The Latvian camp in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York celebrates it golden anniversary this year. What horrid memories I recall of my time there.
I was reminded of the camp when an e-mail arrived from Marģers Pinnis, who compiles the excellent online calendar of New York area Latvian events. The camp is formally known as the Latvian Lutheran Camp, but everyone just refers to it as Katskiļi (The Catskills).
Perhaps it was 1968, after I had just finished the fifth grade, when my parents first hauled me and my belongings to the children’s summer camp. I dreaded the idea, just like many other kids dread the idea of being sent off to camp. For me it was double dread, because I knew I wouldn’t know anyone at the camp. Most of the kids were from New York City. We lived 90 miles north of the city in a small university town. My parents assured me that I would know at least one person—my godfather’s daughter, who was a year older than me and a veteran campgoer. They forgot one detail. She was a girl, and I was at the age when boys just didn’t mix with girls.
Sure enough, I didn’t know anyone. I was assigned to the boys’ barracks and took a lower bunk in a room full of strangers. I yearned for my room back home.
The snippets of memories that come back to me include plenty of inconvenience and trauma. Morning calisthenics were obligatory—before breakfast. I thought camp was about having fun! Then we marched to breakfast as a group, chanting “kreisā, kreisā, kreisā labā kreisā” (left, left, left right left).
Breakfast usually wasn’t too bad. I came to enjoy oatmeal covered with sugar and cinnamon. But lunch or dinner was a different story. It seemed that once a week we were forced to down one of the worst concoctions to ever come out of a Latvian kitchen—piena zupa ar klimpām un rozīnēm. Ugh. Milk soup with dumplings and raisins. Just to write this brings me shudders.
The cafeteria also was where young Latvian boys underwent one of their rites of passage. Seeking to emulate the camp counselors, we learned to drink—and in some cases even like—buttermilk. A few cautious sips one day might lead to a boy chugging a whole glass on a dare the next day.
Dares got you in trouble, even if it was just a quiet dare to yourself. I almost drowned undergoing another rite of passage. Swimming options included the lakeshore near the ezermāja. The water there was rumored to be full of leeches waiting to suck the blood of young Latvian children. On the other side of the lake was a dock where kids could dive into the deep water. I wasn’t about to tell anyone that I had never been in water over my head and had no idea what “treading” meant, so when my turn came to jump in, I went for it. As the blue sky above me disappeared in a swirl of lake water, I must have thought to myself that in the future—if there was to be one—I should be a bit more cautious. OK, so I didn’t drown. And I don’t remember how many more times that day I jumped into the deep.
Life in the barracks was rough. Short-sheeting was just the start. I am convinced a particular boy, a mean-spirited thug from New York City, had it in for me. Among his weapons was a towel with a knot tied on the end. A slap from that hurt like hell. He also stole, so you learned quickly to keep your trunk locked at all times, but especially after a “care package” arrived from home. The hard life in the barracks was compounded by the knowledge that we were untermenschen. The older boys, the cool boys, lived not in barracks but in one of the two large tents nearby. We realized that if we stuck it out and came back to camp every summer, eventually we’d graduate to the living quarters of the privileged.
As many parents know, kids usually end up liking camp. It was no different for me. The first few days of shock therapy led to friendships, good times and even a few life lessons. I learned to like buttermilk, I learned to swim in deep water, I had great fun in the weekly šķēršļu gājiens (round game), and I even got to dance with girls!
I went back to the Catskills the next summer, but the following year was sent even farther north to Canada’s Camp Sidrabene (not to be confused with its arch-enemy Camp Saulaine, against which we battled on the athletics field). I returned to the Catskills for one more year, this time having graduated to the Tents of the Cool Boys.
Years later, we sent our daughter to Gaŗezers in Michigan for summer camp for the first time, where she underwent similar rites of passage but came to love the place.
However, I believe she mercifully was spared piena zupa ar klimpām un rozīnēm.
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