Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blog # 107: Obama, Please Watch Your Back!

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One of the characteristics of my being 83 years old seems to be the sudden dominating importance of taking daytime naps, usually 30 minutes or so after eating a meal. This behavioral change comes as a complete shock to me, as for many years I was completely unable to take daytime naps at all. I guess it’s one of the so-called benefits of age. I will be sitting at my iMac, either encapsulating some pearl of wisdom for my blog, or else perusing the likes of the Daily Beast, the Washington Post or the N.Y. Times when the sudden urge to snooze will sweep over me, and I stumble the two steps over to my “comfy chair,” as Monty Python put it in their Spanish Inquisition skits of years back, where I quickly take off my glasses and shut my eyes.

The Big Three – The leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and France line up to come down heavily on Iran, who evidently was building a nuclear producing facility without informing the I.A.E.A. – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies charge, says Obama doesn’t play nice. – photo: Reuters

Nodding out to the president

Wednesday morning I nodded out listening to Barack Obama’s talk to the United Nations only to wake up thirty minutes or so later with Moammar Khaddafy’s rambling dissertation. I’m not at all sure what his various points were, one minute he was labeling the Security Council the Terrorism Council, and the next he seemed to think the African Council should have a permanent seat on said Terrorism Council. Somewhat surprisingly, he referred to President Obama as “my son” and praised Obama’s speech delivered earlier, telling the world that what Obama had spoken was the truth. I’m not sure how Khaddaffy’s kind words will go over here in the U.S. as feelings are running high against the Libyan leader brought on by the welcome the recently freed Lockerbie bomber, got upon his return to Libya as a hero. Khaddafy was followed that evening by Iran’s controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeated his off recited denial of the holocaust and Thursday’s lineup brought us an address by Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez.

Chavez had established himself several years ago when he followed George Bush to the UN podium, and confided to all that he was following “the devil” and the odor at the podium was sulphurous. Few American had credited the Venezuelan leader with such a colorful bent for language, but come to think of it, I had noticed a sulfurous smell following many of Mr. Bush’s speeches myself, and I had watched them on television.

This year Chavez congratulated Obama on his election, but expressed fears for his safety. Altogether that made three leaders who had expressed fears for Obama’s safety, Khaddafy bringing it up when he referenced the assassination of John Kennedy. And these most unfriendly to America leaders really have a point. What really elevated our own personal level of concern was a story in Friday’s newspaper written by Mary Foster of the Associated Press that bullet makers cannot keep up with the orders. After all, when you think about it, it isn’t guns, but the bullets they are loaded with, which actually do the killing. The U.S. indelibly proved its Banana Republic bona fides with the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, among others, back in the 1960’s. Could it happen again? You damn right it could, considering the make up of the fringes of that Tea Party bunch, not to mention all those Health Care Shouters. President Obama, even your foes are concerned. Please watch your back.

Speaking of audacity, our President seems to have it in spades with his leadership in attempting to rid the world of the threat of atomic weapons altogether. J.F.K. tried that many years ago, and Barack Obama seems to be following in his footsteps. It will require the U.S. giving up its atomic weapons too, but our testing the bomb on two Japanese cities as World World II was winding down, and the Japanese were already sending out peace feelers, proves to my mind that the United States is no more dependable as a custodian for this infamous weapon than any regime of the right or left would be. The saying goes, “once out it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle,” but if ever there was a genie needing to be put back in a proverbial bottle, atomic weapons certainly are that genie.

A Personal Health Report

Here’s a short, and hopefully sweet report on the state of my current health. So far, so good, everything seems to be still functioning as ordained. I do have edema (the swelling of the feet), and a while back my doctor gave me a prescription for a pill to take care of it. Because it was labeled “no refills” after it ran out I didn’t renew it and was treated with the spectacle of my feet and ankles and lower legs again swelling up. Because after a time my feet were getting too swollen to make it comfortable to put on my sandals, which I wear in lieu of shoes, I finally renewed the prescription. This time it came back marked 3.0 refills, which I guess is meant to tell me I should continue taking it when the initial supply runs out.

The effect of the pills is rather weird. Within a day or two of restarting it the pill begins its work. It starts its slimming process at the toes, and begins to work its way from there. How strange to see an inch or two of each of your feet return to their normal look while the rest remains swollen. I’ve been taking the pills for a few weeks now, and my feet have just about returned to normal, the swelling having retreated to my ankles. My son Joel, the guitar playing MD whose cover of Public Enemy’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours” recently got him posted on the Public Enemy website, and got him a whole lot of extra views because of that placement, proves that he knows from which he speaks. (If you have not yet availed yourself of the pleasure of accessing Joel’s video can view his YouTube page from here, where you can rather quickly make up for that deficiency.)

