…BMC in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania is the place where I began that seminal transition from ‘insecure, skinny, immature, wise ass high school kid’ to something much different and a bit better. That transformative process took place over six summers and started at age 18. My initial job was to wait tables for campers, counselors and administrative staff during the summer of 1960. I was six months removed from high school, and ready to begin my freshman year at Temple University in the fall as a physical education major. My admission to the university was on a conditional and ‘non-matriculating’ basis. In higher education, that is code for, “we think you are smart enough to succeed in college being a Central High School grad and your SAT scores are strong, but your grades are less than impressive, so, show us.” As a freshman, I enrolled as an evening student taking three general education courses while working full time driving a delivery truck for a dry cleaner (Paul Pitsonis, a wonderful man) with hopes of matriculating to full time student status in the spring semester of 1961. Success! I performed quite well in those classes and was admitted unconditionally and was now on my way.
Prior to this time, I had never been away from home without family excepting one weekend in Atlantic City with my buds. Uncle Tilio, one of dad’s brothers, boasted that he hadn’t been north of Market St. in three decades extolling the many virtues of home and no need to ever leave. But being away for an extended period of time (nine weeks) would certainly be an adventure. My parents drove me to the camp site in East Stroudsburg, and I knew upon my arrival this was going to be great. It was a wondrous place with lots of pines, a beautiful lake, boats, bunk houses, basketball and tennis courts, baseball diamonds, stables, a huge mess hall, a lodge, field offices and tons of college kids working as counselors, waiters and instructors. And…there was a girls’ camp with all of the same amenities. It was located across Blue Mt. Lake but connected by a charming one lane, paved half mile road with an outdoor theatre in between the two sites. What could be better for an 18 year old who loved sports, girls and freedom from parental control? As important was the opportunity to grow and expand my universe which was quite provincial. Shambala!
I checked in at the business office to confirm my arrival and one of the camp directors showed me the way to the waiters’ quarters. Mine was one of three large bunk houses accommodating approximately 15 people per house with one common toilet and sink. There was a large communal shower house within fair proximity which required a pretty good walk. The guys were welcoming. There were seven or eight who had already arrived and settled in while preparing for the work to come. Most of the wait staff was experienced having been through three, four or five summers while others were newbies.
That first day introduction to the waiters was critical. You know you are going to live and work with these guys for nine weeks on a 24/7 basis making it absolutely necessary to ‘establish’ yourself early in the game. I was already ‘established’ (for better or worse) with my crew from home, but needed to become something different…a new identity of sorts amongst new guys. In essence, this was a beginning for me where no history existed. To that end, mom began to unpack my footlocker, neatly place my belongings into a wooden cubby (a three row open bookcase) then proceed to dress and make my cot. The entire notion of establishing the new me was about to die. While this was happening, dad and I looked at each other as if to say, “I can’t believe this” but neither of us dared say a word to ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed.’ We then timidly looked over and watched the other guys watching mom do her mom thing. The only saving grace to that potentially life damaging event was the fact that every one of those guys also had a Jewish mother, so I might get a pass.
After exchanging goodbyes and my parents departed, I engaged in typical conversation with my new bunkmates while new ones were arriving by the minute. Talk was of really important things like, “Who is your favorite baseball player? Who is your favorite basketball team? Where are you from? Where did you go to high school? What college are you attending? What is your major? Are you an athlete? Have you gotten laid yet? Really, have you gotten laid yet?” This is the kind of stuff that most young men of that day and age found important. Clearly, not much has changed. There were probably 30 or so waiters on the boys’ side and 15-20 on the girls’ side, however, the girls’ side waiters lived on the boys’ side in a different location of the camp. They actually had several vans to transport them back and forth multiple times daily. The girls’ side waiters were a different lot…good guys, but a separate fraternity.
The very next day, the wait staff got started with training and serving ‘shake out’ meals to the early staff/counselor arrivals. We needed to get it right prior to the kids coming into camp and we had four or five days to do so. Once the kids arrived, we served three meals per day with two shifts per meal plus rotating afternoon and evening ‘snack patrols.’ Waiters worked everyday for the full eight weeks the kids were in camp with only three off days during the entire summer. All in all, there wasn’t enough time to play basketball, use the lake or play in the ‘night league.’ You were just too damn tired. My salary was $50 for the nine week stint but I would have one full share of the waiters’ tip pool which usually amounted to several hundred dollars per waiter…sometimes more. Those guys earned every dime.
