Memories From The Early Years of Camp
By Eliot (Chuck) Slater
To Alton Alums and other Interested Parties:
I just finished Ronald C Markoff's excellent column on my recently acquired Camp Alton website (courtesy of my son Jim).
Reading it brought back many wonderful memories, but also brought me to the unhappy realization that most of the people who would have as much knowledge of Alton's early days as I, are, as they say, no longer with us . With that in mind, I would like to share some of this knowledge, and along the way, also share some of the memories Ron's column shook loose.
As background, my name is Chuck Slater and I was at Alton as camper and counselor from 1939 -1953, when I completed my junior year of medical school. My two sons, Jim and Scott were there in in the late 60's and early 70's.
My first year at Alton was the camp's third year of operation. To the best of my knowledge, it was purchased around 1935 for $30,000.00 by two friends of the Chief, Joe Riesman and Eli Yoffee. I am positive about the last names, and fairly sure of the first.
Of Interest to those from Rhode Island, I believe Joe Riesman was the founder and primary owner of the Royal Electric Co., Providence, RI.
The Chief had been the director of two camps prior to his taking on that position at Alton, Camp Avoda and Camp Emoh (home spelled backward ). Almost all of Alton's first counselor staff were veterans of those two camps.
My first memories of camp centered about housekeeping: learning to make a bed with hospital corners, rolling socks just so, and learning to fold stuff so it would look OK for inspection. These memories also include the day's schedule, which was always tacked on the side of a shelf.
From personal knowledge I know that the schedule I first saw on the morning of July 1,1939 was the same as the one I saw when I visited my sons thirty years later. Four morning activities- swim, athletics, and two of the following: nature, music, drama, and shop. Swim, athletics, and music compulsory, with loss of points for unauthorized absence. Two afternoon activities: the sport of the day and general swim.
I imagine my memories of the flag rush, the circus, the sing, etc are pretty much the same as most others, but I do have a perspective on the wrestling circuit that may be of interest.
The "circuit" was the brain child of three counselors in the late 1940's, Bert Waldstein, Gerry Birnbach, and Mike Wasserman. Bert Waldstein morphed into Bull Walton, "The one and only true champion."
Bert was about 5'8''and never weighed more than 150 lbs soaking wet, but was unequalled at carrying off the championship role. To the lower campers he was greater than Muhammed Ali.
Gerry was the circuit's PTBarnum, a role he cherished and played to the hilt at the matches and at the morning and evening assemblies.
All three wrote the scripts, and originated the stage names: Bull Walton, The Champion; Dr Doom; The Blonde Tiger; Hediga Hi Hoogie, and of course that nefarious Japanese
Champion; Dr. Test Your Urine, (yours truly); and many more.
Mike is the only one of the three still living. He lives in Boca Raton, FL, about three miles down the road from me. He has an encyclopedic mind, and without doubt could provide a great deal of information about the birth and early days of the circuit. I would be happy to provide his phone number should you care to have it.
The war years (1942-1945 ) were an interesting time for Alton.
Because of the war, physically able males over 18 were subject to the draft. Therefore, it was difficult for the Chief to get hold of college age counselors. He solved the problem by both remodeling the lower camp bunks to accommodate older married couples and bunk mothers, and by lowering the age requirements of his counselors.
The bunk parents and mothers lived in the rebuilt front apartments and were in charge of both sides of the bunk. Fifteen year old CIT's (myself included) and sixteen year old JC's worked under them, and lived in the bunk proper. The upper camp was pretty much run by seventeen year old JC's and draft deferred senior counselors.
Anyone who became a counselor at Alton was well versed in Chief's three worst fears: Drowning, Fire, and serious injury or illness. I believe it was to the credit of the Chief's leadership, as well as to the ability and the willingness of his young staff to accept responsibility, that allowed the four years to pass without any of these fears being realized.
Although many went on to become successful doctors, lawyers, accountants, insurance brokers, and business men, I don't know of any that achieved true celebrity status. Two did go on to achieve mention in the Boston newspapers for a couple of days.
In September of 1960 Gerald "Gookie" Alch and Joe Sobel, Alton counselors and students at Harvard at the time, gave overwhelming odds to fellow students that Ted Williams would not hit a home run in his last game. On September 28,1960 "the Splendid Splinter" did just that on his last at bat.
I know they did not have anywhere near the enough money to cover these bets, but I do not know what happened to them when their betting partners showed up to collect their money.
Joe went on to become a successful Boston lawyer, and Gookie went on to become a lawyer and a judge. As a lawyer he represented one of the Watergate break -in men.
I do go on.
I will close with a brief comment about the Chief. I am currently a few weeks short of my 88th birthday.In my lifetime, I have met and worked with many good men, but over all these years I have never met one with more integrity or a stronger moral compass than Phil Marson. I truly believe he had as much influence on my development as a person as my own father.
It should not be forgotten that the tradition Ron Markoff so accurately characterized, rests firmly on his shoulders.
I hope you and your readers will find something of interest in the above.
Eliot (Chuck) Slater