A Summer at Camp Kweebec

By ·

Campers at the summer camp Camp Kweebec, outside of Philadelphia.[1]

Here are some things kids are still doing at sleep-away summer camp: learning woodworking, taking swimming lessons, making bracelets out of colored strings and letter beads that spell EMILY or ALLIE, trudging back to a hunter green cabin after an endless sunstroke kickball game, running to the canteen for water ice on moonlit, cricket-serenade nights, writing letters home begging for gum, getting the nickname “Chunks,” zip-lining, co-opting Indian words, obsessing over the girls/boys in the other bunks, dodging bees, collecting splinters, fighting homesickness, and trying to look cool despite everything.

I witnessed many of these activities last August, when I—a full-grown man—spent most of a week embedded at Camp Kweebec, a camp for boys and girls ages six to 16 in the far suburbs of Philadelphia.

One thing I was determined to investigate upon my arrival was whether camp still smelled the same. I have vague sense-memories from my camp days decades ago, and probably the strongest is the musty aroma of the black steamer trunk, with its sturdy cardboard shelf, that I set up next to my cot. I inherited it from an older cousin who, my forensic sniff test indicated, had died in it, tragically perspiring to death after overdosing on mothballs.

I have to admit, the camp memories I’ve extracted from the mildewed footlocker of my mind are mixed and a little warped. As a kid, I attended overnight camps in New England for parts of three summers, but my experience was more Holden Caulfield than Huckleberry Finn. I was introverted, scared to swim, tiny for my age. I would have been happy to stay home playing wiffle ball and drawing comics with friends I already had. I recently dug through some old papers and found a progress report that my first camp counselor, straining to be upbeat, wrote to my parents when I was eight: “Donny has gotten over the ‘smallest kid in the cabin’ syndrome and has been getting along with the other boys fairly well. He has adjusted to the camp program and seems to enjoy it.”

One famous letter I wrote home begins: “Dear Everybody, Camp is ok but getting worse.”

The camp memory that always comes to my mind first is from a rainy day when water activities were canceled due to bad weather, a turn of events that secretly made me happy. I was watching a storm whip up the lake, along with a few kids and the swim instructor, and I got up the nerve to speak out loud for a change: “I wouldn’t want to swim in that!” The swim instructor cruelly cracked, “You can’t swim.” I guess he showed me, because I didn’t talk a lot after that. After all these years, I’ll only grudgingly forgive him now. Maybe he’s dead.

My experience isn’t typical. Thousands of delighted families across the Philadelphia region have sent offspring to overnight camps to play sports and make friends and become young adults, and those kids loved every minute of it. I know many of them as old adults. They’re pillars of society: lawyers, doctors, executives. Some couldn’t get enough; they became counselors after they couldn’t be campers anymore, then had children so they could send them.

Kweebec, founded in the 1930s, is the kind of traditional camp that generations of Philadelphians have lodged in their memories as pure and unadulterated, the sort of institution that remains the way it was when things were still great, like scorekeeping a baseball game or blowing out birthday candles. My official assignment there was to investigate how summer camp has or hasn’t changed, to contemplate why the tradition has stood the test of time. My unofficial mission was to see if I could discover what I’d missed as a kid. And maybe smell around a little.

I ARRIVED FOR my week at Kweebec on a dry Sunday afternoon, as the annual Color War, that most resilient tradition, was about to begin. At the entry to the camp is a dusty central field, a hundred yards of matted yellow grass and dirt paths, the kind that can make you feel like you’re far away from everything. There was an unfortunate delay to the Color War opening ceremony, which at Kweebec they call the “break” because like all smart camps, they have a special word for everything. (The camp nurse would tell me: “For my first week, I thought I couldn’t do this job, because I didn’t know what anybody was talking about.”)

They pronounce Kweebec the way Americans say “Quebec,” though it’s located in less-exotic-sounding Schwenksville, which is off the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeast Extension before you get to the Poconos. One legend says the original owners had their honeymoon in the French-Canadian city and, when they found the name had already been taken by another camp, just camp-etized it with a K. Kweebec has had a reputation as a sports camp ever since Les Weiser, a former Lower Merion lacrosse coach and childhood Kweebec camper himself, bought the place in 1969 and started inviting athletes as guest instructors, studs like Wilt Chamberlain, Harold Carmichael, Stanley Cup-era Flyers. The camp still attracts jock-y kids. There’s a resident tennis pro. It also has art, music, theater and a horse-riding ring, and the staff takes older campers on road trips to go sight-seeing and even check out colleges.