Once the campers arrived, we were pretty well drilled and ready for the onslaught. During our third day of slingin’ hash and after the second dinner shift concluded, we retired back to the bunkhouse whereupon Mr. Escoll, the camp’s founder and owner, asked to meet with us. One must understand Morris Escoll in order to fully grasp his style of management. He was a man in his sixties in 1960…a successful business entrepreneur and educator who was a devout Jew having immigrated from Eastern Europe in the very early part of the 20th century, as the story goes. He was kind, very smart, charming, and a gifted salesman. He also had a fair dose of P.T. Barnum in him. Example: Mr. Escoll would announce a big parade scheduled for two weeks in advance where the counselors would get the kids excited about this upcoming event (at Mr. Escoll’s suggestion). The boss would muster together every vehicle in camp including maintenance trucks, camp vans, counselors’ cars, bicycles, horses from the stable, a tractor and anything that was animated. He would then supply the staff with copious amounts of colored crepe paper and ask that we decorate all moving objects. On parade day, the excitement was near fever pitch. Souza marches blared over loud speakers while trucks and cars and skates rolled down senior and junior alleys…small paths adjacent to the big kids and little kids bunk houses. The scene was joyous. Campers were out of their minds with excitement and would talk about the parade all summer. Like I said, here was a guy who had a little ‘circus’ in him. He could create something from nothing, do it at 0 expense and his audience was thrilled…and, parents were willing to pay top dollar for the privilege of sending their kids back year after year. That’s a salesman!
Mr. Escoll addressed the waiters in W-1 bunkhouse of which I was now a proud resident enjoying a three business day tenure with an 18 meal resume. He asked if any one of us would like to serve as the ‘Town Boy’ whereupon I was the first to respond with a resounding, “YES.” I had no idea what a town boy was, but I knew it had to beat serving six meals per day and some nights of duty each week. Mr. Escoll announced, “we have a winner,” and asked that I meet with him in the morning at his residence, but after serving my two breakfast shifts of course. The boss then explained the duties of town boy which entailed a daily drive into Stroudsburg to do the business of the camp which included, but was not limited to, banking, pick up and delivery of mail, transportation of personnel to and from camp, purchase of any needed medications, purchase of any items deemed necessary for campers, purchase of items for the head counselors (four), and of course any personal detail for the Escoll family. Essentially, I was a ‘gopher’ (go for this and that). I had a ’57 Plymouth station wagon to drive, then later a VW van, and an expense account where I was permitted to buy myself lunch if I was unable to return to camp prior to the conclusion of second lunch shift. Somehow, I rarely made it back to camp in time for lunch. The entire experience was great. I got to know the retail clerks in every store on Main St, the bank tellers, the post office workers, the emergency room doc and nurses, the pharmacist, the train station manager, the waitresses…yes, the waitresses, many of whom were quite ‘friendly.’
I’ll depart from this thread for a brief moment to talk about an unusual friendship. Of all the merchants and clerks with whom I conducted business, one was really special to me. Her name was Sarah Davis (Mrs. Davis) and she was a thin, slight ‘Presbyterian ‘grandma type lady’ in her early seventies who worked as a retail sales clerk at the local stationary store. Somehow, and I really don’t remember how, we developed a very close relationship that endured for all six summers of my Blue Mountain Camp experience and beyond. I’d stop in to see her almost everyday to have a brief chat and to look in on her. She came into camp on parents’ visiting days to have lunch with me on a regular basis. We enjoyed a true friendship based upon…well, I don’t really dunno. We just liked each other and appreciated each other’s sense of humor and general take on life…sort of a Harold and Maude without the black humor and drama. We were good friends and I valued our visits which were filled with great conversation, lots of laughter and concern for our mutual welfare. I think she secretly believed I was in need of ‘guidance’…a woman with keen observation skills. She corresponded with my parents frequently and they in turn reciprocated and appreciated that gesture. I have no idea what those letters said and it is probably better left that way. Mrs. Davis and I continued to write to each other while I was studying at the University of Oklahoma and then on to LA. Suddenly, her letters stopped and my letters to her were returned and labeled, “no such address.” It was an uncertain way to end a warm and valued friendship. I assumed that she had passed away but never received confirmation.
