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Every year about this time the same thing happens to me: I start thinking, with wonder, nostalgia and some regret, about the changes time has wrought in that great old institution, the children's camp. Present-day camps may be divided roughly into three types—the country-club camp, where the cots have innerspring mattresses; the back-to-nature camp, where the plumbing is antiquated or nonexistent; and the casual, or progressive, camp, usually run by the director of a casual, or progressive, school, where everything is just terribly relaxed and informal. Camps, when I was younger, were of one style only—the rigorous and Spartan type (if it was comfort you wanted for your children you kept them home). This was true even, or maybe especially, of girls' camps.
Camp Valkyrie in the central Adirondacks, where I spent some strenuous summers from my 8th to 15th years (clad in green serge bloomers, white middy and green rayon tie), was presided over by a large, stern German lady with golden braids and a premature dedication to the F�hrer principle.
Campers at Valkyrie arose daily at 7 o'clock, pulled on their clammy bathing suits and went for a compulsory morning dip in the frigid waters of Big Pine Lake. True, after the numbness had worn off, we felt exhilarated, but perhaps it was merely a physical reaction to almost unbearable shock. Upon emerging from the lake, we wrapped ourselves in flannel bathrobes and, squirming mightily, shed our bathing suits under the robes (it made no difference that the nearest male—boy or man—was three miles distant over an impassable mountain road). Scurrying back to our bunks under the trees through which the sun had not yet penetrated, we struggled into the bloomers for our daily round of body-building sport. This consisted of baseball, tennis, volleyball, basketball, field hockey, running and jumping—all performed in a grim, muscular way, with the maximum expenditure of energy and sweat.
What was not body-building at Camp Valkyrie was mind-or character-building. There were, for example, severe intellectual bouts with nature; in fact, at almost any time of the morning an earnest knot of campers, notebooks in hand, could be found gathered around the fr�ulein, who would be imparting items from her vast knowledge of trees, flowers and shrubs.
"Dot is the northern red oak, Quercus borealis," she would state, pointing a firm, unwavering finger at the nearest tree. "And dot is the Acer saccharinum, from which obtains maple sugar."
Occasionally the fr�ulein would snatch up some object from underfoot—either a meek snake, which would flail around in her hands looking terrified ("Chust see here, young ladies, a beautiful creature"), or else a few pasty-white mushrooms that she would identify, with assurance, as nonpoisonous.
As part of our communication with nature, we also danced—mostly in the style of Isadora Duncan, whose art Fr�ulein Bismarck greatly admired. Hardly a day passed without our donning some kind of tacky dryad or wood nymph costumes and flitting across the softball field to the accompaniment of barely audible flute music. Our major concern was to avoid stubbing our toes or cutting the soles of our feet on the prickly grass of the outfield. We didn't even have a legitimate dancing counselor; the rites were usually presided over by a sullen swimming instructor with a whistle around her neck and a damp gray sweatshirt pulled down over her bathing suit.
In our more sedentary hours we wove raffia baskets, hammered out copper ornaments and fashioned leather pouches. We also took ice-cold showers and had our hair shampooed by the nurse with some kind of piney disinfectant.
As intrepid Valkyrie maidens, we were not supposed to be afraid of anything (except Fr�ulein Bismarck). Woe to the camper who fled screeching from a small, harmless wild animal (anything smaller than an ocelot was considered harmless). And woe to the noncompetitive ones who failed to get into the spirit of Brown-and-Green Week, when the camp was divided into two teams that competed against each other in every form of outdoor activity short of manslaughter.
Not even the Grays of the Civil War hated the Blues more fiercely than the Browns hated the Greens of Camp Valkyrie. In fact, during my last years at camp Fr�ulein Bismarck tried rather frantically to moderate the color war, and she and her counselors would bellow at us: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts; it's how you play the game!"