Mendel Letters 73 — Camp Hurley
April 16, 2022
In my last letter I think was a little too negative about Camp Hurley and so in this letter I want to discuss some of the really terrific things that we did with kids that make me proud to be a teacher and to have been part of the United Community Centers. When I started at the UCC the director’s name was Morris. Morris was also the director of Camp Hurley. Morris was a 1930s communist, a Civil Rights activist, and a World War II veteran. I always felt his experience in the army probably shaped his ideas for camping more than his politics and he and I often came to loggerheads.
One of our biggest battles was over hikes. Morris saw hikes as endurance challenges. He sent out groups of eight and ten year olds with World War II era wood framed backpacks carrying heavy cotton sleeping bags, rain gear, and number 10 cans of food. The kids rebelled, dropped the packs, and bitter counselors, after yelling at the kids, ended up carrying everything. I argued that hiking should be a fun opportunity to learn about nature and camping skills. My motto was “travel lite.” Younger kids could share blankets and forget the rain gear. If it rains, so you get wet. Morris and I never resolved our differences about hikes or almost anything else, but eventually he let me do it my way. My best hike at Camp Hurley was with a group of pre-teen boys and girls. We were following the Roundout River near Ellenville and camped for the night. About 2 AM it started to rain. I woke everyone and said roll up your bags and get dressed because we are going to walk. Anything would be better than lying there is soaked sleeping bags. We followed a country road that ran parallel to the Roundout until we found a highway overpass we could huddle under for shelter. About dawn it stopped raining. We hung up wet clothes and jumped into warm, dry sleeping bags. It was one of the best hikes ever.
Camp stuff can be fun. One year I had a group of ten-year old boys who were always doing somersaults, headstands, and cartwheels. Instead of getting annoyed with them, I got camp administrators to agree they could form a performing tumbling troupe and put on a show for the rest of camp. Another year my group cooked Chinese Pork Buns for the entire camp. It took hours to clean up the flour mess but kneading the dough was like playing with clay and then you could eat your creations.
Because of its leftwing ideological roots, Camp Hurley idealized work and workers as the salt of the Earth. Unfortunately, some of the work projects kids were involved in reflected no sense of what was age appropriate or what could be learned from work, so work became its opposite, chores or punishments because you are assigned to do it. But there were some work projects I was lucky enough to be involved with that were really exciting for me and the kids, especially after my friend Martin replaced Morris as camp director.
Camp Hurley opened in the 1930s and by the 1970s the road downhill from the main camp to the waterfront was eroding in places, especially near a sharp turn. I was working with a group of nine-year olds and we were tasked to repair some of the more dangerous portions of the road. We collected flat rocks using a wheel barrel and brought them to the spot on the road. We cleaned the drainage ditch with shovels and rakes, laid down a thin layer of cement, and wedged in the rocks. About a week later I was working with the camp newspaper guild and a relief counselor was helping my group put away their laundry when it started to rain. The relief counselor came to get me because the kids ran away. I had to laugh. I took him to the bend in the road where the kids were gathered. They didn’t care about getting wet. They wanted to see if their repairs to the road were working. Another summer I was working with eleven-year olds and we tore down the old tottering baseball backstop and built a new one. Then we got to play ball.
The steps down to the waterfront through the woods were also eroding. This was a big job and I did it with 12-year olds. We arranged with the camp administration to let us keep tools onsite so we didn’t have to waste time and sign them out every morning and back in at night and the kids negotiated that in the afternoons after work they could have free swim in the lake. The construction of the new steps involved a lot of planning and the kids were involved in measurement and calculation. How wide and deep should the steps be? What was the drop between steps? How much wood, metal rods, and gravel would we need to complete the job? It took almost three weeks to finish and when we were done the entire camp lined up at the top of the steps and walked down to the waterfront!
Another project, this one with older teenagers, also involved a lot of math. The roof of a cabin back in the woods off of the camp road was leaking badly and had to be stripped and reroofed. A role of tarpaper weighs about ninety pounds and a role of felt paper about half as much. Buckets of patching tar weigh about thirty pounds. We brought the camp pick-up truck as close as we could to the cabin but the materials had to be carried to the cabin and then up to the roof on a ladder. I suggested to the work crew, four teenage young men, that before we began we should calculate the amount of tar and felt paper we needed to carry up ladder to the roof. They thought math was a ridiculous idea and just started to load a roll each of tarpaper on their shoulders. None of them was able to get the roll to the cabin alone and when the first one tried to go up the ladder with the roll of tarpaper on his back, they all agreed that we had to know just how much we needed because this was going to be very hard work. We climbed up and measured the area of the roof, climbed down to check the area that would be covered by each roll, and then they calculated how many rolls they would need using math.
One last story. At night campers regrouped into multiage thematic guilds. One summer there was a total eclipse of the sun scheduled to be visible in North America from Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, Canada. Some of the pre-teens and teens formed an Eclipse Committee. They studied about eclipses and connected with the Smithsonian Museum, which planned to have a temporary solar observatory set up on Price Edward Island. It was 1,600 mile round trip from camp. I drove both ways in a van with twelve campers and two other adults making stops in Maine and New Brunswick, Canada along the way. Totality lasted about eight minutes. The Earth was gripped in total silence as insects and birds went quiet. It was one of my most amazing experiences.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.
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