Mr. Escoll summoned me to his family quarters for a brief but significant salary adjustment conference. It sounded like this: “Albert, since you are no longer a waiter, you will not be able to participate in the waiters’ pool for tips at summer’s end, so, I am going to (and with a pause, blurts out)… DOUBLE YOUR SALARY!!!!” What that meant to me was… instead of earning $50 plus several hundreds of $ in tips, I was going to earn $100 and no tips. He presented this gesture of as though he just awarded enough $ to add a wing to a hospital. He did it with great enthusiasm and pride and expected my response to his generosity to be met with equal delight. While I was a bit underwhelmed, I had an immediate decision to make…do I call him on this or do I acquiesce to this ‘act of kindness?’ I agreed to the deal immediately, thankfully and respectfully. I have never regretted that decision for a host of reasons, not the least of which is I did not want to work that hard for that long as a waiter. But, it did teach me something about fair dealing and respect. Mr. Escoll could have passed on my raise and I’m sure I would not have said a word about it since I volunteered for this ‘town boy’ job assuming I would still earn $50 for the summer. That was OK with me. I just wanted to be away and on my own for the first time in my ‘regulated’ life. Instead of creating a silent but disgruntled employee, Mr. Escoll created an appreciative one. That incident was a great life lesson where the boss recognized the need to make a compensation adjustment, not a great one by any stretch, but one in deed. And, I needed to appreciate and respect his concern for me, albeit somewhat moderated. At the conclusion of the summer and much to my surprise and delight, Mr. Escoll presented me with a $200 unsolicited bonus. We both benefited from this arrangement. This concept of ‘mutual benefit’ is a wonderful axiom by which to live, where all concerned are positively affected. I think Harvard’s graduate school of business and management might call this “Win-Win.”
I returned to Blue Mt. for the next five summers serving as ‘town boy’ for three more then Assistant Head Counselor of the Senior Camp and finally as Head Counselor (aka the HMFIC and I’m not going to spell that out). During the first week of my second summer (’61), a junior counselor was fired and Mr. Escoll asked if I would move from the waiters’ quarters into the bunk which now housed only one counselor. Two was the norm. I agreed, but did not have counselor duties due to my ‘town boy’ job although I volunteered to assist the senior counselor when in camp. These campers were older kids (14-16) and they gave that senior counselor, who was 22 or 23, a very hard time. I was now 19 and physically getting stronger due to my beginning training in gymnastics and somehow the kids saw me in a way I had never been seen…strong and a ‘no bullshit’ guy. And, an Italian last name had an underlying but unspoken effect. These campers saw me as some sort of ‘dude’ not to be disrespected and the bunk was well behaved. Management took notice and for the next three summers, I was assigned to the bunk supervising the oldest kids.
Prior to my third summer (’62), Mr. Escoll sold the camp and went into retirement. The new owners, Gene and Mike, conducted job interviews during the winter and I was invited to come back as ‘town boy’ and, to serve as counselor to the oldest campers in a one counselor bunk. Further, I was asked to come into camp one week early and to stay an extra week at summer’s end to serve as foreman of a ‘work crew.’ Where they got the notion that I should head up a work crew was beyond me, but I gladly accepted and was well compensated for the xtra time. Both work weeks were great. I selected my crew from a pool of guys I knew from my prior two summers along with my very close friend from childhood, Eddy, whom I recommended to management. We painted benches and each other, move beds and mattresses, cleaned the lake bottom which was lined with boards in the swimming areas, replaced screens, cleaned stables, but mostly had a lot of fun doin’ all of that stuff including burning leeches off of our skin with the ends of lit cigarettes after lake duties. Somehow, it all worked well and I was becoming ‘somebody’ at age 20.
After playing basketball one evening, the camp Rabbi, Carl, and I had a soda together and he asked, “Al, have you been Bar Mitzvah’d.” “No,” I replied. “And, why not?” “Well, I did go to Hebrew school for a short time ‘cause all of my buds went, but I never really felt compelled.” We were basically, secular, cultural, non practicing ‘bagels and lox’ Jews, but Jewish non the less.” Carl then asked, “would you want to be to be Bar Mitzvah’d?” I responded with, “I’m 20 years old, not 13. And, don’t I have to learn Hebrew well enough to recite my Haftora”? “Yes, but I’ll transliterate it for you” he said. I responded with, “I’ll think about it” and we continued to enjoy our sodas and talked about less spiritual matters like who were the best lookin’ babes in camp.
After several weeks of considerable thought, I agreed and was Bar Mitzvah’d during a private ceremony in the presence of my hand selected minion in the Arts and Crafts shack. That building had never been holier than it was that day. My decision to go ahead with this important moment was predicated upon the notion that I was Jewish and would probably marry a Jewish girl and we would want our children to be raised in the Jewish tradition. How I could I insist on such if I, myself, had not been Bar Mitzvah’d? Life does have its funny little twists…Nancy is not Jewish…but I am! I had the day off and received my yarmulke and tallis which was placed in a tefllin bag and presented to me as a gift from the Rabbi and minion. It was a joyous day for all, especially me. I felt official…sort of like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz who received a diploma thereby recognizing he had a brain.
