Camp Reunion Paunchy, Poignant

This past weekend, I went to my camp reunion. Camp Keeyumah was in business 25 years, from 1949 to 1974. (Official motto: "Send Us Your Child for Eight Weeks, and If We Don't Send You Back Your Child, No Sweat, We'll Send You Somebody Else's.") About 200 people showed up, ranging from their 40s to their 60s.

The women aged better than the men. Some of the men were so fat they could have been entered in the Pennsylvania State Fair. Women are quicker at recognizing the perils of aging. For example, women usually know when it's time to stop wearing halter tops. Men blithely continue to wear form-fitting shirts even when their "form" now resembles a big ol' sack of feed.

Women would never be so blissfully ignorant. Like the 40ish woman who showed up with spectacularly platinum blond hair, and when a man said she looked like Marilyn Monroe, she responded: "Do I look more like Marilyn Monroe when she was alive, or dead?"

The reunion's organizers planned a surprise "Color War" break. Color War is a (mostly athletic) competition in which campers are divided into teams according to camp colors--blue and white at Keeyumah. The announcement of Color War--the "break"--is usually in an off-center way; like marauding through the bunks and tying every third kid to the rafters, hahaha.

This "break" was by helicopter. The local veterinarian has flown his own chopper to get to his patients for 40 years. Now as we stood around the flagpole for the welcoming ceremony, he passed low over the camp, dropping blue and white streamers. Except the streamers didn't drop cleanly--they hung over the runners of the helicopter.

All of us had the same terrifying thought: The streamers are going to get into the rotor, and the chopper is going to crash and kill us all! I began to fantasize the first sentence of my own obituary: "Tony Kornheiser, who was afraid to fly and preferred his feet on the ground, died yesterday when a helicopter fell from the sky and crushed him." Fortunately, the vet flew off without incident.

At that point, we did what any reasonable group of middle-aged adults whose lives had just flashed before their eyes would do: We ate lunch--the traditional camp picnic lunch we had 40 years ago, hamburgers in the basket. They tasted just like we remembered them: like death warmed over. I don't want to say the meat was tough, but some of the hamburgers had tattoos.

After lunch, people wandered around camp and ultimately gathered for the traditional Color War softball game. The score went to 8-7 Blue. White was down to its last batter with a runner on third base. The White captain, my friend Keith, spotted me watching the game and said, "Tony, get up there and hit." I declined, saying I hadn't swung a bat in 20 years.

"Do it for your children," he said.

"My children don't speak to me," I said.

"Then do it for my children," Keith said.

I went to the plate and swung, missing the ball by a "Dukakis-like" margin. Keith walked into the batter's box and said to me, "Stevie Wonder would come closer than that." Then Keith put his arm around me and said, "OK, Tony, let's go--just like we did it in practice." That cracked me up. Our last practice was in 1966.

I hit a line single to right. Unfortunately, I pulled a groin muscle running to first and needed medical attention. At my age, the good news was that I even had groin muscles. That was my one moment of glory.

But as much as any reunion is about glory and camaraderie and reliving the best moments of your life, reunions are also about time gone by and friends lost. These were people I spent every summer of my youth with, people I loved in a place I adored. And lately I've begun to count the wrinkles and the bald heads and the artificial hips, and I know there's more time behind us than ahead.

At the end of the reunion, we gathered at the lake, where people made small speeches about the ones who had passed on--then we lit candles that were fastened to paper plates and cast them out onto the water.

One of the people we mourned was my Aunt Shirley, who died recently. My Aunt Shirley and Uncle Arnie owned the camp and were beloved by all who went there. Arnie, now in his 80s, was the last to place a candle on the lake.

I loved being there, rocking in the cradle of my childhood, seeing dear friends, deceiving myself into feeling momentarily young again. But every step I took, I saw my aunt, and I felt the presence of my mother and father, coming one last time to visit me. Mostly I wandered around alone, standing silently in old, familiar places, inhaling the aromas and trying to press every square inch of the camp into my mind's eye like flowers in a book.

There would be other reunions, but I guessed I'd never be back again. The book of the dead would be too long. So I wanted to memorize this one perfect day and hold it forever. And I stood on the shore and looked out at the lake, crying gratefully as the tiny flames bobbed in the water.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World