The millions of children heading out to summer camp may not know it yet, but they’ll be learning lessons that will help them weather the storms of adulthood. No one knows this better than Michael Eisner, who has spent 21 years at the helm of the Walt Disney Company. He writes about his youthful experiences in his new book, “Camp.” Here is an excerpt.
It was the summer of 1949, and I was seven. Some forty miles north of New York City, my family had a summer home on sixty acres, “in the back” (as we called it) of my grandfather’s gentleman’s farm. I was attending a day camp, Camp Mohawk, to do what kids in Bedford Hills and Mount Kisco and Chappaqua and Armonk and White Plains did when their parents wanted every minute accounted for during the summer. I had been at Mohawk just one week, already the survivor of a lost baseball mitt and my sister’s throwing up in the bus, when the subject of overnight camp came up.
We were sitting at dinner on the screened porch of the house when the voice of God (God was my father) said, “I thought I’d take you up to Camp Keewaydin to see if you might want to go there next summer.”
I was excited and paralyzed. As far as I can now remember, I had never gone on an overnight trip with my father alone, without a sister or mother. He was a father I called by his first name, Lester. Yes, he was my real father, and no, I cannot imagine why he liked that. They said it was because my sister couldn’t say “Daddy,” but I doubt it. For much of the first three years of my life, he had been flying planes in the “war” (World War II), and, since then, had remained the man who inspired enduring respect, love, admiration, envy, and fear, and all that was fatherhood to me.
My father was a man of adventure. After the war, he had started an airline in Ecuador that he scraped together from two army air force planes. Flying to South America with your father as the pilot was certainly an adventure. But then he had settled down as a lawyer in the world of New York City. Surely everyone thinks their father is unique, and at a young age, the impression I had of my father was no different. He was athletic, a bold entrepreneur, clever humorist, attentive husband, matinee idol to my sister’s friends and simply bigger than life to my friends. The women loved him, and children were awed by him. As a seven-year-old, I saw all this, and was at once respectful and impressed and mesmerized and sometimes daunted by his power.
The prospect of sleepaway camp was a family tradition that he would not let drop. So, we were scheduled to do this “father-son” thing and go off for the weekend to Keewaydin, a summer camp that my father and uncles had attended. I sat at the dinner table contemplating the many hours in the car where I’d be alone with my father, wondering about the camp in the middle of nowhere, amid millions and millions of acres of woods, billions and billions of miles from Bedford Hills, without a sister or mother in sight.
Memories of the trip up are hazy. I’m sure my father explained to me that this was a great camp, and shared some of the happy memories he had of going up to Vermont each summer. We headed in our Buick toward New England. We probably drove up Route 7 in Vermont until we passed Brandon, then made a right toward Salisbury and drove onward on Route 53 to Keewaydin. I do remember that it was dark when we arrived, and I was nervous. Placed inside a sleeping bag, I slept on a cot, within some sort of dark enclosure, and I fell asleep wondering what it looked like outside. My father had disappeared.
The next morning, a loud alien gong noise greeted me with the morning light. I found myself in a tent with wooden floors, surrounded by boys my own age, who were getting out of their beds, looking at me with the persistent, perplexing glare that boys are prone to adopt toward a stranger. I stared back with a matching glare of my own, though Mother Nature soon took over, and a critical question flooded my mind: Where’s the bathroom? I was painfully in need of one; somehow, bathroom emergencies at seven are at least doubly more painful than most men remember. I stumbled out of bed and followed the scattering of boys scurrying away to a community john that was two dirt basketball courts away, and then followed the crowd to the dining hall, seemingly half a mile down some kind of path. A staffman discovered me wandering and connected me with my father, a lone familiar face among hundreds.
I was introduced to several adults, most notably someone called Waboos (or at least it was pronounced that way—WAH-boos). His importance was underscored not only by his unique name but by the fact that nearly every youngster and adult who walked by made a point of saying, “Good morning, Waboos,” a greeting he returned. Among all the old folks whom I was introduced to, Waboos was clearly the featured attraction, and, furthermore, he called my father “Les.” I never had heard that. Everybody called him by his full name, Lester. I knew this was a special relationship. This was someone from my father’s past.
The rest of the day was peppered with activity. I was shipped back to the group of kids with whom I had spent the night. I folded my sleeping bag while everybody else made their beds. I washed my face and brushed my teeth alongside twenty other boys also brushing away, quite a change from sharing a bathroom with just one sister.
I played, I swam, I rested, then played and swam again with the boys for the rest of the day. I didn’t see my father again until dinner, when I spotted him huddled with Waboos, talking, as the two of them looked over at me. Maybe I had embarrassed my father. Maybe I had offended the other kids. Something was off—I knew it. Waboos approached me.
“Do you want to box tonight?” he asked. I heard myself say, “Sure,” not having any idea what he was talking about. It turned out that I was headed to the weekly Saturday-evening wrestling and boxing show at Sunset Arena, the old ring beyond right-center field on one of the Keewaydin ball fields. Each age group of campers (wigwams, I was learning to call them) presented four events—two wrestling, two boxing. The more I learned, the more I hoped my mother would somehow appear to get me out of all of it. Suddenly, this father-son thing definitely wasn’t working.
The youngest kid at the camp was eight; I was seven. The opponent that I was picked to fight had been in camp from day one, was totally confident, and I’m sure later went on to be a successful fullback in the NFL. He, in fact, was nine, and here on my first full day at Keewaydin, I was matched up against him, in the ring, mano a mano.
The fight that night lasted about two minutes. I didn’t cry, I didn’t take a dive. Even though the oversized gloves were like pillows, I had the stuffing and pride beaten out of me—not necessarily in that order. After what I’m sure was some encouragement bestowed upon me by Waboos and my father, we left the camp for the drive back to Bedford Hills.
I slept the whole way home. I only opened my eyes as my father carried me upstairs to my real bed. I woke up as he tripped slightly on the stairs; my mother was right behind us.
“You should have seen how brave he was,” I heard my father saying to my mother. “He was a stand-up boy.”
“Isn’t Waboos a great guy?” he said to me, curled up in his arms. “Don’t you want to go to Keewaydin next summer?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, and fell back to sleep before we made it to my bed.
From the book “Camp,” by Michael Eisner. Copyright ©2005 by The Eisner Foundation, Inc. Published by Time Warner. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.