The late Fritzi Jane Vee and her husband Chris Vee (Vlachos), who died in 1992, ran several camps in Wisconsin, but most notably Camp Sandstone on Green Lake, from 1958 until it closed in 1972. This was the girls camp and the boys camp was called Camp Day-Cho-Lah. In September 2009, at the age of 86, Fritzi met an untimely death when she was hit by a truck while crossing the road at the intersection of Water and Lake Streets in Green Lake.
When I was in the sixth grade, my parents decided that I should be shipped off to overnight camp. I really did not want to go, but my younger sister Janet and I were getting into increasingly nasty spats, and in retrospect, I guess they thought this was a good idea. The previous summer we had gone on a family trip to California and I was blamed for the constant bickering with my kid sister. Not wanting to repeat what they claim was a vacation from hell, my parents opted for this alternative. Back then, camp representatives made house calls, giving personalized pitches on why this experience would be life affirming and wonderful. My friend Alison wanted to go to overnight camp and my parents went to her house to hear the pitch. A family friend’s son and daughter had gone for years and loved it so much that they became junior counselors, so the camp came with a personal recommendation. The girl, Kathy, was my age – she was an expert swimmer and later excelled on our high school swim team. Needless to say, because she was a junior counselor and a seasoned camper, our paths rarely crossed once I was up at camp.
It was decided that Alison and I would enroll together and opt for the 4-week stay as novice campers, rather than the 8-week stay. This was in the summer of 1970, and six months before I was shipped off to camp, we had acquired a sweet West Highland White Terrier puppy named Duffy, from a breeder in Barrington, Ill. One of the reasons I was reluctant about going to camp is that I would miss Duffy’s big debut at his first dog show. He aced it, taking a blue ribbon in his category – of course he was the only dog in that category! He finished in last place during the next round. The problem turned out to be his teeth – caused unintentionally by all of us letting Duffy tug at a small hand towel. Alas, his under bite ended his brief career as a show dog.
I didn’t care much for Camp Sandstone, to put it mildly. Alison really hated it and after just a few days, decided she was too homesick to stay and her parents picked her up. I toughed it out and have some very vivid memories of my only foray into being an overnight summer camper. There were very strange girls in my cabin, among them a girl who had just finished the seventh grade and had wild tales to tell us. She claimed to have boinked her older brother – I highly doubt this, but she did exhibit some rather psychotic behavior and shared other sordid stories.
Back then most preteens used aerosol deodorant like Right Guard, and our counselor decided to show us a cool but highly dangerous trick. The floors of our cabin were painted with high-gloss gray enamel paint. She sprayed the deodorant in a swirly pattern on the floor, turned out the lights, and then lit the trail with a disposable BIC lighter. The fire traced the deodorant pattern. Given how safety conscious I am in my adult life and have written professionally about injury prevention, I bristle at the thought of this careless activity. Don’t try this at home, kiddies.
I hated swimming in Green Lake and when I took my swimming test, the lake was very choppy, it was windy, and the sky was pregnant with ominous dark clouds. I really felt like I was going to drown during my test and was not having fun. As a result, I ended up in the guppies group, close to the dock. I remember a horrible, dead bloated fish floating by in this shallow area. Because my swimming skills sucked, I was not able to go water skiing, but did go boating once. Access to the lake was via a rather steep hill/bluff – going up this hill was a lot harder. There were very strict rules governing our daily swims. There were two wooden boards and each camper had a little metal numerical tag they had to place on the “In the Water” board or “Out of the Water” board. Well one day, yours truly forgot to place my tag on the “Out of the Water” board when I was done swimming. The meanest counselor that ever lived doled out my punishment. She made me skip lunch and run up and down the steep bluff 25 times, each time placing my tag on and off the boards and repeating some phrase about this out loud. You bet I never made this mistake ever again.
Much to my consternation, there were very few arts and crafts activities at Camp Sandstone. Given that this was my primary passion, I was quite disappointed. Surprisingly, I enjoyed BB gun target practice and discovered that I had an eagle eye and was a very good shooter. I was not so good at archery and remember being quite sore from this activity. Odd, but I never shot a gun or arrow ever again. Although I like carnivals, I never tried the shooting gallery because the sights are so often crooked, whether intentionally bent or because the guns are beat-up pieces of junk.
None of us wanted to take showers in the gross bathroom because the stalls were infested with hundreds of daddy longlegs. So we would take a bar of soap down to the lake and wash ourselves in our swimsuits. Given most of us had yet to develop and we were always in the water, we stayed pretty clean. Still, I could barely wait until I was back home, luxuriating in a Mr. Bubble bubble bath. I was horrified one day during my stay when there was a spot of blood in my underwear – could this be the precursor to that dreaded thing known as a period? I was rather naive because my dear mom NEVER had the talk with me.
The highlight of my 4 weeks was when I received letters and candy from my family. I still have some of the hysterically funny letters from my dad. I do remember that my parents sent a box of Bazooka bubble gum and this was confiscated – we were not allowed to chew gum. We took several day trips – one was to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which was quite a hike all the way from Ripon. We also went to a strange little lake with a sand beach crawling with crayfish. We had to listen to this old bat sing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean every few days – she was a total freak with a voice like Tiny Tim. The food was lousy and there were flies and bees inside the refectory where we ate. When my family picked me up, we went to the Wisconsin Dells for one night, which was a lot of fun.
I did befriend a sweet little wisp of a girl with blonde hair. I think her name was Robin and she lived in Wheaton – well, I’m not sure about her name, although I can picture her face perfectly. One day in early fall and just after I had entered the seventh grade, Robin’s mom drove her to Lincolnwood and we went to Kiddieland. By then I was surfing the crimson wave and had horrible menstrual cramps that would plague me my entire life. The memories of summer camp were quickly replaced with the overwhelming fear that a boy would find out I had my period – uggh! I was never shipped off to overnight camp again – after I graduated from eighth grade I took two studio classes downtown at the School of the Art Institute – now that was definitely my cup of tea.
Perhaps for me, the summer of 1970 was a time of childlike innocence. But soon thereafter, the last vestiges of my carefree preteen days faded into the sunset as teenage angst and hormones kicked in with a vengeance.