All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Camp Mehia was a camp for Jewish Indians. Its very name alluded to its “half breed” nature. “Mechiah”, in Yiddish, signifies a “Blessing”. At the same time, it was spelled “HIA”, paying homage to the famous fictitious Indian, “Hiawatha”.
As far as I could ascertain, the only thing “Jewish” about Camp Mehia was the fact that, every Friday night, there were candles on the rustic mess hall tables. As Indians, on the other hand, we were occasionally required to dance around a campfire, attired only in a single feather and war paint, with a piece of string around our waist, holding up two washcloths, strategically placed.
I put up with this embarrassing indignity, willingly, because it seemed to me that, for the first time in my life, I was having the time of my life. Camp Mehia, not at first, but eventually, meant full acceptance to me. Even though, I was twice everybody’s size, nobody seemed to mind.
The other day, my friend Rich Olson, who in high school was as big as me, expressed amazement, if not, incredulity, that I claimed to be that size, already, when I was just 11. Well, Rich, here is the proof, something that, for years, I chose to hide, the official Camp Mehia cabin photo. That’s me on the right. Sitting next to that normal sized kid, I look like a ventriloquist. That other fellow, slightly bigger than the others, but far smaller than me, was one of our two counselors. All six of the eleven year old boys at Camp Mehia, that year, were together in one cabin. And I was in Seventh Heaven!
I’ll never forget a casual remark one of my cabin mates made, one rainy day, while we were hanging around the cabin, sailing a folded paper airplane over the rafters. I had just launched a perfect flight, when Bobby Brenner said, “You know, Mel, when we first met, you didn’t know how to do a lot of things, but you sure are a fast learner!” That simple statement meant “the World” to me. For the first time in my fat young life, I was experiencing camaraderie.
I believe my new found modicum of self-esteem manifested itself in a powerful dream. In that summer of 1948, the movie “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” was released. Being at camp I couldn’t see the film, but a very dramatic advertisement for it appeared in all the papers. It showed an obviously haunted house with Bud and Lou, fleeing in terror, and oversized heads of the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and the Wolfman protruding from the windows. I dreamt that I was in that house, alone, and suddenly found myself surrounded by all three monsters. Like Max, in "Where the Wild Things Are" would do, many years later, I commanded the monsters to behave! And explained that I, like them, had “powers” too, for I could make myself invisible at will. I had figured out that I was only dreaming, and if I could simply wake up, I would disappear from view. Of course, they doubted my veracity, and began closing in on me. I strained and strained; waking up was hard to do, but, just in the nick of time, I did!
Speaking of, straining, on the cabin wall over my shoulder, one can see the ominous BM Chart. This being a Jewish camp, where such matters are cause for great anxiety, we were required to put a check under our name, each day, to verify we were “OK”. No one ever found out what the repercussions for no BM might be; something, perhaps, worse than meeting Frankenstein. You better believe, nobody claimed to miss a day.
The photograph also displays the way I officially changed my name. Up till that time, my name was Melvyn, spelled with a Y, after the actor, Melvyn Douglas, who my mother liked. That offbeat name was just another burden that I, who desired so desperately to be ordinary, had to bear in life. Therefore, I got three colored crayons red, blue and yellow, and wrote “MEL” on the wide brim of my white sailor hat. And that was that! I wore that hat throughout the summer, and the name, “MEL”, forever after.
It was a curious thing, the general attitude to being overweight in 1948. Unlike today, to many, it didn’t seem like a big thing. My parent’s appeared to regard my size, almost, as a source of pride. To others, my tendency to overeat was regarded as amusing, sort of like a party piece. I recall there was a program at Camp Mehia to fatten up underweight campers by inviting them to visit the kitchen, at the same time every day, for a fortifying glass of eggnog. I was always first in line. And they gladly gave it to me! As far as I could see, this all fell under the umbrella of having a good time.
Another highlight of that summer was being bitten by puppy love, for the first time. The object of my affections was an older woman, a counselor in charge of arts and crafts. Her name was Batya, pronounced Basha, and she was an artist. Batya spent much of her free time painting a pair of tall panels to be mounted on either side of the stage in the Mess Hall. They depicted scenes of Israel, with joyous settlers dancing the Hora, in the newly created Jewish State. She had noticed my ability in crafts, and chose me to assist her. I filled in flat areas like the sky etc. This also meant I got to miss some sports activities, which was more than all right with me. I thought that she was marvelous. I can still picture her, toiling over those large paintings, which were laid flat upon the Mess Hall floor, and watching her in admiration, knowing with an inner certainty that I would be an artist, too, one day.
