At a time of important international and domestic crises, when our national leaders in Washington are polarized on most the Big Issues of the day, I thought this might be a good time to try to explain an experience shared by millions of Americans that actually might have some relevance to today’s divisive times.
That is the seven-week sleep-away camp experience and, specifically, my memories of a particular camp in northeastern Pennsylvania named Camp Equinunk.
It’s not that this is an experience unique to me. New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote a column about Camp Equinunk a few years ago, noting that attending this camp back in the 1950s as dramatics counselor was Arthur Laurents, author of “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”
Mr. Rich has said that few columns he ever wrote received the kind of positive response from so many people as this one did. ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser, who wrote a long piece for the Style section of The Washington Post in the 1980s about the self-contained life and culture of an eight-week summer camp, said the same thing about reader response to his piece.
Being a kid at a seven-week sleep-away camp is a field of dreams - as close to heaven as a baseball field carved out of a cornfield in Iowa.
This past Saturday, my wife and I were part of a one-day migration of thousands of parents to “parents visiting day” in Wayne County, Pa., in the Pocono mountains, blessed with hundreds of small lakes ideal for a camp setting and a mecca for dozens of sleep-away camps for more than a half-century.
We were visiting our 11-year-old son Josh, who is spending all July and three weeks in August at Camp Equinunk.
In 1964 and 1966, I was at Equinunk as a general athletic, dramatics and music counselor. My two oldest children, daughter Marlo and son Seth, also went there, in the 1980s. And Marlo’s two children - Jake, 11, and Sydney, 8 - are attending Trail’s End Camp, just down the road.
Seth even went back, nine years after graduating Equinunk as a Gray team “Color War Chief” in 1990 (see more about “Color War” below). By then a Sports Illustrated reporter, Seth brought his notebooks and lived for the summer in a teenage “senior” bunk, taking real-time notes of all that happened throughout the camp that summer to try to capture the true camp experience. The book was published in 2002, as “Equinunk, Tell Your Story”: the opening line of the camp alma mater.
Those of us who understand the seven-week camp experience think you need that much time to fully appreciate all the cycles of camp - with a beginning, middle and an end.
The first part of the cycle takes about two weeks - just to get settled and comfortable with a new town or small community of about 300-500 children and about the same number of counselors and staff. And then it hits you: Freedom! No mom yelling at you to clean up your room or pick up your dirty underwear. There is a counselor, but that doesn’t really count; he usually has dirty underwear of his own too that hasn’t been picked up.
The second cycle, the middle three weeks, is mostly about playing competitive sports all day. And then the glorious nights - with mountain country skies seemingly more brilliant and numerous than the stars of the Hayden Planetarium. And “nighttime” means nighttime in the bunks, after a recorded rendition of “Taps” is played about 9 p.m. over the loudspeaker, and “lights out” is announced.
Some lights out. Now it begins: Pillow fights. Games. Conversations about everything. Flashlights under covers in older bunks, with strange sounds and sometimes abrupt movements. Pizza sneaked into the bunk at midnight by your counselor - dry, stale and so delicious. If you are really lucky in the preteen and teenage bunks at night, you have a counselor who tells tales about his conquests involving the opposite sex - which even at a younger age, you instinctively know are highly exaggerated.
And then the third, most important cycle begins, usually about the fifth or sixth week. On a particular day, mysteriously chosen, the Upper Seniors - the oldest teen campers who loudly proclaim all the time that they “run the camp” - begin The Cheer all have been waiting for, in the mess hall during lunch. The seniors start with the youngest children, 7 or 8 years old, and then from table to table, on up the age groups, until finally the entire dining room rocks with stomping and with screaming children’s (and counselors’) voices:
“One, two, three, four / We want Color War / five, six, seven, eight / we don’t wanna wait.”
And what is “Color War,” you ask? It’s not race war, which non-camp people often think the first time they hear the expression. Simply put, it’s a four-day athletic competition - with the camp divided among all age groups into two teams, playing different events for different amounts of points. Each team is identified by one of the two colors of the camp - in the case of Equinunk, Red and Gray.
But Color War is about more than athletic competition and winning, although there is a lot of pressure to win and a lot of heartache to lose.
It’s more about being on a team, about loyalty, about bonding, and especially, about loving, even worshipping, your “Chief” - the counselor chosen to lead each team - and being inspired by his Knute Rockne-type morale-boosting speeches throughout “the War.”
Without fail, every summer in Color War, it seems, at least one child in each group who spent all summer thinking he was a mediocre athlete hits a home run to win the game, or comes from behind at the track meet to win the race - and is carried off the field on the shoulders of his entire Color War team, and cheered with a standing ovation in the dining room. And for that singular moment, which he will never forget for the rest of his life, he is a hero.
On the evening of the fourth day of Color War, it suddenly ends. The final scores are announced late at night in front of the whole camp and scores of visiting parents and alumni going back decades. The Chiefs strike the “Red” and the “Gray” axes stuck into the pole at differing heights, depending on who won. Tears are shed, some bitter and angry. And then final speeches by each Chief. The scene is dramatically lit up by car lights and flashlights, casting long shadows, real and allegorical.
And then … something magical happens. The intensely divided two camps of Red and Gray suddenly become one camp again. The hatchets are taken out of the scoring totem pole, and the ritual of the burying of the hatchets makes “The End” official. Arms of Red and Gray teams are linked, tears roll down the cheeks of many campers, the counselors, and of parents who are watching, too. And, now amid hugs and arms around shoulders, all sing the camp alma mater, first written in the 1950s by a future Columbia Records executive, Mike Klepper, for his Gray Color War team, but then adopted as the camp’s official alma mater.
Here is the first verse of the moving refrain, from the music introducing the famous Alan Ladd western classic, “Shane”: “Equinunk, tell your story / Whispering hopes sending voices through the sky / Chanting hymns of your praise / Recalling anew Red and Gray.”
So, the contemporary relevance of all this? Forgive the stretch, but wouldn’t it be welcome if politicians in Washington could act this way once in a while, figuratively bury the hatchet, sing a unifying alma mater, and actually work together to solve some of our country’s most important problems?
Anyway, back to the end of camp. After that last night dawns the last day - and you are all too quickly on the buses and home, with mom and dad there to greet you. And part of you is glad to be back to civilization and glad to be home.
But the other part hits you, hits you hard, when you come home and walk into your room by yourself on the first day home. An overwhelming ache of emptiness seems to press against your chest, as you look around your room and realize your bunk mates are not there. And then the shout from downstairs from mom: “Don’t forget to put away your clothes and clean up your room.”
And then you think, “Only 45 weeks to go.”
• Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.” This piece is also published at https://pundits.thehill.com.