The Boys of Autumn


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."

CAMP CODY was always a family affair. When he started it, Phil Axman brought along not only his wife and his twin sons but also the family dog, an affectionate collie named Zero. Spoiled by campers, Zero died young but fat and happy.

Miriam Klein's husband, Chuck, also was on the staff. The Zolets even honeymooned at Camp Cody. "He told me we were going to someplace in New Hampshire," she said. "This was it."

Both campers and counselors were drawn from many of the same families, and it wasn't unusual for multiple generations of campers to attend.

"I remember my mom said when she left me off, 'Don't worry. They'll take care of you.' And they did," recalled Joseph Millstone, a second-generation Cody camper. That sense of family made parents comfortable sending off even 3-year-olds to a camp hundreds of miles away.

Many of those toddlers are now of retirement age. So it was with not quite military precision that the ragtag reunion campers gathered daily to bugle calls, reveille in the morning, "Taps" at night.

And just as when they were boys, the central events of the Camp Cody reunion were the color wars: Team Gray vs. Team Green in swimming, softball, basketball, volleyball, the standing broad jump and, finally, a pivotal tug-of-war. The re-created games of the campers' youth, though, ebbed in ferocity as aches and pains took their toll.

"The minds are here, but the bodies are shot," quipped Kasoff.

As ubiquitous as Camp Cody caps and T-shirts were knee and back braces. More than one camper took comfort in the fact that orthopedic surgeon Larry Becker was in their midst.

On the sidelines at the softball game, the friendly jeering and taunting was as competitive as the game.

"The pitcher's got arthritis. That's our edge," said one camper.

"Slide, you coward!" screamed another as a teammate loped into third base.

For two days, the battle between the Green and the Gray raged on. "You're not going to believe this," said Kasoff with mock surprise just before the last event, a tug-of-war. "It's never happened before, but Green and Gray are tied."

In the end, thanks to a clear (if ache-inducing) victory, the Gray team prevailed.

IN THEIR CABINS at night, the Camp Cody boys shared memories good and bad. There was the summer, one former counselor recalled, when he got stuck with the problem kids, the ones whose parents had to pay extra just to keep them there. Then there was the fight in the kitchen one year, when an angry worker began wildly wielding a meat cleaver.

"My father went in there and said, 'This is not a good situation,'" Dick Axman recalled. The worker, he noted, was subdued without harming anyone.

But not all the bad memories ended so benignly.

In 1952 Camp Cody, like the rest of the country, was enveloped in the fear of polio. Dick Axman recalled the night when one camper became seriously ill. He would be diagnosed with polio. The camp was quarantined and parents, some of them landing on the lake in seaplanes, rushed to bring their sons home. For the first time in its history, the camp closed early; the ailing camper soon died.

Camp Cody reopened the next year, but enrollment dipped. Not long afterwards, Phil Axman sold the camp. Axman, who died in 1982, never returned to Lake Ossipee. His family hadn't been back either until the reunion.

Dick and Bob Axman, Phil's twin sons, both still practicing dentists in Pikesville at the age of 74, pulled into camp on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by some of their children. Word of their arrival spread like a Montana brush fire, and they were instantly surrounded. The soft-spoken men seemed almost awed by the attention, and gratified by the chance to see old bunkmates.

"Now," said Dick Layton, a tone of both joy and relief in his voice, "now it's complete."

IN THE EVENING, the Camp Cody alumni gathered to give out awards Kasoff said had somehow been overlooked five decades ago.

Some were sentimental: The Zolets, the Kleins and the Axman twins all were awarded small trophies in gratitude for their years of service. Duffy Herman was honored for traveling all the way from Hawaii to join the reunion. Others were facetious: Robert Shaftel was awarded a steering wheel in memory of the time he drove a camp truck into a tree. There was even a trophy for the loudest snorer.

As much as they reveled in the past, though, the reunion campers wondered about the future of their beloved spot.

There have been two owners of the Camp Cody property since the Axmans sold it. The latest, Alan Stolz, shut down the summer camp two years ago and now runs the facility as a conference center. Some of the former campers said they'd like to buy Camp Cody and bring it back as a summer camp, though they concede that's not likely to happen.

But at least, they say, there should be another reunion some day.

If that happens, Daniel Schapiro will be ready.

Standing at the microphone after receiving an award, the 87-year-old put his fellow campers on notice.

"When you have another reunion in 20 years or so, call me, " he said. "I'll be back."

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