A world of its own.
Every Wednesday evening around six o'clock a beige and red truck appeared on Old Murphy Road. In the distance we heard the announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Chow-Chow Cup is here," accompanied by a poor imitation of Chinese music sounding as if it emanated from a very old music box, and the summer residents of Lansman's Bungalow Colony all emerged from their bungalows.
Lansman's, with close to one hundred bungalows, each painted white with red trim, was much larger than the other Borscht Belt colonies. It had more facilities: a nice-sized pool and the most popular new attraction, tennis courts. Old Murphy Road, a paved country thoroughfare with no lane markers, divided Lansman's in two. On our side were the casino, the old handball court, the pool, and the campgrounds. The comedians and crooners who entertained the parents in the casino on Friday and Saturday nights, although not headliners like the ones who played the Concord, Grossinger's and Kutscher's, the area's large ritzy hotels, were at the top of the B-list. Lansman's Day Camp was popular enough to draw children from smaller colonies that did not have camps of their own.
I can remember only one family at Lansman's that wasn't Jewish. Most lived the rest of the year in the boroughs, except for those who had already made the jump to the suburbs in Long Island or New Jersey, becoming truly middle class, or what my parents called "nouveau fiche." Most of the families were of the same socio-economic status. My parents, like most of the others, never went to college. The mothers were primarily, until the '70s when most went to work to help support the family, housewives. The fathers worked in the garment industry, in sales, or in low to middle management. The exceptions, both mothers and fathers, were a handful of teachers. Most parents, like mine, were first generation Americans born during or just after the Depression, and had children around the same ages as my brother, then ten, and me, almost seven.
Even though we kept kosher in our bungalow, just as we did the rest of the year in our Brooklyn apartment, I rushed to the road to join the line to buy my dinner from the Chow-Chow Cup, returning to eat with plastic utensils my spare ribs, egg roll, chow mein, and the ubiquitous Chow-Chow Cup itself--a perfectly round scoop of fried rice in a small bowl made of crunchy noodle--on one of the picnic tables on the lawn outside our bungalow.
Besides the Chow-Chow Cup, the mothers' weekly foray to Liberty, a nearby town, for roast pork on garlic bread and endless ice cream cones, there was Katz's bakery in Monticello. Every week the colony concession took orders for Katz's baked goods, especially large black and white cookies--softly risen dough covered half with chocolate frosting, half with vanilla. If we were lucky, my mother ordered a freshly baked Katz's cheesecake--plain, cherry, or blueberry--smaller and more cakelike, as well as more deliciously creamy than the cheesecake we ate in diners back home in Brooklyn.
1967 was our first summer at Lansman's. We rented a bungalow in the "horseshoe" complex, six small one-bedroom units off a U-shaped communal porch, down the hill from the casino. The horseshoe bungalows, though centrally located, were small and provided little privacy. These were also some of the cheapest bungalows on the grounds. Ours was at one end of the horseshoe, so our one bedroom, equipped with a bunkbed (my brother on top, me on the bottom) and a double bed for my parents, did not share a wall with another unit. For this luxury, my parents paid an extra fifty dollars.
Even compared to the cramped living in our Brooklyn apartment, life at Lansman's was even more public. As I passed by a friend's bungalow I could hear his mother yelling at him. I could easily smell what each family was having for dinner. In our bathroom, I could hear whomever was in the next bungalow's bathroom, which of course meant that I could be heard from their bathroom as well.
The distinguishing characteristics of the families that shared the horseshoe were that the Kesslers adopted their younger daughter, Elizabeth; the Rosenblums eventually got, unheard of in those days among my parents' friends, a divorce; Phyllis Ashe was obese (she told her friends she kept herself fat to prevent other men from looking at her, making sure her husband Mel would not get jealous); and the Eliases, who liked to let everyone know they had less money than the rest of us. What distinguished my parents from the rest of the horseshoe crowd was having me, a disabled son.
From my lower bunk bed I could look out the bungalow window and see the casino, the handball court, and Old Murphy Road where no one was allowed to park. But on Friday night the fathers who drove up from the city, sometimes in a carpool, sometimes alone, parked on the side of the road. As the summer dusk settled on the colony, I began to watch for the emerald green Buick, my father's car, from which he would emerge carrying his small black travel bag in which I knew he carried the week's mail.
