One of the things about New York City, that many people probably don’t realize, is how many wild places there are. Tracts of land that house bird sanctuaries, giant sprawling wetlands and forested nature preserves. There is lots of ocean front as well, lined by beaches like Rockaway or Coney Island and little inlets and bays filled with sandbars. Other than the places designated as parks, they see little human traffic. Alley Pond Park was a mixture of the two. Not quite park, but not quite nature preserve either. It was big enough, and undeveloped enough that you could get lost there.
Growing up in the city, a poor kid, meant that summer was an opportunity to use the spare time on my hands to get into trouble. We’d sometimes be productive collecting old newspapers to recycle the newsprint for money to buy some cokes and candy. Or we’d plan a big bicycle excursion to Alley Pond Park. Alley Pond, was an amazingly undeveloped swath of forest, swamp land and meadow still in the City of New York, but close on to the border with Nassau County. “Out on The Island” as we said.
There was also Cunningham Park, or Flushing Meadows Park, site of the the 64-65 New York Worlds Fair. Then there were all the parks in the other Boroughs, most famously Central Park.
All of these were great, but they took effort to get to, and once you left their boundaries you were back in the land of concrete and broken glass. So mostly, we hung around the neighborhood. Playing stickball, exploring apartment buildings that weren’t ours and generally doing boy stuff. Sometimes we’d hop on the bus and just go somewhere for the hell of it or maybe the subway.
No matter what we did though, most roads led to some type of mischief. Most of it little mischief, but with boys there is always a one-upmanship that guarantees things will escalate. This is why many parents used either money, or cleverness or both, to find a way to get their kids out of the city for the summer. In NYC it was a tradition and just up the Hudson you could find more summer camps than you could count.
The camps were generally for the entire summer and they offered a refuge and 24 hour supervision away from the temptations of city life. They were outlets for our energy and they were more than just wooded havens cleaved into parts of a city. They were legit out in the country, in wild areas, where bears, snakes and all matters of forest creatures were ever present. Catholic, Lutheran, YMCA, Salvation Army, Jewish it didn’t matter. At one time or another I went to all of those. All of them had their own unique traditions and characters but they all had one thing in common: they gave us people to look up to and channeled all that energy into something constructive.
I don’t have many summer camp mementos. A picture with my Mom and Grandma outside the Catholic Chapel at Dominican Camp, right on the Hudson River. A picture of Mr. Knorra, my mothers long term boyfriend at Camp Da-Ro a Jewish summer camp he helped subsidize for my mother. A group picture of my cabin mates from Camp St. Joseph’s Villa in New Jersey, and a King Cobra Stitch Lanyard I made at YMCA Camp Talcott, “New York City’s Summer Camp” in Port Jervis New York. Somewhere I have a yellowing piece of paper that declares that I made the grade of Buck or Brave in Talcott’s Native American themed hierarchy.
There were the one-off camps as well, places I went for a couple of weeks. They were memorable in their own ways. At the Lutheran Church Camp I remember taking a train out of Grand Central Station, to a flag stop with a tiny platform and a shed somewhere north, probably along the Harlem Valley Line. We disembarked the train, and there we were, a group of six year olds trudging through the woods to this lovely camp. It was my first experience of cabins, and dining halls, and bug juice. Being a train buff, that train ride still resonates with me today. It was my first and only time riding the New York Central Railroad, for which I have a lifelong interest. A few years later, it was gone. The routes are still there, serviced by Metro North, Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk Southern. But the great railroad empire is gone.
Camp Starlight was another two week experience at a Salvation Army run camp. It was specifically for poor kids of which I was one and I have memories of a hike up to a cliff overlooking the broad Hudson River and sitting around a camp fire singing Peter, Paul and Mary songs.
I learned to swim 2 different ways, the Red Cross Way and the YMCA Way. Swimming-wise, trust me, I am covered. And this is important, because it’s hard for an apartment dwelling, below the poverty line kid to find a place to learn to swim. I could swim off my Grandparents back dock, but my mother hated it because the water was so polluted. But I learned to swim in pristine mountain lakes and crystal clear chlorinated pools. I also learned a third way at a community swimming pool in Rock Rapids, South Dakota, but that, my friends, is a whole other story.
The memories are varied, deep and in the parts of my mind where they will not be erased. The ‘Devil’s Heads” floating in the Hudson that floated over from Devil’s Head Island. Trips to Dairy Queen riding in the back of a pickup truck, boxing matches to settle grudges, midnight raids on the girls cabins where we wound up all sitting around awkwardly, trying to sound grownup. And everywhere, EVERYWHERE, being able to see the heavens at night without the glow of city lights.
It was a weird hybrid existence. In the summer the sounds of bullfrogs and rustling forest creatures lulled me to sleep. The rest of the year it was the sound of diesels, cars with loud mufflers and the busy firehouse around the corner.
Soon, I started going to boarding schools, military schools, in rural New Jersey and then in even more rural Virginia. The intervals in the city became fewer, further between and shorter. My last two high school summers I did spend in the city, and I enjoyed it, but that life was ticking away. I’d meet friends all over Queens to play ball and go to watch the Mets at Shea. Those friends, Raul, Hugo, Miguel are gone now. When not with them I’d spend leisurely days sitting on my Grandparents dock on Jamaica Bay, smelling the ocean air right under the JFK flight path or at my Aunt Leonia and Uncle George’s house. Wherever I was in Queens, I’d ride my bike home during the cool evenings, knowing which streets were safe and which were to be avoided.
When I went away to college, I knew that was it. I visited parents, grandparents and I still loved the city I grew up in. But I wasn’t going back, it wasn’t the cool place you see on TV now. It was a grimier, meaner more dangerous place by far.
Deep in my heart I still miss it, just like I miss the Hudson River Valley and all those camps.
© Glenn R Keller 2023, All Rights Reserved