Smells Like Camp
By Carolyn (Kist) Kirby
Have you ever noticed how sometimes just a smell can transport you magically to another place and time? It can be so subtle, yet so powerful as to stop you in your tracks and bring an ear-to-ear smile immediately to your face. For me, it’s the smell of fresh cut summer grass with a touch of honeysuckle and the light aroma of musty wood that makes me feel like a kid again. “Smells like camp” is what my sister and I call it.
When you’re a kid, summer is special for many obvious reasons. But, when your parents own a summer camp out on Nassau Point, it is so much more. Back in the early 1970’s, I can vividly remember driving out to theNorth Forkin our blue and white VW van to open up camp. I remember that the vinyl seats of the van would feel sticky on the back of my legs and the not so subtle hum of the engine combined with the not so subtle bouncing of the bench seats could strangely lull you into a very nice sleep…not an easy task when you are wide-eyed with excitement about the beginning of summer camp. The two-hour car ride seemed like an eternity. I’m almost sure my siblings and I invented the parental torture of “are we there yet?” which we used with guerilla-like tactics for the first hour of the ride. Then we’d start seeing the familiar signs… Riverhead… Cutchogue…then Dairy Queen and Fisherman’s Rest. Almost there!
I’m not sure where the actual line of delineation was when the air began to take on the “smells like camp” quality. I want to say it started somewhere around Skunk Lane or the causeway and then it just got more intense going up the hill toWunnewetta Road. Even as a kid, with no sense of direction, this trek out to camp with all its sights, sounds and smells culminating with seeing the big white rock with Wawokiye painted on it was pure heaven. That was really the official beginning of summer for me. My head would start spinning with the knowledge that in just a couple of days the friends you said goodbye to a year before would be piling off the buses ready to begin a fresh batch of summer adventures. And there was always the hope and trepidation that came with meeting all the new kids too. Other than Christmas, it was really the most exciting time of year.
Wawokiye (wah-wuh-kee-uh), an American Indian word that means “one who helps”, wasn’t a fancy camp. It was literally a Mom and Pop camp…my parents were called Mr. and Mrs. Kevin by everyone. My Mom did more of the behind the scenes stuff, really running the business of the camp while my Dad was the front man. He ran the show and he did it many times wearing a white pith helmet with “Mr. Kevin Director” written on it, plus the requisite whitecampt-shirtand swinging a silver whistle from a green and white lanyard. Although he took running the camp and taking care of children very seriously, sometimes he was anything but serious.
Other than the running of the camp, there were many activities that Mr. Kevin/Dad loved to take part in. One in particular was Order of the Moon. It was a camp tradition that most of the new staff and campers (I think the youngest were spared) were initiated into camp with. All the old campers would sit around the perimeter of a large blanket with two counselors holding up a big sheet as a backdrop. One at a time the new campers were brought out blindfolded. To this day, I have no idea what they were told while they were waiting in the Main House for this rite of passage to begin. When the blindfold was removed, there was Mr. Kevin standing in front of them dressed up in Indian-like attire carrying something that looked like a totem on a stick with streamers. All of us sitting quietly in anticipation as they were asked to repeat the sacred words…Owah tagoo siam…louder and faster they would repeat the words until the joke was revealed…”Oh, what a goose I am!” But the prank did not end there. The second task of the ritual began with Mr. Kevin calling for the moon to appear for him. A third counselor from behind the sheet would turn on a flashlight to represent the moon. The inductee would dutifully follow the moon with their nose until it rose to the top of the sheet. At this time, the sheet was pulled away and water was ceremoniously dumped on them. However, sometimes a staff member might get a full bucket of water from another counselor. By today’s standards, this might seem somewhat mean spirited, but you must understand that it was all in good, clean fun and was pretty much taken that way since really no one was singled out. By the same token, no one was really spared either. Oddly enough, most campers from year to year, kept the secret and only hinted to new bunkmates about Order of the Moon.