Author’s note: While Bill and I are no longer together, his presence in this story was writer’s tool (he was a great editor too!) to share some wonderful memories and feelings about Camp Seneca Lake that are timeless. The sentiments shared in this story endure onward.
June 5, 2013
CSL CIRCLE GAMES
My boyfriend, Bill, and I had a free moment while visiting friends on Seneca Lake; on impulse, I looked in my contacts list and dialed a familiar number, 315 536 9981. John Golden had always said, “Just call and you can stop by any time to visit.” True to his word, he said we could visit the camp.
I started getting excited. “You’ll see this place is really special. My entire family, multiple generations have been here. My aunt Marilyn met her husband Robert Sanow when she worked in the kitchen and he was the Athletic Director. My dad (Howard Reitkopp) was there too.”
Bill seemed doubtful. He’d never done camp other than Boy Scouts. (I think that’s why he still hates camping.) But he was willing to let me show him my special place, a place of song, belonging, and something I shared with my entire family.
“It’s there. See it, the sign, that’s new! That one’s much easier to see. When I used to come here, it was just a little green sign that you might overlook,” I said. “Slow down, yes, turn here.”
He smiled as I had a conversation with myself. He could see my anticipation and he was curious because I spoke of CSL as my safe haven, a place I hadn’t attended since my CIT year in 1979. When Bill maneuvered our little car onto the camp’s gravel dirt road, we instantly rolled our windows up. I laughed out loud.
“If we were on the bus to camp, we’d leave the windows open, not minding the dust. We’d be singing at the top of our lungs!” I said. “We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because WE’RE HERE!”
First bonding took place on that bus. My parents used to road trip from Maryland to Rochester to stay with my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Richie the days before camp started. Then they would drop my brother Jon, sister Caryn, and I with our first cousins, Sarah, Caroline, and Liz, at the JCC for the bus to CSL. Taking the bus was a must; getting dropped at camp just would have been wrong. I would cry when I left my parents and cry when I left camp, missing my “family” on both ends.
When my oldest kids, Phillip and Hillary, did the pilgrimage for the first time in 2000, we also lived in Maryland. By that time, it wasn’t as strange to have kids from other states. Multiple generations of families still sent their kids to CSL, but now from all over the US and even other countries. We did things slightly different from my parents. They didn’t come up for Visitor’s Day, but I valued it beyond measure. It was a chance to walk around the place that meant so much to me. I wanted to reminisce once again at the fire circle, to imagine the arms around each other’s shoulders, warm from the bodies pressed against each other, feeling connected to people, as the guitar was strummed and our voices rose in unison.
Our decision was to put the kids on an airplane and they would be picked up by my aunt and uncle on the other end. After an overnight, Nancy and Richard would put them on a similar yellow school bus at the JCC for the ride to 200 Camp Road.
Both Philip and Hillary loved the experience. So much so that they pilfered a song book at summer’s end and sang camp songs in the back seat of the car for weeks after their return. I think I surprised them when I joined in on the singing, albeit with my atonal voice. Many of their songs had been mine. Many of the people in their new songs were people I knew when I went to camp. Singing was a common theme at camp, like hugging and friendship. It also crossed over the generations.
I came back to the present when Bill parked our car on the grass in front of the office. From the outside, things didn’t seem to have changed much. We started to walk, hand in hand towards the flagpole. I noticed someone in the Arts and Crafts barn; when she saw me, she waved. We decided to walk up and say hello because you never know who might be here. As I got closer, I recognized Jilly Lasser Lederman.
“You’re Phillip’s mom, right?” she asked, smiling. “I thought I recognized you.”
“Yeah, I’m Phillip’s mom,” I said.
We chatted for a few minutes about the camp. I remembered that she was at camp with my sister or some of my cousins. She talked about the wonderful new arts projects that the campers were doing.
“You know it’s funny you are here,” she said. “I was just cleaning out my desk and came across something I think you might want to have. Can you wait a moment?”
I looked at Bill and he shrugged, “Sure,” I responded.
She re-emerged after a few minutes, brandishing a heavy mug. “Phillip made this but didn’t finish painting it. It was so nice I couldn’t bear to throw it away, could you get it to him or keep it for him?”
It was so touching that someone from my generation who knew my son, cared enough to do such a kindness.
“Are you sure you can give it up? I would love to have it,” I said.
“Definitely,” she said. I hugged her, thanked her for her kindness, and Bill and I headed back the way we started.
