“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
— Adult Gordie, reflecting on his childhood, in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me
The one thing we all remember is the canoe trip.
Five days. August 1972. Bracebridge to Mattawa, Ont.
Day 1: rain. Day 2: rain. Day 3: rain. Day 4: rain. Day 5: overcast, then sunny.
After 47 years, it’s episodic, like a dream you once had or a movie watched long ago: blurry, out of sequence, a series of moments strung together in an impressionistic memory reel.
Canoes overturning in the raging current. Campers fished out by beleaguered counsellors. Struggling to my feet, a supportive slap: “Good work!” Portages up winding, rocky hills, thick with mosquitoes. Overstuffed backpacks that, if tilted five degrees, toppled us like turtles. Kraft Dinner spiked with canned beans, raisins, Spam. Sobbing at the edge of our island campsite, collectively, in the rain.
Oh God, when will this be over?
If it wasn’t for the photo — the five of us perched on a giant rock, post-trip — I wouldn’t remember, at least not with such clarity, that in spite of the hardships, we had a good time, that the challenges we faced toughened us in ways we didn’t understand.
When I look at it now I see a black and white conduit to the past, a moment in time, pressed in amber, that captures those fleeting months between childhood and adolescence, innocence and experience, with five guys who were all in and a counsellor who — how radical — actually gave a crap.
But the past is sketchy, not fluid. You remember images, moments. The camp radio station, for example, taking requests:
Can you play “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos? Really, you already played it six times? How about Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up?” “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”? I’m begging you — anything but Nilsson’s “Coconut”!
When we boarded the bus for home the second-last day of August on the cusp of the rest of our lives, little did we know Camp Tamarack would shut its doors as a boy scouts camp and we wouldn’t meet up again for almost half a century.
It wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t recognized the name “David Fine” in a story about this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short and mused to myself “I know that guy!”
What, the boisterous smart aleck who reminds me of the raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy is an Oscar winner and four-time nominee?
Because that camp photo had everyone’s names written on the back, it was quick work to track down my four cabinmates and the best counsellor any of us ever had, the great Warren Viner, whose positive influence affected all our lives.
But a reunion? When the idea was floated by one of our group, it seemed just this side of crazy.
But there was something about that camp, that summer, those guys and that counsellor that had taken hold and refused to let go.
Hey, Rubinoff, you gonna jump or what?
I remember standing on top of Big Echo rock, the height of a small apartment building, trying to muster up my courage.
Nah, you guys go ahead. I’m gonna stick to Little Echo a few more times. Let Fishbaum go.
If you look at the 1972 photo, you can see the personalities of each of us in that moment.
On the far left, Rob Fishbaum, collegial man of the people, beaming broadly.
Next to him, Phil DeLeon, glum, still in shock from the loss of his dad a few months earlier, his future as an internet tycoon as yet unwritten.
In the middle, my best pal Stephen “Toes” Rosenberg: mischievous, unruffled, always up to something.
Next to him: Oscar-winner Fine, with a head full of crazy ideas, eager to get out there and show his stuff.
And on the far right, me — tentative, uncertain. Do I belong? Do I not belong? This rock seems pretty uncomfortable. That was my personality in 1972.
Ah, 1972. It was the era before cellphones and computers, social media and streaming, with the social unrest of the ’60s about to give way to the lackadaisical stoner vibe that would define the self-involved Me Generation.
It was the year comedian George Carlin was charged with public obscenity for his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.”
Richard Nixon had just stumbled into Watergate, the scandal that would end his reign as U.S. president.
The hipsters were wearing bell bottoms, learning meditation and reading books like “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”
We, of course, had no idea.
Like the kids in the movie Stand By Me — who could have been us, except for the dead body — we were blissfully insulated from the world outside by our youth and the fact we came from families that, if not privileged, could afford to send their kids for a month to a pretty decent overnight camp.
HELP SEND A KID TO CAMP
Born and raised in North York, with its strip malls and chain restaurants, it wasn’t in our DNA to become world beaters, revolutionaries.
Che Guevara didn’t grow up in a household that watched The Brady Bunch on Friday nights and dined at Pizza Hut.
We instead became accountants, educators, businessmen, journalists and filmmakers, five guys who — between Nixon and Trump, Trudeau and Trudeau — experienced our share of triumph and heartache, but seem mostly satisfied with our place in the world.
Some retired early, some are still striving. A couple of us are grandfathers, others have young children. Everyone but me (damn you, genetics) still has their hair.
Still, what do you say to people you haven’t seen since the heyday of Atari’s Pong, back when Pop Tarts were considered a healthy after-school snack?
Meeting last month in a North York restaurant after 47 years — all but DeLeon, off on a cross-continent motorcycle trip — the dynamic seems tentative, unsure.
But after a few minutes, as the personalities emerge, a faint glow of recognition yanks the fuzzy outlines of the past into sharper focus.
In this setting, I’m not a beleaguered representative of the Sandwich Generation, with two rambunctious young sons — one with autism — and a dad struggling with Alzheimer’s.
I’m a once-timid outlier who — encouraged by a counsellor who instilled confidence — defied the odds and won the across-the-lake swim.
What? I won? You’re kidding! … (glancing over the horizon) … Where are DeLeon, Fine, Fishbaum and Rosenberg? Are you serious?
I can’t explain the mysteries of aging, nostalgia and the distance between then and now, but it’s not a bad thing to reconnect with the kid you were and the people who befriended you — even if only for a month — back when you were nobody.
And as we pieced together memories from that long-ago summer — each contributing specific moments that sparked recognition — it was like revisiting a part of ourselves we thought we’d left behind … maybe the best part.
It’s not exactly time travel.
But if you closed your eyes, you could hear, in the distance, faint echoes of the kids we used to be.
HOW TO DONATE
With your gift, the Fresh Air Fund can help send 25,000 disadvantaged and special needs children to camp. The experience gives these children much more than relief from summer heat — it gives these children a break in life and memories to last a lifetime. Our target is $650,000.
Mail to The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund, One Yonge St., Toronto, Ont. M5E 1E6
BY CREDIT CARD
Visa, MasterCard or AMEX, call 416-869-4847
For instant donations, use our secure form at: thestar.com/freshairfund
The Star does not authorize anyone to solicit on its behalf. Tax receipts will be issued.
- A year later, Sativa customers are getting clean water
- Holly Willoughby left speechless as dad reveals he found ’47-year-old woman from the pub’ in his son’s bed on Meet The Parents
- The Terri Lynn Hollis murder investigation: a 47-year timeline
- British family who saw Cheryl Grimmer, 3, being abducted in Australia 47 years ago tracked down by cops
- Elderly ice cream seller in seaside village forced off his spot after 47 years to make way for Polish rival
- German court rules parents of 15-year-old girl cannot stop her having sexual relationship with her 47-year-old uncle
- Mesa police search for 47-year-old missing man Ben Wamack
- Teenage girl missing with 47-year-old man with police admitting they are ‘extremely concerned’ about possible abduction
- Man, 43, ‘stabbed to death’ at West Yorkshire home as 47-year-old woman is arrested on suspicion of murder
- The young woman who was abandoned in a phone box has finally found her rescuer 22 years later