Overnight camps cost a lot to run these days, and they’re not cheap. The fee at Kweebec is $8,795 for seven weeks ($8,995 for older kids), which depending on your income bracket seems like either what’s wrong with America or the going rate for this kind of thing. Pine Forest and Canadensis, up in the Poconos, cost a little more. Saginaw, Green Lane and Nock-a-Mixon are a little less. The specialized Krinsky camps can run $6,000 for four weeks. These fees, now the norm, reminded me of Meatballs, the 1979 movie where Bill Murray plays a counselor at bargain-basement Camp North Star. In one scene, he does a local TV interview posing as a programs director for Camp Mohawk, the ritzier across-the-lake rival.

“How do you justify $1,000 a week?” the reporter asks. “Well, our political roundtable,” Murray says. “Yasser Arafat is gonna come out, spend a weekend with the kids, just rap with them. … The kids wanted animals, so this summer each camper will stalk and kill his own bear in our private wildlife preserve. … ”

Anyway, by tradition, Color War at Kweebec “breaks” with a wacky surprise event. They’ve had fireworks displays. One year they brought in elephants. Campers don’t know when the break is coming, but when something bizarre starts, they know what it means. The mastermind behind the breaks is Rachel Weiser Weisman, the often-frantic eldest daughter of camp owners Les and Maddy Weiser. For this year’s break, she arranged for a small fire to be set on the grounds. The Limerick fire department would roar in, sirens sounding, and douse the blaze. The gathering campers would realize this was it: Color War was on! But the local FD had an actual emergency, and Rachel had to scramble for a new idea. The break would be delayed.

In the mess hall for dinner that night—turkey, string beans, chocolate cake, bug juice—the kids sensed something was up. A table of little girls chanted “One-two-three-four, we want a Color War!” while performing ritualistic clapping and fist-knocking gestures. On the wood walls all around the cafeteria were remnants of Color Wars past, hand-painted plaques from the “chariots” the senior-bunk girls have built for each year’s Chariot Race. Competing in the Chariot Race is a milestone to which every Kweebec girl aspires. For boys, it’s a rite-of-passage event called Rope Burn, which isn’t what it sounds like.

Waiting for the war to break, I continued my informal hunt for evocative smells. I toured a boys’ bunk, Oklahoma (all the bunks are named after colleges), and it was familiar: the metal-frame bunk beds, clothes hanging on rafters, toiletries fighting for space. But it did nothing for me smell-wise. Campers don’t even bring trunks anymore. Now it’s backpacks, soft duffels. A lot at camp is softer now. They still do bunk inspections at Kweebec, but they don’t require hospital corners on sheets. They don’t play “Reveille” in the morning. “It startles the kids too much,” Rachel Weiser Weisman told me. “We wake up the kids by flipping on the lights and sort of saying ‘Good morning!’”

Horseplay in general is down. Being responsible for children these days has become a high-wire act. You can’t endanger kids, you can’t discipline them, you can’t get too close. I asked Les, whom campers call Uncle Les, about navigating the modern territory. “The question comes up: How do you hug a kid?” he says. The answer at today’s camp is this: “You hug from the side.”

COLOR WAR FINALLY broke early Tuesday. Counselors rousted campers before sunrise, and they watched technicians blow fire into two rainbow-colored hot-air balloons. Everyone looked up, and blue and white confetti rained down from the gondolas. This means war!

Camp immediately was divided in two—Blue City and White Country—like in that General Custer movie where the cadets at West Point are split when Civil War is declared. Morning competition included fishing in the camp’s small pond. Fish were one point each, with a bonus for catching Jackson, the legendary giant catfish with a gold tooth. There also were kayak races in the 40-acre lake that the Weisers built last summer.

After lunch (hot dogs, hamburgers, watermelon), the war continued as counselor Shawn Kaplan coached a White team of eight- and nine-year-old boys on the basketball court. “How many know how to play a zone defense?” he asked. Zero hands went up. “Okay,” he said. “We’re gonna play a two-three zone defense.” He told me after breaking the huddle, “They have a tendency to foul a lot when they play man-to-man.”

White got the opening bucket to go up 2-0, a good start for the strategy, but momentum shifted and Blue won, 17-2. One of the kids I’d seen at lunch got hit in the face with the ball at least twice. Maybe not all of camp has gotten softer.

Every parent knows that summer camps are about building children’s self-sufficiency­ and confidence. Camp also is a constant in a time when so much Earth can shake beneath our children’s feet. It’s one of the few things left that are still similar to how they were for us, a way to give kids a childhood experience we can relate to. At Kweebec, about 30 percent of campers have parents who went there.

But let’s be honest, too: One purpose of summer camp is to get the little mother-lovers out of the house for a while. Because, seriously, how long has it been? I imagine that was another reason my parents sent me and my brother away, despite our perfect willingness to stay home and demand their attention during all waking hours.

