It had burst into its own riot after King was shot.

For these coming two weeks, though, my across-the-street friend Jimmy was taking over my paper route and its burden of bad news, and I was counting on Y camp and its Bobby Kennedy to make the rest of the world vanish. After waving my parents goodbye, and congratulating myself on not being borderline tearful this time, I hiked up to my temporary home in Sioux Village, a spare wooden cabin set on stilts above the damp, weedy ground. It held five or six sets of double bunks for the campers and a corner area partitioned off by a sheet of plywood for the counselor. His perk was an extra bunk and a modicum of privacy. Yet, as I lugged my stuff into the cabin, I saw in Bobby Kennedy’s domain a blond kid sitting on the top bunk, strumming the absent counselor’s guitar.

As I began to unpack the shorts and T-shirts into which my mother had stitched the required name tags, I heard the echoing steps and fuzzy voices of another arrival. He was a Black boy with a morose look on his face and rings of fat around his waist.

The boy’s parents brought his clothes in a battered suitcase, rather than the footlocker the camp recommended, and from that detail I figured he was a first-timer. His mother and father were saying soft, almost inaudible goodbyes when the boy began to soundlessly sob.

I knew that feeling from the previous summer. I could have welcomed him, said hello, done something to distract him from the hurt. Instead, I savored the relief of being the weakling no more.

The Black boy’s name was John, I soon learned. The kid with Bobby Kennedy’s guitar was Steve. Apparently, he’d been in Bobby’s bunk the previous summer, too, which was supposed to explain his privileged position. And there was another notable arrival, a short and wiry boy, whose name escapes me after all these years. He was the first one in the bunk to start calling John a cry-baby.

For the first few days, camp unfolded as I had hoped: soccer games, nature hikes, bike rides to Blairstown for soft-serve ice-cream cones. Then, one night toward the end of that first week, the sound of rain against the shrubs outside our cabin awoke Bobby Kennedy.

Except that the sky was clear, and the sound was of a camper pissing in the bushes rather than making the hundred-foot walk through the dark to the latrine. By the time Bobby clambered into the main part of cabin, though, the perpetrator was back under the covers, pretending to sleep.

The next morning, at our bunk’s table in the mess hall, Bobby asked for someone to admit he’d done it. The confession could be made privately, kept in confidence. But as a matter of principle, Bobby needed to know. No one said a thing.

Long past lights-out that night, Bobby roused us all awake and led us in our pajamas onto the latrine path. Hold your arms out in front of you, he commanded. We complied. Then in a silly, insinuative voice, he began to tell us how heavy our arms felt, how much weight was on them, using his storyteller’s talents to play with our brains, hoping by that device to elicit the admission of guilt. The longer we stood, the more gnats and mosquitoes pricked at our skin. Dew beaded on our hair. Ten minutes or so into the game, just when I was starting to wonder if it was funny or mean, Bobby amiably shooed us back into the bunk.

Something had already turned, though, in the mood of our bunk. A day or so later, Bobby’s guitar went inexplicably missing, and after nobody could produce it, I noticed that Steve was no longer allowed into the counselor’s corner. The teasing of John persisted and spread, with that short, wiry boy needling the most. None of Bobby’s best efforts could break the cruel circuit.

So Bobby decided to settle matters another way. He cleared our clutter from the middle of the cabin. Then he handed John and the wiry kid two washcloths apiece, to be wrapped over their knuckles. And then he told them to fight it out. 

Humbled until now, silent and plodding under his weight, John transformed before our eyes. All the ridicule he had endured at camp poured back out through his fists. I had never been so near a serious fistfight—playground posturing was more the norm at my middle school—and the thud of John’s blows sent tremors through me. So did the sudden way the wiry boy’s face swelled up with purplish lumps as he staggered from the fight, the loser. From that day on, John swaggered among us, and we parted when he approached, fearing what our scorn had created.

With a half week left to go, Bobby turned sullen and silent. There would be no more ghost stories from him, and without his guitar there also wouldn’t be any songs. All these years later, I don’t know in what proportion he blamed himself and blamed us. I wonder in retrospect if we white kids in the bunk were the proof that Bobby’s infectious warmth and palpable decency—now we might call it “respectability politics,” but back in the 1960s the term would have been “a credit to his race”—counted for nothing with white folks in the end. I wonder if John was his avenging angel.