Early Friday evening, with increasing excitement, I began to listen for my father's familiar toot-toot whistle. When, finally, I heard it I rushed up the path to meet him halfway, welcoming him back to Lansman's with a kiss. I proudly escorted him to the bungalow, where on the horseshoe-shaped porch my mother rose from her chaise lounge chair to kiss my father hello.
Of all the summer food, my favorite was "the grill." My father took longer than other fathers to get the barbecue charcoal going. On Sundays we tried to eat early, making sure he had enough time to catch his carpool back to the city. "He's so slow he'll miss his ride," my mother worried out loud. "I'll miss the coffee klatch if you don't hurry," she warned. "Oooh, the smoke is coming our way," she complained when the wind blew the barbecue smoke in her direction.
As my apron-clad father prepared the charcoal, I tugged at him, urging him to make the coals flame faster. "How many do you want?" my father finally asked, and after I placed my order for one hamburger (rare), one hot dog (both on untoasted buns), my brother ordered his two hot dogs. Then it was my mother's turn. "One burger and one hot dog, well done," she told my father. "Burn it."
The summers were cooler in the Catskills than in Brooklyn. But for an inevitable week toward the end of July we were usually hit by a stretch of unrelenting heat and oppressive humidity.
The heat wave was ended by an intense rain. It was as if all our pent-up frustration with the inexorable heat and humidity was unleashed in the torrential rain that pelted the roof, pounded the path and porch outside our bungalow, and dripped from the screen windows onto the window sills and into our kitchen through the front screen door.
I loved this rain and the near-deafening sound it made on the roof, porch, and pathway, not only because camp would be held indoors in the casino that day, not only because I knew my allergies would abate when the storm ended the seemingly endless heat. I loved this rain because after it rained I would be able to roam the dense woods behind the bungalows and hunt for salamanders.
I went salamander hunting with my friend Paul, whose family had an upstairs bungalow beyond third base of the softball field across the road. It was mid-morning when we made our way with our empty Tupperware containers up the path littered with worms unearthed by the rain. The woods were damp and even the slightest breeze brought large drops of water down from the leaves and branches onto our heads.
At first it was difficult to adjust to the darkness of the woods. And when our eyes adjusted to the woods, it was still difficult to spy a salamander that camouflaged itself to look the color of the brown dirt or the velvety green moss. But soon Paul was yelling, "Salamander! Salamander!" and then I was yelling "Salamander!" too, and by lunchtime, when we ended our hunt, Paul and I had filled two large containers with the helpless slimy amphibian lizards. Back in my bungalow we transferred our catch to a larger plastic container that we lined with earth, rocks, and moss to create for the salamanders a habitat that approximated their own.
Once, I allowed Paul to take the salamanders home to his bungalow. The night of our salamander hunt was the night the astronaut Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. Dozens of us, parents as well as children, crowded into Paul's bungalow to watch the historic event on one of the few TVS at Lansman's.
As the crowd gathered in front of the TV, I saw from the corner of my eye a streak of bright orange in the hall behind me. I turned away but could not stop myself from looking again to make sure what it was I had seen. This time there was no mistaking it: the salamanders had escaped from Paul's container and they, as if not wanting to miss the historic event on television, were pouring, one slimy orange lizard after another, into the room.
I tried to get Paul's attention but he was too entranced watching Walter Cronkite on the TV. Not knowing what to do, I began to imagine where the salamanders were going. I looked at Pearl, Paul's mother, and the mothers of most of my friends. Some were in their housecoats, many had curlers in their hair. I started to laugh to myself, but as I looked from one mother to another, I could no longer hold my laughter inside.
"What's the matter with you?" Paul shouted when the first giggles escaped from my mouth. And then he saw the salamanders.
"What is it? What is it?" Pearl began shouting. At first I thought she was shouting at me, but then I saw a solitary salamander, then two, three, four, crawling over Walter Cronkite's lips, which were describing the magical event we were about to witness.
No sooner had Pearl begun screaming than all the mothers began screaming.
"What are they?"
"Where are they coming from?"
"They're so disgusting."
Only a handful of kids were left to watch Pearl yell at Paul, "I told you not to bring those things into the house," as she chased him around the small room and down the stairs. Those who stayed with the TV could hear the screen porch door slam below, and Pearl still yelling at Paul off in the distance when Neil Armstrong uttered his by now famous words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." As Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon we were all looking out the front window, watching Pearl chase Paul around the softball field with her broom.
