Tall Timber Tales|
Thanks for the Plaque
by Jay Leites
August 17, 2003
Thirty years after the final rendition of “Day is Done” at Tall Timber, I still know that song, and all the rest of “Uncle” Mel’s camp songs by heart. I can’t listen to Taps without hearing at the end: “Talllll Tim-berrrr — walk, walk, walk.”
My father Aaron, mother Frieda, and brother Brian spent about a dozen summers under the Club House’s penthouse. They were the happiest times I have had. That’s saying a lot, as rest of my life has been fairly happy.
But if I could once more, spend an entire summer, with good friends, in a country setting, with no duties or responsibilities, except to have fun. Well, that would be swell indeed.
I suppose my nostalgia for those time grows stronger this time of year. On August 16, 2003, it occurred to me to type “Tall Timber Bungalow Colony,” for the first time, into a search engine. I clicked on the first result, “Summer Camp Emergency,” and gasped at seeing the photos of the steps leading to the front lawn and “Main House” [now on the “Tall Timber Tales” page], Fran, and other councilors and campers.
[sung to “On Top of Old Smokey”]
On top of the Club House, a penthouse so swell,In many ways, Uncle Mel was Tall Timber. His camp was probably run more professionally than any other in the county. It really wasn’t merely the baby-sitting service often provided by other camps.
We truly loved the camp and it’s, sometimes off-beat, activities like “Camper-Counselor Day,” “Carnival Day,” and “Backwards Day.” Also fondly remembered are the end-of-summer banquet and gifts, and most of all, the “Color War.”
Of course, Demian deserves credit for making the “big” shows surprisingly entertaining productions. If nothing else, those shows instilled in us kids an astonishing familiarity with show tunes of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. As Billy Berkrot remarked recently: “There is no reason someone my age should know all the words to ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris,’ but I do.”
A reunion might be fun. While I’ve lost touch with all my wintertime, 10-months-a-year childhood friends, to my great good fortune, I’m still quite close to my best Tall Timber friends. To be 48 years old and have several friends of 40+ years standing is quite wonderful and extraordinary.
Here is news about some of my friends:
My friend of greatest tenure, Billy Berkrot, and I have worked for Reuters news service for about 25 years. He as a journalist doing mostly sports, but lately financial reporting. I work in technical operations, mostly network management these days. Bill is married and lives with his wife, daughter and son in Stanford, Connecticut. His parents, Bob and Shirley, are both doing well and living in the Bayside section of Queens, NYC.I live in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, NYC, and have managed to stay single. My Mom and Dad retired to Las Vegas in the mid 80s. Frieda died about 10 years ago. Dad re-married about a year after she died, and is doing well and enjoying life in Vegas. I visit him at least twice a year. Quite a bit more than if he had retired to, say, Phoenix.
At Tall Timber, the camp day started promptly at 9:25am when perhaps 100 children would gather to watch the raising of the flag, and solemnly recite an oath of loyalty to our nation.
But Uncle Mel’s day started quite a bit earlier than that.
[more singing to “On Top of Old Smokey”]
He rises at seven, what more could be said?At 8:30am, Uncle Mel’s voice would come booming over the colony-wide PA system. The daily proclamation went something like this:
“Tall Timber, good morning, Tall timber! Oh, what a beautiful Tall Timber summer day camp day it is today! The sun is in the sky, and the dew is on the grass. If you don’t believe me, wake your parents and ask them. The oldest boys group is playing softball against Lakeview this morning so don’t forget to wear your Tall Timber T-shirts. Tall Timber, GOOD MORNING, Tall Timber!”Now, I was never a “morning person,” but I always got a kick out of those daily announcements.
Uncle Mel founded the camp Kovad (Hebrew for “honor”) Society as a way to give recognition to “good campers,” rather than to gifted athletes or winning teams. The Society met and voted in a new member each week. The awarded plaque, at that time, was a splendid, shield-shape item, perfectly stained, with precise, white, Gothic lettering.
Well, I may never have been a first pick for softball or football, or won a bowling trophy, but god damn it, I was a good camper. My 1966 “Kovad Society” plaque had been stored in a closet for 30 years. In 1996, I cleaned it off and hung it in a place of honor. It is still proudly displayed in my apartment.
This acknowledgement is 37 years delayed: “Thanks for the plaque.”
There was about 10 different musicals; so during my 12-14 summers, some were repeated.
I remember Mitchell Schecter’s outstanding performance “Goodbye Cruel World” as if it were yesterday. [For more on Mitchell’s performance, see Tall Timber Drama] Billy Berkrot sang the same song about a decade after Mitchell. Rather than pathos, Billy went for comedy. At the line “step right up and take a look at a fool.” Billy would point at someone in the audience.
When I was 12, Uncle Mel asked me to sing “The Ballard of Irving,” which is about a Jewish cowboy. He said that when he heard the song that winter, he immediately thought of me as the one to do it for the camp show. He explained it was rythmically spoken along with the piano music, rather than sung.
The first verse went:
He came from the old Bar Mitzva spread,The chorus went:
“Irving. Big Irving. Big fat Irving.Even with Andrea Elburger’s best efforts at the piano, I had no clue how to perform the number.
Then, a couple of weeks before the show, my family visited the Malowitz’s at their new Spring Valley house. I mentioned the Ballard to Mark who knew it.
It was from a production called “When You’re in Love, the Whole World is Jewish.” He had the cast recording. A few moments after hearing it, a light went off in my head. I understood the timing and emphasis needed to make it work.
In all modesty, I must say that my rendition brought the house down. Uncle Mel had me reprise it after the next Sabbath service.
Article © 2006, Jay Leites
Jay Leites - 1955-2011
Return to: Demian’s Family Album