These were euphoric times. I looked forward to each coming day, with one exception. On the horizon, was an approaching event that I was bound to hate. It was a celebration that held promise of humiliation, Sadie Hawkins Day. On that day, originated by Lil Abner and Daisy Mae, the girls were supposed to run after the boys they fancied, and when they caught one, get married, in a mock wedding ceremony, presided over by “Marryin’ Sam”. I knew that no girl half my size was going to want to capture me. But Batya saved the day; she was kind enough to chase and catch me. Although, I fully perceived every merciful nuance of the situation, I accepted her generous act of compassion gratefully. I couldn’t run fast, anyway.
Eight weeks of camp flew by like a delightful dream, and all too soon came to an end. The final day was a big event. After weeks of planning and rehearsing, the entire camp performed an opera, for an audience of parents, come to take us home. The opera was “Rip Van Winkle”, a work that has now sunk into obscurity, by the once popular French composer, Robert Planquette. Everyone participated, although, only the counselors sang lead roles. Being the biggest person in camp, I couldn’t very well be cast as one of the village children; therefore, I would have to be one of Hendrick Hudson’s gnomes. I didn’t exactly bowl folks over in the role. The gnome costumes consisted of shorts with fresh picked leaves attached, and a paper pixie hat. I also wore a beard made out of cotton batting.
Now, sixty years later, I actually live in Rip Van Winkle country. My size and weight remain unchanged, and, perhaps, due to my baby face and snow white beard, I still look very much the same! So much so, that, sometimes, when the light’s just right, I glance into the bathroom mirror, at night, and for a quickly fleeting moment, I see that 11 year old gnome again.
The summer of 1948 was my best summer, ever, and for many years, thereafter. I eagerly looked forward to returning to Camp Mehia, the following year. And I did return again. But this time, it was different. What had been Heaven on Earth, when I was eleven, became a living Hell, at twelve.
I knew from the first moment that things would not be the same. This time, because of my size, the Tribal Elders thought I would be a good idea to place me in a different cabin. Thus, I was removed from my friends from the year before, who, like myself, had now reached twelve, and put in a cabin consisting of kids who were thirteen. Thus, instead of being the biggest brave with campers my own age, the powers that be decreed that I would look less out of place with five little Indians, a year older than me.
Camp, from that moment on, was misery. The 13 year old kid’s cabin was ruled by a bully, and he immediately set his sights on me. He knew intuitively that, either, because of, or in spite of my size; I was
a marshmallow inside. And he proceeded to destroy my life. This was no ordinary bully; he was a bully among bullies, the ultimate bully! I had seen the likes of him, in movies, where bullies were often played by bulldogs; the classic being “Butch the Bulldog", who appeared in many a Pluto cartoon. This bully was a cartoon, too, stereotypically stocky, with a face and demeanor, not unlike a bulldog, and a bully brush cut, perfectly flat on top. His mannerisms had been patterned after “Dead End Kid Comedies”, or, perhaps, The Bowery Boys, and, believe it or not, he even had the perfect Bully Name:
Butch seized every opportunity to pick on me. In fact, it became his hobby. Furthermore, he had a filthy mouth and dirty mind. And this rotten apple did his best to spoil the core group of the cabin. In 1949, few kids our age knew much about the birds and bees, (as sex was referred to, in those days). Butch, on the other hand, considered himself, to be an expert. The fact that he also knew nothing did not stop him from making stuff up, and filling out heads with wild phantasmagorical misinformation.
So every night while the counselors were hanging out together, Butch kept us awake with boastful and fantastic tales of things he claimed to have either done or seen. Once, for instance, when he was ten, and walking alone on a deserted street, at midnight, he spied two naked ladies in a convertible, parked under a street light. He climbed up on the trunk, unnoticed, to get a better look, but accidently fell into the back seat. Then, he did “IT” with them, twenty times each! He was at a loss to explain exactly what “IT” was, but he knew what it was called, and that was enough.
