Sleepaway sage Laurie Kahn salutes summers past
I used to think I was the only girl in America who spent 10 months a year pining for summer camp. My annual refuge, Hawkeye Trail Camps, in a desolate corner of the Adirondacks, was a dramatic departure from my home in suburban Maryland. Instead of screens, most of us relied on mosquito nets for bug and bat protection. There were no showers, so we washed up once a week in the lake. A single telephone -- on a party line -- served the 80-odd campers. The camp cook made three meals a day on a woodstove. The boy with whom I shared my first kiss came down with impetigo and was quarantined for a week.
Camp may not have been high on the health inspector's list, but for us, it was paradise -- a wonderland, promoted by word of mouth, where uniqueness was celebrated and encouraged. "Troubled" kids thrived in this surrogate family. Who knew adults could be so cool? On epic canoe trips and hikes, our counselors offered outdoor leadership lessons that went down as easy as s'mores. These underpaid adults came back year after year. Until 1978, when our camp director died unexpectedly over the winter. Without so much as a mailing list, we all went our separate ways.
I entered adulthood lamenting the loss, convinced that camp's ongoing significance in my life was a result of circumstances unique to me. That is, until I saw Sleepaway, Vermonter Laurie Kahn's coffee-table book about "the girls of summer and the camps that they love." With gorgeous archival photos and remarks from girl-camp alums of all ages, Kahn shows how crucial the camp experience has been for countless women whose identities were forged in female solidarity, singing silly songs, short-sheeting beds and capturing the flag. Next year she plans to launch a quarterly magazine on the same theme for current and erstwhile girl campers -- whether their summers were single-sex or co-ed.
Everybody has a camp story. That's what Kahn discovered when she set out to make a documentary about Camp Kear-Sarge, in New Hampshire, which she attended for nine years. It also closed abruptly in the '70s, like mine, and Kahn fell out of touch with her bunkmates. Twenty-eight years later, in 1998, she decided to track down the "lost girls of Kear-Sarge." It was no amateur, handheld-camera endeavor: For 10 years, Kahn, a self-described "big shot on Madison Avenue," was director of radio and television production at the Young &; Rubicam ad agency.
"Not only did I discover that women had been deeply affected and carried this experience of Kear-Sarge in their hearts," says Kahn, 57, "but when I talked to people about what I was doing -- women I would meet in restaurants or hotels or whatever -- they'd want to tell me their camp stories . . . I came to see the universality of the experience as very important. So I did a book proposal."
Kahn's own camp story holds Sleepaway together. Her personal introductions launch each of the eight chapters, which roughly follow the camp stages from "And Away We Go" to "And Why We Went." Her straightforward prose and detail-rich descriptions set the book's frank and honest tone. But most of the material comes from other narrators, who shared their memories and insights with Kahn. A timely newspaper article announced her project. Word spread via the Internet.
"I sat at home and waited for this avalanche to happen, and it did," says Kahn, an avowed technophobe. "People told their daughters and their sisters and their aunts. The network was unbelievable." An email questionnaire saved her considerable editorial legwork.
Tracking down the photographs was more physically arduous. Kahn found them in shoeboxes, suitcases, basements and other "precarious" places at camps across the country. She also got her hands on letters sent home, camp songs, recipes, clothing lists from 1920 and 2002. Among the sidebars are a few how-tos: a 21-step guide to making a lanyard, for example, and instructions on short-sheeting beds and playing jacks.
Kahn wanted the book to have a scrapbook feel and, despite the soft cover, it does: Cutting-edge graphics convey the nostalgia on each artful spread. Big, mostly vintage black-and-white images bleed off the pages. Pullquotes draw you in with lines such as, "I went from being a wimp to being a winner," and "I was more uninhibited than I'd ever been anywhere in my life."
A few passages extend beyond one page, including Diana Trilling's fascinating account of post-World War I summers at Camp Lenore, where a classical string quartet played every night and the girls danced, Isadora Duncan-style, in Grecian tunics. In another reminiscence, Judy Page Horton of Texas recalls finding solace at camp after her father committed suicide. She writes, "Here nobody knew about my sick, crazy, dead father. Nobody knew the scandals that made up our life. For five and a half glorious weeks, I was free to be any me I wanted to be."
"I just edited and edited and edited," Kahn says of the process. Using skills from her career in advertising, "I was able to draw out the jewels and really find the heart and essence of what the women were saying."
And naysaying. Kahn included comments from eloquent camp-haters. Among the voices from "the other side," as she calls these entries, one makes a reference to Lord of the Flies. "At camp I learned how mean girls can be to each other," remarks Gerry Penn Wexler, a five-year veteran of Camp Matoaka in Maine. Another disgruntled camper, Sylvia Borenstein, observes, "It was like junior high in a pretty environment."
But there was one big difference between most junior highs and Kahn's Kear-Sarge or Borenstein's Seafarer: boys. Aside from a random male instructor here and there, Sleepaway's faces are all female. Like it or not -- and the American Camping Association apparently didn't; it declined to promote the project -- Kahn's book is a celebration of girls camp and the single-sex philosophy of education behind it.
"There is no question that girls do better in same-sex environments, academically," Kahn reports. The same goes for camp. Surrounded by women, "we lived in an environment where nobody wondered if you were thinner than I am, or prettier than I am, until the day of the dance" -- the dreaded "social" gets its own chapter in Sleepaway. The message throughout the book is that women are more likely to find their "authentic selves" in isolation from boys.
