Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A VISIT TO CAMP BETAR


On Monday July 16th David Kandel and I took a drive up to visit the old stomping grounds and to revive some old memories.  One of the memories that popped into my head were the words to the following song:

"Kiss me. kiss me my darling, curfew is near and alas our time is so short, show me, show me your beauty, show me your beauty my bunk-mates would like a report....."

Below is our story.  Words by David, pictures (not enough I realize!) by me.  Sit back and enjoy.

Shachna


Chuck and I drove up to the old Betar camp site in Neversink - here is
a blog - worthy, short-notice account of our trip.


                             Never Say Never In Neversink  -a senior citizen sojourn to Camp Betar
                                
                                            By David Kandel

A few minutes after Chuck Waxman pulled up in my driveway, the two of us stood talking when suddenly I said to him like any true Betari would,

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours?’  Chuck immediately showed me his.
I showed him mine.  His was certifiably bigger.

One of the things we had talked about doing during our senior citizen sojourn back to the location of; the late, great Camp Betar in Neversink, New York was to go shooting.

Chuck therefore showed me the .22 caliber bolt action rifle in his trunk and I showed him my .22 caliber automatic pistol. However, as our main objective was to visit the site of the camp, we never got to shoot anything other than a few hours of our time during our trip.

Chuck was determined to record everything on our drive via his upscale camera. During our trip up he photographed anything with even the loosest association with the camp experience, including numerous highway signs. At one point I think he may have photographed a bug that had splattered on the windshield, but I wasn’t certain.




Pulling into Woodbourne and stopping for lunch, it seemed like almost everyone had a beard, with maybe the exception of some of the women. Lunch was acceptable and visiting the bathroom attached to the restaurant reminded me of a movie I had seen – “Fatal Encounter”.






As we passed through Loch Sheldrake we just avoided getting rear-ended on numerous occasions as Chuck had me stop and make hair pin turns for pictures reminiscent of a movie car chase.





At last we hit Liberty, New York. Dolly Madison’s was now a deserted shell of a store inhabited perhaps by ghosts of summers past that had expired dining on their famous cuisine. The movie theatres were also gone. But Chuck was greatly relieved to find the taxi-stand, now catering to a genetically altered species of town inhabitants, was still functioning.






 Following our slow roll through town, we briefly stopped at the now shuttered bowling alley, which had been rendered almost invisible by a huge snack- packaging plant that dwarfed the structure. How sad to see the empty parking lot now devoid of the Cromagnon hicks who used to antagonize us after probably committing unspeakable acts with livestock.



Driving down Route 55 towards Neversink, we were unable to locate our favorite midpoint watering hole, the bar that used to be the only recognizable landmark in the sprawling village of Bradley, which seemed to be the only village that could have had both welcome signs on the same post.




The view from the reservoir remains breathtaking. It hasn’t changed as we stopped by the sign that explained how in fact the original town of Neversink had in fact sunk after the building of the dam.







Following this and the several thousand photos Chuck took at that location, we headed off for the terminus of our trip- the hallowed location of our former, still beloved camp.




As there are now houses at that location, Chuck and I were careful to drive up a parallel street to view the only structure remaining – the old arts and crafts building, which was now painted a subtle shade of  ‘blood red’. Looking at the building, we then discerned that the worn path adjacent to it was actually the camp road.

There was a wooden fence on both sides of the road indicating this was private property, but temptation got the best of us as the two now unarmed forever former campers literally and figuratively started down the road.




That didn’t last long.

A somewhat alarmed female voice yelled out, “Excuse me,, can I help you.?” Looking like an older denizen of a Lil Abner comic as per tee-short, shorts and anatomical configuration, the woman (Mary Jean) and her daughter approached us. The good news was neither of them were armed. There was no “Mr. Lil Abner” in the background with a chainsaw.

After a brief explanation of our situation (the Publishers Clearinghouse….you’ve just won a million dollars’ line was not used), we were allowed to walk our old hunting grounds. The basketball court now had a storage building covering half of it.



We were then invited to visit the old arts and crafts building, which was now a storage site for roofing materials. It was clearly intriguing to see some of the old graffiti on the door.



At one point I saw a flash of light and my mind seemed to go blank.

A poignant memory?  A voice from the past?   A burst of pent-up emotion?

No. I had walked into a low wooden beam in the dimly lit environ.  Ouch.

Interestingly the owner told us she had found a camp related crest with the name of the camp, which she said she would give to us if she found it.

