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Thanks Camp Alton

By Chuck Goldman

The Swampscott-Camp Alton connection most likely started when my grandfather sent his sons Harris 1938-1940 (my dad) and Bozie (my uncle). They both loved it. My dad played the bugle at assembly, which would later morph into a money-making opportunity after the war, playing trombone in a swing band on college campuses. He also was a decent baseball player, a tall and muscular left-handed first baseman who bragged how he hit the rec hall roof once. After the war, his camp experience paved the way to play college ball for Bates, Bowdoin and B.U. as he rushed to get his degree in two and half-years.

But for Jews of our generation, the pogroms, the Depression and WWII was always in the background, affecting our lives indirectly. For Harris from ages 20-22, instead of returning to Alton with Bozie, it meant flying 200 missions as a navigator over the Himalayas (The Hump) to bomb the Japanese in occupied China. One night we were eating out together alone, and after a few too many drinks, he confided that one time they flew so low that he could see Japanese soldiers on top of a long line of trains as they were releasing their bombs. Kind of makes pre-Flag Rush jitters seem a bit lame.

But if not for WWII, then no Holocaust, and if no Holocaust, it’s unlikely the UN would have voted in favor of Israel. Ironically, in the wake of those horrors, winning the 1967 war was a huge boost for our Jewish self-confidence, which makes me wonder if it had any impact on our generation of American Jews.

I don’t recall ever losing a baseball game to DeWitt—was this part of an attitude change that started in 1968, my first year at camp? For me, 1967 meant discovering that that the Boston Traveler had a sports page and rooting for Swampscott’s Tony Conigliaro, as the Red Sox made it to Game 7 in the World Series.

No doubt, the next generation of Goldman sons would be going to Camp Alton. Like many of you, I spent over a year of my life in Wolfeboro (1968-1975) and so have some lasting memories. Like when I feel a certain breeze in the air in Swampscott, it will remind me of the same wind at camp; or the way that the sounds of dark, choppy water by the dock are distinct from the gentle waves on the rocks down below the campcraft area; or the way camp was transformed a bit in the last week, suddenly from summer to fall, with those chilly morning assemblies; but nothing compares to the stink of the the lower camp bunk line cesspools, as a tennis ball was being chased from an intense game of roofball.

Was there any doubt in our minds at the time that our own sons would continue the Alton tradition? I was disappointed when camp was sold for real estate development, puzzled when I visited at age 40 with cousins Bob and Jeff to see all the expensive new homes, and amazed when I returned at age 60 with my daughter to be blocked out by a fully landscaped gated community—I could barely figure out where the corral used to be.

Maybe it’s the pandemic and how dangerous political times have returned once again for the Jews, but as I mark the 50th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah (6/3/72), it’s got me thinking of life and camp, but no longer with the frustration associated with camp’s closing. Yes, it’s hard to reconcile that all our camp memories can live only in old photos and in our minds, but how lucky were we?

Last week, fellow Swampscott camper Peter Hoffman was good enough to forward that recent article about two childhood Camp Alton buddies now reunited in the same retirement community, which led me to scroll down on the camp website to that 1975 photo of the A-Crew on the bleachers. (BTW, the one unidentified counselor is Peter Roth. Confession: I had to dig out my ’75 Alton Annual).

My Bar Mitzvah was attended by Peter and MG Diamond, both of Swampscott and Josh Zimman from neighboring Marblehead. Josh and I switched dates—his was 6/27 so he could practice his torah portion a bit more, and since his birthday is on 6/21, it made him a legit age 13 for the ceremony.

But I was still age 12 on that day when they tell us we have become men, a half-century ago—you gotta like the way Reform rabbis bend those rules that have nothing to do with being a good person. Having that August birthday was an advantage for both Little League and Camp that year, as the July cutoff dates allowed me to play against younger competition.

Here’s a bit of trivia, as by coincidence I watched this film a few nights ago between Celtics playoff games, the final line of “Stand By Me”: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?"

Many of my Little League teammates had bonded for three years so I wasn’t happy when my parents wouldn’t let me defer camp to play an extended Little League season. But 1972 was still my favorite Alton summer, as I loved not only the eight weeks of Green-Gray competition but also playing against rivals Dewitt, Belknap and Wyanoke. Wins against anti-Semitic Dewitt were especially satisfying. Even Neil Brier recruited me for the swim team, patiently trying to make my breast-stroke leg kick legal. Never happened. Now if they had a side-stroke event…

Next to sports from Reveille to Taps (and don’t forget Tattoo!), camp for me was about being entertained by many very, very funny counselors. The one who made me smile most was Big Jeff Greenfield (of very blessed memories). Looking back it would seem he was Alton’s Master of Ceremonies and camp’s comic soul, and in that ’75 A-Crew photo, he was looking mighty fine on that day, down what, 150+ pounds, thanks to his Spartan crash diet of one can of tuna and water every other day for lunch.

I earned many a Tootsie Roll providing back rubs for Jeff during rest periods over the summers. A favorite memory was his singing performance, I think on a Music Night—or was it one of Alton’s many plays—does anyone recall his slightly off-tune “My Favorite Things?” But who cares about the pitch, he put everything into that rendition, sweating so much that Joe Cocker could have learned a few things from Big Jeff. They say most actors perform to show off their talent but some act to escape reality. Jeff, I’m afraid, may have been more of the latter.