During the week, with the fathers working in the city and the children busy all day at camp, the bungalow colony was a society of mothers. And on all sunny days, the mothers could be found lounging by the pool. Some of the mothers swam; others played canasta or mah jhong under an umbrella. Those were the days before the ultraviolet rays of the sun were known to cause skin cancer, and my mother, unfamiliar with melanoma, enjoyed baking in the sun more than most.
After she served my brother and me lunch and sent us back to camp for the afternoon, my mother and her friends, dressed in one-piece bathing suits of varying solid colors, made their way in a procession to the pool. On the lawn of the small hill in the fenced-in pool area (never on the concrete surrounding the pool nor on the gray-painted wood deck opposite the lawn) the mothers lay out on their chaise lounges, occasionally taking a dip in the shallow end of the pool.
Twice a day, at eleven in the morning, and four in the afternoon, the entire day camp assembled for "General Swim." We were sent home fifteen minutes before the appointed hour to change into our bathing suits. Then we gathered under our counselors' supervision along the outside of the pool fence. Anyone who was late was docked, not allowed into the pool for the first fifteen minutes of General Swim.
Many of the mothers stayed on the lawn watching their children frolic in and out of the pool. But by the time four-thirty came most had packed up their lounge chairs, towels, and mah jhong sets and headed home to begin preparations for dinner.
The pool itself was painted aquatic blue. Across the width of the pool was a buoyed rope that divided the pool into shallow and deep water. In the shallow end there were two rows of silver bars which, along with the wall at the shallow end of the pool, created a kiddie corral for the youngest swimmers. In the deep end, at three-quarters the length of the pool, there were two large blocks, one on each side, flat on top, angled on the side facing in, which created a place to sit as well as a way to slide into the pool.
When I asked my mother why these blocks were built, she said they held the pool in place. Apparently someone had thrown a firecracker into the pool, although some believed the pool had somehow frozen during winter and the Lansmans did not want to pay for an entirely new pool so, to keep the pool intact, they installed these blocks instead. Past the blocks, on each side of the pool, were two ladders, silver like the bars of the corral, and at the deepest point a diving board with minimal spring.
During General Swim only those who had passed the camp's deep water test were allowed past the rope into the deeper end of the pool. Only the oldest three groups in the camp were allowed to take the deep water test, which consisted of swimming four widths of the pool, from block to block, then treading water in the deep end for five minutes.
Everyone in the pool, no matter if swimming in front or beyond the rope, had to have a buddy. When Mike, the lifeguard who also served as swim instructor for the camp, first blew his whistle, the mothers had to vacate the pool. Then, on his next whistle, the entire camp went screaming in. The next time the whistle blew, everyone, whether in the pool or out, had to be silent; those in the pool had to hold up high their buddy's hand. If you were caught without your buddy you were docked and not allowed in the pool for the rest of General Swim.
At a quarter to five, when Mike the lifeguard blew the whistle, those campers from off-colony had to get out of the pool and make their way to the front of the casino to the camp cars that drove them home. At five minutes to five, Mike blew the whistle one more time and all campers had to leave the pool. Another summer's day of camp had ended.
On especially hot days, Mike gave the pool key to an older counselor who kept the pool open an hour after camp. With most of the other kids gone, this was my favorite time. After five in the afternoon, the pool water took on a darker hue. Of course this was because the light in the sky, especially during late afternoon in August, had begun to dim. But to me the dark blue water signified something other than the reflection of twilight in a swimming pool.
I have to remind myself that, during those summers in the pool at Lansman's, of all the hundreds of children in the camp, except for Marty Hirsch who had an eyesight impairment, I was the only disabled child. With three toes on each foot, with scars and holes where pins were inserted during my operations, my physical difference, though always apparent, especially as I grew older and my peers grew taller faster than I, was more evident wearing a swimsuit at the pool.
When did I start noticing other kids' curious or frightened stares? Was anybody else, my family or friends, aware of these stares? And why, even when I did realize how different my body was from the bodies of other boys, did I never hesitate to expose my naked legs at the pool when I could have easily done so? Where was the shame that I know I must have felt at the time?
Somehow, I know the answer to these questions lies in an episode that to this day my mother either cannot fully remember or, if she does remember, refuses to tell me what she remembers. Twenty-nine years later I asked my mother why she had a fight with Isabel Levine.
"I don't know. It was something about you kids. I don't remember," was her reluctant reply. "Why do you want to know?"
