Friday, January 16, 2015

Take me home, oh muddah fadduh -- Oh wait, there are trains!

For five Summers, from 1959 to 1963, my parents shipped me off to eight weeks of summer camp…whether I wanted to go or not. During those years I attended three different camps, each with its own personality. Not being terribly athletic (an understatement) I did not enjoy the first two, very sports focused, camps much. I enjoyed the third camp much more, but to me the highlight of all of those years was getting to and returning from the camp.

Getting ready for camp, at least for me, involved a visit to Marshall Field’s to get all of the requisite camping gear (mainly clothes and a black trunk to ship everything in.) The Mom had to sew name tags into all of the clothing, and then arrange to have the trunk picked up by the local Railway Express Agency a few days ahead of departure so that it would be at the camp when I arrived.

I grew up in North Shore of Chicago and most campers from that area went north to Wisconsin. My first camp was Camp Day-Cho-La on beautiful Green Lake across the lake from the town of Green Lake. Green Lake is about 30 miles from Fond Du Lac, WI. In 1958 there was frequent rail service from Chicago to Fond Du Lac on the Chicago and North Western Railway and so the campers took the train leaving Chicago mid-afternoon and arriving in Fond Du Lac around dinner time. From there it was about a one hour bus ride to the camp.

I’ve written about the train to Day-Cho-La before (see Chopped Liver Memories). For purposes of this trip the camp chartered additional cars on the regularly schedule Peninsula 400, a streamliner freshly equipped with bi-level long distance coaches just the October before. I have few memories of the ride (other than not eating the chopped liver sandwich that my Mom had given me), but I am sure it was noisy and that it was a highlight of my summer.

Things I specifically remember about the time at Day-Cho-La include: swimming in Green Lake (I was a pretty strong swimmer—earning a “life saver designation”), a boat trip across Green Lake to the town, a visit to Ripon, WI where I recall buying a pocket knife and learning about the Republican Party, visits to the canteen for a candy bar (first encounter with Hollywood Bars and related brands) in the evening, lousy food, learning to swear, postcards home every day (some, I think, utilizing my new-found language skills), Sunday “services” held with the sister Camp Sandstone that adjoined Day-Cho-La to the West, the Sunday Milwaukee Journal subscription I had, and a day canoe trip on the Fox River though I couldn’t begin to guess from where to where. (I recall we put in the river near a rapid and a tannery which we toured before starting our trip.) On the canoe trip I we caught about a half dozen snapping turtles which we kept in the bottom of the canoe until we could transport them back to camp. I also had my introduction to target shooting at Day-Cho-La and found that I was pretty good with a 22 caliber rifle, something I kept up when my folks bought me a rifle of my own and I joined the Sheridan Gun Club in a basement under the bakery at Deerfield and Waukegan roads.

The return trip to Chicago was a week or so later and so it was that one day we piled onto a bus back to Fond Du Lac and caught what was probably the Green Bay 400 which left early in the day and arrived in Chicago  before noon. This was a single level train and we were again in our own coaches…somewhat older than the spanking new bi-level ones we rode on the way North. A friend and I commandeered the men’s room sink in our car and it made a nice home for our snapping turtles. I got off the train in Evanston where my folks were waiting for me. Since I have no memories of having snapping turtles as long term pets I can only hope that my friend took them out of the men’s room before he got off in Chicago.

My parents agreed not to send me to Day-Cho-La the next year, but my 1959 stay was not my last visit to the grounds. In 1976 I drove by the site of the twin camps and found that they had apparently been abandoned.

They may have agreed not to send me to Day-Cho-La again, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t want eight weeks of peace from me and my sister. J So it was that the next June found me on my way to Camp Jackpine in Wascott Wisconsin. This time the train was the overnight Soo Line Laker which ran from Chicago to Superior, WI and Duluth, MN. The Laker left Chicago at 6:30pm but since it made a scheduled stop in Wheeling, IL (at the old station behind the Redi-Mix concrete yard) at 7:22pm that is where a large group of campers waited. I remember staring down the rails looking for the headlight, putting my ear to the rail to see if I could hear it and generally being excited about the upcoming train ride if not the camp itself.

12-1 Pullman interior (not a camp train)
Since the train was not due into Gordon, WI until around 7:00am the camp had chartered very old Pullman cars for the campers. I don’t know how many cars we occupied but at least the one I was in (both years, both directions, that I went to Jackpine) was what is known as a 12-1 car. This kind of car has a long aisle with six upper and lower berths along each side (picture “Some Like it Hot”), and one private drawing room capable of sleeping three (occupied by two counselors and one lucky camper.) Since the berths were made up for sleeping when we boarded we did not have time to explore the train, but instead immediately got ready for bed. Campers slept two to a lower berth and one to an upper. That is they slept if they could what with the noise, pranks (placing an unsuspecting sleeping campers hand into a glass of hot water, peanut shells on the floor), and general excitement level. I was lucky enough to get the upper berth in the drawing room for one of my four trips on The Laker. It made a big difference. After arrival in Gordon, we piled onto buses for the less than 20 mile ride to the camp.

Camp Jackpine was pretty much a repeat of Day-Cho-La. Different cabins, different activities but all pretty much the same. Some specific memories include short sheeting beds, setting up water filled tennis can booby traps in the cabin, learning to water ski, a big old hydraulic barber chair in the “clubhouse”, lousy food, lots of sports I did not enjoy, my daily subscription to the dearly missed Chicago Daily News, Namakagon Chowder (stirred with a canoe paddle and washed down with “bug juice”), a visit to the Apostle Islands (getting sick on the boat and frozen in Lake Superior), and some movie nights (including “The Jolson Story” and two movies about the Harlem Globetrotters.)