Though he stuck me on the basketball C Team once, he made up for it a few summers later in ’75, when I was a CIT, by buying us a six of Schaefer beer and Pringles at the Wolfeboro packie, which we quietly consumed on those very bleachers, well after Taps.

Oy, what a backwater Wolfeboro was back in ’75. Bailey’s, Bailey’s Dockside, the liquor store and maybe an A&P were pretty much all there was. At least the WRKO AM signal from Boston was strong enough to play “Sister Golden Hair” and “I’m Not In Love” several times a day and remember NBC radio’s “Jeopardy” with Don Pardo came through static-free on FM during morning activities? Today’s Wolfeboro has changed as much as camp, though the Mt. Washington still cruises around Lake Winnipesaukee (wonder if it delivers the mail to Barndoor?)

Jeff idolized Yaz, his license plate was the sarcastic “Cha,” and I’m pretty certain he appeared at Swampscott High School in ‘76 recruiting for the soon-to-be-shuttered Franconia College. Poor guy, he died much too young and lived with too much unease (I hope the backrubs destressed him a bit). I have no clues about the sources of his unhappiness, about his parents, or how some event might have changed his or the rest of the lives of our families.

What if the UK and France, noticing the Jew-hate going on in Germany, decided to attack a weak Nazi army in 1937, just as Chief was starting camp? If Hitler had been overthrown early, then does Japan still attack the U.S.? Does Harris return to Alton instead and be spared all the ensuing trauma? I would like to think camp was the one place where Big Jeff was OK. And a special shoutout to Josh Tager who took in Jeff near the end while he was battling his weight again, along with diabetes.

Of course, Jeff was hardly the only counselor with remarkable character at camp. Didn’t Jingles do a good Rodney Dangerfield? Didn’t Ricky Snyder do remarkable impressions of Paul Bond,  Connie Martin and Liz Greenhouse? Didn’t Kenny Lato, Ted “Mouse” Merritt and Barry “Fudgy” Kraft sing a flawless “King of the Road” as part of the Circass tradition?

Yes, things got a little rough around the edges on occasion. In hindsight, not such a good idea relegating difficult or unathletic campers to the woods with whistles during the Flag Rush or establishing the hierarchy of “The Family.” But Jewish humor is such that Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jon Stewart, and New Hampshire’s Adam Sandler would all have fit in at camp just fine. As would have the director (Rob Reiner) and narrator (Richard Dreyfus) of “Stand By Me.” And of course, Alton has produced its own Hollywood stars, Bif “ The Battling Biffer” Levy, Andy “Kid” Cadiff and Jon Dana.

I recall prepping my senior aide, Steve Fox, for his lines in “Guys and Dolls,” “I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere…” Pretty sure I was mouthing the words as he performed  perfectly. Wasn’t it Andy who sang “Try to Remember” from the Fantasticks? And Jon gave me, the dour CIT, great advice about what the proper Alton attitude is: “You gotta get into it, man!”

My first post-Bar Mitzvah act of significance was to run a Schvitz, the 6-mile run outside camp, down Roberts Cove Road, briefly onto Route 28, and a loop back from the other side of R.C. Rd. I prepared with a few Aikens (about two miles around the bunkline and A-Field) and ventured out a few days before my 13th birthday (8/12), during some free time before the lunch assembly. It was August-hot as waves of heat were steaming off the tar on Rte. 28 and Since there was no sidewalk you had to skip onto the dirt when an occasional car drove by. But I made it back safe and sound. I think I approached Steve Kohn, wanting him to announce the feat at lunch assembly. Instead, he correctly chewed me out for having left camp property unattended.

After Big Jeff, another positive influence on was Peter Stromberg (Dr. Doom). He and his very cute wife, Phyllis, were my bunk parents in O-1 in 1968, and later on he was my baseball coach for the 15-year-old team. I was lucky to have had great coaching with lots of practices back in Swampscott, so the Doc put me at shortstop. I remember one game on a hot day he had me pitch against Dewitt, and though I struggled, he made sure to mention me in particular at the following assembly.

Funny thing, the Doctor did the same after I ran a leg of a 440-yard dash at an all-camp track meet at Belknap. Clearly, I was the slowest of the four, but I guess he had chosen me as one of his “pets.” Then, years later, someone from the next generation of campers goes on the camp website and blogs an identical story of how Doctor Doom had picked him out as a favorite and bragged at assembly even though it was undeserved.

Oh well. Like Big Jeff, Doc died too young and endured a difficult life outside of camp. But I attribute his workout ethic—remember the weight rooms in Bunk I and near Peter’s office—to instilling some self-discipline in me that has still carried over to this day.

Another positive influence was Ronnie Markoff. I sat next to him on the bus up to camp from the Town Lyne House in Lynnfield back in 1969 and he made sure that I wasn’t going be homesick by engaging in conversation. Always polite, he and his brother, Gary, were really the glue of camp. While I was always fooling around and having fun, Ronnie was always the adult, sacrificing his own pleasure for the common good, taking on important responsibilities like the safety of the waterfront. I just read about a tragic swimming pool death of a four-year old in Brookline and realize how I took so much for granted.

