Little Details (7/30/09)

Letter from summer camp

July 30, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Our new cabin mate exploded onto the scene announcing, “Hi, I’m Mary Wanda …!” Following closely behind, her well-dressed parents toted pillows, linens and a gargantuan trunk.

My parents dropped me off at camp with a suitcase, pillow and sleeping bag we bought for the occasion. Mom and Dad didn’t linger; they didn’t know to send along Bazooka Bubble Gum.

Mary’s mother busily made her bed, fluffing up pillows and arranging a menagerie of stuffed animals. I sat on my flat bunk with its somewhat flat feather pillow. I decided I didn’t like Mary.

Mary brought so much stuff it seemed to overwhelm our rustic cabin. Mary — we would learn — had a pony back home. This was camp for Polish kids and her surname sounded almost Italian. Mary claimed her middle name — Wanda — came from a real Polish princess. My name wasn’t regal. It was common enough that there were three girls named Kathy in our cabin. We ended up referring to each other as Kathy #1, Kathy #2 and Kathy #3, with my assuming the middle slot.

Mary’s slightly boastful nature grated on me. I disliked how she introduced herself to everyone with her first, middle and last name. I envied her fluffy, flowered bedding, littered with stuffed animals. I coveted my cabin mate’s property in direct violation of the Ten Commandments I’d memorized at school. I resented her doting parents. But Mary possessed one slightly redeeming quality: A huge stash of Bazooka Bubble Gum, which she sometimes shared.

I loved Polish kids’ camp, attending the summers I was 10, 11 and 12. I swam, dabbled in archery, produced numerous macramé bracelets and painted plaster figurines. I met kids from Dorchester, Chelsea, Lynn, Holyoke, Wilbraham and most any Massachusetts town with a smattering of immigrants from the Old Country. Our last names carried familiar suffixes of -ski, -czyk and -wiec, which proved entirely pronounceable to us.

We grew up in houses that smelled of cabbage and kielbasa. We learned our parents’ stories of the war, of German occupation and the lice, the terrible, inescapable lice. We fidgeted through Sunday Mass and prepared Easter baskets with colored eggs and sweet babka bread, blessed by our parish priests. We gathered at friends’ homes for parties where adults sat at tables overflowing with meats, poppy seed cakes and slender bottles of vodka. As children, we pilfered food from the table between chaotic games of tag. Many of our parents worked blue-collar jobs on assembly lines when well-paid manufacturing was still plentiful in Massachusetts. We shared a common culture.

I loved campfires where we sang silly songs like, “The Cannibal King with the Big Nose Ring” and roasted marshmallows on sticks pulled from the woods. We slathered ourselves in suntan lotion — we didn’t call it sunscreen then — and sprayed clouds of OFF! mosquito repellent as if it was perfume.

My favorite activity at Polish kids’ camp was a class called Polish Culture. A priest sat with us in the shade of a tree to share fairy tales. I was enchanted by stories of “Krakus and the Dragon” and “Pan Twardowski,” the alchemist who sold his soul to the Devil. I learned Poland was once a kingdom of castles and knights in shining armor.

Camp provided opportunities to let loose, just a little. I remember shaving cream fights and hoisting someone’s swimsuit up the flagpole. Imagine the surprise during morning roll call when Old Glory was replaced by a flapping yellow bikini! We told ghost stories and created finger plays with flashlights. We’d sneak to the boys’ cabins at night to play tricks on them. I seem to recall pouring warm water on the feet of a sleeping camper. I’ll never know if the “trick” really caused him to wet his bed. Practical jokes were part of camp and many were played on me.

My best friend at camp was Patti Z. She was tall like me and very funny. Prune juice, served in Dixie Cups at breakfast to keep us “regular,” were cause for humor. Patti and I held our noses, laughing uncontrollably, as we ingested fluid reminiscent of car oil. We spent hours swimming at the lake, jumping into deep water from the dock some kids were too afraid to swim out to. We both had a crush on Eric W., whose dad owned a sausage business. We grumbled about Mary and her constant chatter. We were jealous of her pony.

Patti and I decided to play a trick on Mary. We stole her enormous can of aerosol deodorant — I think it was Arrid Extra Dry — and took turns emptying its contents. We must have created quite the deodorizing cloud of CFCs because we looked up and found the camp director standing directly over us.

The director made us apologize to Mary and pay for a new can of deodorant. Mary didn’t flinch. She accepted our apology. She didn’t hold our crime against us and even shared her Bazooka Bubble Gum. I realized Mary was actually pretty nice. I learned a valuable lesson about not judging people too harshly.

As my own daughter attends summer camp on the shores of Lake Champlain, she too is learning lessons, the kinds of lessons only her cabinmates can teach.

Note: Last names omitted to protect privacy.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or