The secret to a successful camp, one that understands parental needs, is making the kids want to come back again next summer. Kweebec’s return rate is insanely close to 100 percent. That’s partly about the friendships, which campers forge in shared moments of independence and maintain off-season via texting and Facebook and Skype. (The kids can use no communications tech on campus.) But it’s also the world-of-its-own that a great camp creates, with its rituals and legends and secret words that outsiders don’t get. It’s about the rising status and privilege a camper gains by returning year after year. Little girls at Kweebec idolize the young women of the oldest bunk, Wellesley, who live not in a cabin but upstairs in the central Mansion House. The 16-year-old boys in Villanova swagger like kings and have privileged roles in events like the epic Rope Burn.

“When I was young, I could name the kids in ’Nova,” said Matt Goldberg, who got his nickname, “Chunks,” here years ago when he resembled a character in The Goonies. “We all looked up to them. Now everyone looks up to us.”

“I’m 16,” said his bunkmate, Troy Tucker. “People ask me, ‘What are you doing for the summer?’ and I say I’m going to overnight camp, and they say ‘Still?’ They look at me like I’m crazy. But if you’re on the outside looking in, you just don’t get it.”

Toward the end of Color War, there’s the Apache Relay, in which every camper has a small role: a run, a swim, a set of push-ups, blowing a bubble from frozen gum, making a bed. It ends with one anchorman from each team onstage at the “Campitheater” eating a pie (blueberry this year) loaded with an entire aerosol can of whipped cream. The whole can? “That’s how we know it’s fair,” Les told me.

White’s runner arrived at the stage first, and Tyler, a Villanova bunk member who’d been watching older campers do this for years, thrust his face into the dessert topping. A chant rose: “Eat that pie! Eat that pie!” About five minutes into the munch, the inevitable happened. Tyler lurched a little, and a burst of purple mud seeped out of his mouth, back onto the pie plate.

I had been told that regurgitation wouldn’t end a pie-eating effort. I never imagined this rule would come into play, that one young man would have to make the ultimate sacrifice for his team. There have been legendary moments in the annals of Philadelphia sports: Chamberlain’s 100-point game, the Flyers’ 1974 Cup championship. I’ll spare the details, but Tyler cleaned his plate first. He won the Apache Relay. His teammates mobbed the stage. Someone shouted “That’s how to get it done!” and slapped him on the back. Younger boys gaped in awe. Someday, they dared to dream, that’s gonna be me.

I’m not saying I would have slurped that pie goop myself, but I was beginning to understand what I missed as a kid. These were epic moments, high-emotion memories packed into a brief time, that you don’t get from the routine of school or staying home. And the more I pillaged my memory, fed by what I was witnessing, the more I realized that I actually spent some time liking camp. I remembered that I was on my team’s spelling-bee roster for Color War one year, and overheard one counselor telling another—knowing I was in earshot—that we had spelling bee clinched because Steinberg was in it. I quietly glowed. I also remember the word I misspelled to be eliminated in an early round: courageous.

And that letter I wrote that started “Camp is ok but getting worse”? It contained no evidence of anything getting worse. Its next sentence was about feeding frogs. “I am making a model car and when you wind it up it goes,” it said. “I bought some gimp and I am working on a square stitch. Our cabin is going to camp outside tomorrow. We are having a tournament in archery and I’m in second place. We saw a James Bond movie last night until 10 o’clock.”

ON FRIDAY EVENING, the camp’s senior boys donned matching bandanas and their most hard-ass game faces and walked deliberately to the top of the crest, the camp’s highest ground, for Rope Burn. Hundreds of people were assembled to watch from the sidelines, including parents on folding chairs. Rope Burn works like this: For each team, there’s a rope tied between two metal poles at a height of exactly 12.5 feet. The object is to build a fire below the rope that will climb high enough to sear through it. First team to burn its rope wins. They were allowed to use no matches, just flints. Wood-arranging methods to create maximum flame height had been passed down for ages, the preferred technique currently being “teepee-box-teepee.”

The sun was dipping below the trees. Team members hustled to gather logs and sticks from the nearby woods. Others started to dig fire pits. In the crowd, younger Blue and White campers traded frantic chants. Soon the sun was gone, and a half moon glowed in the sky. By 8:30, two bonfires raged. Boys raced for wood and added it to their piles, bravely reaching into the flames to arrange logs, urgently waving blankets to direct the blazes. They were drenched in sweat and dirt. Blue’s flame surged higher, and at 8:45 its rope broke first. Team members collapsed in a victory pigpile. Most of these boys wouldn’t be back as campers after this summer. There’s probably something about the rite of fire, the burning, the breaking of the rope, that symbolizes a departure from childhood. Anyway, it was intense. The heat of the flames was warming the crowd. The fires crackled audibly and threw off orange embers that twinkled against the dark sky and disappeared. The smoke blew in my face. Now it smelled like camp.

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://www.phillymag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/camp_kweebec_philadelphia_summer.jpg

Source URL: https://www.phillymag.com/news/2012/06/28/rites-passage-summer-camp-kweebec/