The Levines were a family of four who lived at 1935 Shore Parkway, the companion apartment building to ours at 2630 Cropsey Avenue, near Coney Island, in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn. A few years after we began spending summers at Lansman's, the Levines began to summer at Lansman's as well, moving into one of the smaller horseshoe bungalows.
Sometime toward the middle of that summer, I remember my mother being surrounded by two of her friends as they accompanied her back to our bungalow from the pool. I see my mother's dark tan skin, a striking contrast to her white one-piece bathing suit. I see my mother wearing her dark sunglasses, which I always thought too large for her face. I see my mother come into our bungalow and hear her bellow in an unfamiliar contralto, a voice deeper than her usual voice, a voice both clear and guttural: "How dare she say that to me. How dare she."
Somehow I know the pain expressed in my mother's voice is because something Isabel Levine said to her that afternoon at the pool. Somehow I know that what Isabel Levine said to my mother had to do with me. Somehow I know that when my mother enters our bungalow it is late afternoon and I am in the bedroom, still dressed in my bathing suit, stunned, not moving on my lower bunk bed, draped in a towel. A few minutes ago I know I ran from the pool after hearing Isabel Levine say something to my mother about allowing me to run around the pool showing off my scars.
Something about you kids. Had Isabel's son Jeffrey, who was my age and in my group at camp, said something to me that I told my mother that day at the pool? Had my mother confronted Isabel in front of their mutual friends? Or had Jeffrey told his mother how he felt about my legs and had Isabel confronted my mother with Jeffrey's discomfort that afternoon?
Although I never figured out what happened between my mother and Isabel Levine that afternoon at the pool, I still hear my mother's voice, somewhere between a threat and a wail. Even now, it is as if the tone of my mother's voice--its pain and its pride--is the closest I can get to the feelings of shame and anger I did not express as a boy. It is the closest I can get to knowing how much my mother loved and was proud of me when I was a child. And knowing this I also know our missed opportunity, my mother's as well as my own, to begin to untangle the still unexpressed feelings surrounding the situation we found ourselves in as I grew up.
Now I remember those long ago half-hours before dinner after a full day's activity when I swam or floated on my back in the Lansman's pool, and I understand the dark blue color of the pool water in late afternoon. It is as if time--all the intervening years--is suspended, and the color of the water is the color of my mother's voice as she is led by her friends that sun-drenched afternoon from the pool into the bungalow with all of the summer gear stored inside, a bungalow that long ago burned to the ground.
As I swim from block to block the short width of the pool, how quickly the dark water that keeps me afloat turns into the lower bunk bed where a part of me, and my relationship with my mother, remains as inert as those concrete blocks installed to keep the pool intact.
My mother does not remember when the horseshoe bungalows burned down. "I think I have a news clipping," she tells me, never offering to find it.
I know the bungalows were still there the summer of 1970, because that was the summer I used a wheelchair as I recuperated from surgery on my right leg that June. I know the horseshoe still existed because I clearly remember I was left on the porch in my wheelchair as my parents and brother unpacked the car when we arrived at Lansman's for the summer. I remember how afraid I was when from my wheelchair I spotted a snake in front of me and the only way to escape was down the two porch steps that I could not navigate alone.
That summer, instead of riding my toy truck down the hill from the casino, I wildly rode my wheelchair down the hill, learning to make pinpoint stops at the base of the hill right in front of the bungalow. This unnerved my parents, especially since after the operation I had no cast to protect my right leg, only bandages over the area where two metal pins had been inserted. Once I reached the bungalow porch, I had to wait for someone inside to come out and lift me up the steps.
But one autumn the horseshoe burned down. My parents spoke endlessly about whether it was arson and whether it was an inside job, those bungalows being the oldest and cheapest the colony had to offer. We wondered if we would have a place to stay the coming summer.
By spring work had begun on four new, more spacious bungalows, two to each sturdy porch. Three of the horseshoe families --us, the Kesslers, and the Eliases--moved into these new bungalows, along with Paul's family, who moved over from their bungalow above the ballfield across Old Murphy Road. That first summer of the new bungalows, the Lansmans allowed the horseshoe families to pay the same price they paid for the older ones. By Memorial Day, when many families first brought their belongings and spent time at the colony, the new bungalows, except for some painting, were ready to go.
