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Summer of ’69: The Moon, the Mets and a Camp in the Poconos

by on July 24, 2019 5:00 AM

The summer Neil Armstrong walked on the moon was an awkward time for me. I was too old for camp and too young for Woodstock. 

My mother apparently disagreed about camp. She found a way for the two of us to escape stifling NYC by hiring herself out as a Camp Mother in the Poconos, which would give me, at long last and at no cost, the sleepaway camp experience.

I was ungrateful. (I suspect my city-bound dad was as well.) Summer camp is a culture unto itself, which is to say that it’s steeped in traditions that you cherish if you’re exposed to them at age 5, and that seem downright bizarre if you’re introduced to them at age 14, as I was.

I had never been summoned to a flagpole at dawn by a (recorded) bugle call, or enlisted in color war, or shared living space with nine strangers. Being unfamiliar with these practices was embarrassing, like not knowing how to play on a slide or a seesaw. 

Much about Camp Tioga has faded from memory. The names of my bunk mates, for example, completely escape me, even when I study the only photo I have from that summer, which shows all of us all lined up on a wooden bench. Revealingly, I am wearing, not a camp T-shirt, but one from the University of Buffalo – along with cutoffs and penny loafers, no socks: very collegiate. Revealingly, I am glowering. 

I was particularly irritated by the regimentation of camp life: I didn’t see why we had to abandon a good baseball game to work on some stupid craft project. And I flat-out refused to be part of a production of “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” (I did not get the Most Cooperative Camper award).

On the plus side, I learned to paddle a canoe. A kid named Jerry and I even won a race on the Delaware River. 

The night Neil and Buzz landed on the moon we were all ushered into the dining hall to watch. I wasn’t as impressed as the airplanes-and-rocketry nerds, but I keenly envied the astronauts: I’d much rather have been on the moon than in the Poconos. 

Gathering in a common room to witness an historic event on TV recalled the time six years earlier when I had been ushered into a classroom to watch coverage of the JFK assassination. It now recalls the time five years later when, as a counselor at another camp in the Poconos, I ushered my charges into the dining hall to watch President Nixon announce his resignation, an event from which I drew considerably greater satisfaction.

My second summer in the Poconos was slightly more memorable than the first. As a 19-year-old counselor at Camp Chicopee, I got guff from the kids when I ordered them to tidy up the bunk. At home, a roly-poly wisenheimer told me, the maid made his bed. 

Clearly, these kids were from the posher precincts of Long Island than I.

“You see any maids around here?” I asked.

I’ve forgotten that brat’s name, but one bed over, a kid whose parents sent him a care package of individually packaged coffeecakes became known as Coffeecake from that day forward. A modest kid who wrapped a towel around his waist rather than be seen in his underwear (I could relate) became known as Towelton. 

That summer of 1974 was the time of the Great Marijuana Scare at Camp Chicopee. One by one, we counselors appeared before the camp director to tell him if we’d been smoking dope. He apparently had a list. If your name was on it and you admitted your guilt and promised never to toke again, you were off the hook. If your name was on it and you denied getting high, you were gone.

When my turn came, I said, truthfully, that I was clean. “OK,” he said. “You’re not on my list.” 

I laughed. “I think it’s funny that you have a list,” I said. 

He looked ready to cast me out with the potheads. Maybe I even wanted him to.
But back to the summer of ‘69. When camp ended, Woodstock loomed. I turned my attention to petitioning my parents to let me go. In vain. 

I moped. The Yankees were thoroughly mediocre. The Mets were good, but the Cubs were better. 

Then the miracle unfurled: The Mets blew past the Cubbies on Sept. 10, swept the Braves in the league championship and beat the heavily favored Orioles in the World Series.

Admittedly, I don’t have much of a moonwalk story and I have even less of a Woodstock story. But if you were a certain kind of New York kid that year, the Mets walking away with their first world championship was way more amazing than a guy in a space suit walking on the moon or a bunch of hippies playing in the mud.

 



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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