(After leaving the camp grounds we took a right up Corby Road to find that his house and "shed" were still standing.  We had been advised by Mary Jean hat Corby's son still owned the property - Chuck)  




Continuing our drive in Neversink, we actually succeeded in locating the old pond we used to swim in prior to construction of the pool. With the dam long eroded and gone, all that remained was a stream and a field with a small body of water at one end.




Following this we drove into Neversink itself, where we learned from the proprietor of an antique store that Nancy, the woman who was old even when we knew her and owned a little general store had actually lived to 112.

As Nancy told it, “It seemed G-d just forgot about me!’

We took our last look at the area and headed back to Route 17 for the trip back to where our memories had taken us in the first place.

Chuck had his pictures and we both couldn’t resist taking a little bit of the decayed asphalt from the road that still ran to our hearts.

                                              



The second story, Neversink to Religion, is about half finished. But
since I'm heading to Israel for a month, it will get finished when I get
back. It will be part of a collection of stories on a related topic;
yet to be complete.

Neversink To Religion

 Ten pair of socks
Two pair of pajamas
Two white shirts.
Two pair of blue pants….

Panic suddenly overcame me as I went over the list of items for my first summer at sleep-away camp.

I could understand the necessity for most of the items on the camp list, but the white shirts and blue pants sounded suspiciously like the much-maligned assemblies we would have every week at PS 47 in the Bronx. My eyes then quickly scanned down the list to see if in fact there were also the red ties we had to wear so as to look like incarnations of the American flag.

Now this in of itself would have been a cute patriotic gesture if not for the odious penalties involved in failing to remember to wear one of those items at school assemblies. If, for example, you forgot the red tie, you were condemned to wear a paper facsimile which called attention to your transgressions like the 1950’s version of the Scarlet Letter (as in fact they were both publicly worn and were both red).

My mind continued to fearfully race at the prospect of going to a summer camp that had assemblies where the clothing dress code enforcer, the dreaded Assistant Principal Mrs. O’Sullivan might come thundering out of the tree line in Bermuda shorts and black rimmed glasses like one of the Nordic horn-clad women from a Wagner opera, or perhaps like an enraged water buffalo making a bee-line for me if I failed to have on part of my uniform.

How could they do this to me?? Would they also have spelling tests and would there be a blackboard suspended from a tree where we would silently copy endless tomes of inane world geography like monks cloistered somewhere in the Himalayas’ – which was pretty much what we did in school all year. Was this to be actual fun or arboreal detention in the Catskills?

My family always strongly advocated against the use of force…except when attempting to close a trunk filled way beyond capacity that was supposed to contain all the items necessary for a summer in camp. With my brother and father sitting on, thumping and strenuously compressing the items in the trunk into submission, the lid was finally closed, sealed and locked. For the moment my apprehensions about the questionable camp clothing items was secured and sealed away.

The camp experience did not get off to a propitious start. The bus made it relatively uneventfully to the Red Apple Rest Stop on Route 17, but once the bus hit the foothills of the Catskills it wheezed and struggled to make it up the extended inclines. At one point a rather exasperated Camp official asked to borrow canteens filled with water from the campers to avoid a catastrophic meltdown of the engine’s cooling system on the overheating, un-airconditioned bus we were on. How we envied the rapaciously thirsty radiator that consumed our cool, refreshing water as we in turn sat and overheated!

After what seemed more like an endless journey of displaced persons than a bus full of joyous campers, the bus turned off  the local highway and painfully groaned its way up a couple of deserted country roads. Were we almost there? And what would happen once we were there, my first year at sleep away camp?

The answer to the first question was quickly answered when the ‘all knowing’ camp veterans broke into a camp song that sounded suspiciously like a college football fight song. This only served to raise my anxiety as I knew neither the song, the people or even where I was going or what lay in store for me.

At last the bus made a sharp right turn and stopped at the base of a steep hill by a large white farm house with a wraparound porch. Of course by this time I couldn’t be certain whether the bus had stopped because it had finally consumed all our precious water and decided it would go no farther or whether we were actually there. Again, not knowing where ‘there’ was, I had secretly hoped we would keep driving until I could get off at my home in the East Bronx and forget the whole experience!

Following a short stop, the driver focused his eyes up the steep hill and as if willing the decrepit bus to action, slammed on the clutch, pushed the gear shifter into low desperation mode as the bus, as if in its final death throes lurched to action and attempted to negotiate the hill.

It was at this moment that I began to wonder whether the bus’s agonizing travails in driving to camp was a metaphor on my own life and how fraught with difficulty this whole episode was. With the untimely death of my mother the year before, my father, the lifelong socialist was informed that his children could not attend the socialist affiliated summer camp due to his inability to pay the costly tuitions for my brother and myself. It was therefore with relief and perhaps consternation that he came to accept financial assistance to send us to the very right wing Camp Betar.