At any rate, Joel the doctor tells me that my condition is caused by my heart not being up to its job these days of properly circulating my bodily fluids. A quick google of the word edema confirmed Joel’s diagnosis. One of the characteristics of old age, my friends, is suddenly finding out that your body is not performing some function it previously performed flawlessly, and if you’re lucky you can make up the difference taking some pill or other, once again rebalancing your body’s chemistry. Most of my life I have traveled drug free, but now all of a sudden each night I have to take a bunch of pills as if my life depends on them. And I suppose it probably does. At least at my age you take what you doctor orders, since failure to do so can bring on another one of those hospital visits you so dread.

Last Week’s Camp Reminisces Vanish

Recently I have come back in contact with some of the principles in my camp days of long ago, and I wrote a nice piece for last week’s blog remembering a few of my camp experiences. Only on the morning I was to post my blog I found that what I had written had completely vanished. Not a trace could I find. I can’t tell you how upsetting it was to open my blog of last week, only to discover that everything I had written about the three New England camps I had worked for, had somehow gone up in a bit of electronic smoke.

To tell you the truth, I still have no clear idea as to what exactly had happened to that hard day’s night’s worth of work, except I must have stupidly neglected to properly save it. Otherwise I can see no excuse for it simply vanishing.

Because it was Saturday morning, and I needed to post a new blog, I brought up two pieces from an early blog post, one telling where my handle, Little Eddy, comes from, and the other being a revue of Michael Moore’s incredibly important film, Sicko. I figure reposting the revue was very relevant at this point, given the flack the Republicans are giving Obama over his attempts to reform health care.

Believe me folks, it is the Republicans who are hitting foul balls about Health Care reform. It sounds like a ridiculous activity for a party which needs to attract voters, except when you remember that Republicans represent only power and money, not ordinary people. And Health Care power and money are screaming “we’re doing fine with what we’ve got“ – and “change no, not one iota of change for us, thank you very much.” And Republicans are quite good at using their primary weapon, which is the spreading of fear and panic. In this case they’re trying to get John Q. Citizen all hot and bothered about the money Obama’s plans will spend bringing health care to the unwashed masses. Republicans worry a lot about Democratic taxing and spending, as they see every dime of money wasted on the common citizenry to be money deprived for their sponsors, the wealthy and powerful. But they remain notoriously quiet about what will happen if there is no true health care reform, for that is the continual escalation of the price of health care in an unregulated industry until the point that no employer or self-employed person will be able to afford it, only the wealthy, and your Congressman, will be able to afford it.

However, enough about politics for now. This week I would like to make yet another attempt to reminisce about my children’s summer camp days, and this time I swear I will take better care of the product of my musings. Like at this very moment I have saved this piece to my desktop, and after each new part of it I will save it ever again.

Growing up in Houston, I had never gone to a summer camp myself. We don’t have very many of them down here in Texas, it’s too hot, there’re are too many mosquitoes, and only churches and athletic groups seem to sponsor children’s camps. I had a junior high school gym teacher try to recruit me for his basketball camp one summer, but my parents wouldn’t go for it.

When I left radio announcing in the 1950’s I really flung myself into learning the guitar, and later the 5-string banjo. I wrote a breezy letter to Pete Seeger at one point ordering his banjo manual, and got a friendly letter back from him, as well as the manual. Later that year my sister Mary and I drove 900 miles (sounds like a Peter, Paul, and Mary song, doesn’t it?) to Oklahoma City to hear a Weavers concert which featured Pete. A month or two later I opened the Houston Post one Sunday morning to discover that the Weavers were in Houston, they had opened an engagement at the Shamrock Hotel here. I lent Pete my car during that period, and he and John A. Lomax, Jr. did some folksong collecting at a nearby Texas prison.

A year or so later I traveled to Beacon, N.Y. to spend the summer at Pete’s place. He was traveling at the time, but I got to know his wife, Toshi, and his three children, Danny, Mika, and Tinya. And after a time Pete himself came back, and I was able to take a banjo lesson or two with him. I also met Toshi’s parents Takashi and Virginia Ohta, who worked as the caretakers of the University Settlement Camp down the road from Pete, and at one point I had a job interview there, and was hired as a song leading counselor for the following summer. Thus was my introduction into the world of summer camps.

