Friday, April 25, 2008

Camping under the Moon

My Uncle Tom, in addition to buying me close to 300 45s, made it possible for me to attend a summer camp sponsored by his employer, U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana. My mom bought today’s 45, but that doesn’t mess up the story.

The Good Fellow Club of U.S. Steel was, as far as I can tell, an outreach of the company. Certainly its summer camp was. Good Fellow Camp sat near Lake Michigan in Porter, Indiana. A log-and-stone lodge sat atop a steep hill, and at least ten, perhaps a dozen, cabins stood in a semicircle where the hill leveled off. Beyond the cabins were woods, as well as the archery range, the rifle range, and the ball fields.

I first attended Good Fellow Camp the summer I turned nine. My mother was in the hospital at the time, but she wrote me a letter that arrived at camp. She said she would be coming home soon. She did, but she was not home long.

One of the features of Good Fellow Camp was Crazy Man Wilson. He had been a janitor at a local high school, but a furnace explosion melted his face, and he went to live in the woods near the camp. On rare occasions he went crazy enough to come after the boys in the cabins. I didn’t know why the cabins didn’t have armed guards, with Crazy Man Wilson lurking nearby, but I think I get it now.

My first night at camp, July 20, we learned that the Eagle had landed. The TV was showing the footage six hours later when Neil Armstrong descended to the moon. However, there was just one TV at camp, and Armstrong stepped onto the moon at 9:56, after Lights Out. We had to make do with the radio. I was so geeked about the moon walk that I even had eaten Space Food Sticks when I stayed at my grandmother’s house for a couple of weeks in early 1969. Imagine how I felt, then, to miss the video. I still haven’t seen it, now that I think about it.

I don’t know if my counselor, Mike Nickovich, was supposed to have the radio on, but he did. Thanks, Mike. I heard Neil Armstrong’s words live, at least.

In addition to Crazy Man Wilson and the frustration of missing the lunar landing, another early issue with camp was the pool. I was terrified of water at the time (more on that coming in the August 16 post), and I spent the week hanging to the wall in the shallow end. No one tried to force my head under, and no one mocked me, but being a Beginner carried a stigma, especially after Brian puked up his lunch in the shallow end early that week. He had eaten a hot dog, or maybe three. Caddyshack had nothing on us when it came to scurrying away from floating objects.

That first night at camp, one song from my “distant” past ran through my head: “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter from Camp)” by Allan Sherman (Warner Brothers 5378). My copy of the single was Ground to Dust long before I attended Good Fellow Camp, so my recollection of the song involved a lot of static, but it took its place in my ear and didn’t go away except in the liveliest moments of camp.

As the first classical record I listened to frequently (Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, performed by Lou Busch and His Orchestra, served as the backdrop), HMHF somehow didn’t register as a serious piece of music. I got the comedy pretty early on, and I laughed along with the audience. I wavered between thinking the people were laughing a lot and deducing that it was a laugh track. It turns out that it is indeed a live recording.

Allan Sherman (1924-1973), born Allan Copelon in Chicago, worked in television. He created the game show I’ve Got a Secret. Later, his neighbor, Harpo Marx, brought him to parties so he could show off his music parodies. It paid off with a Warner Brothers contract, and Sherman was the Next Big Thing for a good stretch. Even so, he hit the Top 40 just twice: HMHF debuted on August 10, 1963 and spent three weeks at #2. “Crazy Downtown” spent the week ending May 8, 1965 at #40 and then sank. A Christmas hit, a re-recording of HMHF and another tune round out his Hot 100 chart life.

An early binge eater in the style of John Candy, Sherman wound up diabetic before dying of emphysema when he was just 48.

Lou Busch (1910-1979) turned Sherman’s words into songs. Busch, who also recorded as Joe “Fingers” Carr, hit the Top 40 with “11th Hour Melody” and “Portuguese Washerwomen” in 1956. As conductor/arranger for Capitol and then Warner Brothers Records, Busch contributed to a number of careers besides Sherman’s. Busch died in a car accident on September 19, 1979.

As I lay in my cot that Sunday night, in the new sleeping bag Uncle Tom had bought for my week at camp, I could not help thinking that having a psychopath loose a few feet away, missing the moon landing and being forced to swim put me in the same category as the poor kid about whom Allan Sherman had sung. Unlike that kid, I didn’t write home to beg for release from this torture. I lost some sleep over Crazy Man Wilson, but I didn’t tell anyone I was scared of him.

Just like that kid, though, I learned eventually that there was a bright side to being at Good Fellow Camp. I met another Seán from another town who was my camp friend for the six years I attended. I learned that sassafras trees have three different shapes of leaves. I had my first water-balloon fight there. I broke my nose there. I experienced my first bonfire there. I comforted a kid from my neighborhood who became homesick there.

But did I learn to swim there? I know at least a couple of you are wondering about that, so I’ll tell you on August 16, when I revisit Good Fellow Camp.

Next time, I’ll tell you about a song I own by two different artists, a song that was recorded by a number of others as well, a song that never made the Top 40 in any incarnation. The question will be, why did so many people record it, when it didn’t appeal to the public? See you Wednesday!

Allan Sherman, Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh

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