Camp Immaculata in Mattituck, with its woodsy cabins named after birds, chirped itself to death around 1977. Or so I hoped. More likely the Diocese of Brooklyn no longer found the camp lucrative and succumbed to a tasty offer from a developer.
A quick look at the site on Peconic Bay Avenue now shows the camp is extinct. Good. This is one species that should never be coddled back to life. Summer camp is the antithesis of freedom; I hated it.
Immaculata was most likely a perfectly good camp. It was created “for children from the city to enjoy their summer in the country.” Therein lies the rub. I did not consider myself from the city. Up to then I hadn’t even realized city kids were so light deprived. In fact, they were as white as the sand around our cabins. And they were skinny. They looked like the over-crowded, thin, pine trees that grew around the camp.
In Southold, where I lived, we had sand-colored sand, sand that turned a shade darker when the water lapped over it. We had fat maple trees whose branches shaded us from the heat and whose trunks held up our bicycles. In Southold, we weren’t pale and skinny. We were tanned from fishing off Goose Bay Bridge and swimming at Founder’s Landing. Our arms were strong from lugging pales of mussels home from where they grew on the jetty at the end of the street. Our legs were well-developed from digging for clams in Peconic Bay with our toes.
Why did that opinionated 11–year–old go to camp in the first place? A friend from the city, whose family rented the house next to ours every August, went to Camp Immaculata every July. She convinced me it was paradise. I’m surprised she didn’t say “bird of paradise” with all the bird stuff there.
I begged my parents to let me go. On my first day at camp, this friend ignored me. She was assigned to a cabin for girls a year older, the Blue Jays, and didn’t want to associate with me. I was a Bobolink.
Whatever that is. I never even saw one on Long Island. I came to think it wasn’t a bird at all, but something Russians called their grandchildren.
Being ignored by the friend was my first disappointment. Then came the real shocker. Everything was done on a schedule.
Mornings went like this: You got up and made your bed neatly. At home my brothers and I slept on top of the sheets so we didn’t have to make the bed at all. Then a nun inspected our faces, nails and feet, to make sure we were clean. Mom thought swimming every day cleaned us enough. She checked our nails when company came. We went to the bug-prone open mess hall and ate cereal from the box it came in. I preferred cinnamon toast eaten in front of the TV on our screened-in porch. We had arts and crafts, which included making lanyards like inmates in an old-time funny farm. I had a table of my own in our garage where I made dolls from pipe cleaners, jingle shells and bird feathers.
Now for the exciting afternoons. We were allowed to frolic in a small roped-off area where the water was never deeper than two feet. I say frolic, because there wasn’t enough room to swim. We bumped and jumped like feeding time in the fish hatchery. At home, I raced my brothers to the raft set in deep water at Town Beach. And those color-coded bathing caps! No self-respecting local kid would ever be seen in one of those. I could imagine the Road Knights in their low-riding Chevys, pointing their fingers at me and laughing.
We could go to the canteen and stand around drinking a sweet mixture called “bug juice.” My girlfriends and I would bike to Jack’s Shack, order cokes and posture while the older boys waved as they drove by trailing dune buggies.
We played volleyball, too. Not the kind you see during the Summer Olympics but the old-people-on-cruise-ships kind. It was hot on that field. Kids free to do what they like don’t get hot. A free kid rides a bike and feels the cool breeze in the hair; a free kid climbs into a tree house and whittles a slingshot in the shade; a free kid swims underwater and chases horseshoe crabs.
In the evening we sang songs in the arts and crafts cabin, standing around a piano played by a pleasant, pale lady of an uncertain age, only distinguished from the nuns by her clothing, unflamboyant as it was. The people who did not dedicate themselves to celibacy, were called “lay.” Obviously, the Catholic Church hadn’t thought that one through.
“Miss Kindly Pale” didn’t know Bill Haley’s “Crazy Man, Crazy” but played a rousing theme song, that went “Immaculata we all love you, Immaculata indeed it’s true…”
By the third day, I was so fed up I could scream. On the fourth day the bobolink turned into a screech owl. I made Howlin’ Wolf sound like Sweet Baby Jane. The nuns and the counselors got together and in a fit of desperation called my mother. Once she arrived, I sat on the hood of her baby-blue station wagon and refused to move until she took me home. I was told that the money for the rest of the two weeks would be forfeited. I banged on the hood and said I’d pay for it myself from my allowance. I exhausted everyone and they finally gave in.
On that drive home to Southold, no amount of taunting from my brothers in the backseat could suppress my joy. No crybabies allowed on our baseball team. No amount of threats from my mother could dampen my spirits. No television for you young lady. You’re confined to your room. We only got two TV channels anyway, the better one from Connecticut, but they were both fuzzy. And that was the summer I’d planned to sneak-read Gone With the Wind in my room anyway.
The ride was glorious. I opened the window to feel closer to my territory. We drove past The Apple Tree Bar and Grill where the big kids parked and played kissy-face. Past the Quonset hut of the Mattituck Theater, which suddenly looked like a Disneyland castle.
Past the Cutchogue Diner with its homemade pie smell wafting through the windows. Past Rinehart’s liquor store, the one and only for miles, where my mother would most likely return to pick up something to drink after she locked me in my room. Past Kramer’s Drug Store where my friends were already assembled on the front porch licking ice-cream cones with one hand and holding up their bikes with the other. I started to wave, but my mother slapped back my hand.
I got a “job” picking raspberries at a family friend’s farm, but mother decided it cost her more to wash the red stains off my clothes than I was making, so I stopped. My camp debt was forgiven.
Later on that summer, I fell off my bike coming back from the beach and got a cut on my knee that scarred. Mother said it was God’s punishment for being selfish and leaving camp.
I didn’t care. I don’t care. I look at that scar today and think what a glorious thing it is to be a kid, free, in the summer.