It was a mid-autumn afternoon, crisp and sunny, red brown yellow, when I visited my brother. I asked my 14-year-old nephew, who was playing Wii basketball in the living room, one foot in front of the other knees bent control at the ready, about the camp at Kretinga that summer.
“We weren’t last in the clean cabin contest, which was a good thing,” he said, his eyes fixed on the flat-screen TV on the wall.
“We ran around in the woods like maniacs, there were bonfires, and it was awesome to hang out with my friends.” He made an imaginary slam dunk. “I would trade any day in the real world for five minutes at summer camp.”
He had been going to Kretinga since he was a fledgling of seven. It is a Lithuanian summer camp in Wasaga Beach, ninety miles up from Toronto. It is just north of the provincial park and the town’s honky-tonk boardwalk.
“I didn’t write any letters to my dad, either,” he added, laughing. “I might have sent a text, but we’re not allowed to bring any devices.”
My brother and I exchanged glances.
“Did you write letters home after our first year at Ausra?” I asked.
“Nope, not me.”
We both went to Ausra, as Kretinga was then known, starting in the early 1960s, later joined by our younger sister, who continued going into the 1970s, after my brother and I had grown older than the cut-off. There was never any love lost in our goodbyes, watching our sister leave for summer camp, while we ate crumbs at home.
Everybody who was going waited all year for the first day of stovykla, or camp, and two weeks later, when it was over, saying goodbye to your friends felt like summer was over, even though it was still only mid-July.
Founded in 1957, Ausra was a Franciscan, Lithuanian, sports and culture camp all wrapped up in a package deal on the southern shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The camp was and still is on twenty-four acres of sand and copse. The sand is bare-bones and fresh and gets into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day of camp and only drops out of sight after you get home. The trees surrounding our camp are what we disappeared into for two weeks, far from home.
The drive from where we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, to the camp was longer then. The highways weren’t all highways like they are now. Some of them were just roads. My father had bought a Chevrolet Brookwood as soon as there were three of us, a blue and white station wagon that was twice as big and long as any passenger car my nephew has ever ridden in. The third-row seat faced backwards. We called it the way back window, playing the license plate game and cows on my side.
The rear window was where my brother and I always sat. Our little sister had to sit alone in the middle bench seat. She wasn’t allowed in the back with us, although we let her play rock – paper – scissors with us, since she was so bad at it.
My brother and I found out from a friend of a friend she counted her lucky stars to have the middle seat to herself. When we asked her why, she just laughed like Woody Woodpecker.
We were always so excited about going to camp we couldn’t sit still. It took forever to get there. To this day, I don’t know how my parents endured the 12-hour trip with the three of us in the back. I do know my father carried a compass in the glove compartment and a plastic St. Christopher figurine stood fixed on the dashboard.
When the camp opened it slept eight boys to a Canadian Army surplus tent pitched over a plank floor. By the time my sister went to camp, wood A-frames were replacing canvas. Boys stayed on one side of the camp and girls on the other, while the smaller kids slept in roughhewn twin barracks. There were close to two hundred of us. In between were the sports field, a parade ground, and an all-purpose open-air hall, adjoined by an amphitheater of tiered logs. The amphitheater was where we sang songs, acted out skits, and had a lauzas, or bonfire.
Everyone ran down to the bonfire and sing-along as soon as it started getting dark. There was so much wood we had a fire every night, as big as a log cabin burning down. “It’s not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” my nephew said. “We only have bonfires on weekends, and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.”
Our camp activities director had been in the Foreign Legion. Bruno wore a black beret, a kerchief tied around his neck, and carried a hand axe on his belt. He mostly just picked up wood from the forest floor. Our woodpile was always sky high for a rainy day. Even though we were often reminded to never play with matches in the woods, every night it seemed to take a box of stick matches and a half-gallon of gasoline to start the fire.
Everybody cheered when there was a whoosh.
The days were mostly sunny, sometimes windy and wet, but at camp there was no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. The nights were often massively starlit and frequently damp. The summer sky at summer camp is big and windy. It’s clean, too. We didn’t shower when we were at camp. Everybody was expected to clean themselves at the communal sink in the latrine. It wasn’t just a pit, but a cinder block building that teemed with daddy long-leg spiders at night, but it was a latrine.
Some kids hardly ever washed anything besides their hands and face, and it could get disgusting, but none of us cared too much about it. One time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when his two weeks were up, and he hadn’t cleaned all over even once.
“No, go back, go hose yourself off! What is wrong with you?” his mother asked through her nose.
One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood, they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a bedbug sniffing dog.
The Beagle was so good at his work he sniffed out a bedbug hiding in the folded page of a paperback book. The next day everyone whose tents were plagued by the bugs piled their stuff in garbage bags and threw the bags inside whatever cars were at the camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.
Bruno told us that a Canadian had invented plastic garbage bags. He was proud of that because he had become a Canadian citizen. He always had something historic to tell us. Sometimes we heard what he had to say. Most of the time we didn’t.
In the morning every morning at seven o’clock we were rousted from our cots by marching music and rag-tagged to the sports field for calisthenics. We stretched and did jumping jacks and ran the track. Afterwards we ran back to our tents, changed into a clean shirt, and after raising the Lithuanian, Canadian, and American flags – sometimes preceded by lowering underpants hoisted in the night – we raced to breakfast.
We had porridge and scrambled eggs and Post Top 3 cereal. We always had PB&J on Wonder Bread. Sometimes we had sandwich’s all day if something went wrong and there wasn’t anything else.
The sweet jelly was a hit with bees and wasps. Metallic colored dragonflies, agile and powerful fliers, had the run of camp. If spring had been soggy there were mosquitos.
