Beautiful Summer at Camp Alton
Beautiful Summer
at Camp Alton
Michael Ingall


In my five years at Camp Alton, I grappled with the question as to how Hitler could have exterminated the Jews of Europe, when Jews in America could outdo the Hitler jüngen with Camp Alton.

Our cabin consisted of ten single cots lined up in a row, with one double decker for the counselors. There was no hot water or electricity and the cold water was not potable. Flashlight batteries and canteens became necessary for survival, not only for overnight camping out in the woods, but even within the confines of one's own home.

On the first day, the counselors showed us how to fold our tee-shirts and shorts so that they lined up perfectly on the shelves, and how to make hospital corners on the beds so that when a quarter was dropped from a height of three feet to a monogrammed Camp Alton blanket, it bounced back two feet into the air.

In the morning, after clean-up, which consisted of sweeping under each bed, refolding all the clothes, obtaining the hospital corners, and cleaning the toilet seat so that your mother, should she visit, God forbid, would be able to eat off it. Then the inspector would come, carrying with him his clipboard of deficiencies. The quarter bouncing only one foot into the air, a tiny pubic hair left by a manly counselor under the toilet seat, a dust ball in a hidden corner of the room --- none of these escaped his trained eye. Ruefully, but also with a slight smile of delight, he would mark off half-points or full-points for each deficiency, all of which would be read at the morning assembly by the Chief.

The Chief presided morning and evening in the Amphitheater for Assembly, a twice-daily exercise in public humiliation. In his 50's, he was a short, squat, unsmiling man, peering upward at the assembled campers and counselors, who sat on the stone stairs, divided into Grays and Greens by a center aisle. A strict teacher at the strict Boston Latin school, he was the founder and driving force behind the philosophy of Camp Alton --- today an innocent boy, tomorrow the ruthless attorney.

Assembly began in the morning with the raising of the flag and in the evening with the lowering of the flag, each marked with its distinctive bugle call, played by Philly Nyman, our short, freckled, Gunga Din. Then, the Chief would announce the scores.

Everything you did at Camp Alton received points. If nary a dust ball could be found under a bed in your cabin, the team received 10 points. Every improperly folded shirt, every wrinkle, every dribble of toothpaste on the sink --- all lessened the chances of ultimate team victory on the last day of Camp. On the playing field, every run scored, every basket sunk, every bulls-eye pierced with an arrow or a bullet, was noted. This, remember, was an era when patriotism, manliness, and the NRA were valued --- and a nine-year-old boy destined for greatness was required to learn to handle a gun.

Punishment was meted out as well --- not simply to the individual, but to the team, on behalf of the individual member. Solemnly, the Chief intoned, "Five points off the Gray team because Michael Ingall swore at his counselor." Michael Ingall tried to disappear through a crack in the marble seats as four hundred Gray eyes bored hatefully through his skull. Two Greens on the other side, unable to control their exultation, exploded in a brief flurry of applause. "Five points off the Green team for the unsportsmanlike conduct of Bruce Goldschmidt and Stephen Winer."

§ § §

My time at Camp Alton was considered to be the second stage of my rehabilitation from polio, which I had had the year before. The first had been at the children's hospital, where the physiotherapist came every morning, raising my leg, stretching my heel-cord, pulling on my hamstrings until they hurt.

There, I had learned about Sister Kenney and President Roosevelt and Warm Springs, Georgia. I pictured myself beside FDR, stretched out in a buff-hewn stone bathtub, our heel cords and hamstrings being stretched gently and lovingly by the saintly Sister Kenney, by the saintly Sister Elizabeth Kenney.

    "Can you walk yet, Michael?"

    "Not yet, Mr. Roosevelt, how about you?"

    "Who knows, maybe tomorrow."

The idea of not having to go to school was initially exhilarating. But the school sent assignments which I had to complete daily, and I began to miss my friends. Some strength returned to my legs, and with the aid of metal braces and crutches, I could stagger about.

One sunny winter Sunday my father took my sisters and me to Franklin Park. All decent Jewish families in Roxbury and Dorchester went to Franklin Park on Sunday. There we would see and smell the lions in the lion house, the elephants in the elephant house, the monkeys in the monkey house, and the birds in the bird house. We would make the obligatory stop at the rock garden, even in winter, when the only things growing were the rocks.

On such days, my father would bring along his Ciné Kodak movie camera loaded with a roll of Kodachrome 8mm film, wind it up, and shoot. The scenario was always the same. The three children would be at a distance of twenty-five feet, and would walk, hand-in-hand, toward the camera, smiling and waving. Once we reached the camera, and the Ektar lens could no longer keep our faces in focus, my father would pan the surrounding area hastily and jumpily to differentiate this Children's March from all other Children's Marches. These scenes were best viewed after the ingestion of a tablet of Dramamine.

