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Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho… It’s Off to Camp we Go.


“Who’s ready to go to camp?!” Howard bellows, carrying bag after bag from our house and jamming them into the trunk of our mini-van. You would think we were leaving for a month instead of two nights, two hours from our home.

 “Camp! Camp! Camp!” My three boys march in their underwear chanting with glee. It’s kind of ironic since the boys just finished up day-camp, where they tried more often than not to have days off, as if I were sending them to work the fields instead of to play and swim all day.

 Typically, my boys are all too happy to stay and play at our toy-infested, warm cookie-smelling, friend-filled house. On a regular basis, they snub both Howard’s and my overtures for activity. Entreats for playing ball in the park are met with rolled eyes and cranky fits. We never go to movies, because my kids would rather sit in the den, watch a DVD and have me serve them popcorn. When we went to Disney World and rode the mono-rail, four year-old Julius kept asking if it would take us back to Long Island.

 I still recall with horror our recent trip to Great Adventure. Hundreds of dollars, a spectacle everywhere you turn and the first thing seven year-old Michael asked was, “Does it have Wifi?”  Then, “Can we just get cotton candy and go home?”

“I hate it here.” Tyler, my oldest, agreed. Well, at least they were getting along.

What have I done to these children?

 “Do we have a lot more stuff?” Howard calls up, and in answer I throw down a giant garbage bag filled with sheets and blankets. “Do we need all this?” he asks, a little annoyed.

 “Nah, you can sleep on all the baseball bats and balls you took.”

 Howard grumbles and drags the bag to the car.

 It’s Labor Day weekend, and for the fifth year in a row, we’re heading to sleep-away camp.

There, with 25 other families, 23 of which we barely know, we will sleep in bunks that feel like styrofoam covered in vinyl. We will share bathrooms with families we are close with but not THAT close. We will wear ratty sweats and flip flops, eat food in the mess hall I would never eat in the outside world, and drink at inappropriate times while our children, who are not allowed to play alone on our front lawn, run wild.

 There is a lake and nightly bonfires. The children are dirty and out at all hours. They carry walkie-talkies and flashlights. They play basketball, baseball, Gaga, and volleyball. They just hang out, and the parents do the same.

 The first couple of years, I had a hard time getting with the program. Of course, my kids were younger, so Howard and I trailed their every move and were exhausted by night fall, falling into a miserable, uncomfortable sleep with our boys. But as they grew, they wanted more independence like the other kids, so I painstakingly doled out bits of freedom like M&M’s. I admit it. I worry. I like them with me. I want to hug them all the time. And then I want them to go away, but just to the other room.

 “Let’s go!” Howard, true to form, is at the door shouting at us to hurry.

 The boys, usually excruciatingly slow to respond, jump to attention.

 “Uh boys? Your clothes?”

 They fall over in a fit of giggles and put on the shorts and tee-shirts I’ve left out for them. One 10 year-old, who shall remain nameless, put his shirt on backwards.

 Julius tugs at me. “I’m hungry.”

 “Didn’t you just have a bowl of cereal?” Howard asks.

 “I’ve got snacks for the car.” I whisper and Howard looks up to the sky for help.

“Okay, ready.” I confirm, lugging a duffle filled with clothes, my 40 pound ‘let’s make a deal’ bag, all while balancing a bottle of Chardonnay under my arm.

 Julius jumps up around my waist. “Snack! Snack!”

 “Out!” I command, and they all race willy-nilly, tumble-bumble and cram themselves into the car.

 We’re not on the road five minutes before the appeal for snacks start up again. I pass out some granola bars (Howard is the first to take one.)

 “So, you guys excited?” I ask.

 “Yes!” Tyler enthusiastically nods.

 “Are we almost there?” Michael asks.

 I ignore that. We left five minutes ago.

 “So do you think you guys would ever want to go to real sleep-away camp?”

I hold my breath. Say no. Say no.

 “No way.” Tyler answers conclusively.

 “I like us all going together.” Michael pipes in.

 “I’d go if you could come.” Julius adds, not quite getting it.

 “Whew.” I think and settle back for the long ride.

 For us, sleep-away camp is something we do as a family. I hope we never outgrow it.

The lake

The night

The bunk

The End

A Three Hour Tour…

A Three Hour Tour…

“We’ll be there in about an hour.” Howard says over the phone to the Kittatinny registration woman. “Yeah, the three-hour tour. The three-hour tour.” Howard sings it the second time to the tune of, what else? Gilligan’s Island. Amazingly, she had never heard that before. Why is everyone getting so damn young?

Howard hangs up and addresses his troops.

“We’re going rafting!”

Howls and cries of pain answer him. Both Michael and Julius vie for loudest dissident, only Tyler is on board. “I guess I shouldn’t have told them all those “scary” river rafting stories this week.” Howard quietly confesses.

I’m appalled. “You did not!”

Howard shrugged. “They wanted scary camp-fire stories so I thought since we were going rafting this weekend, I’d make it…”

“…Frightening?!” Ugh.

“It wasn’t so bad. I had some people falling out of the boat. Maybe one of the boats got away with just the kids, losing them down river…”

“Good going dad.” I am shaking my head so fast I look like I’m shivering. “Well this is going to be fun.”

“You hear that boys!” Howard yells loudly and winks at me, “Mommy just said, this is going to be fun!”

I shiver some more.

Somehow I manage to get them dressed, fed and into the car. I sucker my mom into coming. It wasn’t hard, she’d do almost anything to hang out with the boys. It’s mostly for my entertainment though. My mom’s a screamer, and I was pretty sure I’d need some humor stranded on a raft for hours with crying children.

We drive the half hour or so, cross over into Pennsylvania and arrive at Kittatinny Tours, where a very serious safety rep informs a busload of us antsy adventurers the rules. “We are heading six miles up the river. You will be given life vests and a raft/canoe/kayak. Wear your life vests. Always. Normally the six miles takes around three hours but because the water levels are low today, it could be more like four. When you go under the black bridge you’re almost done. Wear your life vests. Have a great trip.”

The bus peels out of the parking lot. We’re on an amusement park ride called Crazy Bus Driver. We speed the 15 minute drive with a mountain on one side and the river looming below. The road is a never-ending series of S’s which she takes like an Indy 500 hopeful. There may be life vests for the water, but there are no seat belts on the bus. So apparently it’s okay to die on the road.

We make it alive, and are rewarded with a raft and vests. After a series of false starts, we are off. Julius, usually so tough, was very afraid, mostly of the rocks; especially after the first few times Howard and I rammed directly into one, got stranded and had to propel ourselves off with our oars. He kept crying and saying over and over with obvious distress, “You don’t know what you’re doing!”

“My story may have had rocks tipping the boat,” Howard whispered. I grit my teeth. It just keeps getting better.

My mom is cowering in the back of the raft. When she came aboard in her cute gold sandals, jeans and perfectly applied lipstick, she didn’t realize what she had signed up for. “Maybe you could drop Julius and I…?”

“On the side of the river, mom?” Her face fell. She was crying on the inside.

Hours and hours of peace and crying children

For the next few hours, we float and row. Row and float. The rapids are not really rapid, but it is a long trip and each child does his part to add to the crying. Occasionally my mom screams. We pass time trying to assess how long we have to go. We know we’re in trouble when Tyler breaks down. He had been the lone supporter on the escapade and watching him crumble was unnerving. “I just want it over already!” He bawled. “It’s forever!” We all agree and blankly set our sights ahead on the same tired, gorgeous scenery.

Then out of nowhere, Michael bursts with excitement and we all turn. “It’s the bridge!” We all cheer. With renewed energy, we plunge the oars into the water. Almost there! After four hours, I can no longer feel my arm, but I row, row, row my boat, to get myself off this river!

Okay, this isn’t the real black bridge but my mom couldn’t find my camera in the bag under all the soaked towels and then thanks to my massive arm strength, we passed it.

And then, cheers again from our boat. We see the parking lot. We have survived! We steer our raft to the gravelly shore. Rubber kisses rocks and we have docked. Howard takes one last poll before we depart. “Come on everyone, who had a good time?” Julius tentatively raises his hand and the other boys slowly follow. “Really, Julius? Would you want to go with daddy again?”

Julius quickly shakes his head. “No way! But at least no one fell in!

“Yeah, no way daddy!” Michael and Tyler concur.

“Let’s plan another adventure!” Howard suggests.

“No way!” We all chant, but I sense something brewing in the back of that man’s head. I really wish I could lift my arm to hit him with an oar.

4th of July, Coney Island, and my family explodes.

To hear my husband tell it, it was something he wanted to do his whole life; an easy bucket list experience that although he was a Brooklyn boy had somehow eluded him.

That would sort of explain why on this Fourth of July morning as we sat together – me on the computer and him reading the paper, casually throwing ideas around about what to do, our children upstairs happily playing their Wii game – he almost jumped out of his seat with excitement.

“It’s the Nathan’s Hot dog Eating Contest!”

That didn’t even register a response from me, but he went on. “The women compete at 11:30am and the men at Noon.”

Again, I didn’t look up until I saw him quickly glance at the time on the computer. Uh oh.

And then I heard it, “I think we should go.”

“Bad idea,” I said too fast. We had been to Coney Island and the aquarium many times since his parents still lived around 10 minutes from there. I was beyond over it, and on a holiday weekend in 90+ degrees, the idea seemed like a joke.

“Come on,” he coaxed. “We’ll go to the aquarium and the beach! It’ll be great!” I looked up at him from my computer, my eyes full of skeptical negativity. His parents weren’t even in Brookly, having already migrated to the bungalows for the summer. We would by driving down the Belt parkway to mill with thousands for fun?? Had a fire cracker gone off in his head?

“We’re going!” He announced.

I breathed deep. Please make this go away.

No such luck. “It’s 10:15am.” He stated. We have exactly 10 minutes to get out of here!”

“Honey,” I began gently, using my best talking a guy off the roof diplomacy, “I don’t know if it’s such a good idea. And to get out of the house so fast to race there…”

He cut me off. “I don’t hear you coming up with better ideas. And this is something I want to do!” He puffed pent up frustration. “I mean, I really want to do this! I’ve always wanted to do this! And now I open the paper and there it is and we can make it there. Come on!” He looked so serious and earnest, I could only cave.

Sensing victory, he grinned and barreled up the stairs, “BOYS! We’re going to Coney Island!”

If he thought I was a hard sell, he was sorely mistaken. A chorus of protests immediately followed. “Noooooo! We don’t want to go!”

“We’re going!” He confirmed and three underwear clad boys jumped up and down in complaint.

Our nine year-old pouted. Our seven year-old outright refused to put on his bathing suit, after having the Wii control forcibly removed from his little hand. Always the most dramatic of the boys, he screamed the whole way to the car, while our four year-old skipped happily into the car with the promise of cotton candy. It’s nice to have one kid who can still be bribed.

We made it to the car in under 15 minutes with my husband barking orders like a soldier. “Don’t worry about food. We’ll get something there.” I struggled against my inner hoarder and pretty much listened, just grabbing a few granola bars and shoving them in my bag.

The car ride was an exercise in parenthood patience. The minute we pulled away from the house, all the boys complained of hunger and I gave my husband a look as I passed out the bars, although my seven year-old was on a hunger strike and screamed when offered his snack.

My husband, typically a stickler for the speed limited, today is a man on a mission. He flies down the highway doing 70mph and when we hit traffic at around Flatbush he takes to the streets. Like a mouse in a maze, he worked his way toward his, uh, cheese covered hotdog?

Streets were blocked off. There was no parking. The minutes ticked by. Only 15 minutes before the eating extravaganza began.  He swerved. He honked. He threatened to leave me to search for a spot while he took the boys to the show. I raised a brow. There was no way I was comfortable driving around the streets of Coney Island, but had I known what was coming, I would have taken him up on it.

We found parking around 10 blocks from Nathans. My husband saddled himself with a chair, umbrella, bag of towels and clothes and started off in a sprint. The older boys somewhat kept pace, but my little one, trying to keep up, tripped and fell on the sidewalk, skinning his knee.  Now I needed to carry him, in addition to my 10 pound bag and also desperately needed to pee. My husband took no mercy on either of us and forged forward, following his nose toward the famous franks.

Pant pant, can't keep up!

Pant pant, can’t…keep… up!

Sweating and some of us bleeding, we closed in on Nathan’s. Hundreds, maybe thousands of others moved in as well. A man’s voice boomed through the loudspeaker – “Sonya – The Black Widow – Thomson has just eaten 45 hot dogs in 10 minutes!” I looked up over the heads of the crowd to see a diminutive woman with her arm raised in victory.  I gain five pounds eating one hot dog. Apparently, the trick was to eat 40.

The sun beat down on my husband laden with chairs and bags. My seven year-old’s face was bright pink, eyes rimmed red with tears and rage, and possibly some malnutrition. My nine year-old was miserable. And I held my bleeding 4 year-old. Sweat pooled between my boobs and trickled down my back as my wild eyed husband stared desperately at televised JumboTron, pretending family didn’t exist.

Why am I standing with 10,000 people watching it on TV?!

Why am I standing with 10,000 people watching it on TV?!

The men were not set to compete for another half hour. I said the only thing I could think of to soothe the beasts, “Who wants ice cream?” This was Coney Island, ice cream, hotdogs, cotton candy and pretzels were sold in every other shop. As expected, my oldest and youngest immediately nodded and my middle one shook his head with distaste. “I’m not eating!”

Deep sigh. He was one tough kid.

“Why can’t we just go?! This is stupid!” My nine year-old complained. There was no argument from me. This was a disaster, I handed them their cones and said, “This is something daddy wants to see and that’s it.”

“But we can’t even see anything!” He argued with self-righteous frustration. “We may as well be home watching TV.” Another point for the smart kid.

“Oh just eat your cone before I eat it,” I warned, which shut him up fast.

We stayed, sweating in misery until finally Joey Numnuts, I mean Chestnuts, swallowed down 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes, tying his former world record. With the JumboTron, we could see close-ups on Joey as he shuttered and shook down each of his dogs. Each of his multiple competitors was equally engrossing, heavy on the gross.  It was fascinating. It was disgusting. It was over. Thank the lord.