The new bungalows were not the only new construction at Lansman's that year. The summer of our new bungalow was also the summer of the new casino, the colony clubhouse that consisted of the food concession, a small grocery store, pinball machines, and a stage where shows played on weekend nights. Well, it wasn't an entirely new casino, but a new addition. Our parents no longer had to play canasta, pinochle, or mah jhong by the pool, outside on picnic tables, or inside the bungalows. Now there was a cardroom, added to the end of the casino closest to our bungalow, where they could pass their time. The cardroom also served as a place where the weekend entertainers could rehearse the afternoon before their show, and where the adults' annual Fourth of July party would be held.
The Fourth of July party was a special occasion at Lansman's. Not only was it the official kickoff for the summer season, but it was a time when the Lansmans served free food and alcohol to their colonists. No children, not even the senior group in the camp, were allowed into the party. Nor were children allowed into the weekend shows that took place on the casino's small stage. Every year the senior group of campers, both boys and girls, organized to put pressure on the Lansmans to allow them into the Fourth of July party and into the weekend shows. But every year the senior group's request was summarily denied.
As I got older, I sometimes spent part of Friday or Saturday night outside the casino door, listening to a singer my parents told me usually sang a song I knew. Or on Friday and Saturday nights I sat on our bungalow porch where I could clearly hear a singer sing a familiar tune. And later, in bed, I stayed up because even inside our bungalow I could hear the not always in tune band play easy listening dance music in the cardroom.
As a child, I tried to stay up late enough to be awake when my parents came back from the casino to the bungalow. But I was never able to do it. Sometimes, when my parents had too much to drink, I was woken by their stumbling into our shared bedroom. On the colder August nights, above the metallic hum of the small portable metal heater with the dark orange horizontal tongs--a fire hazard my father always warned us about--I would hear my mother giggle and my father tell her it was time to go to sleep or not to wake the kids. But my mother still giggled until my father became more stern. "Joanie," would be the last thing I heard him say before I fell back asleep in the increasingly cold room.
The next morning I incessantly quizzed my parents about what had taken place in the casino the night before. Who was there? Where did they sit? Who was the singer? What did the singer sing? Who was the comedian? What were the funny jokes the comedian told? Who danced and who got drunk in the cardroom after the show?
Finally, when I was fifteen and in the senior group at camp, the Lansmans relented and allowed the seniors into the Fourth of July party, albeit after the party had gone on for an hour, and into the show if we sat in the last two rows. But by then, although I went to the party for the food and occasionally went into the casino to hear a singer my parents, longtime fans of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme who played the Concord but never came to Lansman's, had heard before, I had lost interest.
"'Feelings'," my mother told me. "Come because he'll sing 'Feelings.'"
"They all sing 'Feelings'," I answered.
"You always wanted to come into the show. Now that you can come in ..." she said, trailing off before saying, "Suit yourself."
What my mother did not know was that on Friday and Saturday nights my friends and I were drinking cheap blackberry wine, bought for us by our camp counselors for $1.99 a bottle. We took our stash to the campgrounds, which to us were far from the world the adults inhabited inside the darkened casino way past the other side of the pool. On those nights my brother worked late as a waiter at a nearby hotel. I had the bungalow to myself and I could bring Paul, or another one of my longtime Lansman's friends, back for sex.
Although it was at Lansman's that I had my first summer girlfriend, it was also at Lansman's where I fulfilled my boyhood fantasies of having sex with my male friends. To this day I am amazed at how easily I was able to have sex with friends who, except for their youthful summer sessions in which they willingly played their part, never had sex with a man. I remain surprised at how easily we moved from pajama parties and changing into our swimsuits in the same room to games of strip poker, from jumping naked over the campfire during sleepouts in the woods to robust sexual experimentation that lasted year after year, not ending until we were through our first years of college.
I often wonder what my childhood friends, most now married, think of those unclothed hours we spent together. Was it attraction we felt for each other? Did they ever have sex with each other? How many of them thought they were the only one doing those things? I wonder if they ever talked among themselves about those nights. Or was I the only one who knew?
I kept up with those friends long after I had told them about my homosexuality and started writing about it. Did my being gay somehow make them question their own sexual identities? How many of my friends will read this and recognize themselves twenty-five years later? And remembering those nights, how do they now feel about the sex we once shared? What do they think now of Lansman's, the place we once considered, for eight weeks each summer, home?
The culmination of the summer was Color War. The penultimate week of our stay at Lansman's, the last week of camp, all the camp groups were divided into two teams: the Red and the White. Four counselors, two boys and two girls, as rewards for their exemplary leadership during the summer, were paired off to head the teams as generals. During the first weeks of August there was rampant speculation on the part of campers and counselors: Who would be the generals? Which pair would head the Red, which the White? What would the teams be called this year? And most of all: When, where, and in what way would Larry, the head counselor, decide to start Color War, when all hell broke lose and the printed sheets of who was on what team were distributed to the colony. One year the sheets were thrown from an ambulance that came to help after what turned out to be a staged car accident on Old Murphy Road; another year they were dropped like airlifted food from an airplane.
As the anticipation intensified, the entire history of Color War --which at Lansman's dated at least back to 1959 when the legendary Red Coats (named after the British troops during the Revolutionary War) almost upset the Tally-Ho White (named for the playing card company) after entering Sing, the final event of Color War, way behind--was rehashed in heated conversations over breakfast in bungalows, canasta in the casino, and during General Swim. Would the Red Team, losers except for the one-point come-from-behind victory of the 1967 Psychedelic Red, finally break the historic pattern?
If everyone else at Lansman's looked forward to Color War, I was obsessed with it. During regular camp, when sports filled most of the scheduled time, because of my disability and despite some heroics such as a last out catch at second base that secured a close victory in an important inter-colony softball game, I was not a great competitive athlete. But during Color War, this disadvantage was more than offset by my buoyant team spirit and my ability to teach the younger campers the songs. I was also able to fill significant niches, first as the down man carried by his legs while running on his hands in the wheelbarrow race, later by correctly calculating the crucial mathematical equation in the all-important Apache Relay team event. And later, when I was no longer a camper and I became camp dramatics counselor, I was sought after by the generals so I could help pick an original team name, plan the team banner and Sing costumes, and most importantly, write the lyrics (we used the tunes of popular songs) to the four required Color War songs: the march, the cheer, the comedy song, and the alma mater.
Every Color War morning the teams gathered for line-up, each team on their respective side of the old handball court. If a camper was late, a point was deducted by the head counselor, the lifeguard, and the nature counselor, who served as judges. When both teams were fully gathered, the banners were brought from the campgrounds. As our team's banner approached, a counselor led us in a cheer, whose phrases the team repeated:
"Hey, Red Team. (Hey, Red Team.) Beat the White team. (Beat the White team.) Sound off. (One, two.) Sound off. (Three, four.)"
And after the other teamed cheered, our team, say Hatari Red, marched in line to the campgrounds, singing our march--("We're marching down the field to sure victory, we always stand for honor, integrity. With all our might, we're gonna fight. As we sing our praise to Lansman's....").
On Wednesday afternoon, the camp was transported by buses, one for each team, to a bowling alley in Liberty, ten miles away. As our bus headed down Route 52, we sang our cheer to the tune of "High Hopes": "Cause we will win this fight/Thousand Island White/we are winning and scoring/with all of our might. /As past Whites have all done before,/first in Color War,/ we will not take defeat. /You just heard the way it used to be. / Now, you'll see/the way it's gonna be./Onward to another white victory."
During Color War week many families were pitted against each other: the son might be on the Red Team, the daughter on White. A mother might root for one team, a father the other. Friends and camper couples got into shouting matches. Relationships were broken, others forged. Occasionally physical fights erupted.
The week's activities ended with the Sing. As the week progressed, counselors and senior campers stayed on the campgrounds later and later into the night, making the costumes, constructing the team plaque, writing the script for the team's procession into the swimming pool area, where Sing was held. Parents began to wonder if the weather would hold up, and if it rained would Sing be postponed a night or held indoors in the casino? By mid-week, certainly by Thursday, many voices, including my own, were hoarse or lost, and back-up plans--who would lead the team at Sing if the general could not be heard?--were contemplated.
And then it was Sing. The teams began to get in costume in the early evening. Some mothers took their chaise lounges and deck chairs to the pool in order to reserve prime places for the evening's festivities. By dusk all the fathers had arrived, taking off from work an hour or so early to ensure they would not miss any of the night's events. At eight P.M. the outside judges, usually from other camps, took their places by the pool. The head counselor welcomed everyone to the Sing and explained the rules and how points would be awarded. The losing team would enter first, then the leaders. Each team presented their plaque and their banner; the teams exchanged gifts; and alternating, sang their march, their cheer, their comedy song, and finally, their alma mater ("As leaves start to fall, and the summer slowly draws to a close ...").
