My school year at the military school traditionally ended during the first week of June. After a couple of weeks at home, in which I inevitably got into trouble with my cousins, my dad shipped me off to a summer camp for six weeks. My dad sent me there for four years starting at the end of second grade. The camps put my dad’s mind at ease as the nuns would continue their education and keep me out of trouble.

Camp St. Joseph, located on Lake Petit (about a two-hour drive north of Chicago), was co-administered by the Dominican nuns and seminarians from nearby Mundelein. Lake Petit was part of a chain of lakes that included the better-known Fox Lake. Today it’s all prime real estate–Camp St Joseph a distant memory to long-term residents of the area.

The camp itself was idyllic. It stretched from the shores of the lake to the road about a half-mile inland. Camp St. Joseph featured about ten cabins for about 100 campers and a cafeteria. Pine trees dominated the rest of the property that was fenced in to prevent escapes. The layout of Camp St Joseph was idea for Capture The Flag, my favorite adventure game as a kid.

The campers were inevitably from the military school, but other kids attended the camp from the short stay of two weeks to the full six-week term. The kids, many of whom were Calabresi or Siciliani, ranged in age from seven to 13. At the military school we got to go home over the weekend. At Camp St Joseph I lived there for six weeks. We only saw our parents on Sunday afternoon when they drove up to hang out or to treat us to a great meal at a local restaurant. The nuns and seminarians were especially charming during the parental visits.

The daily routine was as structured as at the military school. Fortunately for us, most of the activities were designed to be fun. There was no daily Mass either. We had crafts, time at the beach, sports, and the like. We were uniformed just like at the military school–a white tee-shirt stamped with the camp’s name, red shorts, and black Converse All-Star sneakers.

Nights were always the toughest for many of us. Instead of hearing “Taps” the military school version of “Good night, John Boy,” the nuns played Schubert’s “Ave Maria” over the camp loud speakers. The new campers inevitably sobbed, away from home for the first time. The veterans just laid in their racks in the same pose–their arms holding up their heads with frozen expressions–their blankets kicked off the bed to the floor–a protest against the sweltering heat. It was like a scene out of the Shawshank Redemption.

Despite the fun theme of Camp St. Joseph, corporal punishment was prevalent and even harsher than at the military school for the kids with habitual recidivism. The seminarians were a lot stronger than the nuns and even crueler at times. Slaps from the nuns were laughable, but the seminarians specialized in more sophisticated dispensing of pain. Their ultimate punishment was something right out of a Spartan agoge. Fortunately for me, I ran the “gauntlet” only once in my four years at camp.

The “gauntlet” was dispensed when the nuns’ discipline was ineffective with us campers. The seminarians led the camper to the top of a high hill. There, they forced you to take off your Converse All-Star sneakers and socks. Then they ran you down the hill, over sharp white rocks that were used for decoration. (Today I cringe every time I see them at a garden center). The seminarian ran down the hill on the grassy part of the hill wearing his shoes while holding the camper’s hand forcing him to stay on the rocky gauntlet. The rocks ripped through the tender skin of the camper’s feet. Feet were always bloodied and later swollen that night. Even the toughest campers cried in agony. For me, and probably for other campers, it was the worst abuse of authority that I experienced as a child.

But, that wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me at Camp St. Joseph.

The nuns and seminarians instituted a hierarchical system designed to motivate us toward excellence. Based on Native American ranks, a camper could be a “scout” (second level), “warrior” (third level, “brave” (fourth level) and “chief” (the ultimate level). It’s sounds corny today, but it was a system that was fun and challenging to us.

To attain a certain rank, each camper-candidate had to perform a series of physical tasks. For me, a ten-year-old camper, I needed to swim under water from the pier to the raft, a distance of about 20 yards as one of my tasks to become a “warrior.”  I swam and swam with my eyes closed because the dark cloudy water freaked me out. I came up gasping for air, assured of surpassing the raft, but I came up directly under the raft and I panicked.

All I needed to do was to relax, tread water and come up for air in the natural air pocket provided by the raft. I thrashed around blindly hoping to escape and I was positive I was going to drown. I somehow escaped the raft’s underwater perimeter, but I smashed my mouth against the metal ladder. I lost one half of both front teeth.

My cousin Gene was on the raft and was waiting for me to come to the surface, but I didn’t appear for at least a couple of minutes. He suddenly saw a pool of blood and he was about ready to come to my rescue. I suddenly surged to fresh air, blood all over my mouth and face. Gene and a seminarian pulled me out of the water and set me on the raft. I was crying and shrieking (it was pre-Spartan days) and scared to death. Despite my smashed teeth, I had to return to Camp St. Joseph after the dentist examined me. My teeth remained uncapped until I was a professor at Boise State some 30 years later when my dentist finally capped them.

While at Camp St Joseph, my communion crisis was still freaking out my dad and the nuns. I still wouldn’t receive communion. Now the nuns partnered with the seminarians to attempt to save my soul. They came up with a new trick; they slid the communion wafer in between an Oreo cookie. I got suspicious immediately when they offered me a handful of Oreos for no apparent reason. I came upon the hidden host after a bite and spit it out. I ran off fearful of the repercussions connected to spitting out Christ on the ground. I had nothing against Jesus; I just couldn’t handle unleavened bread.

As of this writing, I have eaten foods that 95% of people would never eat as a result of traveling on five continents. I’ve even eaten live turtle as part of a soup featured in Honk Kong. I would never shy away from any food–snake, sushi brains. But, I still can’t handle unleavened bread.


About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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