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From Experiment to Trend to Tradition

2017: Newsletter #3

The following comes from the pen of director Danny Kerr…

Greetings from the sun-drenched shores of Lower Baker Pond! As we begin our third week of occupations, energy abounds and the boys are looking forward to a wonderful week of program, trips, and competition, as well as next weekend’s Birthday Banquet, our traditional, celebratory send-off for our first-session campers. Boy do these camp days fly by!

Over the course of its storied 110-year history, Camp Pemigewassett has developed countless traditions. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that traditions are both ubiquitous and gratifying for the entire Pemi community. Campers and counselors who take part in these customary rites and activities know that by doing so, they become part of Pemi’s history. In many ways, the camp experience here is still a great deal like when Teeden Boss’ father was at Pemi in the 1980’s or when Charlie Broll’s grandfather was a camper in the 1940’s. Visiting alumni often remark with a smile that things seem just like they did when they were at camp, however long ago that was. They are reassured, along with every year’s returning campers and counselors, that Pemi still provides a reliable and familiar environment in comparison to an outside world that constantly demands and presents change.

Seven-year senior camper Eli Brennan and I joke that when we try something new at Pemi, it’s an “experiment”; when we do it twice, it’s a “trend”; and when we do something for a third time, it’s a “tradition.” The idea of “new” traditions may seem like an oxymoron, but the truth of the matter is that some traditions do eventually go by the wayside and others become a familiar part of the Pemi year. With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the traditional activities that are a part of the Pemigewassett experience in 2017, and also hear what the boys see as especially valuable about those rites and customs.

Variation: "Pink polar bear" dip in the stream
Variation: “Pink polar bear” dip in the stream

Certainly a traditional and signature part of the Pemi experience is the morning “Polar Bear” swim, the quick dip right after reveille that everyone in camp, be they camper or counselor, young or experienced, Yankee fan or Red Sox fan, participates in for at least the first week of each session, and is something most campers choose to do every day of the summer. Truly, one of my favorite moments of the summer is the first day of Polar Bear, as 40 juniors dash with unbridled enthusiasm towards Junior Beach and their first Polar Bear plunge of the session. I asked a couple of our veteran campers, Teddy Foley and Suraj Khakee, both of whom have done Polar Bear every day of each of their summers (seven for Suraj, six for Teddy), why they still choose to hit the pond each dawn after so many icy plunges over the years? Suraj said he “love[s] the routine of doing the same thing each morning and bonding with the other campers who Polar Bear.” Teddy said that Polar Bear not only “wakes me up in the morning and makes me feel fresh and ready to go for the day,” but also allows him, on a daily basis, to enjoy “one of the most beautiful natural gifts at Pemi, Lower Baker Pond, with friends in a big group.” The Polar Bear plunge really becomes a crucial part of one’s picture of being at Pemi, such that when alums come for a visit, a work weekend, or a reunion, they invariably gravitate towards Lower Baker Bond upon waking, knowing this is really the only bona fide way to start a Pemi day!

FRB in Junior Camp
FRB in Junior Camp

Jacques Barzun, the social commentator, wrote more than a quarter of a century ago, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Well, one could almost say, “whoever wants to know Pemi had better learn about Frisbee Running Bases (FRB),” which has become the unofficial favorite pastime at Pemi. Kenny Moore, our local Camp Pemi historian, says the game was introduced in the mid 1980s and quickly overwhelmed the previous crowd favorite, Capture-the-Flag. Well, that makes for over three decades worth of summers of mad dashing from one of three bases as campers try mightily not to be “tagged” by either a flying (and specially soft-built) Frisbee, or a counselor carrying said “kryptonite.” Nothing elicits a more boisterous cheer in the Messhall than an announcement that FRB is on the docket after dinner, and there is hardly anything more entertaining than witnessing the thundering herds run from base to base as they try to claim the title of “last tagged” for that game before all who suffered the fate of being caught are invited to rejoin and another game begins. I asked a couple of campers why they love FRB, and here’s what they had to say: Duke Hagen in Upper 2 said he loved playing games with counselors who “are trying their hardest but still can’t get us most of the time,” because “we’re fast and they’re not!” (Some staff might disagree!) Luke Larabie, a first-year camper and hence new to FRB, said he loves the “thrill of not getting caught and being one of the last few in the game.” Luke especially loves the last two minutes of each round, when the safe haven of being on a base is no longer in play, because then it’s “even cooler to survive.” I’ve never seen FRB played at any other camp or school I’ve known, so it truly seems to be a Pemi original. Perhaps we should challenge our storied rivals at Camp Tecumseh in a round on July 28th?

Another favorite tradition here at Pemi is counselors reading aloud to their boys each night, choosing from the many volumes of child and teen literature we have here in the Pemi library, or perhaps reading a favorite childhood story they themselves have brought from home. The quiet that descends on the divisions as this nightly ritual begins is heartwarming, and the cabins are filled with the tales of adventurous characters from beloved classics, old and or less old. As a follow -up this morning, I asked a few of the campers what they were reading and what they enjoyed most about the nightly ritual. Nate Broll said that Lower 1 was enjoying Candy Makers, by Wendy Mass, and that he loves fiction generally, and especially the fact that the story is told from the perspective of four boys about his age. Nate said that the reading at night helps him fall asleep, and that it offers the kind of comfort he “get[s] at home with Mom and Dad.” I had the pleasure of putting Upper 3 to bed one night last week; they quickly quieted down as I began the opening chapters of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Teeden Boss in Junior 2 said that Wes is reading them Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl (a favorite of mine as a boy, too), and that it reminds him of “when [he] was young and Mom and Dad read to me!” Finally, Luke Gonzales in Junior 1 said they are reading Big Friendly Guy, also by Roald Dahl, and that he loves the reading because he’s always “really, really tired at night” when he gets into bed, and the reading “makes me go right to sleep and makes the morning come so quickly!”

Singing in the Messhall
Singing in the Messhall

Singing in the Messhall just before the dessert course at every lunch and dinner is a tradition that everyone looks forward to. The songs we sing range from Pemi originals, many of them written by one of Pemi’s Founders, Doc Reed, to songs of Americana, college fight songs, and more. Pemi prides itself on being an inclusive community, and singing is about as inclusive an activity as there is. Ty Chung, in Upper 5, said that singing in the Messhall was great, in part because it’s “been happening for so long and is such an essential part of being a Pemi camper.” “Everyone can sing,” Ty pointed out. “It’s so much fun and adds to the group camaraderie and spirit of Pemi.” First-year camper August Matthews says the singing at meals is “fun because they’re all such great songs. I love the cheers and claps in them, and they make me laugh.” It is hard to keep from smilingl, or even laughing out loud, when we sing songs like “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Mabel,” or “The Marching Song,” as the whole community sings with hearty enthusiasm, swaying to the beat, doing the sometimes crazy motions, or clapping along.

Traditions, whether they are as old as Camp Pemi itself, like singing in the Messhall, or relatively new, like FRB, are an essential part of a Pemi summer. They offer a familiar rhythm and a sense of being connected not only to the present community but also to people and times long ago. Of course, this is not to say that we are not keeping up with modern times, but that is a topic for another newsletter! Campers grow up and become adults, counselors leave for year-round jobs and to raise families, and we all change, year after year; but when we come back to Pemi, we can relive through these traditions all of the wonderful memories of our own camp days, whenever they happened to be. As the world changes in what often feels like a relentless way, Pemi is enduringly Pemi. What a comforting thought.

 

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