A short while ago, I mentioned having written an article on the Huffington Post (re-posted here) about the official camp song for my summer camp, Camp Nebagamon for Boys, having been written by one of the country's most legendary songwriters. And then I followed it up with a sequel of sorts, centered around a personal story when I was but a wee kidling. I said that I would get it posted here but that it would take a bit of formatting so it might be a while before I got around to it. Okay, I've finally gotten around to it. And the timing of it works out well, in one regard. Here, then, from July 30, 2009, is that article.
One note: the article refers to the camp starting 80 years ago. With the passage of time, it is now 87.
Recently, I wrote an article here about how the official song for my summer camp came to be written by renowned songwriters Gus and Grace Kahn. The response was unlike almost anything I’d written for the Huffington Post in 3-1/2 years.
The current camp owners wrote to say that they’d been “inundated” by emails. I received notes from people I hadn’t heard from in 30 years. Even my parents said that people were coming up to them and mentioning “that thing about Nebagamon.”
Of all the things I’ve written — Camp Nebagamon, in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin...that struck home.
And now, what happens? It turns out that — completely unrelated, out of the blue — long-time owners, Nardie and Sally Lorber Stein (daughter of the camp’s founders, Muggs and Janet Lorber) have just published a book, Keep the Fires Burning: A History and Memoir of Camp Nebagamon.
Clearly something is in the air. I suspect it’s the scent of pine trees and s’mores.
With this viral attention of Nebagamania, I thought I should return there and explain how a summer camp in the North Woods could last for 80 years in today’s society and bring forth such a reaction.
Except that when I started, I hit a brick wall.
I realized that since time began anyone talking about their summer camp will do so with the exact same chest-thumping pride. Moreover, summer camps overlap in similarity. Canoe trips, swimming or athletics are mere common details. Yet this outpouring of emotion was anything but common. And it’s not personal pride to acknowledge that being around after 80 years actually is special.
I also got stumped for another reason. I started there with family camp at age five, and then as "doctor's son" for part of four summers, followed by camper -- until finally becoming a counselor. So, to me, the place is normal. Yet, those 80 years and outpouring say it’s clearly anything but.
After all, Nebagamon alumni permeate America culture. I wouldn’t even begin to try to offer a proper list, but it includes Oscar-winners, Tony Award-winners, TV network presidents, doctors, college professors, lawyers, journalists, movie producers, business leaders, film and television writers, and all manner of others woven into society over 80 years.
Still, all camps have their alumni. Nebagamon may have focused on wilderness skills more than some others, but that didn’t define Nebagamon. Because ultimately it prized being well-rounded and self-reliant, and ingrained a sense of community responsibility. Its an ethic that came from the legendary Muggs and Janet Lorber when they founded the camp on the site of the original Weyerhauser lumber mill, in 1929. Certainly, campers and staff largely were from the Midwest, but they not only came from across the U.S, but around the world.
Rec Hall, 1936
Yet none of that helps explain this profound response towards Nebagamon. It wouldn’t help to describe the Sunday night Council Fires, nor the “keylog” ceremony that honors selfless acts of kindness. And not CNOC, Good Time Charlies, box hockey, jops and Chief A.K. Agikamik. They only take on meaning when layered all together.
So, how in the world to describe 80 years of history? And explain a response evoked among so many, about so many things so commonplace. And now a book. How can you describe the ethereal with...details?
And then I realized that it could be explained. But by a story.
Huddle around the campfire.
Several years back, when the original owner of the camp, Max (Muggs) Lorber passed away, I sent a note of condolence to his daughter, Sally. In it, I related a memory of being at camp when my father took one of his two-week turns as camp doctor. I was eight years old that year.
No, that’s not my father. Yes, the other one is me.
Whenever it was meal time, a bell tower was rung to get everyone to the Rec Hall. And on this particular night, everyone in camp showed up.
Except for me.
Too young to be a camper, I lived with my parents in the main lodge, known as the Big House, which was the administrative building from the old Weyerhauser lumber days, built in the late-1890s. It had a mythic aura, a combination of North Woods ruggedness and eerie Victorian sensibility. It also had one other thing - the only television in the entire camp. And, hey, I was eight years old. So, while everyone was gathered in the Rec Hall, I was in the upstairs TV room, comfortably sunk into the oversized couch, happily watching a ballgame, unable to hear the dinner bell.
But my parents were panicked. An announcement was made, asking if anyone had an idea where I was. People went out into the night, looking. Nothing. More panic. No one had any idea where to look or what to do.
Well, one person had an idea. Muggs.
As I sat watching TV, blissfully unaware of the outside world, in walked Muggs Lorber. Certain that he would find a eight-year-old boy watching TV.
How to describe Muggs Lorber? Think of the Pied Pieper, but who had the soul of Santa Claus. When you were in the presence of Muggs Lorber, you just felt good. And safe. And important. Especially if you were a kid.
Muggs and Janet Lorber
And so Muggs told me that it was time to eat. No scolding, no “why are you watching TV?!!” Just - let’s go to dinner. And he put me on his shoulders, and we marched down the hill into the Rec Hall, where we got a rousing cheer.
That’s what I related to Sally Lorber Stein. Just a happy memory. And what she wrote back was -
“There is probably no better way to describe what my father’s life was about, than him carrying a young child on his shoulders.”
Forget the details of a summer camp. That story explains Camp Nebagamon. It’s a legacy that has continued for 80 years, as it keeps getting passed on through life.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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