In 1950 there were a number of summer camps ringing New York City. The Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund did great things for the kids in New York City. The Fresh Air Fund's goal was to give kids the opportunity to get off the hot city streets and enjoy some fresh country air. The sole advertising vehicle was ‘posters in the neighborhood recreation center and police stations. On a hot summer day in June 1950, H.B and I went down to the police station to get applications for summer camp.
After studying the qualifications and dates, we took the applications home to our parents. My father said, "Absolutely not! Are you crazy? There are going to be kids in that camp from the toughest neighborhoods in New York City. You will never live to go to medical school." My mother was a little more subdued although it was clear she did not want me to apply. ‘
Somehow I convinced them it would be a good learning experience. They proceeded to complete the application. I was accepted and scheduled for a physical examination at an address on 39th Street and 10th Avenue. The significance of that address might not mean much to readers of this blog but in 1950 39th and 10th was a war zone. I had traveled all over the city alone for years at that time but never dared to go to 39th and 10th Avenue.
About 150 kids showed up for physical examinations. Every race, color, and creed from every bad neighborhood in the city was represented. Outstanding were the 12 kids from the Red Hook District in Brooklyn. Their whole street gang was accepted to camp. There were only two kids from the Tremont section of the Bronx. H.B. and me.
My first impression of all the kids was they were big, muscular and mostly black. I was pubescent but scrawny at 5’6” and 118 lbs. H.B. was frightened. I told him not to worry but I was scared stiff. After an hour wait on the hot sidewalk they let us into the store. They told us all to strip. This was not my most favorite task at 12 years old in front of all these big pubescent black kids.They were better endowed than I was. I stripped and passed the physical.
We were told to meet at 10 am on Sunday with a camp trunk ready to depart for camp. They did not tell us the name of the camp. They said they would give the address of the camp to our parents at departure. My mother, father and brother drove me down to 39th and 10th. When my father saw the crew he decided to make a U-turn. My mother convinced him to let me go to the camp.
The bus ride to camp was terrifying. The bus was old. The kids were not well behaved. The counselors did not seem to have control of the crowd. All the 12 year olds were smoking the newly released Chesterfield Kings in order to be cool. I passed. I thought at that moment going to this camp was going to be mistake. It looked like I was going to have a very hard two weeks.
We arrived at camp about one and a half hours later. The camp was a brand new Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund camp near Bear Mountain New York. Since there were only two of us from the Bronx, I was assigned to the Red Hook Section of Brooklyn’s bunk. I was terrified. The smallest kid in the group was at least 20 pounds heavier and two inches taller than me. The biggest kid was 50 pounds heavier and 6 inches taller. Every one of them talked Brooklyn tough.
Camp was set up so that each bunk competed with other bunks in categories such as baseball, basketball, football, rowing, bunk cleanliness, mess hall chores and a few others. I was a very good baseball and basketball player. I was a good football tight end. I gained the respect of my bunkmate quickly. After the first day, I found the kids in my bunk to be tough but great. We all stuck together, worked as a team to excel and beat the other bunks in almost every category. All my bunkmates cooperated with each other. There was none of the fighting between each other and with others that I had expected. At the end of the two weeks four of the twelve of us in the Red Hook bunk received honors. We were invited to be junior counselors for a group of 8-10 year olds coming in the next two weeks.
To my disappointment, I never made it because on the last day of camp I got pink eye a very contagious form of conjunctivitis. It disqualified me from being a junior counselor.
The moral of the story is never judge a book by its cover. The Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund Camp was a very educational and rewarding experience. It taught me a very important lesson in team cooperation and leadership. I have retained this lesson my entire life.
Thank you Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund.
The Fresh Air Fund established in 1877 is a worthy cause and a fabulous model for creating unforgettable memories and fresh possibilities for living. http://www.freshair.org/the-fresh-air-fund.aspx
The opinions expressed in the blog “Repairing The Healthcare System” are, mine and mine alone.