Throughout the summer, Butch walloped me at every opportunity. And as victims are inclined to do, I kept quiet, for fear that worse would follow. I spent a lot of time avoiding him, and doing arts and crafts. Batya was not there that year. Therefore, I braided lots of lanyards, pounded out some copper ashtrays, made some puppets and wove a belt of Indian beads. And as the dismal days dragged on, I longed for the summer to be over. And soon it was, at least, for me. Butch Swartz triumphed, in the end, well, actually, a week before the end.
Late in the seventh week of summer, there was an uprising in the cabin, and the entire tribe joined in. The Jewish Indians were on the warpath, essentially assaulting me. Although, Butch Schwartz instigated this event, one of the counselors, who should have come to my defense, ended up kicking me, instead. I telephoned my parents. They came and got me, a week early. The counselor was dismissed.
And so, this bummer of a summer ended both sadly, and prematurely. The events of the preceding seven weeks had a profound effect on me. They launched me on a lonely journey that continued throughout my lifetime, in which I realized, slowly but surely, that I preferred, my own company.
Looking up Camp Mehia on Google, today, I found only one mention of it. The camp began in 1936, and closed its doors in 1951, two years after that awful summer.
Over time, my memories of Mehia began to fade, but I never forgot Butch Schwartz. He festered in the deepest recesses of my mind, and pestered me in dreams at night. Until, eventually, he became just one more reason why life in Michigan made me Mishugana.
Unfortunately, Butch Schwartz was not the only Bully I encountered in my checkered childhood. My own Cousin Myles was a bully too. Myles was one year older than me. Beginning at an early age, he aspired to be the “black sheep” of the family; a goal at which he succeeded admirably!
His mother, my Aunt Grace was one of my father’s three sisters. She was a feisty lady, funny, witty and sarcastic; the spitting image, in looks, voice and personality of Ethel Merman. Years later she convinced me that Liberace had seduced her, on top of his piano. I was still gullible, at seventeen. Grace married a man who was radically different from her ten Birnkrant brothers. His name was Marvin Grossman, and although, he was Jewish, the effect that he conveyed was more like Italian mafia. He presented an image of adulthood that was downright scary. Loud, obnoxious, and a heavy drinker, Marvin beat Myles, mercilessly, every day.
Myles, on the other hand, came to the conclusion that as he was going to get whipped anyway, he might as well be naughty. He had a younger sister, my cousin, Kay Terry. She was a wild child, and free spirit, sort of like a gypsy. She grew up to resemble Natalie Wood and married a Rock Musician. This photograph of the Grossman family pretty much tells the story. The older woman on the right is Marvin’s mother.
The personalities it conveys are so amazingly apparent, Myles especially. His nickname, by the way, was Mickey, and he always reminded me of Mickey Rooney, as the voice and role model for the character of Lampwick, in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.
They lived in a big house on Boston Boulevard, which in Detroit’s Golden Age, was considered a good neighborhood. We visited there quite often, and when we did, the chain of events was always the same. Mickey and I would get along for a while, and play together nicely. Then the urge to bully would overcome him, and he’d haul off and hit me. Then I would cry, and tell his daddy, who would administer a beating, until Myles, too, would end up crying.
It was always at that moment that the official threat would be delivered. Among Jewish families in the 1940s, there was one ultimate admonition, one dire consequence that never failed to strike terror in the heart of any naughty boy: Military School! This was the worst possible punishment that angry parents could deliver, one step removed from being put to death. I made sure that I would never ever have to hear that awful threat. But Miles heard it regularly, nearly every day! Of course, no one actually believed that it would happen. Being sent to military school was a punishment roughly equivalent to being sent to jail, although, prison, perhaps, might have been more pleasant.
Apart from being a bully, Mickey had one other signature trait. He was a pathological liar. Nobody believed a word he said. As time went by, he mellowed, and in a manner of speaking, we became friends. After all, he was my cousin. Maybe I was just incurably naive, but I seemed to be the only person in the family who listened to his wild fantastic stories, and made a serious effort to believe.
And so this relationship continued until I was about 10. Then Uncle Marvin passed away, making the world a better place. And Myles, Kay Terry, and Aunt Grace moved out to L.A., following in the footsteps of much of the Birnkrant family, who had previously made that westward journey.