Not surprisingly, camp for boys preceded camp for girls, by about 36 years. The male model emerged in 1866, Kahn says, inspired by romanticized accounts of the Civil War. Young ladies picked up their packs around the turn of the century, when the notion of girls sleeping outside was still considered scandalous. Over time, wealthy industrialist families came to see the wisdom of getting their pale-faced children out of the hot city in the summertime.
Teachers -- who were out of school in July and August -- liked the concept, too. So they started working as counselors at early girl camps such as Maine's Wyonegonic and Vermont's Aloha, Farwell and Lochearn. Many of them went on to start their own, and the summer-camp tradition spread from the Northeast to North Carolina, Minnesota and Texas.
These girl-camp founders, who sometimes had religious affiliations, were pioneers in more ways than one. "The woman who ran my camp was a feminist before Gloria Steinem was born," Kahn says of Kear-Sarge's matriarch, Rhoda Booth. "Nobody was burning their bra, but it was the first time for all of us that we were in an environment where women were in charge of everything. They called the shots. Nobody suggested sisterhood was powerful. I think it was just the way camp worked."
In Sleepaway she writes, "The sanctuary of an all-girls environment was clearly a powerful antidote to the narrowness of what was expected of them as girls in what they called their 'real life.'" A fellow Kear-Sarge camper confirmed this liberating aspect of life in the woods: "This was an area that I had not been exposed to before: thinking of myself as a someone with possibilities beyond how I looked or whom I could marry. Who I was mattered."
This thinking is not as dated as it sounds. Last summer, on a tour to promote her forthcoming magazine, Kahn visited a number of co-ed camps. She was appalled by the extent to which the girls there were focused on attracting boys. "They're wearing these trampy little outfits and they're all flirting and being coy," she says. "It's everything you loathed and were afraid of as a seventh-grader -- only in the woods, without your parents."
You'd think a crusader like Kahn would start her own summer camp, but Kear-Sarge is "the only camp I ever wanted to run, and own," she says. She's considered creating a weeklong camp for adult women, though, and was on the verge of buying a place on New Hampshire's Pleasant Lake -- the former site of Kear-Sarge -- when her partner talked her out of it.
Kahn recalls, "She said, 'There are no Jews in this town. There's not one other gay person. They're going to think we're nuts. We're going to be isolated and unwelcome.'"
Kahn, who lives in Burlington, now looks out over a bigger lake than the one that hosted "general swim," but she's found a way to keep camp alive all year round. Her magazine, also called Sleepaway, will pick up where the book left off. A prototype shows the first feature is an advice column. Figuratively speaking, "All you have to do is refuse to close the camp book," Kahn writes. "I haven't. Why should I? And why should anyone?"
Keeping the book open is one thing, but reading aloud from it is another. For years, I tortured friends and lovers with my camp stories, which, unlike Kahn's, were co-ed. Eyes would glaze over as I tried to explain the thrill of catching air in a swinging square dance or how perfectly a PB&;J goes down on the top of an Adirondack peak. Even more difficult to convey was the quirky, loving spirit of the place. When I got my period for the first time, at 17, word got out, and the boys -- who ate in a separate, less civilized dining room -- treated me to a congratulatory chant.
In the quarter-century that has elapsed since then, I've kept my eye on the Adirondacks. I picked a college with a clear view of the range. Moving north to Burlington brought me even closer to camp, as the crow flies. When the sun drops behind the mountains each night, I know it's still shining on Silver Lake.
I didn't go back to camp for almost 20 years. The original property was divvied up, in 1978, among four former campers, most of whom had been there before my time. The new arrangement made the place feel private, posted -- even when I talked myself into a spontaneous drive-by around 2001. Rental opportunities were limited.
Soon after that, though, younger campers -- now in the 35-to-50-year-old range -- started finding each other on the Internet. One old friend of mine popped up in Oakland. Another surfaced in Seattle. As lakeside properties adjacent to the camp have become available, alums of my generation have started snatching them up. Our 2-year-old Yahoo listserv has 44 members. In May, there was a heated exchange about an old camp activity called "Flaming Broomkill." Since June, four people have posted their vacation dates "at camp," inviting others to join them.
Last summer, I did. I rented one of the new "camps" -- actually an old Adirondack lodge -- and spent a week swimming, hiking and visiting old friends for whom this remarkable place was every bit as important as it was for me. It was easy to get a look around. The outdoor pavilion where we held our dances and plays is gone, and many of the original cabins have fallen down. But the fossils of our fun are everywhere: lists of "neat guys" penned onto the rafters, the chipped blue-and-white plates we ate on, even the camper reports counselors wrote up every year.
I barely noticed that it rained almost the entire week and we had to keep a fire going all day to stay warm. Or that the non-camp friends I'd brought along had no interest in hearing yet another boathouse tale. Only one accompanied me to a barbecue hosted by a former counselor. The camp's de facto emcee and music director, she'd played the entire score of West Side Story on a piano when we staged it in 1976. I hadn't seen her for 26 years. They could have served bug juice instead of cocktails that night as a dozen of us gathered around the campfire. Nothing could stop us from bursting into song.