As if to emphasize the irony of the situation (the ‘man plans and G-d laughs’ factor), I found that I would be attending camp in a village called, Neversink, New York, which in fact ‘did sink’. Or should I say that previous to my arrival it ‘had sunk’, or sank when the original village ended up under 100 feet of water behind the Neversink dam on the river valley by that name.

Was my summer about to suffer the same fate as the village with the cruelly-fated misnomer of a name?

The bus mercifully came to a stop at the crest of the hill and we gratefully exited to a scene of chaos and confusion mixed with merriment and excitement. Through the swirl of campers and staff I noticed an artificial ridge-line in the background composed of camper trunks and over-sized, bulging suitcases and duffel bags. Was it even conceivable that I would actually find my trunk in that pile?

 I turned around to look at the bus I had just exited, half wondering whether it was actually capable of driving back down the hill, or whether a tow truck would pull up and haul the debilitated conveyance to a landfill or junkyard for proper disposal.

As I stood immobilized amid the swirl of activity and uncertainty, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder.  I looked up to see my cousin Phylis, who was one of the administrators of the camp. She, along with her husband Yitzchok, also an administrator, were among the prime reasons why the impoverished Kandel brothers were enabled to attend the camp.

Following a joyous ‘hello’ and inquiring as to my trip up, her eyes streamed forward as she looked in the direction of the Neversink reservoir, which from our vantage at the top of the hill was mostly visible as it shimmered in the late afternoon sun. 

“Isn’t it beautiful?”  she said in a dreamy voice.

After leaving the hot, steamy environs of the East Bronx, I had to agree with her. I didn’t know where Neversink was and I knew nothing about the camp, but just following her gaze with my own at the serenity of the scene and the coolness of the afternoon breeze, I started to think that even the sudden appearance of Mrs. Sullivan from behind the mound of trunks couldn’t have detracted from the specialness of the moment…that there was hope for me even if I had to spend the summer in a location that could have been the perfect sister city for Atlantis, that other sub aquatic postal zone.

It was also at about this time that I started to believe that just maybe this was going to be a viable option to staying in the clutches of the percolating East Bronx.

.We came up on a Sunday and the first week proceeded much as one would think a week at camp would go. Swimming in the camp mud-hole pond, playing a whole host of games I had little aptitude for and getting acclimated to a regimen of clean-ups, activities, meals and night time activities and curfews.

Well, Friday rolled around and everything was about to change…in ways that I was unprepared for and could not have possibly foreseen.

The first thing that happened was that we were actually expected to get clean. This involved waiting our turn to go to the camp shower house where we would lose most of our toiletry items and then attempt to change into clothes that was now wet, because our clean clothes was back in our bunk.

Remember the white shirts and blue pants that we had mysteriously been asked to pack. Well, the counselor actually asked us to find them and then put them on. With that request, frenzied, frustrated campers started to pull apart their neat clothing cubbies until the floor was littered with heaps of discarded clothing, mixed in with the dirty clothes we had just taken off.

In a flash we had metamorphosed from semi-civilized looking campers to individuals looking like we were going to attend…an assembly. Were things about to get out of hand? Was there going to be a flag, pledge of allegiance and some little girl leading us in the National Anthem in a key which was unrecognizable and un-singable?

So with a weeks worth of encrusted coating removed from our bodies and our hair rudimentally combed with absolutely no regard to style or aesthetics, we made our way to the assembly area that was defined by the dining room at one end of the area and the flag poles at the other end, which formed an almost perfect frame for the view beyond which was the stunning Neversink reservoir.......end or Part I.


Certainly everyone associated with the camp has their share of memories;
these were some of mine.


David
 

5 comments:

Batya said...

fantastic, almost like being there

Steve A, said...

I also visited the camp site 19 years ago, At that time a developer was beginnibg to buikd houses . The barn-arts and craftd was still up as well as one and a half flag pollls.
Steve A.

Anonymous said...

great post! nothing like Camp Betar! I also visited the camp with Andy Paul, Charles Argoff, and Neil Gershon some thirty years ago -- both sad and moving. Tel Chai! "Gawk"

robert glick said...

Since i joined Betar late(17 years old) i went to camp on the Machon Program in 75 and 76. The first activities i remember was shooting day in 74, I believe Jabotinsky memorial with a lighted Memorial Menorah? in camp during July 75. Thus i missed having the true camp experience.

Robert Glick

Johney smith said...

The barn-arts and craftd was still up as well as one and a half flag pollls.
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