Now fast forward a few years. Out there in California, Myles became wilder and wilder, until at last, IT happened! I don’t know what horrible thing he did to deserve it, but after all those years of ominous threats and dire warnings his worst Nightmare came true! Myles was actually sent to Military School! The School was referred to as an Academy, and it was located somewhere in Florida.
Throughout my childhood, my parents and I took many trips. When I was nine, we traveled all the way to California, and then to Chicago, and Indiana, Washington DC, and New York City, always by auto! The very concept of air travel was not only brand new, but, for many, it was terrifying. Not that my father’s driving wasn’t equally scary. On the other hand, my mother was a fabulous driver, zooming down the highway, at 85 miles per hour, with a cigarette dangling from her lower lip, with me beside her as map reader, and Pop, asleep in the back seat. And so, on one Easter vacation, when I was 14, we traveled to Miami Beach.
On the way we veered off course a little to see the famous Monkey jungle, and visit Myles in Military school. The Military Academy turned out to be something between a prison and an army camp, set up for basic training. An ominous gray administration building with bars on the windows loomed over the depressing scene. It was surrounded by rows of wooden barracks that, apart from the fact that there were no trees, reminded me of Camp Mehia. The whole embankment was surrounded by a high wall with a guard tower at each corner. Military school was every bit as horrible as I imagined it would be; worse, actually, for I hadn’t anticipated the sweltering Florida heat.
And would you believe, even though we were his “family” and “travelled clear across the country”, we weren’t allowed to see Myles, after all? It seems, the night before, he had climbed over the wall, in a vain attempt to run away. Now, he was being severely punished. And therefore, could not see or speak to us. But, if we wished to wait for afternoon assembly, we would, at least, be able to see him, although from afar.
And so, at the appointed hour, we stood behind a distant barrier, and watched the teenaged troops troop out, dressed in full uniform, in spite of the heat, and line up for assembly. I have no idea, to this day, if Myles even knew that we were there. He stood at attention and stared, unflinchingly, straight ahead. Although we waved, he never looked our way. On the other hand, our eager gesticulations did catch the attention of another recruit a few feet away, who turned his head in our direction, and our eyes met. Oh My God! His jaw dropped, and he did a double take when he saw me. I laughed out loud and squealed with glee! It was Butch Schwartz!
Revenge is sweet!
The strangest thing happened, two days ago, 1/28/2015. I got an email from my friend James Gurney, in which he said, “Meanwhile, Mel, we really enjoyed your memoir chapter about Camp Mehia. For those who haven't read it, I don't want to give away the ending, but it seemed like some sort of divine justice.” By, perhaps, divine coincidence, at the very moment that James was reading that story, out loud, to Jeanette, I happened to be looking through a box of papers, belonging to my mother. And I discovered the photograph, below. I have never seen it before, or if I did, it was 66 years ago. I viewed it with casual surprise, then put it back in the box again.
Sometime during my first year at Camp Mehia, a professional photographer visited the camp. He photographed every cabin group, and other random events. The photographs were glossy 8X10s. On the last day of camp, all the numbered photos were put on display for parents to see, and order prints. Apparently, my folks purchased both of those, in which my face appeared. I grabbed the one you see above, years ago, but the other escaped me. Last night, James’ email got me thinking about the newly discovered photo. So, I dug it out again, and took a second look. Oh My God! The day before I didn’t study it, other than to note that the bottom corner had rotted away, and the rest was beginning to deteriorate. On second look, I realized what it actually showed. Therefore, I spent last evening, restoring it with Photoshop, and added it below.
This, apparently, was taken on an occasion when two boys cabins, the eleven and the twelve year olds were in the Arts and Crafts cabin together. You can just catch a glimpse of me, peeking out from behind. And to the right, is Batya. From the angle this was taken, and the fact that I was further back and sitting on the counter, she looks taller. Being in the eleven year old’s cabin then, I paid no attention to these older boys, or they to me. The following year, when I was twelve, and they thirteen, I would get to know them, all too well. But, for now, that creature sitting at the table on the right, the only one who is paying no attention to the camera, a year younger than when I had the misfortune of knowing him, is Butch Schwartz, in person.