After breakfast we pushed the long tables to the side, lined our benches up in rows, and sat down for mass. Father Paul, Ausra’s resident Franciscan, said mass every day on a makeshift altar. He didn’t have any kids, being a priest, but he was good with kids. He cemented his reputation in the early days when a camper swiped the wine for communion.
“I was about 12 and drank it with a girlfriend” said Dalia Daugvainyte. “The trees whirled around us with the stars that night.”
She had to go to confession the next morning. Father Paul let her off the hook with less than a million Hail Mary’s and a solemn vow to never do it again.
“Knowing him, he probably hid a smile,” she said. Since the confessional was out in the open, he had to turn his head slightly.
Late mornings we were free. We cleaned up our tents, messed around, and played volleyball, the national game, according to our sports counselor. One day we played volleybat, which was baseball but with a volleyball. We found out it was hairier than it sounds when the pitcher, who was closer to home plate since he had to lob the volleyball, broke his wrist fending off a line drive.
Every afternoon, barring mid-summer thunder and lightning, we assembled for the best part of the day, which was going to the longest freshwater beach in the world, a ten-minute hike from the camp. We lined up in our swimsuits and towels and tramped through a stand of pines and birches to the Concession Road gate and past the corner variety store to the New Wasaga Beach coastline.
Whenever we could, we made a run for it, breaking out of our two-by-two ranks, and sneaking into the variety store for bottles of Bubble-Up and bags of Maltesers.
Bruno was unlike most of the other counselors. He wasn’t a parent or a young adult. He was a wiry man in his forties with wavy hair who wore his khaki shorts hiked up to his belly button and led our formation to the beach. He had been a Foreign Legionnaire during World War Two and every summer thought he knew how to assemble children for close order drill, only to see us scatter pell-mell as soon we got close to the dunes.
Fish-n-chip shacks on stilts and fat family cars, which were then still allowed to park on the beach, dotted the wide sand flats. The surf line was a hundred yards out, the water flat as a pancake. We didn’t swim so much as play in the water, running and belly flopping, tackling one another, flinging Wham-O Frisbees, and splashing every girl we saw.
“You’re getting us wet,” they yelled, even though they were in the lake the same as us. One girl I liked hated getting water in her eyes and up her nose. She wore enormous green goggles and said they were for swimming, even though she always just stood and floated around in one spot.
What none of us ever noticed was the loose cordon of watchful camp counselors on the outskirts of our horseplay, keeping their eyes peeled as we played.
Walking back to camp behind Bruno we would sing “Hello, goodbye, Jell-o, no pie” because we knew we would be having Jell-o for dessert when we got back. Sometimes I walked with the goggle girl.
Bruno liked to snack on koseliena, or headcheese, and thought we should, too, but our kitchen had the good sense never to serve it, fearing mass nausea. We ate four times a day, served by eight volunteer cooks, older ladies, who made burgers and French fries, pork chops and mashed potatoes, and kugelis, or potato pudding.
Potatoes were a staple, like Wonder Bread.
Going to the bay shore was the only time we were allowed to leave camp. It was a strict rule. Everybody feared the consequences, which was expulsion from the camp. One summer a fifteen-year-old was spotted honky tonking on the Wasaga Beach boardwalk and given the choice of going home or spending the remainder of the camp in the kid’s barracks.
He chose a top bunk in the barracks, his new campmates a gaggle of eight and nine-year-old’s.
Two other boys who had messed up did penance another summer by staging a memorial to Darius and Girenas, the 1930s aviators who died flying from America to Lithuania. After a week building a model of the orange monoplane, they strung a clothesline over the bonfire pit, and painted rocks depicting the route, from New York to Newfoundland, Ireland, and finally Kaunas.
That night, with the whole camp assembled at the amphitheater, they pulled the plane along the rope, telling the spellbinding story of the ill-fated flight, when near the marker depicting Kaunas, they yanked too hard on the guide rope. The plane careened backwards and went plunging down too soon and too fast and crashed into the bonfire, exploding into flames.
Everybody hooted hollered groaned wolf whistled. It was the buzz talk of the camp for days. The green goggle girl was quiet. Somebody said one of the pilots was her great uncle. I bought her a bottle of Orange Crush from the variety store to cheer her up.
Although Ausra no longer exists, except perhaps in memory, the summer camp on the shore of Georgian Bay is still there in the same place. More than half a century after tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled Europe for North America it thrives on the thin, sandy soil of Wasaga Beach.
Toronto’s Church of the Resurrection bought the land for the camp from a parishioner for a nominal amount in the 1950s and operated it until 1983, when it was re-christened as Kretinga. Since then it has evolved into three camps. There are two weeks for English-speaking and two weeks for Lithuanian-speaking children of Lithuanian descent, and another week for families whose children are too young for the other camps.
There is a weeklong basketball camp in August. In 2014 Mindaugas Kuziminskas, a former Kretinga camper, played for the Lithuanian National Team in the World Cup in Spain.
Summer after summer many of the same children and families across generations return to Kretinga. “It’s my second home,” said one camper, while another said, “Greatest camp in the world!”
“I love this camp so much and I have been going since forever,” another camper wearing a double-sided Kretinga t-shirt summed up.
My nephew eats in the same mess hall as my brother and I did, shoots hoops on the same asphalt court, and every summer helps restore the same sand map of Lithuania behind the flagpoles.
I asked him if he was going back next summer.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, tossing the Nintendo Wii on the sofa.
“My friends and I have been together for five years in the same cabin. Waking up and being at camp is the best time of the year,” he said. “We get there the first day and there are high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. We punch each other and laugh it up. When all the moms and dads are finally gone, we have sandwiches in the mess hall. Father says a prayer and the camp commander makes a speech.”
He had made his plans.
“After the next two summers, after my last year at camp, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s a sure thing. I can’t wait to go back.”
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus