Alton: A Camp Beloved by Rhode Islanders
By Ronald C. Markoff
In last year's issue of The Notes, there was an article about a "Camp Shandah." Everyone knows that this Yiddish word means disgrace. Well, readers, the photo of "Camp Shandah" opposite the title page actually showed Camp Alton, which was nestled among the pines of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on the southern shore of Lake Winnipesaukee known as Alton Bay.
Although the editor of The Notes has assured me that last year's article was about Stephen Logowitz's unfortunate experiences at another camp, actually one in Massachusetts, I would like to set the record straight. Writing at the behest of all Rhode Island alumni of our beloved Camp Alton, I would like to tell readers why our camp was unlike any other and why, 23 years after its closing, we still honor and celebrate it.
Founded in 1936 by Philip Marson, Head of the English Department at Boston Latin School (and rightfully called the "Chief'), Camp Alton was an overnight camp for approximately 260 boys. Some were as young as six, and the oldest were 15. They were from Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Long Island, Boston and, yes, even Providence and its environs. In fact, Providence at one time was so well represented that it had its own busload of boys. At first, we all drove up to the Boston Latin School, and then in later years to the old Stop & Shop in Chestnut Hill, MA, to meet the bus and our counselor chaperones.
In the summer of 1963, I was 14 years old. JFK was President, and the March on Washington would occur late in August. The Vietnam War was in its inception. I was about to begin Classical High School in the fall. My twin brother, Gary, was set to begin at Hope High. We were both the first in our family to attend Alton, which had been recommended to us by Mel Alperin, a camper there during the 1940s and 50s.
In late June, another gorgeous day was about to begin at Camp Alton. At 7 AM, reveille was played through a loudspeaker placed strategically throughout the bunk line.
Oh, that bugle! It was the signal to breakfast, lunch, and dinner; to switch periods; to raise and lower flags; afternoon swim; evening activity; and finally taps. Sometimes the loudspeaker broke down and ironically, yours truly, a trumpet player, became. The bugler. Or was it "bungler"? Trust me, I knew my bugle calls very well even as a self-taught trumpeter. I had begun to play at the age of 8 under the tutelage of my brother Joe who showed me the fingerings. Being classically trained and a music-lover, my passion for trumpet has stuck with me through the years. I played professionally through college and law school and currently, I play with a group called the Narragansett Bay Symphony Community Orchestra, of which I was a founding member in 2005. I am sure a lot of Altonites have stories of this nature. Our camp had a great knack for allowing us to be ourselves and hone our talents.
Alton was a big camp- almost 90 acres. The bunk line, consisting of 16 bunks, ran from A to P. Bunk A was a good three-quarters of a mile from the waterfront. Located on a peninsula, our camp was surrounded by Lake Winnipesaukee on three sides. But boys . occasionally left the camp proper for overnight camping and mountain climbing trips along the Kangamangus Trail. These expeditions taught boys to live with bears and moose and survival techniques as well.
Alton was also a rugged camp. There was no electricity or showers in the bunks, although we did have our own toilet in the bunk. A camper needed a flashlight with plenty of spare batteries and shower shoes to walk to the common showers located under the kitchen. Kids showered at least once per week but usually soaped up in the lake with Ivory Soap.
Our camp was unusual for its Color War. Unlike most camps, whose Color War usually occurred at the finale of each season, Alton's lasted all summer long. Although it pitted Greens against Grays (or vice versa) in every sport imaginable, Color War was also a friendly rivalry. Competition was spirited, but there was no obsession with a "do-or-die" attitude. Each camper played on a team commensurate with his ability, and the object of course was to have fun. While there were no trophies for the winner per se, exemplary campers were enshrined as "Prize Campers" and a plaque was hung in the rec hall each year with their names.
Yes, some boys misbehaved, so their teams were penalized by a loss of points. If a camper lost too many points, he received a visit from the seniors of each team. It was amazing how a little pressure from these older campers turned a disruptive camper into a very cooperative one.
"The Chief' never stressed watersports, although we did have waterskiing, sailing, canoeing, swimming, etc. Land activities were big and included hiking and camping. We also played a lot of basketball, baseball, and tennis, which were "The Chiefs" pets.
Alton's numerous programs involving arts and crafts, drama and music, were no less important than sports. Each age group put on skits, and the oldest boys put on plays and, at the end of each summer, musicals. These included the 1950 Broadway hit, "Guys and Dolls," and the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, "Trial by Jury." These shows were the real McCoy, and kids were extremely talented. Some Altonites went on to find success in television and movies, including Andy Cadiff who moved to Hollywood and directed the shows "Home Improvement" and "Spin City."
Tuesday nights were music nights. We even had our own orchestra known affectionately as "The Alton Offbeats". The music counselor conducted and booked us to play at other camps in the area.
Our camp also had a weekly newspaper, The Alton Almanac, put out by counselors and campers working side-by-side. Each edition- part satirical, part serious, and always entrepreneurial- was a gem. The paper’s motto was "All the news that fits, we print."
So what else separates Alton from other boys' summer camps? Why did so many campers return every summer? Why, after 30, 40 or even 50 years, is there an indefinable bond among Altonites? What is it about long-ago experiences that feel as if they happened yesterday? The answer is very simple. It's called tradition. Just like the famous song from "Fiddler on the Roof', it was tradition that kept parents sending their sons back year after year. It was just not campers who yearned to return every summer. Like a magnet drawn to metal, many counselors, even from overseas, returned year after year.
Here are some of the many unforgettable traditions unique to Camp Alton:
Flagrush was similar to "steal the bacon" (but please excuse the traif). Greens and Grays attempted to invade the other team's territory, steal a flag posted on a stick, and bring it back before being tackled. There was no equipment; boys wore only bathing suits and sneakers. The swift-of-foot were charged with showing their prowess in avoiding and annihilating opposing team members. As crazy as it may sound, it was a badge of honor to be scratched, gouged, and impaled by the other team. Campers measured days, months, and years around Flagrush. The true goal was to bring back the "50" which was in the depths of the other team's territory. It was guarded like Fort Knox so if it were ever captured by the other team and brought back over the fifty-yard line it was a Herculean feat similar to a fullback going all the way to the opposite team's end zone.
On Wrestling Night, which resembled professional wrestling, the most athletic (not to mention masochistic) counselors went tete-a-tete. "Fatschtick Baboon," for example, was the alter ego of a professional, "Haystack Calhoun." "Doctor Doom" was named after "Doc." Other catchy names were: "Health Maintenance," "Organized Criminal," "Don Coricidin," and the ever-threatening "Voodoo Man." Although kids screamed for their favorite wrestlers, "Robert Orbit" never won a match.
The frenzy leading up to Wrestling Night was as exciting as the event itself. Since the beginning of each summer, masked visitors kidnapped little ones from their beds (but all in jest). While they slept in their cozy beds, other kids had their faces mysteriously decorated with Magic Marker drawings. The same was true of some counselors’ bald heads. Just like on TV, masked marvels also interrupted scheduled events.
Circus, also known as "Circass," was a field day of fun and games. It included dunking counselors and pie eating contests. Another contest was who could eat the most hot dogs in a minute. Nobody went hungry here.
Sing was a very quiet day in the hectic daily schedule of camp life. Greens and Grays pitted voices against each other in a fierce medley of songs, including: "march," "comic," "anthem" and, finally, "fight song." Having run Sing for umpteen years, I was personally tormented when I needed to tap a young man on the shoulder to tell him to only mouth the words. Needless to say, it was traumatic for that young man as well.
On Trip Day, held on Thursdays, all good campers were lucky enough to leave their abode and go into Wolfeboro, Laconia or Rochester to see a play or a movie. Unfortunately, some boys also tortured merchants, which may have left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of town fathers.
Campfires were held on Sunday nights. Altonites did skits, and I was the "master" of ghost stories. These included such favorites as: "Three-Fingered Willy" and "The Old Man on the Train." I had the little kids jumping into each other's laps. "The Chief' actually told me to temper my stories because the camp nurse indicated that some boys were having nightmares.
Visiting day offered parents a little taste of what Camp Alton had to offer. We had activities galore for campers and their parents to enjoy together. It was also jokingly called Palm Sunday- counselors would stretch out their empty palms and parents would generously fill them with tips. Counselors would brag as to who collected the most.
Alton had been a Jewish camp since its inception and tradition was important. The "Chief' read the Bible each morning at assembly. Everyone would listen intently during these readings and always participated in the raising and lowering of the flag with a salute and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Each meal was prefaced by "Bless this food to our use, Oh Lord." Although the food was not kosher, milk was not served with meat (only "bug juice" being allowed).
Friday night services, Reform in nature, used a lot of English and a bit of Hebrew. Dr. Michael Fox, a pulmonologist at Rhode Island Hospital, conducted them. The closest shuls were probably in Manchester or Concord.
A golf ball's hit away from Alton was Camp Kehonka, a girls' camp that has also closed. A private beach in front of a home separated the two camps. It was probably quite comical for the home’s owners to see boy counselors in the pitch black of night going to visit girl counselors and vice versa. It was like a tennis volley.
The director of Kehonka, who was quite anti-Semitic, did not appreciate Alton's counselors visiting his domain. Not only did he write letters of protest to "The Chief," but he also occasionally called the police about trespassing. To keep all counselors in the loop, 'The Chief' would read these letters to us at meetings.
Every veteran senior counselor was on duty ("OD") several nights each summer to patrol the bunk line and to keep kids safe. We counselors also organized evening assemblies and inspected bunks for cleanliness and neatness.
I was a tough inspector. If I did not like the way a kid’s shelves looked, I emptied his belongings into the center of the floor. This was affectionately known as a "tossed salad." Then the boy was told to reshelf his things neatly. Remember, this was Color War and each bunk lost points if untidy.
Although campers were mostly well behaved, there were aberrations. For example, one midnight in 1970, when I was on "OD," the cute campers in Bunk A were making way too much noise after midnight. My earlier warnings to be quiet- or else- had been ignored. As I returned to Bunk A, I found shaving cream on the door latch. With my flashlight in hand, I stomped into the bunk but encountered absolute silence. I knew, however, that something was up. As I walked farther into the darkness, I tripped over a fishing line that these angels had tied along the bottom of their bedposts. I did a swan dive flat on my face. Then, after considering every conceivable punishment, I had these munchkins run laps around the athletic field until they begged for mercy. Subsequently, they cleaned the entire camp of every bit of litter and were docked from evening activities. Very rarely a boy would behave so badly that he would be sent home. I cannot quite recall but maybe one camper got to that point during all my years at Alton.
In fact, disciplinary issues were infrequent, but I guess boys will be boys. As a counselor for 13 years, until 1975 (and a camper for two years before that), I had the privilege of seeing almost every camper mature. This was an extremely gratifying experience.
In my later years as a senior counselor, I had a car with me at camp. For the three nights we senior counselors had off all summer, we would drive into Wolfeboro to do laundry, go to the movies or to Laconia. The rest of our evenings were spent at camp with our campers and friends.
"The Chief," Philip Marson, died in 1970. His son-in-law was a busy and well-known oral surgeon and not interested in running a sleepaway camp. "The Chiefs" grandson, Peter Guralnick, who taught classics at Boston University and became a world authority on Elvis Presley, took over. He was gung-ho about Alton, but he never had the stamina or urge to continue it indefinitely.Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, Alton closed in 1992. It was a shock to all Altonites. Perhaps kids had too many alternatives to summer camp. Alton had no high-tech activities- just plain old fun and games in the guise of Color War. The camp's infrastructure too became antiquated, and cesspools on Lake Winnipesaukee needed to be replaced with septic systems. The costs would have been astronomical. It had always been Alton's philosophy to keep tuition below other camps', so increases would have been considerable. Actually, a group of counselors did want to purchase the camp and perpetuate its traditions, but nothing ever materialized.
Its owners sold our beloved camp. Among them was Providence's Robert Riesman, of blessed memory, whose family were neighbors of our beloved "Chief." Now on the site of New Hampshire's most beautiful camp lies a $49 million castle (which is for sale, by the way).
For 67 years, Camp Alton has had an annual dinner for alumni- campers and counselors alike. This past June, 40 hearty Altonites gathered at a restaurant in Wellesley, MA to share our favorite stories and memories. Always deeply nestled in our hearts and minds, they will never die.
I dream of camp every year, though I have not been there for nearly 40. Trust me, I am not alone.
Partial List of
Rhode Islanders at Camp Alton
Ed "Woody" Shore
Also of note is Richard Egbert from Newton. He was Buddy Cianci's attorney, which may make him a partial Rhode Islander.