I saw the singing benches out of the corner of my eye, and then I saw the plaque at the flagpole that was dedicated to Mike Nozik. I knew it was going to be there, but it still moved me more than I expected. Bill was surprised to see my tears.
“Mike was such a great guy. He loved it here. That’s why they honored him,” I told him as I wiped my eyes.
“His kids go here now,” I continued with a tremor in my voice.
Bill gave me a big hug and we paused a little longer before going to the dining hall. The outside was unchanged, the red paint and the screened windows. As we mounted the steps, I took a deep breath. Even though it was empty and (relatively) quiet, in my mind I heard the clamor as the kids waited to be let in. Bill and I walked into the dining hall. I stopped in the entrance for Bill to take in the benched tables and the array of plaques lining the beams of the ceiling.
“Those are the plaques that have been painted by different bunks of kids each year, honoring their trips,” I took his hand, pulling him, “C’mon, let me show you!”
We found my Cousin Hyla Reitkopp’s name on an old Onondaga sign from 1964. My brother, my sister, and my names were on various painted pieces of ply board, showing trips to the Montreal, the Adirondacks, Maine, etc., Then we found Phillip and Hillary’s senior camper years, brighter, more creative, and lots more kids names listed on each one. All those generations of kids, the kindness and warmth of camp staff like Jilly and Mike, all of us linked together through a wonderful, shared experience.
We made our way down to the waterfront. The flat shale rocks littered the beach. Several more boats were tied to the shore and the metal dock had replaced the old wooden one. I showed Bill how we used to skip rocks off the shore and the fire circle. We could have headed up to Mohawk (Cayuga in my day). There we would have seen my brother’s name, with Phillip’s name signed next to it years later. We would have seen other new and interesting changes. But the important things didn’t change.
I sighed. “Well, I’m not going to make you hike out to Tusc this time.”
“Thank god,” he teased me.
“Do you get it now?” I asked him. “Why generation after generation feels that magic this place has? I mean it’s not just me who feels it. My siblings, my cousins, my kids, we all do.”
Reitkopp Kids at CSL circa 1970s (see link for photo)
That feeling was why I wanted my youngest, Shane, to go to CSL. He went for the first time last year on the same flight route as Phillip and Hillary, with his cousin Hudson (Jon’s son). When they landed, they met my cousin Liz (Reitkopp) Young and her husband, Darin. The next morning, three little boys, Shane, Hudson, and Liz’s son Zach, hopped on the yellow school bus bound for Camp Road. In their first camp experience, they learned the joy of bug juice, dining hall chants, cold nights around the campfire, and the warmth of CSL with special friends. Technology played a larger role in their experience, or, at least, it played a bigger role for parents. Now there are photos online, email options for mail. Even the songbook is now online.
Shane’s coming back to camp this year, as is his older sister, Hillary, who will be a counselor like her big brother Phillip. It’s different than being a camper. Harder work, less time to play. But her little brother will be there and they will get to share the experience together. Me? I can’t wait for Visitor’s Day. I will get to see my youngest son and my daughter, see the camp I love, and will even see many of my old camp friends because they, too, are sending their kids to camp. (In fact, many will be in Hillary’s bunk.)
On that visit that Bill and I made last year, I kept trying to explain what made CSL special. Despite my best efforts, I don’t think he understood because at its core, CSL isn’t something that can be understood, only felt. For those who’ve gone there, it stops being a spot on the map, filled with peeling paint and poison ivy. Instead, it occupies a corner of your being, where you had your first kiss, made terrible pottery projects, met friends from far away, and connected with relatives you never knew you had. My greatest hope is that my children’s children, their children, and every generation afterwards, can experience the same loving, caring, warm environment that meant so much to me and my family.
REITKOPP ROLL CALL
Marilyn Reitkopp Sanow (1940-KG) (at CSL met and married Robert Sanow-Athletic Director)
Howard Reitkopp (camper-1952)
Hyla Reitkopp (1964)
David Sanow, Susan Sanow Kaplan (camper & staff) (1970s)
Ron Spingarn (1970s)
Melissa(camper & CIT), Jon, Caryn(camper & staff) Reitkopp (1970s-1980s)
Elizabeth (Young-camper&staff), Caroline (Landgraff-camper & staff), & Sarah Reitkopp, (19 70s-80s)
Phillip (camper & staff) & Hillary (camper & staff) Goldman (2000-2010s)
Shane Schwartz, Hudson Reitkopp, Zach & Vivi Young (2012-onward)
Alex Kaplan (camper 2006-2012, CSL in Israel 2013)
Melissa Reitkopp (edited by Bill Bridges, title by Hillary Goldman)