Campastrophic: Of Moonwalks, Musicals and Mishkuntas

Camp Out, by Randy Shulman

July 20, 1969, nighttime. Crickets are chirping. A warm breeze gently sifts through the trees, rustling the leaves. A small, black-and-white TV emits a glow illuminating the darkness. The TV’s audio is static-filled and faint.

A hush overtakes the cabin as we strain to listen while Neil Armstrong takes an historic first step on the moon — a moon we can see through our fine-mesh screened windows. It’s awe-inspiring for a group of 10-year-olds spending a month of summer vacation cloistered in Ontario at a Jewish summer camp.

The moonwalk is arguably one of civilization’s shining moments, but our counselor — a grossly overweight older teen with a frizzled nest of shaggy blond locks — is depriving us of our right to partake in this glorious achievement. We are confined to our bunks in the cabin, lights out, while he and a few other counselors watch on that small TV on the cabin porch.

To be honest, I can’t recall if we were being punished for some earlier mischievous deed or if the guy was just being a schmuck. Maybe he and his pals were smoking pot, in which case we’d be unwelcome guests. But I’ll never forget that night at Camp Kawagama, the night I didn’t witness ”one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It’s my last remaining memory of Camp Kawagama, which if a quick Google search is to be believed, is now Moorelands Wilderness Camp, a place whose mission is to ”work with Toronto’s children and youth affected by poverty, to provide them with positive and fun experiences to help strengthen their confidence, competence and character.” I hope their counselors are nicer.

I have better entrenched memories of New Moon, the camp I attended for two consecutive summers after Kawagama. Yes, it was another camp catering to Jews, because, let’s face it, Jews enjoy being catered to. And it was at Camp New Moon that at the age of 12, I became aware of my true sexual desires.

Don’t worry, Mom, if you’re reading this… nothing happened. Well, nothing much. Okay, maybe a little something. In a shower. Once. With a Canadian campmate. Who was my age and who will go nameless (but whose name had a literal sweetness I will never forget), and who, I hope, ultimately forged his own proud queer path in life. What occurred between us was secretive and exploratory, innocent and yet not, and very, very naked. It was bliss. It was love. It was…

Cut short by a whale of a counselor who decided that 3 o’clock in the afternoon was the perfect time to apply soap to his blubber, and who was utterly clueless as to what he’d walked in on. Still, the experience pointed me in what I now consider the right direction, despite the fact that, at the time, it instilled within me such extraordinary guilt, I’m surprised I didn’t fling myself at the nearest Jewish girl and propose marriage. I didn’t because I knew, deep inside, this was the one camp experience that would come to mean something more profound than sailing or softball or fishing or turning lumps of clay into lumpy, unsightly ashtrays or partaking in that absurd, useless activity known as archery. It woke within me the beast of gnawing frustration and forbidden lust, and forced me to confront a truth that I shoved in a dark closet of lies and deceit for another dozen or so years.

Who knew that summer camp had so much power?

If stereotypes have any merit, then based on my daily actions at Camp New Moon, I was a prime example of a full-blown sissy. And yet, I was completely content in my sissyhood. I despised anything sports-related, eschewed anything remotely physical. Throw me a baseball, I’ll defiantly not catch it. Plop me down on a tennis court, I’ll take a goofus-worthy trip over the net and land on my head. Tetherball? It burns! It burns! As for swimming… dog paddle, anyone?

So what the hell did I do with my month at Camp New Moon, located two hours outside Toronto in a vast and pristine Canadian wilderness? Spend as much time as possible indoors working on the annual camp production. The dramatic arts, darling, that was the life for me. It’s true: As a 12-year-old, I aspired to be a musical-theater star. But stardom at Camp New Moon eluded me, as I kept getting cast in secondary roles — the ones where you got polite applause but no standing ovation. To my mind, I clearly had the goods: a pleasing, powerful, bring-down-the-rafters voice, swarthy good looks, a killer smile, hair — lots and lots of hair. A helmet of hair. But my assets were repeatedly overlooked by the powers that make casting decisions. I got cast in third-banana roles, roles that needed filling, but not by divas like me.

During my first year at Camp New Moon, we presented Damn Yankees. I craved the plum part of Applegate (aka, The Devil), but got stuck playing Coach Van Buren, which, admittedly, came with one great group singalong, ”(Ya Gotta Have) Heart.” I would have rather played femme fatale Lola. At least she had a solo number.

The next year we did Cabaret. It was a sanitized version of Cabaret, with the Nazi overtones intact but the sexuality scrubbed clean. Cabaret‘s showstopping role — that of the Master of Ceremonies — went to the same little crowd-pleasing putz who nabbed the role of Applegate the year before. I can’t remember his name, but I can picture him — dark-haired, handsome, brown-nosing. I hope he’s stuck somewhere in Ottawa stage managing community theater productions of Annie.

I was cast as Herr Schultz, who gets two solid numbers — Married and It Couldn’t Please Me More, for which I got to carry a papier mache pineapple. Trouble is, the songs weren’t solos — they were duets. I had to share the stage with a girl! So the spotlight at Camp New Moon never truly shined on me and me alone.

Other less-than-fond memories of camp include ”bug juice,” a flavor-challenged cousin to Kool-Aid; back-breaking, sleep-depriving bunk beds; mosquitoes; failing miserably at softball, sailing and canoeing; mosquitoes; failing to obtain a swimming badge that might allow me to venture into water more than 2 feet deep without a life-preserver; mosquitoes; failing at arts and crafts, especially working with clay; and mosquitoes.

Then there were the guys in my cabin, none of whom I’ll ever forget. Some were from my hometown of Cincinnati — but the majority were from the suburbs of Toronto. They were guys who concluded all their sentences with the expression, ”eh?” (pronounced: ay). I can hear them now: ”You’re American, eh?” ”Paddle harder, eh?” ”Pass the bug juice, eh?” It’s the National Vocal Tic of Canada.

There are two other, indelible memories I harbor from my years at New Moon. Both veer toward the vague homoeroticism intrinsic in a cabin full of puberty-plagued boys on the verge of their Bar Mitzvahs. One was a bit of hazing known as The Mishkunta.” Here’s how it went down:

Find a victim.

Hold him down.

Shove a tube of Crest mint-flavored toothpaste up his bum and squeeze hard to ensure complete dispensing of product. Do this while boisterously singing the following words, to the tune of ”To Life” from Fiddler on the Roof:

Tonight, tonight Mishkunta!

Miskunta, Mishkunta tonight!

And we’ll be glad to see ya

With diarrhea.

It’s Mishkunta — tonight!

Only once did I ever partake in a full-fledged Mishkunta. We did it to a boy named Richard, who resembled a ferret and had the disposition to match. Richard was the cabin creep. Hence much torment was dispatched upon Richard. When I think of the damage we did to that guy… well, he probably beats his wife, thanks to us.

The other thing I recall was something often whispered about but never really enacted. It’s the stuff of camp legend, a game presumably played in the dead of night, crickets chirping, flashlights drawn, men preferably not taking a stroll on the moon. It’s a game known as ”Biscuit.” And it involves a Saltine cracker, a small circle of shame-free males, and a furious, hand-pumped race in which, trust me, you do not want to come last.

It’s fair to say that Biscuit is my single strongest memory of my summer camp experience. It’s so lodged in my psyche, it’s the first thing that springs to mind when someone mentions camp. It must be the wishful thinking of an adolescent taking one small step toward life’s big gay journey.


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