Posted by: Catadromy | July 10, 2017

O Maple Lake, O Maple Lake!

It’s a ritual for upper middle class children in the Northeast to go to what’s fondly known as sleep-away camp for the months of July and August.  Parents load their children onto yellow schoolbuses, complete with their suitcases and bedrolls and ship them off to the wildernesses of the Catskills or the Adirondacks or the Poconos.

Throughout my younger days, I attended these camps as a camper. But it wasn’t until I was hired on to work as a counselor at one that my eyes were opened to the true reality of life at a Camp For Overprivileged Children.

For that is indeed what these camps are (or were—for like many things from my youth, I don’t know if they still exist, at least, not in the same form).  The campers were from upper middle class families, the counselors were college students and the waitstaff were generally still in high school.

I got my job through a family connection the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. This particular camp was in the Catskills, very near to Grossinger’s.  Originally, I was assigned a bunk of 10 year-old girls. When the camp’s Director found out I had my WSI (Water Safety Instructor), I was made the Waterfront Counselor (in addition to my bunk). Meant I was the pool lifeguard, taught swimming and had the keys to the boathouse. All for only $125 for the entire 8 weeks. Not per week—all 8 weeks total. That and all the tips we were able to extort on Palm Sunday. (More on that later.)

The pool wasn’t heated. I hate cold water. Most days found me poolside, wearing a sweatshirt over my swimsuit, bamboo pole in hand, watching the kids in the pool. When I gave lessons, I lay down on the diving board to show them the basics of the strokes. Swimming for the campers was mandatory—big selling point to the parents—so even if they didn’t want to get in the pool, they received a gentle nudge from my bamboo pole.  All of the campers who didn’t already know how to swim, learned. And I’m happy to report not a single drowning occurred that summer.

The cabins or bunks at this camp were essentially made out of tissue paper. Needless to say, smoking in the bunks was totally forbidden, due to the extreme fire hazard.  Unlike today, smoking wasn’t seen in so evil a light; we could smoke, we just couldn’t smoke in the bunks. I, of course, did just that. I couldn’t be bothered to go outside or into the dining hall or sit by the pool. I wanted to smoke and I wanted to smoke now.

I got fired.

But, wait. You can’t fire the only lifeguard. What about the pool? Swimming lessons?

I got re-hired.

At the time, the legal drinking age in New York was 18. There was a small town near the camp that the counselors would go to on our nights off to drink. Lord knows, we needed to drink. There was one particular bar we liked, known as Art’s Blue Room. Quite popular among us.  Monday nights were all-camp meetings, led by the Director.  She was passive-aggressive to the utmost. She would never call people out by name, but rather by the clothing they were wearing. One Monday, it was my turn.

‘You there, in the yellow sweater.’ A roomful of eyes swiveled in my direction. ‘The cream of the crop of Livingston Manor does not frequent Art’s Blue Room.’ In my defense, I wasn’t the only one of us there that night. Maybe it was the sweater that caught her eye. Maybe she was still unhappy about the smoking incident.

I got fired again.

But, I’m the only lifeguard. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

This camp shared a lake with a much larger, fancier and richer camp. With much better waiters. I mean, I had a waiter of my own (wink, wink) but I wanted something better. So, I and several of my friends took out a rowboat (keys to the boathouse, remember?) and rowed across the lake to this other camp for a Night to Remember.  Ah, yes.

I got fired for the third time.

Lifeguard? Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

After all, there’s still Palm Sunday and Color War to get through.

I promised an explanation of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is formally known as Visiting Day. It’s the second Sunday in August and the day the parents come up to see how their precious little darlings are doing, after having been entrusted to the care of a bunch of drunken, hormonal college students. It’s called Palm Sunday because the counselors (metaphorically) stand with their palms outstretched, waiting to receive their tips from the parents of their charges. For some strange reason, my 10 year-olds loved me. I cleaned up.  It’s nice to have rich parents. Not me—them.

Color War comes after Palm Sunday. It’s the Big Finish, if you will. The entire camp is divided into two teams, assigned to either one of the camp’s two colors—in this case, green or white.

I was the water sports coach for the Green team.  Needless to say, we won our events. There’s a point-scoring system; I don’t recall which team won the war. There weren’t trophies or certificates. Back in those days, there were no awards for just showing up, unlike today.

At the end of August, the yellow schoolbuses returned and the process was reversed. Happy, suntanned campers packed up their suitcases, swore to write to everyone in their respective bunks (and their beloved counselors!) forever and went back to New York, secure in their happy little lives, knowing that nothing would ever happen to them to change that.

The counselors swore off working for slave wages ever again and vowed to get a better job someplace, anyplace rather than spend another summer catering to the whims of Overprivileged Children (no matter how well-behaved).




  1. Fun, fun, fun!

    Sent remotely. I can be reached on my cell phone at 818.426.6997 Bill G


  2. I went to Camp Maple Lake as a camper. I think then a junior counselor? Not sure.

    • So did I Are you Ira’s brother?

  3. my father was at Maple Lake as a counselor for 3 years way back in the late 1920’s. His memories are clear as a bell, he had a wonderful experience – he speaks of his time there frequently. He is now 103.

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