The University Settlement Camp no longer runs the camp near Beacon, N.Y., but rather offers day camps at three New York locations. - photo from their website which you can access clicking here!

(When I began thinking back to my camp days the first thing I did was to look up all three of the excellent camps I had had the privilege of working for. The University Settlement Camp unfortunately is no longer active, but information about it can be accessed here!)

I have spent a good part of my life working with children, first in the University Settlement House in N.Y.C., and in three children's summer camps, the University Settlement Camp in Beacon, N.Y, Camp Killooleet in Hancock, Vermont, and Blueberry Cove at Tenant's Harbor, Maine. And I spent winters teaching kids and occasionally adults guitar and banjo in N.Y.C. and in Houston. I didn't make much money at it, all my life I seem to have been allergic to anything which had any real potential for financial gain. It was a lucky thing that when I was a kid my mother had taken in her Aunt Nina Harper who when she died left my mother, her brother, and sister Calumet Plantation across the river from Baton Rouge, La. Selling my share of it in the year 2000 was the only thing that has given me an income for retirement.

At any rate, thanks to Toshi Seeger and her parents, Takashi and Virginia Ohta, I was introduced to the Settlement Camp directors and got hired for the following summer. And thus began my twenty two year career in New England children’s summer camps.

The University Settlement Camp was three three-week trips of around a hundred and twenty children from age seven through fourteen. They were a blend of full paying middle class kids blended with scholarship children from the Settlement neighborhood in New York. About forty counselors guided the campers, and their ranks were aided by around forty work campers whose parents had paid to have them come to the camp for the full summer.

In my first year the work camp had several treasures in it. Two of them, the 15 year old Kossoy twins, gave me the best gift of all, for they taught me two songs, the Ship Titanic and Sipping Cider (Through a Straw), which I was able to parley into many years of camp singing hits. From another work camper, Danny Bernstein, I learned the song Anne Boleyn, (whose chorus went, “with her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm, she walked the bloody tower, with her head tucked underneath her arm, at the midnight hour) the perfect camp song for a nighttime campfire, and particularly one featuring ghost stories.

Singing was an activity at the Settlement Camp which camp groups attended during daytime activity periods, right along with other established activities like shop, archery, horseback riding, etc. And after dinner each night the entire camp met for a group sing. After my first summer there the camp invested in building a brand new singing area with bleachers for the campers, and a stage from which to lead singing and produce camp productions.

I found the 5-string banjo the most effective instrument for backing up group singing, as it had an electric quality which cut through the sound of the group to set the tempo of the song. And it had a bright, sparkling sound which inspired a group to sing. The Camp’s rebuilt music area had a decorative trellis which backed up our singing, one covered in flowers of many kinds. And flowers are great attracters of bees and wasps. And so it was not unusual to be playing along, my right hand pounding a beat, when suddenly one or more bees or wasps would be crawling up my arm. This was befuddling for a day or two, but I soon discovered that bees and wasps must like music, for they never once stung me. And so I got quite used to keeping my beat with one or more insects of the stinging variety taking the measure of my arm. Some of the campers used to be quite surprised and concerned to see this.

The Settlement Camp turned out to be an ideal way to break into the job of summer counseling children, for we managed to put into a three week trip which other camps do in a full camp season. And there were three different trips per summer. However, the Settlement Camp’s methods of discipline left something to be desired. I found that out during my third summer there. In addition to song leading, I like all other counselers, was assigned to a cabin of boys. Each cabin had two counselors. As the third week of that summer neared the end, one or more of my campers had carved designs on the window sill of our cabin. This brought on the ire of the camp director, who after unsuccessfully trying to get the culprit exposed, declared that the group would be quarantined to the cabin until either someone ‘fessed up or the end of camp came. And the powers that be were adamant, even though they well knew that many of these boys lived by a street code which would prevent them from ratting on their friends. In short my offending group spent the final five days of the trips sequestered to the cabin, only leaving for meals.

I had several intense discussions with the powers that be at the camp, who remained adamant, and after my group spent its final week that summer restricted to the bunk, the whole exercise culminated with my applying to another camp at the end of that summer, Killooleet in Hancock, Vermont, which was owned and operated by Pete Seeger’s older brother John. And as I suspected, discipline there was handled in a very different manor.

