Summer Without Camp… by Steve Safran

What all of us need this summer is a place for the kids to go where they can play, swim, and just be outdoors with their friends. A place with a lake, a baseball diamond, goofy songs and goofier crafts, paths through ancient pines… a place of their own.

They need summer camps. For parents trapped with school-aged kids, the need is bordering on desperation this year. And like so many of the things that could make any of this more bearable, they’re closed.

“Out of an abundance of love for everyone in our camp community, we cannot compromise the safety of our campers, teens, and staff … ” was written in a Camp Tel Noar email. Disappointed parents who had hoped their children would be able to trade Zoom screens for canoes in a few weeks opened similar messages. Tel Noar is a New Hampshire institution: a 75 year-old camp I attended as a kid from 1977-1981. It, along with Camp Tevya and Camp Pembroke are part of the Cohen Foundation camps, all three of which have announced they will be closed. This will leave them in serious financial trouble.

Summer camps don’t generally have endowments. Tel Noar (translation from Hebrew: “Youth Hill”) shared that they already “spent $3 million in facility maintenance, repairs, staff salaries, insurance (and) utilities.” At the same time they’re breaking the news that camp is canceled, they need to ask for donations to make up the shortfall. But, let’s face it, only a super-generous donor is going to mail the full tuition while their kids stay home. It won’t happen. Like some small colleges, a few of our beloved camps won’t survive.

However, summer camps are historically resilient, possibly because they are managed by people who provide a yearly respite from the worries of the world. Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, MA is nearly 100 years old. It has seen its share of world-changing events: “Cape Cod Sea Camps has provided a camping experience every summer since 1922 and have held camp through the Great Depression, World War II, the polio epidemic and numerous other global events.”

But this year, even their cabins will be empty.


Waterfronts are usually the hub of the summer camp experience 

In the overall scheme of world events that include a rising death toll of a global pandemic, canceling a season of camp isn’t at the top of the headlines. But it is heartbreaking for the thousands of children for whom camp life is an escape from their own world worries. It’s also a rite of passage, often the first time a kid tastes freedom and learns how to steer that privilege. Camp is where time does funny things, where the days go on forever, but it all ends too fast.

I had the joy of returning to Camp Frank A. Day in East Brookfield, MA last summer to teach podcasting, and it transported me right back to my counselor days in the mid-’80s. Everything was the same: the boathouse, the waterfront, the cabins, the dining hall– it was eternal and ruggedly beautiful. Teenage counselors haven’t changed, either, happily sharing the camp gossip once they realized I was one of “them.” I made new friends. Never before did grilled cheese and tomato soup evoke so many memories. Is there such a thing as “camp sandwich griddle grease” they order in bulk?


Stevie teaching budding podcasters last summer

For the summer of 2020, Camp Day faced the same agonizing decision as their colleagues. The staff and its board debated, looked at the current environment, acted with the caution of the day, and emailed its community: ” …that there is too much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 for us to confidently operate a safe and high-quality residential camp this summer.”

I still have friends from summer camp, friendships forged 40 years ago as we shared bunk beds and bug bites for only eight weeks of a handful of summers. Think about that. I’ve had co-workers whose names were forgotten after years in the same offices, if I ever knew them at all. But camp is different. It’s intense. Your bunkmates are your brothers. And the girls? So many firsts all crammed into the time it takes a ChiaPet to mature.

The first time I asked a girl to dance was at Camp Tel Noar. (It was followed shortly by the first time a girl rejected my offer to dance). The first “date” I had was at camp. I was nine. We had a field trip to Canobie Park and I asked Ellen G. if she would go with me. She was very nice. About halfway through our time there, I lost our ticket. It was a harbinger of dates to come.

Camp builds independence and the kind of self-confidence that emboldens a nine year old to ask a girl on a date. College shouldn’t be the first time a kid is really away, feels the pangs of homesickness, and learns to overcome that. Over the years, I became a happier kid at home from spending a summer in the woods.

All of these rites of passage and moments of joy and firsts are on hold. Camps that weathered wars and economic collapse have been felled by a virus. The waterfront will be still. The baseball diamond will remain pristine. The bunks, the dining hall, and the lake will be as still as they are in January.

Sound taps.

See you in 2021. I hope.


Stevie (far left in the shorty-shorts and Hawaiian shirt) and his bunk on his first tour as a counselor.








Feral Children

This couplet of sentences was written in response to a writing challenge limited to 50 words, but also a recent article wondering why we’re denying our kids freedoms we enjoyed. I’d love to read a snapshot of your memories of a less chaperoned youth. Maybe together we can muster enough nostalgia to hazard our kids exploring the world a bit more without us.