We quickly gathered our stuff, meaning our disgruntled children, and pushed through to the open street. “Now can we go to the beach?” The kids whined, but because he was clearly possessed today, my husband had other plans.

“We’re going to the aquarium!” He announced, and there was a collective groan before my middle son started screaming, “I’m not going! I’m staying right here!” He sat down on the sidewalk, refusing to budge. With the diverse crowd and a history of freak shows, he drew barely a glance.

“Come on!” My husband threatened.


“Get up!”


He tried another approach, “Come on, we’ll do this and when we get home we’ll play Playstation.”

Negotiations in progress

Negotiations in progress

My seven year-old lost it, “That’s all I wanted to do on my day off! I just wanted to relax!”

“Come on,” My husband softened, “we’ll play two games when we get home.”

But he was beyond reason, and sat himself on the boardwalk and refused to budge. “I’m never going home. I want to stay here now forever!”

My husband gave up and I somehow got him to  move by taking him by the hand and just walking, forcing him to get up and move with me. He complied, spitting fire like an angry dragon the whole way.

By some miracle, we made it through the aquarium without drama. It was 40 minutes of sweat gazing at walruses and sharks and jelly fish and we fit in the (boring) 15 minutes sea lion show.

Hot dog contest – check. Aquarium – check.

Next up – beach.

We trudged our way up to the boardwalk and looked down at the overcrowded beach. It was after 2pm, and we were all exhausted and hungry. We sidled up to the nearest take out joint, specializing in everything, and ordered 2 slices of pizza, a hot dog, knish, chicken fingers, French fries and a lemonade. Not a thing here that I would eat and my sadistic seven year-old of course refused nourishment.

Looking around anxiously, we surveyed the area. There wasn’t a table or bench unoccupied. The beach with this food and kids would be a disaster, so we did the only thing a family with no shame and Brooklyn roots could – we broke out our blanket and lay it down on the concrete next to a fence that overlooked Lunar Amusement park and the boardwalk.

My husband stood up, holding an umbrella for shade as two boys ate and one sulked behind a chair my husband had opened up for me, but I would never sit in.

Cement picnic. Lovely.

Cement picnic. Lovely.

We were all so done, but my oldest had been waiting all this time for the beach.  Did he actually still want to go?

Yep. He did.

Cue the screaming and pouting and internal dying.

“Okay, then we go,” I said and stood up to throw out our garbage and gather our things. My wise oldest boy took a long, hard look at the beach. Scores of people, many of them crazy looking, passed back and forth before us like cars on a highway. We were the frog in Frogger. Would we make it over to the overcrowded sand?

We would never find out.

“I want to go home.” Her said.

“We’ll go if you want to honey,” I soothed, while holding my breath.

“Let’s go.”

Huge, inner exhale of relief.

It was walking toward the exit of Lunar Park and the street, that I heard the howl. There were so many spinning rides, it could have come from anywhere, but there was only one mouth that could wail like that – my 7 year-old. My eyes so far behind my head, I could still see the beach, I sighed, “What is it?”

I should have known it was coming, but I was still surprised when I heard him cry, “I waaant to goooo to the beach!!!!” I almost laughed. It was too much.

“Sorry Charlie, that ship has sailed, my friend.” Good mommy had left the building when we lay the picnic blanket on the steaming concrete next to garbage and near-naked, tattooed girls scarffing, what else? – hot dogs.

When he refused to budge, I promised very bad things in the near future. He budged.

With a small child on my back, we made the pilgrimage back to the car. Heaven.

With the air conditioner on and the DVD entertaining, my husband and I relaxed and breathed.

“Well, that was….”

I smiled, speechless. In truth, despite hating almost everything about the day, it was so unbelievably bad that it was comical.

I tried again, “Actually, I loved it almost as much as I hated it.”

He agreed. “I’m re-thinking  the river rafting trip down the Delaware I was planning this weekend.”

Oh my God. Was he kidding? A trip down the Delaware with the three kids definitely terrified me. So I just shrugged and made light, “We might be a little ahead of ourselves. Our kids are not that adventurous.”

Once home, our children happily back in their underwear playing Wii, me back on the computer and my husband flipping between the news and a baseball game, peace and normalcy had returned. The world was right once more.

Suddenly, my husband’s voice called out, loud and excited. “Everyone! Everyone! Come quick!”

I barely picked my butt off the seat, when I realized what the commotion was – the Nathan’s Hotdog eating contest from earlier was taped and showing on the news.

Three boys and my man rapturously watched Joey Chestnut devour his competition.

“We were there!” My husband beamed. “We were there!”

And finally, three little boys beamed back.