40 years later, Camp Kennebec still stirs boyhood memories

The campers today: (front, from left) T.C. Cohn, Russell Cohen, Steve Halpern, Richard Marx, Alan Wohlstetter; and (standing, from left) Sam Rudman, Rabbi John Linder, Stanley Weil, Gary Grant, Tim Harrison, Chris Crystal, Carl "Chip" Loewenson, Peter Kay.
The campers today: (front, from left) T.C. Cohn, Russell Cohen, Steve Halpern, Richard Marx, Alan Wohlstetter; and (standing, from left) Sam Rudman, Rabbi John Linder, Stanley Weil, Gary Grant, Tim Harrison, Chris Crystal, Carl "Chip" Loewenson, Peter Kay.

Former campers reunited to celebrate the camp in Maine and the ties they formed there.

Posted: August 16, 2012

The lake was freezing. The bunks were rustic. The "amenities" included a community bathroom a hefty walk from those bunks. The wake-up call was the shrill blast of a bugle.

But Camp Kennebec in North Belgrade, Maine, was a haven for generations of boys - many from Philly - who had a passionate attachment to a place where the word competition is often the first mentioned when reminiscing.

Last month, 14 of those "boys," now 55-year-old men, got together for a long weekend reunion in Garrison, N.Y., of a camp that doesn't exist anymore - it closed in 1991 after 84 years as a secular Jewish camp, and the name now belongs to two other camps at the site.

The event was held at the summer home of former Kennebec camper Carl "Chip" Loewenson, who grew up in Abington and is now a nationally known expert on white-collar crime with the New York law firm Morrison Foerster. "The accommodations were definitely better than they were at camp," said Loewenson.

Kennebeccers came from various parts of the country - including California, Florida, and Maine - juggling schedules and, in many cases, significant responsibilities, to see old friends they had not seen in 40 years. Why?

The power of boyhood friendships, and the pull of memory.

"I can honestly say that it was one of the most moving and meaningful experiences I've ever had," says Alan Wohlstetter, a resident of Erdenheim and a partner at the Fox Rothschild law firm. "We came together as grown men in middle age, and we had left camp back in 1972 when we were 15 years old."

What amazed Wohlstetter was how vivid those camp years were - and how formative.

Kennebec was dedicated to the notion that competition strengthens boys and builds men. Its season-long color wars divided the camp into two teams, the maroon and the gray, and somehow meshed intense individual achievement with passionate group effort.

The spirit of Kennebec was a reflection of the time of its founding in 1907: Teddy Roosevelt's presidency had placed an emphasis on robust masculinity and rugged independence.

If it all sounds fierce and unfriendly, Kennebec alumni will insist that it was anything but.

"The goal at camp was to stretch ourselves to our limits, and sooner or later, find something we were good at. I ended up with the distinction of learning how to make a bed, complete with hospital corners, in 13 seconds," says Wohlstetter, who also became a far better baseball and softball player than he'd ever imagined possible.

At the reunion, Richard Marx, a Center City publisher of restaurant guides, marveled at the connections that ran so deep. "There was no talk at all about who did what, who drove what car, or who had the most 'toys.' All we cared about for three days and two nights was remembering who we were then, and what matters to us now."

Those two things turned out to be quite connected.

One of the camp's primary precepts, well-remembered decades later, was as simple - and as lofty - as this: Leave the world better than you found it. Almost all the baby boomers assembled were involved in some aspect of public service in their personal or professional lives.

The other prevailing recollection was about the lessons learned from competing. The men still remember some tough color-war outcomes not with bitterness, but with a sense of gratitude that early in their lives they had learned to win with modesty and lose with grace.

Even as the 14 ate and drank together, swam and hiked and competed in tennis and basketball, croquet, bocce, and horseshoes - with liberal doses of ibuprofen - the conversations were hardly superficial.

"We dropped the usual social barriers and got right to it," said Steve Halpern, a Philadelphia native now living in Pittsburgh.

"Are you happy? What matters to you? How's your marriage? [Three of the 14 have experienced divorce.] What are your struggles with your children?" said Halpern, an investment counselor.

They said they could be themselves. No pretenses, no guardedness.

Marla Paul, Chicago author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore (2004), understands how comforting that emotional shorthand can be in midlife.

"Men typically tell me that it's really hard to establish friendships that matter," said Paul in a recent telephone interview. "They often have both a hunger and a frustration when it comes to connecting with other men, and may feel awkward reaching out. That can be a lonely place."

But Paul suggests that when men can return to the purity of their earlier lives, unfettered by adult barriers, it can be a joyful relief. "You're that open, trusting kid again, and it's so freeing."

Being "that kid again" is the best kind of time travel, notes Steven Adelman, a psychologist with offices in Center City and Elkins Park. "Camp friendships have a special kind of magic, a kind of band-of-brothers link because these relationships were interdependent and often represented sharing rites of passage."

Raymond McDevitt, a senior staff therapist for Philadelphia's Council for Relationships, has conducted men's groups over the years.

"What's often observed is that men are most bonded when they do something together, side-by-side, not eyeball-to-eyeball," says McDevitt, who also maintains a private practice in Wilmington, Del.

"Camp is one of those places where activities create the bond, and that, in turn, opens the door to go much deeper."

There was much regret among the reunion-goers, especially fathers of sons, that Kennebec doesn't exist anymore. They not only remember the camp's remarkable spirit, but the high jinks, too: like the time they placed one of their counselor's beds on a canoe dock in the middle of the night - while he was sleeping on it.

Nobody could name an equivalent camp experience for a son - or daughter. "Kennebec," insists Wohlstetter, "was just unique."

There are pledges to meet again far sooner than it took to assemble this summer. The e-mails have been flying back and forth, but spending time together trumps technology. And these men know it.

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