We were Haranders
I was never anyone's protégé, so I never learned how to be a mentor. I was, however, a pretty good swim coach. For several summers, I stood on the white pier that jutted out from the small piece of beachfront owned by Harand Theatre Camp in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and taught boys and girls how to do the elementary backstroke.
It was my mother's idea for me to earn my Red Cross lifesaving and Water Safety Instructor badges. She had ascertained, quite correctly, that I had no marketable skills. So she bribed me to attend lifesaving classes, broiling me a small steak every Sunday night and then sending me off to the indoor pool in Columbia, Md. Despite a less-than-perfect whip kick, I blustered through the two courses and was certified to teach swimming.
Until recently, my best-known student was undeniably Billy Zane, who has gone on to a most watery film career. (See "Dead Calm," "The Phantom" and "Titanic," all films in which swimming is key.) Jeremy Piven also attended Harand, but we missed each other by a year or two. I've since learned that Virginia Madsen and the young actor best known as the "Dell guy" both attended the camp. Now another Harander has started generating favorable press notices. And, while his knowledge of the elementary backstroke doesn't seem integral to his success, I couldn't be prouder.
Joseph Weisberg's first novel, "Tenth Grade," was just published by Random House. I think it's terrific, but why take my word for it? Janet Maslin, writing in the New York Times, said: "In a coming-of-age story ultimately shaped by sexual awakening, Mr. Weisberg fondly and hilariously brings every tiny detail to life, and rarely tips his own hand as a grown-up. A book in which someone says 'My Mom cooks but it's all like hello do you know I'm a vegetarian?' sounds uncannily like the work of a schoolboy taking notes." He's received other raves as well.
Several weeks ago, I caught up with Joe and his older brother, Jacob, who's also been in the news as of late. Inevitably, talk turned to our old summer camp. The Weisberg boys' mom, the amazing Lois Weisberg (profiled most notably by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, and available here at his web site,") had been a counselor at Harand when it opened. "So we had an excuse," they said. "Why were you there?"
Why indeed? If memory serves -- and the fact is, mine is increasingly self-serving -- I wanted to go to a camp that offered theater-related activities, but didn't want to go to some super-serious place for budding young professionals. (Even as an adolescent, I knew I had no real talent.) Harand fit the bill for me. Run by two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, it was more interested in mass participation than showcasing the camp's most talented kids over and over again. Gotta sing? Gotta dance? Harand found a way to use everyone.
Toward that end, the Harands divvied up the roles in the musicals they produced every year. If the 11-year-olds were doing, say, "Oklahoma," there would be a series of "Lauries" -- the "People Will Say We're In Love" Laurie, the "Dream Sequence" Laurie, the "Surrey With the Fringe On Top" Laurie. And roles were given out on the basis of seniority. The more years you came to Harand, the better your parts. Exceptional talents were rewarded, but when it came to the most-coveted roles -- the Ado Annie who sang "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No," or the Adelaide who warbled "A Person Develops a Cold" in "Guys and Dolls" -- seniority counted for a lot. Big dance numbers always included a key "back line front/front line back" moment. Every Harander has his or her moment front and center.
We even had a patron of sorts -- Forrest Tucker. Yes, THAT Forrest Tucker, F-Troop Forrest Tucker. Our in-town theater was named for him. And, although I wasn't there at the time, I knew the lore that surrounded his one visit to the camp -- the campers dressed in all white, singing a welcome song to the tune of "Swanee." (Forrest, how we love you, how we love you.) We were big on such parodies at Harand. The official song, "We are Haranders," was sung to the tune of the Notre Dame fight song. ("We are Haranders/We are the best/Working and playing/Above all the rest./Our initials stand for jo-oy/We are Hara-an-ders.")
At the end of the summer season, Haranders put their hands in cement, aping the famed sidewalk outside Graumann's Chinese Theater. Pearl then delivered a terrific speech about how each handprint contained our souls, and she never walked across them on the way to the dining hall.
Joe told me recently he was writing some short stories about Harand. After years of regaling people with my storehouse of Harand anecdotes, I'll cede that territory to him -- as well as Todd London, who offered a fictionalized version of the camp in "The World's Room." They are better writers than I am, tackling Harand in fiction. How can you improve upon the blissful, lunatic reality of a place where cabins were named "Brigadoon," "South Pacific" and "Camelot?" Where games were played in "Green Pastures?" To this day, I crack up when I remember the 10-year-old boys marching into our auditorium (Carnegie Hall, natch) as someone intoned on the PA system: "Ladies and gentlemen, the men of La Mancha!"
I have not stayed in touch with many people from Harand. In fact, the amazing Weisberg brothers are the only Haranders I've spoken to in the past two years. I have reasons, rationalizations, excuses, explanations. They're all hollow. The truth is, I let some important friendships lapse, and now I'm almost too embarrassed to pick up the phone, or write a letter. Time passes, compounding like fines on a parking ticket.
Here's the story: On my first day at Harand, when I was making a good run at "Most Geeky New Arrival," a beautiful blond girl from Chicago, Nancy Goldman, grabbed my hand and said: "Take the bunk under mine." Seven years later, I was her bridesmaid. Her family was my second family while I attended Northwestern University, for they lived just a few miles from campus.
Nancy had a favorite writer, Agatha Christie, read her all the time. Now, from the distance of almost 30 years I have to wonder: Did all those pages that Nancy consumed later into the night seep through the thin camp mattress and enter my subconscious by osmosis? Am I who I am because of Nancy Goldman? And, by extension, Harand?
Harand moved a few years ago, selling off the old property in Elkhart Lake and opening a new, second-generation version in Beaver Dam. I don't know what happened to the handprints, which must have covered at least an acre by then. But, in the end, I think Pearl and Sulie took good care of our souls.
P.S. As I was writing this, I stumbled on the website for my old camp, and ended up calling Judy -- daughter of Sulie Harand Friedman -- I told her how much I missed everyone. She gave me some e-mail addresses, including one for Nancy. My e-mail bounced, but I'm on the case. You see, Judy told me that Nancy's oldest daughter is now a Harander. My goal now is to go back for Visiting Day, a grown-up at last.
Read Spying on Harriet.
Read Gone Baby Gone.
Read The Last Good Saturday Night.
Read In a Strange Kitchen.
Read The "D" Word.