One activity I enjoyed was a visit to the Missabe Iron Range and Virginia and Hibbing, MN to see the iron mines, etc. This was an overnight trip and the quarries we saw were fascinating, but then it came time to go to a camp ground for the night. I remember getting motion sick on the bus as it went down a long hilly country road until we reached the camp ground. The first order of business was for us (the campers) to put up their tents. Somehow the one I was sharing with another camper didn’t quite get up before it was time for dinner. Then it was too late and the counselors said that we should sleep on the bus. (This is more or less what I wanted in the first place.) So it was that when the heavy rains came and flooded most of the rest of the tents in the middle of the night, my tent-mate and I had the best places on the bus staked out for our sleeping bags. (Not that there was much sleeping at that point.)

Eventually eight weeks came to an end and I returned to Chicago, again on The Laker, leaving late in the evening and arriving in Wheeling around 7am, the next morning.

After two years of Jackpine my parents finally figured out that a camp that heavily emphasized sports was probably not the best place to send me. With the help of a camp placement specialist (you didn’t know they existed did you?) they found Camp Maplehurst in Kewadin, MI. Maplehurst was run by a psychology professor from the University of Michigan and drew most of its campers from the Detroit area, but also a contingent from the Chicago area.

Besides being in Michigan instead of Wisconsin the most obvious differences between Maplehurst and the others is that it was a co-educational camp and that they did not use a train to get us to it. The former meant nothing to me at the time (though I did have a crush on Sara Shear…someone I apparently had played with as a two year old.) The second mattered, but I had no choice. The preferred method of getting to the camp from Chicago was by plane to Traverse City and then a van to the camp. There was rail service but it was impractical. I was a nervous flyer even though I had been flying at least since I was two years old (to Florida to visit my grandparents via Chicago & Southern Airways). Looking back, though, I am glad that we used the plane as I got to ride commercially in aircraft as diverse as the DC-3, the Convair 440, and the Convair 550…all on North Central Airlines (interestingly, both airlines mentioned above are now a part of Delta.)

A North Central DC-3
The camp itself had plenty of sports but did not emphasize it to the detriment of everything else. It also had a strict non-bullying policy that was actually enforced. We swam daily (but no water skiing that I recall), and had lots of time for diverse activities such as a camp radio station. At the end of the season both years we put on a musical with both boy and girl campers. The first year it was “Damn Yankees” and the second “West Side Story” (using the upper of a bunk bed as a balcony.) I remember one cabin mate named John Hertz who introduced me to magic (particularly card tricks) and the marvels of the Lou Tannen catalog. Then there was the time that someone in our cabin suggested playing a game (after lights out) wherein each of us would show that we were masters of our own domain, and the one who proved it first would yell out and be the winner (of course it was a prank designed to embarrass the gullible – thankfully not me-honestly I'm not even sure I knew what it was all about at the time .) This led to a group session with the head of the camp in which we sat outside under a tree and he explained that all of this was perfectly natural and a part of growing up and that no one should be embarrassed. I can’t imagine this sort of discussion happening at either of the other camps that I attended.

I especially remember a “bee-line” hike from the camp to the nearby town of Elk Rapids. This was a cross country hike of about 6 miles. Along the way we stopped at a roadside farm stand and each had a fresh tomato and cucumber that were the best I ever had (back in the days when I could eat cucumbers.) When we reached Elk Rapids we were treated to ice cream at the local Rexall Pharmacy and then bused back to the camp.

I remember a walk through the woods to nearby Torch Lake for fireworks on the 4th of July. And another sailing trip on Torch Lake from near the camp to its southern most point and on into the Rapid River, with an overnight somewhere before heading back to camp.

Best of all I remember the yearly trip to Mackinac Island. We’d bus up from the camp stopping in nearby Charlevoix where we sampled the best fudge I’ve ever had at Murdick’s. This fudge was so good that when my Dad discovered it on a visit to the camp he arranged for a pound or two to be shipped to Chicago frequently throughout the Summer. Then it was on to Mackinaw City and the ferry boat to the island. If you’ve never been, Mackinac Island does not allow motor vehicles and is a bit of a tourist trap but also a very scenic location. The Grand Hotel is where the movie Somewhere in Time was filmed and is a very elegant and old hotel that we were able to tour. But my favorite memory of Mackinac Island was when our counselor took us all over to the headquarters of Moral Rearmament (MRA). This modern building was built by a conservative religious organization with lofty goals but also apparently with views similar to the John Birch Society. At one point of during the tour we found ourselves in a space with a high ceiling, and the more observant of us noticed a microphone above us. This included the counselor who proceeded to bait the guide…much to the amusement of the rest of us.

The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island
The food was quite decent at Maplehurst and it was benefited by the fact that it adjoined a cherry orchard (it was in the heart of Michigan cherry country). The owner of the orchard, perhaps bending to inevitability, allowed campers to harvest the row of trees nearest to the camp. The kitchen was happy to make a fresh cherry pie from the harvest cherries. Wonderful.

There was also some farm acreage owned by the camp. One evening in my second year at Maplehurst the hay had been harvested and baled but was still sitting in the field with a major rain storm approaching. The head of the camp asked the senior campers if they would be willing to help get the bales out of the field. So we found ourselves on a flat bed truck heaving bales around. Of course our clothes were full of hay when we got back to the cabin and we all itched all over. In exchange for our help the head of the camp treated us to a special excursion that ended up at a local ice cream place called the Cherry Bucket. We were obviously used, but no one complained.

The summer of 1963 was my last away at Summer Camp. Starting the Summer after my sophomore year in high school I had other activities to occupy me. Summer Camp was a decidedly mixed bag for me, but I got to ride trains and airplanes that I otherwise would not have ridden and have some interesting memories. I hope they have been interesting to you.

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