On this particular Sunday, as we proceeded dutifully toward the whirring camera, my father shouted out, "Michael! Throw away the crutches! You can walk without them!"

My sisters, echoing this sentiment, began to jump up-and-down, clapping their hands, thus altering our family cinematic ritual for the first time. Quite certain that I would never make it, I obeyed nevertheless. My assessment was correct --- I fell over on my side, legs braced in rigid extension. My sisters continued to jump up-and-down and clap. My father panned to the rock garden which shook mightily --- not from the force of my fall, but from the jerking motion of the movie camera.

Camp Alton was my Hot Springs, where the healing waters of Lake Winnepesaukee would restore strength to my limbs. Because of my handicap, a special counselor was assigned to me to teach me to swim individually. He showed me how to blow bubbles, lying prone at the water's edge. When it came time to put my face completely below water level, and open my eyes, I just couldn't do it. My counselor was intent upon teaching me to go the whole route --- so he held my head forcefully underwater. I finally tore myself from his grasp and, in a crying fit, refused to go back in the water.

They reassigned me to Norm Lumian ("Lum-Dum"), a kinder and gentler man. Soon, he had me floating, albeit with my head out of the water. To this day, I will not open my eyes when I'm swimming, and --- if one of my children were drowning a pool --- I suspect I would be unable to open my eyes underwater to find them.

Bugle calls marked dawn, clean-up, breakfast, breaks between periods, lunch, assemblies, dinner, evening activities, and bedtime. As the strains of Philly Nyman's Taps echoed through the night, we were required to be in bed, with our lights out. We were also instructed that talking was forbidden. Naturally, we would whisper back and forth, describing our anal preoccupations and our genital desperations.

Suddenly, jackboots would stomp up the stairs of the cabin, the door would be flung open, and a myriad of flashlights would pierce the darkness. "Patrol!" the counselors would cry out --- exultant in their power to terrify and intimidate. "Assume the position," Genie Goldstein, the master of the straw broom, would say. We would rouse ourselves from the bed, and stand at the foot, grasping the metal bar, butts in the air. We closed our eyes tightly, hoping that they would not yield tears as Genie struck with all his might. The tears always flowed.

§ § §

"The Flag Rush" was an all-camp Battle of the Bulge in the color-war saga of Camp Alton. The Gray and Green teams were pitted against each other in a day-long bout of capture the flags. Each of us had his assignment. Being slow of foot, I was always picked to be the jail guard or flag guard. This meant that as opposing rushers --- most of whom were twice my size --- charged directly at the flag, I was to charge directly into them, tackling them, wrestling them to the ground as I cried, "my man, one, two, three!" Needless to say, I never laid a hand on anyone, nor they a foot on me.

The all-camp relay offered more exposure and humiliation. As color-war moved toward its conclusion, half the Gray and Green teams lined up at opposite ends of the track, at a distance of about 100 yards. Back and forth we would run, giving our all, tagging the hand of the next runner. As the line moved forward, and as I dragged my metal braced foot toward the starting line, the sight of me lumbering down the track was enough to sink the hearts of the co-captains of the Gray team. I could hear the grunts of despair: "There goes color-war."

To this day, I know every Camp Alton anthem and Gray team Fight-Song by heart --- every word, every note.

    "Oh, Camp Alton, how we love thee,
    With a love that ne'er can fade,
    For we feel we owe a debt to thee
    That never can be paid."


    "The sparkling lake, the towering pines,
    The air as sweet as fragrant vines,
    The swellest Chief you'll ever know,
    His wife who sets the Camp aglow."
    "To the past with all its finest moments,
    For today which offers us this hour,
    To the future, to which we now entrust
    Our mem'ries, life's most fragrant flow'r."
Or --- in a more martial vein --- sung to the tune of the Brown University Fight Song:

    "The Gray team's banners are waving in triumph on the hill.
     The Gray team's cohorts are cheering, for we have made our kill.
      The day is ours, ours forever,
       Let the Green team count the cost,
      So rise, rise and cheer, boys
       'til the last white line is crossed."

The only thing I never knew at Camp Alton were Greens. One knew their names, one could assess their skills at various sports, but one never counted them as friends. Greens for life, they would always live in separate bunks and would always be the enemy.

I wonder if this continued in court, in the operating room, and at the negotiating table when we all grew up.

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go to letters about Camp Alton     Go Up