Two campers walk towards the big tree on the Killooleet campus. Photo courtesy the Killooleet website.

Killooleet had been started by a Dalton teacher named Margaret Bartlett, and was presently owned and operated by two Dalton teachers, John and Eleanor Seeger. And yes, I found out that discipline was administered in entirely different way from the Settlement Camp. For instance, in my first year I had a group of seven-year-old boys who were just discovering the joy of using swear words. In fact, they seemed to be doing it to shock other groups of campers with their language discoveries. As a result the camp management decided that when the boys felt they had a swearing session coming on we counselors were to take them deep into the woods where they could swear to their heart’s content, while offending no one in the process. After only a couple of days of such isolation, the boys discovered that being obnoxious was a lonely occupation, and mended their ways so as to be able to rejoin the rest of the camp.

Swearing can be a rewarding pastime even for older boys, however. A year later I had a group of thirteen/fourteen year olds. One night one boy was being particularly obnoxious. He was berating another boy without letup. Finally, I could take it no longer, and went over to him and said in my most grating voice, “Henry, why don’t you shut the hell up, you’re being a major PISS-ANT.” The boy stopped in his tracks, and turned to face me. His face lit up like a Christmas tree, his smile running from ear to ear. “Damn,” he said, “piss-ant. I never heard that word before. Thank you!” And he deferred to me for the rest of that summer.

John and Ellie were remarkable singers in their own right, their repertoire being Broadway show tunes. They had two song leaders when I first came, and the first few Friday night sings were very competitive evenings indeed. It was as if we were thrown together and may the best song leader win. And after three weeks had passed, John and Ellie made their decision on who would lead the Friday night Sings, and they announced it by giving the couple who had being doing the song leading Fridays off. Several years later, when I was into teaching photography and a new young man was leading the singing, John and Ellie gave me Fridays off.

Horseback riding campers on a day trip stop long enough to enjoy the Vermont scenery. Photo courtesy the Killooleet website.

An aside here, the father of a Camp Killooleet camper named Karen Mogelescu headed a company call Dutch Masters cigars, and was a great fan of Ernie Kovacs whose company sponsored Kovac's tv programs. And I too was a great fan of Kovacs, I felt he was the comic genius of the black and white television screen.

On the visiting weekend we used to talk extensively about Kovacs. And he always brought me Dutch Master cigars, which I smoked, though I preferred smoking cigarette sized Trends at the time. Speaking of parents and Killooleet, I can't pass go without telling aother couple of anecdotes.

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One summer at Killooleet I had a camper named David Bloomgarten whose father was a well known Broadway producer with a big hit show at the time. David was homesick, in fact, he was the most downtrodden, worried looking kid I have ever known. Oddly enough, his younger brother was also a Killooleet camper, and he was an outgoing, happy camper. But David was always walking around with his chin scraping the ground, no matter what, and always seemed to fervently wish he was someplace else.

We had a local doctor, Dr. Huntington, who examined the campers when they were ill. One day when David wasn’t feeling well, he had to see the doctor, who he presented with his usual long face. Dr. Huntington, in order to establish some kind of rapport with this frowning kid, asked David what his dad did for a living. David, with the closest thing to enthusiasm he had yet to exhibit, told the doctor that his father was a Broadway producer, and he had a hit show running on Broadway at the time.

"Yes," said Dr. H., "what did he produce?"

"A Most Happy Fella!" was David's answer. Dr. H. did a double take. David’s father did indeed produce the Broadway show. However in real life he seemed to have produced A Most Unhappy Fella.

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Killooleet’s Most Famous Camp Parent . . .

Speaking of camp parents, during my six year stint at Killooleet perhaps our most famous visiting parent was Danny Kaye, whose daughter Deena was a camper. She was eight at the time and if memory serves she was in my sister Mary's cabin for at least one of her several years there. Anyway Deena's mother Sylvia Fine, and her daddy Danny Kaye, both came up to see Deena during her first year, but they came at different times. Ms. Fine, who was Kaye's writer and manager as well as his wife, was an interesting person, but nothing compared to the excitement that Danny Kaye brought when he visited the camp later in the summer. Kaye went out of his way to be a most obliging camp parent. When I first saw him he was playing ping pong with a boy camper outside the main house, and after the game when he left the boy turned to another boy and said, "Geez, he looks so old. He looks old enough to be my father." Pretty astute call, that one, since Danny Kaye was the father of an eight year old camper. Danny didn't look anywheres near his age in his movies, however. It's amazing what miracles a little pancake makeup and a skilled makeup artist can wrought.