There was a lot of freedom associated with the town boy job in that my afternoons and evenings were free when not assisting the senior counselor. I did attempt to make the most of my time and earned Red Cross certification in basic boating, basic sailing and Water Safety Instruction (WSI). At the same time, I was seriously training to prepare for the upcoming season at Temple University where I was becoming a gymnast (rings) competing on the freshman team in ’61-’62. My evenings were spent playing in the ‘night league’ where all the guys would hook up with a steady girlfriend for the entire summer. This was a new and interesting dynamic for me. I never had a steady girlfriend and never really wanted one. I liked variety in my lady friends and learned early on that you cannot play the field at camp. Pick one that you think might work and stay with it. Come early August (the half way point), make a change if necessary, but you can only make one change per summer lest you be labeled with a scarlet letter. This is unwritten camp law.
During my first summer at BMC I fell in love…first time. Maxine was a beautiful 16 year old from Great Neck, Long Island. I couldn’t wait for evenings when the gals finished work (off every other night) so that I could see her. We would spend evenings in the pines which meant get a blanket, find a place and, uh…talk. I didn’t know I was in love until summer’s end when I returned home and was struck with that awful feeling…empty, morose and no appetite. I just really missed that girl and she lived in NY. I think I was love sick. We exchanged letters on a daily basis and after several weeks of this agony, I decided to go to NY for a visit prior to the opening of fall semester. That trip was all it took. I dunno what it was…maybe one of my personal character flaws of which there are many, but, it just wasn’t the same. She was very excited to see me and I fully expected my feelings to be mutual, but not so. BB King said it best…”the thrill is gone; the thrill is gone away.” The summer was the summer and now we were back to real life with college starting, hangin’ with my buds and work. I didn’t feel what I thought I would feel upon seeing her again. I attribute that fickleness to the vagaries of ‘young love.’ It was awful and I felt badly… and sorry, and somewhat guilty. I think I come by the guilt thing quite naturally having grown up with a family whose culture(s) are steeped into guilt.
Each summer thereafter (five more), I had steady girlfriends which lasted for the full eight week duration with the exception of my last (’65). In ’61 it was Claire…a tall, very smart and stunning co-ed who was a sophomore at Penn studying mathematics and computer engineering. She had beautiful, rich olive skin that glistened and hauntingly light green eyes along with a very ‘healthy’ chest. In ’62 it was Gail…a junior at Penn State studying education (more like a ‘Mrs.’ degree) and she too was a great summer girlfriend. Gail was very pretty and petite with a dark smooth complexion and a very preppy look. Her appearance was not consistent with her degree of lust…great summer! In ’63 it was Sherry…oh Sherry! She was a 17 year old dancer with an exotic look who was awarded a scholarship to the PA Academy of Dance and I was really in love with her. This was the first relationship that endured after camp but was sporadic for several years until I departed from Philadelphia for points west…in ’65. My final two summers were in ’64 and ’65. My ‘sort of summer girlfriend’ in ‘64 was Beth of Queens, NY. She was a tall, thin striking redhead with beautiful blue eyes…almost a “Colleen”, (east coast Italian slang for an Irish woman) and had just graduated from Hunter College. Our relationship was ‘comfortable and convenient’ with occasional doses of ‘hot’ along the way, but nothing really substantive. Beth’s great claim to fame was her brother, who was part of that “Tobacco Road” gang, along with Larry Brown, who went to the University of North Carolina to play basketball. In ’65…no steady lady. I was going into town for evening entertainment. Remember, I knew a lot of people in Stroudsburg along with all of their commensurate ‘hangouts.’ During that last summer, I was the Head Counselor of the Boys Senior Camp…a very prestigious job with high visibility, so I needed to ‘recreate’ away from the campsite. By that time I was 23 years old and a Temple University graduate teaching and coaching in the Philadelphia Public School System. In addition, I was getting ready to depart Philly for OU where I was to be a graduate teaching assistant while pursuing my master’s degree.
Reflecting often on my days at BMC, I always come away with the same theme which is…that place permitted me to find out who I was, where I was going, what I would come to value. It wasn’t the compass, but rather the magnetic north which drew me toward my place in the grand scheme of things. I came in as an immature 18 year old kid who never spent more than one or two nights away from home and left as young man at age 23 filled with hopes, dreams, aspirations and some perspective… and, the confidence to pursue them all. Blue Mt. Camp presented the environment for me to grow into something other than who I was upon arrival.
While I have always deemed friendships as very important, I came to appreciate and respect them even more as I’ve grown older. I grew up with seven guys in my neighborhood. We went through elementary school together and despite having lives and families from coast to coast, we manage to see each other regularly and we remain very close. The same holds true with the great friendships forged at BMC. Among the most important are two close and long time friends, Arnie Shiffrin and Jeff Verbet both of whom emanated from that day, time and place. Where else could I arrive as the town boy and leave as the “HMFIC” of Senior Camp? Mr. Escoll had a clear vision as to just what BMC ought to be and both Gene and Mike stayed true to the mission. They created the laboratory for us to discover ourselves and be all we might become…foibles and all. For that, I am ever grateful.