Of course, Ronnie on trumpet, with Gary (along with my Tufts frat brother, Bobby Kerstein) on saxophones, were always fixtures on Music Night with high quality performances.

Just a few weeks ago, we were chatting with another couple. My son is a long-time camper/counselor at Camp Becket in western MA, which became a sort of Alton for me as many of our sons’ friends from Swampscott and Marblehead had great experiences there. The wife asked me what was so special about Camp Alton? I responded that my mom had totally spoiled me as a kid, making my bed every morning and serving me breakfast on a tray on the carpet in front of the den TV before school, so I could watch Curley during the Major Mudd Show.

Well, thanks to cabin inspections being part of the color-war scoring, I learned how to make my bed, sweep and sponge the sills and screens, neatly fold bathing suits on the clothesline, etc. And because a few inspectors like Ronnie were tough scorers, earning a 10 became a great game in some of the more disciplined bunks. As I credit Peter Stromberg for my workout ethic, I credit Ronnie for doing chores around the house today. (BTW, in Ronnie’s recent blog, he mentions that the Director of nearby Camp Kehonka may have disliked us for being Jews; however, a kindergarten classmate of Peter’s, MG’s and mine, Jane Axelrod, went to that camp for many summers and enjoyed it.)

Who remembers the big soccer game against Camp Winaukee, probably in 1971? Coach Dusty Richard had a special tryout since it would not be the 12-year-old team playing but for ages 11-13. I think I was the last one to make the team that featured Dave Berkman. Many of us youngsters still avoided contact and were called out as “pussies.” We needed to toughen up if we were to have a chance to win.

It was a long bus drive around the lake to Moultonborough and the game started after dinner. It was an overcast evening. In order to access the soccer field, we had to pass through their recreation room which boasted a coke machine, pool and ping pong tables, etc. Dave cleverly used this as way to get us properly “psyched” up: “You see how these rich Winaukee Jews have all the comforts,” he said, or something to that effect. Anyway, we won 2-0 and Howie Silverstein, though considerably shorter than many of the Winaukee defenders, used his amazing speed and footwork to move up and down the left sideline, weave around at least four opponents, and blasted a bullet of a shot past the goalie for the score—I think the best individual camp-play I ever witnessed.

But how funny. Yes, we had no electricity in the bunks and soaped up on Sundays, but in truth most of us came from homes just as comfortable as those Winaukee campers.

What a great mitzvah it was for Peter Guralnick to have a few black campers; George Carroll and Carlton Thomas were two who were about my age. Swampscott is split in thirds among Protestants, Catholics and Jews, but had no blacks when I was a kid. My exposure to them no doubt made me feel comfortable enough to enjoy my time with a black roommate (and frat brother). I wonder what George and Carlton think of Camp Alton?

One of the great additions to camp was when the lower basketball court was created. The so-called “biddies,” with asphalt and baskets low enough to test your dunking skills, was also the perfect dimensions for street hockey, and Mike Stone created this new activity while still a camper. Stoney really helped me hone my sports analytical skills—he turned me on to The Sporting News (I still have a half-dozen issues from the ‘70s) and since he grew up outside of Philadelphia, he opened up National League baseball to me.

I never had more fun than playing in Stoney’s league—the two biggest scoring threats were Stoney himself and Howie Cooper, both threats to score with slap shots from just in front of their own net. Mike is now Detroit’s most famous sports radio personality. I like to say that having to attend Hebrew school on two weekdays plus Sunday mornings ruined my budding street hockey career.

In addition to Tony C., Swampscott’s other great athletic claim was for NFL player and coach, Dick Jauron, who was one of my sister’s classmates. Dick was dating one of my sister’s best friends, Lori “Candy” Kane and by coincidence, after they broke up, she met and eventually married Fudgy. The settled in Swampscott and soon after, Mouse decided to raise his family in Swampscott too. Mouse gave me good lesson once on the A-Field while we were playing football. Mouse was the referee of the game and I complained about bad calls, as Richard Shassian and Tony Levitan were dominating the game. Mouse then reminded me how only a week earlier I was telling an opponent to stop kvetching about the refs. Ironically, Lori’s father, Sam, was one of Red Auerbach’s closest friends in Boston; they would often eat Chinese food for lunch. Sam had a dental practice in East Boston (perfect if your kids’ names are Candy Kane and Fudgy Kraft) and was named the Celtics team dentist. Sam was so generous that he gave my sister playoff tickets and so I was able to see such epic series like the Celtics-76ers 1981 Conference Finals. Even after last night’s crazy 3-point orgy against Steph Curry and the Warriors, nothing was as enjoyable as witnessing the genius of Larry Bird.

So now, 50 years have passed and we all look more like Phin Tobe or Phil Bortnick did in the early ‘70s than we’d care to admit. But if any of you happens by Swampscott, just knock on my door and we’ll see if Barry or Ted are around. And we can chat about how lucky we were to have had Camp Alton.