Tygerpen: Smoking, cursing, nudity and other fond camp stories

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With most schools out for summer and parents making plans to keep their children occupied and out of jail, summer camp has become a major focus.

I’m familiar with that planning, and not only because I was a camper myself for many years. I also bribed my own two sons to go to a Jewish sleep-away camp for the longest session (year-round). Even my dad was a summer camper for years at B’nai B’rith Camp (aka BB Camp) on Oregon’s coast.

Dad was not alone in his enthusiasm to attend Men’s Camp. Every year since 1931, men from Oregon and Washington have congregated to swear, smoke, drink, gamble, pull practical jokes and cavort — all those activities opposed by their wives who sent the men to camp for a healthy environment.

NBC’s “Today Show” did a piece on Men’s Camp in the 1980s. The segment described the philanthropic efforts of the mostly over-60 men to raise money through individual pledges for camp scholarships for needy youth regardless of religious, racial or ethnic background.

While I liked the “Today” piece, it hardly captured the spirit of the place. For example, the show failed to report that snoring was a power issue and that two men who chronically slept on their backs were found suffocated.

With the epidemic snoring, insomnia prevailed. For the first time, many of the men realized why their wives had sustained major hearing losses from sleeping next to them. Among those men sharing cabins, fights broke out over missing earplugs. Exhausted campers changed cabins frequently, hoping to find quieter bunkmates or even, miracle of miracles, an empty cabin somewhere. But it was no use. All of them snored. There may have been snorers worse than Dad, but his was the only cabin surrounded by a freeway sound wall.

We knew Dad had a great time. The men got up shortly before noon. They ate criminal amounts of gourmet food catered by a Portland restaurateur. Instead of writing letters, the men called home just once to make sure their wives hadn’t moved out. At cabin cleanup time, they swept cookie crumbs off the bed onto the floor so the cabin mice could clean up the rest. Eventually they built themselves heated cabins with indoor plumbing and a heated swimming pool.

When they weren’t eating, the men competed in golf, gin rummy, racquetball and tennis tournaments. Age had not diminished the zeal to win. The victors were honored at the annual camp banquet, including posthumous awards for those who’d foolishly played handball. All were sure to get at least one award. Dad usually got the trophy for Most Enlarged Prostate.

Of course, they all got a BB Camp T-shirt at the annual banquet. They also got mugs emblazoned with a mug shot of the camper chosen Man of the Year. A year later, no one could recall the name of the Man of the Year, including the Man of the Year. After 500 washings, the deteriorating mug couldn’t hold water, which meant it was in about the same shape as the Man of the Year.

A strict rule was that no women were allowed. The senior men who came to camp shed their wives, their inhibitions, their clothes and their good language. And anyway, what woman wanted to be around a man with his dangling participle?

One summer, my mother and I snuck into Men’s Camp to deliver my father a suit he needed for a camp program. We drove in and parked at the upper hilly end of camp, then ducked down to avoid detection. As we waited for my father, a man in a butcher’s white apron emerged from the mess hall holding two whipped cream–covered pies, and headed for a parked car nearby. When he turned around and bent over to lay the pies inside the car, we saw he was nude from the waist down. We were shocked and appalled. Leaving pies in a car! That might cause food poisoning!

Although I went to the same camp for the girls’ three-week session, I would’ve much preferred the Men’s Camp ethic — salting people’s coffee, painting shoe polish on toilet seats, or throwing fully clothed people into the lake. OK, so at the girls’ session we threw people into the lake. But we didn’t use duct tape.

Trudi York Gardner
lives in Walnut Creek and can be reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.com.