2016, Writing, Kinfolk, Camp, Summer

Our Indian Summers | Reflections on Camp for Kinfolk Magazine

But of all the memories from all my years at camp, there is one that stands alone in its clarity and sacredness, one memory that lives with me as a moment of truest perfection. Because it is a ghost of happiness past, it can never be destroyed or undone—it stands like a lighthouse of my childhood.

Our Indian Summers | Reflections on Camp for Kinfolk Magazine

When our parents dropped us off at summer camp, they saw the rows of wooden cabins and the smiling staff; they saw the oak trees arching over the gravel road that led down to the lake and the beat-up camp trucks; they saw the piles of trunks packed with bug spray and swim goggles. They saw campers running every which way chasing footballs, Frisbees, and Gypsy, the faithful camp retriever. They saw the ever-present tribe of girl campers braiding each other’s hair and whispering secrets and shooing away spies who tried to interfere. Then there was always the tinny sound of cheerful music playing over the PA, the brightly colored flags hanging overhead, and the general atmosphere of a backwoods carnival. To them this was, basically, camp. 

When our parents dropped us off at camp they saw a well-oiled machine: people, property, and programs all working together in the spirit of clean-cut American optimism. What they didn’t see, at least not directly, was the magic that came to life as soon as the last minivan or station wagon left the camp gates—the kind of magic that only comes to life in a place where there are cliffs to jump from, campfires to gather around, and tribal ceremonies to perform. The kind of magic that only happens when moms and dads are absent. They too might have experienced the camp magic when they were children—and maybe even longed to experience it once again—but they could not. They were adults now and had to buy insurance and pay for something called a mortgage. When our parents dropped us off, they saw the face and shook the hand of camp, but it was only us kids felt its heartbeat and saw it come fully alive under long days of sunshine and the cloudless cerulean sky of our youth.

For those of us who went to camp year after year, summer was the nucleus around which the whole calendar circled. We believed camp was the best place on Earth (or anywhere else for that matter)—our own private Neverland. Except for video games, camp had everything we could ever want in life: tree houses and ball fields, a lake full of boats, bows and arrows and rifles, card tricks, and unlimited peanut butter sandwiches. 

At camp we didn’t have to wear shoes, but we wore bliss and we wore mischief. 

There in the woods beside the lake, we found a place of profound simplicity, but also of expansive imagination. We were happy castaways who evolved into something perhaps less civilized but substantially more alive than what we were back in the suburbs. There, on a hill named for an Indian chief, we succeeded and failed in the arenas of competition. We bestowed nicknames upon one another. We broke things and built things. We idolized our counselors, those elder statesmen of outdoor do-goodery. We tried our hands at chivalry. We dressed as pirates and spoke in codes. We played the part of little brothers and big sisters and, if we could find the courage, the bravest of us even dared to dance with a member of the opposite sex.

But of all the memories from all my years at camp, there is one that stands alone in its clarity and sacredness, one memory that lives with me as a moment of truest perfection. Because it is a ghost of happiness past, it can never be destroyed or undone—it stands like a lighthouse of my childhood, casting a searchlight over other foggy and darker memories. Even today if I close my eyes the scene materializes immediately and I can see it—I see us, sitting there near the cold lake, gathered around a roaring fire. I can see Rudy and B. Rob and Chris Minor and “Scharr Daddy” and all the boys sitting on railroad ties, weaving tall tales. I see their freckles and well-beaten tennis shoes, their sunburned skin, and the fire reflected in their eyes. I can hear us teasing Rudy. I can hear him tease us back. I can see the fiery dust flying upward each time we stir the coals and I can see kids drawing hieroglyphs in the sand at their feet. I can smell the smoke and seared sugar of lost marshmallows. I can smell that singular “lake smell” drifting over the camp road. How many hours did we sit there? 

How many times did we gather and spin the yarn of our own mythology, our own greatness? How much did we laugh at each other’s clumsiness and our own lame jokes? I can see us then: both innocent and mean, fearless and terrified. 

We sat together around that campfire first as little boys and then as adolescents and then as young men. Like a pilgrimage to the holy forest was summer camp; like a counsel of mighty chieftains were we around the campfire. There in the immortality of memory live the finest moments of my youth, spent with the greatest friends I’ve ever known. 

The kids back at home, who never went to camp, never understood us—not the inside jokes or the camp legends or the songs. They didn’t understand the value of the “Best All-Around Athlete” ribbons that hung on our walls or why we treasured the hand-written letters that came from old counselors and cabin-mates. Mostly, our friends back home were shocked that we would choose to live for a month without air-conditioning. Camp was an enigma to outsiders and we liked it that way. For kids from the suburbs, camp was our Narnia—once experienced it needed no explanation—but you had to step through the wardrobe to “get it.” There we met fantastic characters, set out upon great adventures, and always came home a bit wiser and braver and taller than when we had left. 

Whatever it cost our parents to send us to camp all those years, it was worth it. Their investments have paid us back with the immeasurable richness of a lifetime of golden summer memories that burn warmly through all seasons.

