The happiest memories from my childhood mostly happened in one place. That place wasn’t Disney World, or a grandparent’s house. No, it was a day camp on the grounds of a Victorian mansion that had once belonged to a prominent inventor.
The Knights of Columbus Summer Fun Camp is a day camp on the grounds of the George Saegmuller home. Saegmuller was a German-born American inventor who was involved mainly in the invention of astronomical instruments around the turn of the twentieth century. The Knights had bought it in the late 1950s and turned it from a private residence to a club, complete with pools, a tennis court, playground, barbecue pit, and main building with two ballrooms.
“The Mansion,” as we called it, always referring to the gray stone structure with imposing and huge white columns as a proper noun, was massive. When we were very young and the camp was a relatively new business, The Mansion was just another place to gather and play. We escaped the rain in the downstairs sitting and dining rooms, careful to avoid the bar further back in the house, from which the scent of cigar smoke always leaked and the sound of billiards being played issued. The third floor attic was apparently where the families and later, the Knights of Columbus, used to have parties and dances, but the low ceilings and dark alcove where the band supposedly played looked an awful lot like a place for Satanic rituals to me. (Not that I would know anything about Satanic rituals. I don’t mess with the shadows.) The foyer of the house was open to the second level. A wide spiral staircase with a fireplace tucked into its base led upstairs, where the “ladies’ salon,” as it was then called, and camp offices were located, as well as a billiard and meeting room, and some old bathrooms, which were likely in their original, but well-kept condition.
As many old houses do, the Mansion had a ghost story. About a century ago, the inventor had a daughter who had a suitor who had gone off to war. One day when the inventor was at a convention, he was told he had a call. (This was back before cell phones were pseudo-limbs, so we all knew that the call had been made to the venue and the inventor had been called away to answer it by the help. That was still a thing that happened in 2002. I know, it’s barbaric and I’m ancient. But if you remember that happening, so are you.) When the inventor reached the receiver, he only heard ragged breathing. It got slower and shallower – until it stopped. He rushed home, certain that something was very, very wrong. He was correct. There, in her bedroom, swayed his daughter. She had broken a ceiling board and hung herself from it with a bedsheet upon hearing of the death of her suitor. When I was little, before they put in the hideous and era-inappropriate drop ceiling, the legendary ceiling board was still broken, hanging in front of the window. We would swear we could see a white figure swaying in front of that window when we passed the house from the outside. We were also six, so make of that what you will.
There was a tower at the back of the Mansion. It once held water for the house. It was taller than the rest of the Mansion, at least twenty feet in diameter. There were small alcoves in the sides of the tower where windows had long since been boarded up. We used to sit in them and read or talk. When we were very small, we could fit two or three of us in one alcove. You had to do a bit of jumping or climbing to get into them, depending on which you decided to sit in, but the view and the shade was worth it.
Camp, like any other, had traditions. Every morning we would all gather by the flagpole in the front lawn under two very old Chinese chestnut trees, which stank to high heaven and dropped bright green spiky balls the kids in flip flops had to avoid carefully. We would sing camp songs, selected by request or popular demand, for what felt like an hour, and was probably close to it. Then, we’d pray the Our Father (that was before political correctness had really caught on) and say the pledge of allegiance. Of course not every camper was Catholic; I remember one of my very kosher Jewish friends eagerly volunteering to lead prayer, and doing it reverently. To my knowledge, his parents never complained.
Another tradition was Water Day. Water Day was a day that every camper and counselor’s fingers and toes turned to prunes. The counselors had us all put on our still-damp bathing suits and stand on the front lawn near the flagpole. A fire truck would come and spray its hose high, high up in the air, and we ran and played in the cold water that felt like bullets on our young skin. The water made the clay under our feet into soft and slippery mud. Later, the counselors would gather all the water toys camp had: sprinklers, hoses, slip ‘n’ slides, water balloons, and set us free in one area to continue playing. One year it rained on Water Day. Man, was that a good and muddy and cold day. I think the entire camp got horrible colds from it, counselors included, but it was worth it. However, the hoses and sprinklers went away after that, and the fire truck came less and less, and the slip ‘n’ slide was only for occasional use.
It felt like we spent most of the camp day in the pool. Which we probably did, as camp took place in the D.C. summer heat, which can be brutal and unbearable. The air is heavy and wet and HOT; Washington, D.C. was built on reclaimed swampland.
The cruelest thing the counselors ever did to us was the morning dodgeball game. It was always counselors against campers on the cracked, uneven tennis court, first thing in the morning. The counselors were all at least in high school, if not in college or beyond, and we ranged from ages five to twelve. So, you can imagine how fair these teams were. Back then, before dodgeball was quite literally banned in many public schools in various states, including the Commonwealth of Virginia, we used the traditional dodgeball, that ball made of thick rubber with the pattern for grip.
The counselors were merciless. I think that was how they got out their aggression and frustration with us. They threw those balls to knock you down. If, by some miracle, you caught the damn thing, the counselor would be “out.” They had an uncanny way of catching whatever you threw with your puny whatever-year-old arms, in which case you were out. If you got hit, you weren’t allowed to complain. You were just out. To extend the game, the counselors would occasionally call for a “jailbreak,” where whoever was out on either team retook the field. Once, one of my friends was left standing alone on the camper side of the court. The counselors counted down, and the poor girl found herself the target of at least a dozen dodgeballs. To her credit, though she cried a little, she did not fall.
Why, if the counselors were so strong and ruthless, did we play? The answer is simple and slightly horrifying; if we didn’t play, we got no free swim. Can you imagine that? Having to sit in the soupy Virginia summer heat for an hour instead of playing in the pool, simply because we didn’t want to get beat up by vindictive adults? I’m surprised more parents didn’t complain. The only reason dodgeball stopped, other than the ban of it, was because of one specific ball and an unfortunate incident that came about because of it.
It was called “the bullet.” It was a small dodgeball, about half the size of an average one. It had been filled so completely with air that it was rock hard. That little bugger really hurt when it hit you. A counselor-in-training named Shelby was playing on the camper side of the court, because his little brother was still a camper. He got hit with the bullet, hard. It broke his arm. There was no more mandatory morning dodgeball after that.
On rainy days, we all gathered in one place or another to watch VHS’s, mostly Disney movies. We’d sit cross-legged on the hard tile floor, rapt, watching movies we’d seen a million times before, but found no less delightful. The usuals were Richie Rich, The Parent Trap (with Lindsay Lohan), Free Willy, Casper, Casper Meets Wendy, etc., as well as various Disney animated classics.
Of course, there were other things to do once one or two movies had ended. We played cards, board games, and various counselor-beneficial games like “Mafia,” “Ghost in the Graveyard,” and “Froggy Murder,” among others. I remember there was an ancient upright piano that had to have been at least seventy years old in the basement below the ballroom in the main building (not the Mansion). Those who could play, would . . . so we heard endless rounds of “Heart and Soul,” played at varying levels of competence.
Capture the Flag. What a glorious game. The whole camp would shut down and play for half the day. The whole campgrounds were our playing field. The oldest groups of campers tended to be paired with the very youngest, and those in the middle were on the opposite team. Occasionally counselors would join in the fun, unable to help themselves.
Every two weeks, on the second Friday, camp would shut down for the second half of the day. All that week our main activity had been preparing a lip-sync performance. The parents came, and there were hot dogs and burgers that one of the male counselors always cooked on a massive grill. When I say massive, I mean massive. You could’ve grilled an adult human being on that thing. Not that you would. Not that we did. Stop looking at me like that.
My first kiss happened when I was about seven years old at camp. I remember the exact spot. It was under a chestnut tree on a tiny but steep hill, in the area covered by crabgrass. Instead of eating our lunches at the picnic tables like normal humans, my friends and I chose to picnic on our damp towels. Somehow I ended up standing in the crabgrass with Dylan Sax. Dylan Sax was that funny kid whom all the counselors loved simply because he was goofy, and so, hilarious. He kissed me, and I swear the sun shone brighter and white rose petals fell from the sky. A cloud had probably just moved from blocking the sun and it was probably leaves falling in the wind, but it was no less magical.
Those memories are awash in golden sunshine in my mind. I still have some old friends who I saw only at camp: PB, Steve, Smiles, and Caity. It’s been so long. I hope it continues.