Later that night Danny Kaye patiently sat through the longest and most boring camp talent show I have ever witnessed. He managed to breathe a little life into the show about three and a half hours into it after camp owner Ellie Seeger asked him if he would care to perform for the camp. At this daughter, Deena, was embarrassed to the point of mortification, and left the auditorium to stand alone outside in the night air, but Danny snapped his fingers and gave a wonderful sing-along version of "Dem Bones, dem Bones, dem Dry Bones" that had the roof rocking, and which had finally succeeded in breathing a little life into that completely dead show.

I spent six very happy years at Killooleet. That part of Vermont is like a Kodachrome postcard come to life. And Camp Killooleet is a truly idyllic summer camp experience, the children coming mostly from upper middle class families, and mostly from New York City.

Two years later when I was staying over with Pete and Toshi Seeger after Killooleet, I accompanied Pete down to the Settlement Camp, as he was having a sing for the entire camp on the lawn outside the camp's main building. I was telling Sol Eschenazi, who was the camp’s director, that I did indeed find a more pliable form of discipline at Killooleet. We were in the large building which served as the caretaker’s home when Charles Cook, the director of the Settlement House in N.Y. and of the Camp, came in and told Toshi's father Takashi Ohta that he was wasn't feeling well. He looked exceedingly gray around the gills and Takashi phoned the camp's doctor, who came poste haste. As the sounds of Pete’s and the campers singing filled the evening air, and as the doctor was taking his blood pressure, Charles Cook died of heart failure. (Cook wasn't the only person to die this way, Gene Roddenbery, the creator of Star Trek, also died while having his blood pressure taken.)

Someone scribbled a note to Pete to move the children up the hill so they wouldn't see the hearse as it came for Mr. Cook’s body. And Pete was quick to comply. He began playing This Land is Your Land on his banjo as he led the two hundred plus children, counselors and work campers singing their way up the hill. In leading those children up that hill Pete showed that night as he had shown many times before in his storied career, that he truly was a Pied Piper.

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Killooleet created an atmosphere that was larger than life. It’s children were bright and creative, and working there was extremely pleasant. I enjoyed it so much that I talked my younger sister Mary into working there also, and together we worked there for five or six years. I remember my second summer there, which turned out to be Mary’s first, was an unbelievably cold and rainy summer. And one camper had come up with a case of the whooping cough, a malady that used to be deadly in New England, but these days because people are kind of immune to it, it isn’t quite so serious. But one counselor who happened to have the infected camper in her group, got infected herself, and because she taught dance she unknowingly infected many of the camp’s girls. And that summer showed the real danger of the closeness of living together. For over half of the campers that summer, boys as well as girls, came down with the whooping cough. It was so bad with infected kids constantly coughing up phlegm, that for the first time camp groups could no longer eat their meals together. The lunch room had to be divided between whoopers tables and non whoopers tables.

Life magazine had a two page headline that summer saying 7 Whoopers Survive Flight to Texas. Whoopers of course, referred to whooping cranes which were an endangered species. However, one camper cut out the headline and put it up in the Main House, for all the camp to see, to take cheer in the fact that at least 7 whoopers had survived.

You would think that having a physically difficult summer like that would dampen the enthusiasm for camp, but it doesn’t work that way. Our experience had been that much more intense thanks to the hardship, and I think most every camper and counselor couldn’t wait for the following summer to roll around so that they do it all over again, hopefully in warmer, drier weather.

Killooleet is still going strong in Hancock, Vt., and is being operated these days by John and Ellie’s daughter Kate and her husband. Ellie died in 2003, but John is still there, and son Tony has a place nearby I have heard. Killooleet’s website is here! and a further click here! will take you to a Memorial Page for Ellie Seeger, a page which features photographs of many of the persons who have served the camp over the years.

However, in my case after six years working in idyllic circumstances I got the itch to work in a camp with a younger children, and I made contact with Henry and Bess Haskell, of Tenants Harbor, Maine. Next week I’ll tell you more of my camping adventures.

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And so this week’s blog settles into the sunset. We’ll tell you more of our camp memories as next week comes around, plus more of our comments on this and that. We do invite you to come back for that. Meantime, bye now. Take it easy, but take it.

The Real Little Eddy

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