Reprinted with kind permission of Kinfolk Magazine.

books, america, summer

American Getaway: 100 Years of Saints & Sinners at Camp Wandawega

In 2014, I was asked by David Hernandez and Tereasa Surrat, the incredible owner / directors of Camp Wandawega, to help write a history of their extraordinary property in Walworth County, Wisconsin. The result was a book, titled American Getaway: 100 Years of Saints and Sinners at Camp Wandawega, Wisconsin. Here's the summary from the book's dust jacket: 

Indians. Bootleggers. A Swedish Madam. The Feds. A Murderer On The Lam. Refugee Priests. The Ghost Of The Lake. Kids In Canoes. A Russian Gangster. And A Cheeky Racoon Named George. This is the very strange, very true story of Camp Wandawega, Wisconsin: an American getaway since 1925.

Below you can read the book's prologue. At the Wandawega Historical Society's website, you can read all of the book's seven sections.

American Getaway, Prologue: "Our Place," Walworth County, Wisconsin, August 2012.

          "How dare you, sir. How dare you threaten to take this place away from us."
          At this the crowd fell silent. Clearly, emotions were high. After all, when a ninety-year-old woman crosses a crowded courtroom to dress down the county zoning board - directly to their faces - well, then, pretty much everything else comes to a standstill.
          And she was just getting started: "Ashamed, the county should be ashamed for even considering something like this," she yelled, quaking with indignation. "That’s our place, that’s God’s place and you will not take it away from us." There was a respectful wave of applause. The venerable woman spent the next several minutes laying out the many noble qualities of the place in question before finishing her statement with a final wag of her finger and a final benediction: "ashamed, you should all be ashamed."
          Mrs. Rita Sisk of Walworth County is a devout Catholic mother, grandmother, and first-time zoning board scolder. The inciting incident that had brought so many supporters together that day? A zoning violation. And, “the place” that Mrs. Sisk, along with fifty others had stood up to defend? ‘Our place,’ she had called it, ‘God’s place,’ was an outdoor chapel situated on a twenty five acre piece of property along the north edge of Wisconsin’s Lake Wandawega, known today as Camp Wandawega.
          Since the 1960s, when the property was used as a retreat center by an order of refugee Latvian priests, the outdoor chapel at Camp Wandawega had been used during the summertimes for ‘Mass in the Grass.’ For the faithful, the opportunity to pray and hear mass outdoors was more than just a novelty, it was a new kind of sacrament: worship in that first of all temples, nature. Over time, the tradition became sacred. So, in 2012, when the county zoning commission realized that the chapel sat on property zoned for residential use only (and not for religious gatherings), it threatened closure and an end to "Mass in the Grass."
          Cue the community uproar. Cue the indignation. Cue Mrs. Sisk and the crowd of people who showed up on a weekday to protest; the local residents, the out-of-towners from Chicago, the members of the Latvian community, the Catholic school principal, a big city ballet director, even former Illinois state representative Joe Lyons. Cue the over three hundred letters of support that came in from around the world, insisting that Camp Wandawega be allowed to remain open as-is and that the loss of Mass in the Grass would be, "a travesty."
          In the end, it was a non-travesty: the chapel and the camp were saved from the wrecking ball, or, at least, from closure. It was a victory for the diaspora of those who love Camp Wandawega; the generations of families who had come (and are still coming) to their summer getaway ‘on the lake no one has ever heard of’ in southeast Wisconsin.
          But there was a second, less instantaneous consequence in Camp Wandawega’s August, 2012 campaign: in the process of preparing for the court hearing, the camp’s current owners David Hernandez and Tereasa Surratt were introduced to decades worth of documentation and first-hand accounts clarifying much of the shadowy history of the resort property which included, in the broadest of strokes, illegal booze, illicit sex, the mob, the Vatican, a panhandling raccoon, and even a murderer on the run. And what they found - the facts they were able to confirm after years of unconfirmed myth and campfire legends - was stranger, more fascinating, and more complicated than they could ever have imagined. 
          As it turns out, for the past century, "God’s place" - that wholesome, all-American getaway by the lake - has been just as much a sanctuary for sinners, as it has for saints. Since the first modern building appeared on the site in the 1920s, it has been a speakeasy, a secret hideout for Chicago mobsters, a 1930’s brothel, and as the site of a gruesome, 1942 murder-suicide. For almost one hundred years, what is now known as Camp Wandawega has been many things to many people, but one thing has remained constant: the shores of Lake Wandawega have always played host to those who seek, whether for virtue or vice, to get away - both to something, and away from something else. 
          The story you are about to read reaches back into far away decades, it is populated by real people - both heroes and villains; the facts of their lives and times have been meticulously gathered, thoughtfully considered, and sketched here with as much journalistic integrity as we could muster. There’s a chance that a little ‘color’ has been added between the lines here and there whilst still leaving plenty of room for these tales to grow taller in the years to come. This is the stuff of legends, after all. So crack open a cold one, wrap up in a blanket, and gather in close around the fire...this is the very true, very strange history of Camp Wandawega, American Getaway.

Learn more about the American Getaway book project here, and more about Camp Wandawega here.

books, america, essay

Introducing American Getaway: 100 Years of Saints and Sinners at Camp Wandawega, Wisconsin


I am thrilled to finally be able to see this project come to life in print: American Getaway was a collaborative research, writing, and historical fact-checking endeavor over a year in the making. 

You can learn more about the extraordinary true history of Camp Wandawega and the extraordinary couple who is keeping such a special plot of Americana alive here.

Read the whole, rambling story of American Getaway for yourself here.