Camp Counselor: From Mr. Mom to a Marked Man

There are all sorts of summer jobs, filling all sorts of personal requirements. Working construction meant hard work, long hours and a relatively good wage at the end of the day. Been there, done that.

Or, you could try camp counselor, which meant relatively easy work, languid hours and relatively poor pay. Oh, wait. Did I forget to mention the bikinis at the pool?

For $100 a week, I signed on to be the archery counselor at a summer camp in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, where, the promotional brochure proclaimed,“”Your children come first.””

Archery? What did a city kid know about archery? Nothing! But, I figured, at least I was armed if I had any trouble with my campers.

Little did I know.…

I was in charge of a bunk load of 5- and 6-year-olds for eight weeks. It was an eye-opening experience for a 19-year-old. All of a sudden I was Mr. Mom. This wasn’t what I signed on for. Not for 100 bucks. I wanted to go to the pool and count bikinis.

Instead, I had to learn to deal with nightmares, bed-wetting, candy freakouts and homesickness. One kid cried all night so that when he woke up the next morning his eyes were nearly glued shut. Another seemed to think that running around naked was not restricted only to shower time.

For instance, dinnertime in the mess hall.

But slowly we developed a relationship. I learned to really love those kids. They were funny in their own, adolescent way, and cute in a helpful way. That is, they were great bikini magnets at the pool.

As archery counselor, I made sure my kids always had fun. Our favorite game? Cowboys and Indians, of course.

We would talk a Counselor in Training into playing prisoner, stick him in the equipment shed and then run around outside shooting arrows into the walls. Or sometimes just shoot the arrows as high into the sky as they would go.

I don’t think the kids ever hit the target. But they did have a great time.

Suddenly, it was no longer a job. It was fun in the sun. I looked forward to playing with the kids in the morning and playing single dad at the pool in the afternoon.

The nights? It was like the Dating Game and the Newlywed Game all rolled into one. We were young, wild and free. It was 1967, Sgt. Pepper was on the transistor radio and it was most definitely the Summer of Love.

Until the night we almost died.

It started out uneventfully enough. Two friends and I decided to walk to a diner up the road for a late evening bite to eat. It was about a two-mile walk down an old country single-lane road. At the T we turned right, and a few hundred yards later we were eating our fill and then some.

We shared stories of our young charges and lies about our young conquests. Then, with curfew less than an hour away, we started back to camp down the same road.

On our way to the diner, we made it without seeing a car or another person on the road. The way back was different.

About one-third of the way home, two vehicles came speeding up over the rise. One Jeep and one pickup truck. Both loaded with young guys. All loud. And all drunk.

They passed us first, tossing a few epithets along the way. But we just kept on walking. A little faster than before.

Then they turned around.

And came back at us, this time tossing beer bottles and firecrackers. We looked at each other, a bit scared. Just as we were trying to decide what to do, they put the cars across the road, blocking our way. All we could do was tear off into the darkness and try to lose them in the tall weeds in the field beside the road.

That’s when they pulled the cars into the meadow and began chasing us ­— illuminating the path with their headlights. They started yelling, cursing, laughing at our plight.

This wasn’t happening, I thought. I don’t really want to get into a fight.

A fight? We should be so lucky. They started swinging chains in the grass as they crisscrossed the area.

“If we find you guys, we’re going to kill you,””one guy yelled. “You can’t get away.””

We were—deathly still in the grass. We could smell the car’s exhaust. We could feel the chains rustling the weeds. We could hear the feet moving in our direction.

Wham! The chains slammed into the soil. I shuddered; it was so close I could hear its wind. “I’m getting closer,””one of them yelled.

Wham! The chains flew through the air before cutting through the weeds. I shuddered again; it was even closer to my head this time.“”I can hear you crying,””another mocked.

Wham! The chains beat a tattoo into the swamp pool where I was lying. I shuddered again. “We got you now,””someone called.

What would they tell my campers, I wondered?

Would they even find us, I wondered?

Funny the things you think of with your face buried in the dirt of a farmer’s field in upstate New York.

I was sure we couldn’t stay where we were. They would trip right over us. I knew it was now or never: We had to try and get away, or else who knew what was really going to happen?

So we started to crawl. Through the bushes, through the swampy water, through the poison ivy.

A few feet at a time, putting a little more distance between us and them.

I made my pact with God. I would never do whatever it was I promised — I would never do it again. Just please, get us out alive.

I must have gotten His attention because we suddenly found ourselves far enough away that the headlights could no longer illuminate us.

Their voices were fainter. Their threats less immediate. It was time to run for our lives.

So down that long, dark road we ran. Never looking back. Never uttering a word.

We ran until, at last, we came upon the campgrounds. Without breaking stride we jumped into the pool to cool off and let the chlorine kill any poison ivy we may have been carrying.

Finally, we just looked at each other and started laughing. Our voices brought other counselors out and we recounted the story of our evening entertainment. We even came up with names for ourselves: Roughie, Toughie and Cream Puffy.

Exhausted physically and emotionally, I begged off the festivities and headed back to the bunk and my little guys. As I came into the room, I heard sniffling from a bed in the corner.

It was little Kallie. He was homesick and he was crying himself to sleep ­— again.

I went over to his cot and rubbed his back for a while until he started to quiet down. Just as I got up to leave, he said in that little, sleepy voice:“I’m glad you’re back.”

He didn’t know how glad I was, too. Next year I’d ask for combat pay.

Don Mahler can be reached at


The Boys, and Girls, of Summer: The Pioneering Camps of the Upper Valley

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Residential youth camps have flourished in the Upper Valley from early in the 20th century. The people who established these camps were pioneers in the camping industry and their influences were lasting. They inspired a period when city children arrived here by train to stay at camps with Native American names, where they shot arrows, sang around campfires, slept in …