Then, as the judges convened to add up their respective scores, and as the parents began their nervous chatter across the pool, the generals led their team in cheers. The Red Team: "Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate? The White Team. The White Team. Yay, the White Team." After, it was the White Team's turn: "One, three, five, nine, who do we think is mighty fine? The Red Team. The Red Team. Yay, the Red Team."
Finally, the head counselor came up to the microphone and, category after category, beginning with the entrance and ending with the alma mater, read off the scores, and as he did so we calculated in our minds if we had enough points to win.
My last year of Color War saw it come down to the alma mater. If we won that song, worth one hundred points, by at least twenty-two points, my team, White Atlantis, would win what I knew was my last Color War.
We won the song, 60-40, and lost Color War by one point. When the head counselor announced the final score, the closest Color War in history, many campers on the winning Chicago Red, dressed as gangsters in cardboard fedoras and flapper molls in their mothers' high heels, jumped, without buddies, into the pool. On our side, members of the losing White Atlantis stayed on shore.
Ten days later, on the Tuesday after Labor Day, my family packed up our two cars. As we did every summer for the last thirteen years, we drove down Route 17 and across the George Washington Bridge. When we arrived in Brooklyn, the elevator that served the odd-numbered floors was out of service--we lived on fifteen. We put our suitcases and boxes in a metal shopping cart, went up in the even-elevator to sixteen, and one step at a time rolled our belongings down to the fifteenth floor, past the incinerator room and into 15F, our apartment.
I am watching the Yankees on television when I start cheering: "We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher," an old chant we used to shout to the opposing team's pitcher during softball games at Lansman's. Kevin, my lover, begins to laugh.
"You find that funny?"
"Is that from Color War? Sing me one of those songs," he asks.
"We're marching down the field to sure victory ..." I begin singing. "That one?" I ask him, making sure he really wants me to go through with this.
"When we go visit your parents, will you take me to Lansman's?"
Kevin is not one for nostalgia. Why does he want me to take him to Lansman's? Why, over our years together, have 1 regaled him with story after story about my summers in the Catskills? Why twenty-five years later do I still remember those Color War songs?
The summer of White Atlantis was my family's last year at Lansman's. Twenty-five years ago my parents bought a small house in Kauneonga Lake, a small town fifteen miles from the bungalow colony. My brother continued to work in hotels in the area for many years. In college I visited my parents' summer home sporadically. As I got older I traveled to the Catskills less and less.
It is Kevin who likes to visit my parents in their house near the lake during the summer. And when we go, I take him to Lansman's. "The bungalows have all gone condo," my mother tells me.
As Kevin and I drive to Lansman's, I point out sights I remember. "That's the lake we would go rowing in," I say when we pass Loch Sheldrake. "That used to be the abandoned Monterey Hotel which we were convinced was spooked," I say as I make a right turn off Route 42 onto Old Murphy Road. "Farmer Brown's Field. We were told an old man would shoot at us if we played there."
I slow down to show Kevin the Lansman's campgrounds. The nature shack, the arts and crafts shed, the head counselor's hut--all the buildings look so much smaller than I remember. We pass the pool. The old handball courts, where all those Color War lineups were held every morning and every afternoon, are no longer standing. Rows of boxes with colorful flowers adorn what used to be our bungalow. A tall fence has been built outside the casino to prevent children from running across Old Murphy Road.
Stopping the car, I look back and notice how close the campgrounds are to the pool, and how close the pool is to what was once our bungalow. The hill that I used to ramble down in my wheelchair that summer after surgery is no more than an incline. All these years I have imagined my angry and pained mother, full of pride, dressed in her white one-piece bathing suit, wearing her dark sunglasses that are too big for her face, being escorted by her friends from the pool. Years ago, did she actually have a fight with Isabel Levine? Why do you want to know? It is my mother's voice that echoes this question back to me as I sit in the car looking at the lawn on which I played as both young teenager and child.
"The place seemed so much bigger then," I hear myself tell Kevin. "Everything seemed so far from everything else. A world of its own."
As the day grows darker, I begin to smell the charcoal from the early evening barbecues and it is once again one of those long ago Friday nights when I waited for my father to return from the city. I did not know where the road went once it passed the bungalow colony. I imagined that each car that did not hold my father within it would pass where I waited and having nowhere to go, disappear.