But, I digress. I was eight years old when I was sent to Camp Nawakwa, on the shores of Lake Michigan just outside the town of South Haven. I arrived with a duffle bag filled with very ugly clothes with nametapes on every sock, shirt, pajama top and bottom. My name was on my flashlight, my drinking cup, in short, on every required article the camp list ordered us to bring.
I arrived home with one high rubber boot and two undershirts labeled Judy Cohen.
There was sand everywhere, on the cabin floors, in our shoes, and at night we slept with sand between our sheets. The toilets, called “CHINAS,” were a quarter mile from the cabins, along a dark path lined with poison ivy.
Why am I telling you this depressing tale of my childhood? Was there any redeeming social value to Camp Nawakwa? Yes. There were songs. (“Aha! You chortle, I knew it!”) Not so fast. There’s a catch. Yes, there were songs. Thousands of songs. Every popular and semi-popular and sentimental song from the nineteen twenties, up to 1939. There was even a songbook with lyrics for all these songs. But the lyrics were not the original lyrics to the songs, and no one told us this. When, lustily we trilled:
Pack up all your care and woe,
here we go, singing low
to Camp Nawakwa
we had no idea that we were singing Bye, Bye, Blackbird!
When we sang:
If she’s smiling all the while
she’s just come from camp
If her cheeks are red as beets
she’s just come from Camp!
If she’s brown with a deep, healthy tan
willing to work and to help like a man!
I’ll stop here – you all know Peggy O’Neil and I’m not a sadistic person, no matter what my husband tells you.
We sang all the time at Camp Nawakwa. We sang The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers during our futile attempts to sweep the ubiquitous sand from our cabin:
Eight o’clock and breakfast done
and to their cabins see them run
those girls in blue
all eager to give dirt a scare!
As we marched, (yes, marched) to the mess hall we blared forth The Stars and Stripes Forever.
O’Nawakwa our camp here’s to you
to the blue and the white ever true.
In each word, in each song,
in each cheer, we’ll keep our standards in the lead
and so to our camp we will cheer
Our camp is first,
our camp is last
our camp forever!
And in the mess hall, as we gagged down our gruel, we serenaded the cook with Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean:
Mrs. White, the pride of Nawakwa
your meals are the best in the land
the taste of each Campfire maiden
responds to the good things on hand!
You have to know something really scary about me. I never forget a song. I remember every song I ever learned – good or bad, clean or dirty, short or long – lets face it, how many people do you know who can sing all four verses of our national anthem, or every verse of America the Beautiful or even, Die Lorelei?
Gradually, as an adult, I came to realize that I knew the Camp Nawakwa lyrics to hundreds of popular songs of the twenties and thirties. I came to realize this on long driving trips with my deceased husband Bruce Buell, a classical music radio announcer, who stoically endured miles and miles of Camp Nawakwa versions of Red Red Robin, In a Persian Market, Ain’t She Sweet and the list goes on. Finally, one day, just outside of Gorman California, Bruce accused me of composing new Camp Nawakwa songs, on the spot, as we were driving. Not true!
Sometimes I would provide respite from my singing for Bruce by telling him about life at Camp Nawakwa. The founder and Director Emeritus of Camp Nawakwa was Mrs. Gable. She lived in a little cottage next to the camp office and the mess hall. She was about three hundred years old and had her own special song:
The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi
Your eyes still shine like they used to shine
and the blue of their depth doesn’t fade with time;
Mrs. Gable, all your girls adore you…
Then Mrs. Gable would appear at the mess hall door, smiling a tight smile and waving slowly, very much like Queen Elizabeth driving by in her coach.
There were Sunday Campfires on the beach, where the counselors wore shapeless buckskin gowns covered with sewn-on circles, squares and crescents, which were called Honors. There was the Mrs. Gable honor, which you could win if you had been kind to everyone and not used any bad words all week. I didn’t really know any bad words at age eight (actually I didn’t know the “F” word till I was twelve, and started saying it everywhere without really knowing the meaning). But I didn’t get many Mrs. Gable honors because my counselor said I was not kind to everyone. I’m still not.
The Nawakwa honor was easier to earn, especially if you could drink eight glasses of water a day. Every night just before bedtime there would be several of us gulping down three or four glasses of water, and then later either wetting the bed or trembling our way with our faint flashlights to the Chinas. We were all very honest about claiming the honors.
There were also honors to be earned for arts and crafts, but while other eight year olds were making lanyards, my friend, Pepper and I would sneak off to the brook in back of the Chinas, that flowed to the lake. We wore our big high rubber boots and pretended we were explorers. We were not very good at making connections, so we never connected the Chinas with the stuff that sometimes flowed out of several big pipes, into the brook. One day a counselor caught us wading in Lake Urine, and put an end to the only fun we ever had during activity period.
We sang songs at the Sunday campfire…Nawakwa words to semi-religious tunes and symphonies. To this day I cannot hear the Largo from the New World Symphony without being transported to the shores of Lake Michigan. Na-Wa-Kwa, Na-Wa-Kwa. You’re the camp I love.
I just went through some of my songbooks, Popular Songs from the Twenties and Thirties and found 43 Camp Nawakwa Songs. I am planning a house concert in the very near future, to which all are invited: Concentration Camp Classics with Uncle Ruthie. No admission will be charged. In fact, I will probably pay you to attend.
Lonesome, and sorry, because I came to camp
Lonesome, and sorry, I’ve cried my hankie damp,
Mama, I miss you-your baby wants to kiss you,
I’m so lonesome, and sorry, Please take me right home!