We raced ten-speeds through three miles of neighborhood streets, screamed down the sledding hill into the flood plains, wove through the horse path leading to more backyards, and pedaled up the hill to find our friends. Mom had no idea where we were, so getting home by dinner was key.

No permission, no helmets, no schedule...

No permission, no helmets, no schedule…

Mall Santa

I dreaded Mall Santa Season as a kid. My father, always eager to whip us up into (occasionally forced) holiday cheer, would float the query at some point during our 11th hour Christmas shopping for mom:

Who wants to see Santa?!?

This is one moment from childhood that I recall avidly praying to God. Please, please, please, let there be NO Santa. Or make the lines really long. Please make Dad forget. As a shy child (and a logical one), I thought it was creepy, scary, and weird to sit on the lap of a stranger for any reason… even if it meant a greater possibility of finding The Game of Simon under the tree. Also, I don’t think we Stockton kids actually “believed” for any significant stretch of time. Mom began holiday shopping just shy of Halloween and inexpertly hid wrapped presents in our usual hide-and-seek spots. And in order to remember what she wrapped for whom, mom’s slant-y cursive handwriting could be found on a tiny sticky note affixed to the underside of the presents. It was also hard to believe that my owl-shaped calculator was wrought by North Pole elves that shared mom’s zeal for coordinating wrapping papers. I think we fell for the feint until kindergarten, but then gifts that were signed “from Santa” were just a quaint nod to the tradition, and we openly thanked mom and dad for them. Until then, even as a six year old, I found all of the good-natured wheedling to believe insulting. It was a relief when we finally reached the arbitrary ages grownups deemed appropriate for disbelief, and threats of Santa Mall visiting finally ceased.

Recently, Bernie and I found ourselves at the tinsel-covered mall. As our window-shopping brought us closer and closer to Neiman Marcus, louder and louder became the wails of impatient and terrified children. The Santa Line: a queue forty strollers deep with 37% of the children in tears… and the remainder being asked by Starbuck’s-fueled adults, “Are you EXCITED?” I wanted to rescue all of them. Given the choice, I think any kid would prefer fries at the food court to sitting on the lap of a ridiculously dressed stranger while his frantic parents yell at him to replace his panicked tears with “SMILE!!!” But that’s me. Maybe some kids love this crap.

As a kid who feared forced Santa sitting, and then was annoyed by this childish and dishonest prank perpetuated by adults I normally liked, I became a parent who couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the myth. My boys have never really “believed.” Faced with actually lying to them, I chose not to. “Is Santa sorta like Spiderman?” asked three-year-old Brodie. Yup. Good comparison, kiddo. We still put out cookies (which they know Daddy eats), and write “from Santa” on gifts (which they know are from us), and Lee Family Christmas is still awesome. And no Santa line.

I’ve been holding my tongue (well, fingertips) when ALL CAPS Facebook statuses from agitated mommies implore parents like me to prevent kids like mine from “ruining” it for their innocents on the bus. Be assured that my boys have been schooled in this just as well as the Jewish kids (who must think Christian youth are a bit feeble-minded). Mine aren’t going to “ruin” it for anyone. Well, maybe a little. I never insisted they protect other parental lies as fiercely, and Teddy totally outed the tooth fairy on bus 698. Whoops… sorry, parents.

Dear friend April’s strategy is to tell her kids, “if you don’t believe, you don’t receive!” Knowing their parents aren’t actually going to withhold Christmas presents, this extends the myth for the sake of fun; it puts them into a collusion that is sort of adorable: we know it’s you, but we’ll pretend we don’t, and isn’t this Santa thing a hoot? But I’d love to ask the ALL CAPS mommies, when is the arbitrary age for appropriate disbelief? Is five too young? Is twelve too old? And if my kid debunking the myth at circle time seems cruel and unfair, what is the ideal way for small children to learn Santa isn’t real? And why is this belief so ALL CAPS important?

Obviously the ALL CAPS mommies have much fonder memories of forced Santa-sitting than I do. I’m sure they just want their own kiddos to experience the same magical Christmastime excitement they had, which somehow included bouncing on the lap of a jolly stranger. For the Lees, we’ve never relied on Santa to provide all of the excited anticipation of a Christmas morning. And though I think the creepy custom of Mall Santa could end without irreversibly damaging Christmas, I think we’d be missing something if abandoning the tradition meant no more pictures like this.


The hilarity of this photo is not lost on the lovely parents of these tortured kiddos.

There really cannot be too many of these. Ho ho ho!!