All I do remember is Bobby’s voice, both angry and abject, telling us something like, I’m done with y’all. I’m just done. Even at my young age, I could see we had broken something in him.

The previous summer’s isolation came back vengefully to me. My parents were on the other side of the Atlantic, unable to extricate me even if I had asked. Brandon was in another bunk, and had a different set of friends—boys who were older than me, more palpably mature. To confide my anxiety to Brandon seemed like nothing except a loss of face, so I never did.

On one of the last days of the interminable two weeks, I was walking outside our cabin when I heard the thundering, howling approach of several dozen of the older campers. Afraid to resist, and also oddly attracted, I joined the mob, and we swept down a hill to the section of camp for the youngest kids, the first- or second-graders. A bunch of them were in a recreation building, bowling with plastic pins and balls. As we roared through, the kids quailed in fear and the pins scattered. I kicked one of the bowling balls so hard that it split along its glued seam into two useless, hollow hemispheres. I felt both horror and weird pride at my capacity for destruction. In a mob, I could pretend at a strength I hardly possessed.

After lunch that day, the camp director ordered everyone to stay put. Afternoon activities were canceled, he said. No one was going anywhere till he found out who had terrified the little kids and vandalized their rec hall. Someone was going to have to confess. One by one, every single camper was called forward for interrogation. One by one, no one admitted a thing, including me. I watched the camp cooks, those geniuses of corn fritters, wash the lunch dishes, re-shelve the cleaned pots and pans, undo their aprons and head off to their quarters, no doubt relieved to be spared this spectacle. The mess hall grew stifling under the afternoon sun, airless, tense. Abruptly, a boy stood and screamed.

I can still see that boy, standing upright in his cut-offs and camp T-shirt, his bony arms thrust upward, ending in quivering fists. I can’t take it, he yelped. I can’t take it any more. I’m going crazy.

Only then did the camp director dismiss us. We had gotten away with our crime, and our only collective punishment would be staying in our bunkhouses for hours until dinner. That, and all the remorse I felt, a guilt like some radioactive isotope whose half-life has not yet expired.

When I think back more than a half-century later, I can only recall one fleeting moment of solace, and it came during our weekly chapel service. This time, the counselors did not pick up their folk guitars to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the yearning, hopeful Peter-Paul-and Mary way they had the previous summer, turning Dylan’s protest anthem into a polite request. Instead, the counselors ran an extension cord back to a cabin, plugged in a record player, and put on a single by the Youngbloods. It had been released a year earlier, and I recognized it from the Cousin Brucie show on WABC, which I always listened to on transistor radio while doing my paper route. This time, though, the chorus pierced me like revelation.

 

Come on, people now

Smile on your brother

Everybody get together

Try to love one another

Right now, right now, right now…

 

In the moment that I listened to the chiming chords of the 12-string electric and the plaintive, reedy praying of Jesse Colin Young’s voice, I went nearly supine with relief, with the wish that camp could go back to the easy way it had been the summer before. But there was another verse in the song that warned me otherwise.

 

You hold the key to love and fear

All in your trembling hand

Just one key unlocks them both

It’s there at your command.

 

The song ended. And camp didn’t change.

On the last night of the session, the camp traditionally lit a huge bonfire along the lakeshore. It was meant to seal our friendships, to make us sentimental already for the summer not yet gone. I sat by myself and watched the flames and thought of the world outside the camp gates, the world in the newspaper I delivered, and how the burning world of 1968 had found us all, leaving no one innocent.

Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of eight books, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, and a former New York Times columnist. This is his first essay for Guernica.

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One Comment on “Summer Camp 1968

  1. What a wonderfully nostalgic yet introspective piece. I love how subtle it is, how I had no idea where it was headed other than a loss of innocence. The fact that no violent, life-altering incident occurred, but rather a change in a young man’s internal world, his realization that he too was riven by racial tension and politics and hypocrisy, made it all the more effective. Well done, Samuel. Profound, really.

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