The Boys of Autumn

The campers aren't as young as they used to be. But for one reunion weekend, the old days at Camp Cody were back.

Cover Story

September 03, 2000|By Story by Walter F. Roche Jr. | Story by Walter F. Roche Jr.,Sun Staff

WEST OSSIPEE, N.H. — Some say existence like a Pirouot

And Pirouette, forever in one place

Stands still and dances, but it runs away

It seriously, sadly, runs away

-- From "West-Running Brook," by Robert Frost

WEST OSSIPEE, N.H. -- When Herb Greenbaum returned to summer camp recently, he had a little problem. He couldn't fit.

"I went back to my old bunk and my feet were hanging out a foot over the end," Greenbaum said with a wry smile.

"I think the last time I made my bed was when I left Camp Cody," said Jim Molofsky, trying with feigned desperation to fashion a hospital corner on his bunk while a fellow camper mercilessly mocked him.

For Greenbaum, Molofsky and more than 100 other mostly Baltimore-area campers who arrived here late last month, adjusting bed sheets, grappling with undersized mattresses and dealing with the endless harassment of fellow aging campers was just the beginning of a joyful weekend. These boys of summer -- "actually we're the old farts of summer," one confided -- gathered for three days to do something the more cautious might think foolish: to recapture their youth in this idyllic northern New England campground.

"Our wives won't want to hear this, but these were the best years of our life," said Herbert Kasoff, who had made the Camp Cody reunion his full-time job for the past year.

It had been 50 years since many had laid eyes on this camp, in the shadow of the White Mountains on the seven-mile shore of Lake Ossipee. The oldest returnee was Daniel Schapiro, 87, accompanied by his 58-year-old son, Ben, also a camp alum, who now heads a multimillion-dollar investment firm.

"I think the thing to do is to get through this weekend without any issues," said the younger Schapiro, a little nervous about potential problems raised by the campers' maturity.

His worries would be for naught. Like the waves in Frost's "West Running Brook," the boys of Camp Cody would reach back, if only for a few days, grab some memories of this time and place in their lives, and take them back home.

"It's something special," said Kasoff. "Something no one else could understand."

CAMP CODY, named for William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, was the creation of Phil Axman, a Forest Park and City College coach and physical education teacher who set off in 1926 to found an athletics-based summer camp for boys in Cambridge, Md.

But, says Phil's son Dick, the Eastern Shore's mosquitoes and sea nettles quickly made that spot unbearable, and the camp moved to Little Meadow, Pa. The location was perfect, but problems arose when the facility's owner didn't maintain or improve it.

Searching for a new site, Phil Axman spotted an ad for a girls camp for sale in New Hampshire. A trip to West Ossipee soon followed and, his son says, "he just fell in love with this place."

"The Coach," as Cody devotees still call him, moved his camp to New Hampshire in 1941. It soon flourished, fed by a steady stream of boys, primarily from the Jewish neighborhoods of Baltimore but with smaller contingents from Washington and the suburbs of Pittsburgh.

The emphasis at Cody was on sports, more sports and competition. "You learned how to compete. You also learned how to hate to lose," said Robert Schaftel, who is now in the insurance business.

Credit (or blame) for the idea of a Camp Cody reunion can be traced to a kibitz last September by a half-dozen former longtime campers. The group, including Schaftel, Kasoff and Marshall Layton, decided a reunion was possible, but that it had to be a real reunion: at the same site, in the same cabins, even the same bunks they had slept in a half-century ago.

Primarily from memory, a list of Camp Cody alumni was assembled. Then came the job of finding and contacting them. Not surprisingly, many were still in the Baltimore area, but others were scattered around the country and abroad. Perhaps 50 had died, and still others, due to their incarceration, would not be likely to attend. (One graduate, rumor had it, couldn't be contacted because he'd been given a new identity under a witness protection program.)

Those in detention notwithstanding, Camp Cody alumni include many of Baltimore's elite: doctors, lawyers, a judge, the chief financial officer for a national television show. In the end, some 115 of 350 alums contacted signed up and paid the $250 reunion fee.

At midday on Aug. 18 they began to arrive. A bus brought 55 who had traveled from the Baltimore-Washington area together. The group had literally taken over their Southwest Airlines flight, posing with flight attendants and singing camp songs. Greeting them at Camp Cody, tears in their eyes, were several former camp staffers, including Hy and Hulane Zolet.

"All my children," said Miriam Klein, a former staffer who traveled with the campers from Baltimore. "All my children are looking good."

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