World Travel: Looking for a New England
In 1973 Peter Barker went to an American summer camp in search of a new life - and a girl
Saturday 13 July 1996
Sport came to the rescue. My judo instructor had been teaching on an American summer camp and recommended it. Camp Counsellor was what they called you. I didn't like children much and I'd never taught anything but I decided to give it a go. A couple of months later I was heading for America.
The plane was full of young counsellors-to-be. Early flirtations became in-flight tussles and quickly turned the inside of the plane into a kaleidoscope of early Seventies tie-die and cheesecloth. That was the other thing. Over the past year my sexual luck had been about as low as the rest of my fortunes. All the same I sniffed disdainfully at the antics around me. Why go to America and then get off with someone English? Anyway, Pete, my instructor, had told me that these summer camps were full of female counsellors. I had all summer. With an English accent I couldn't fail to score. As I watched England drift away under the wing of the aeroplane, I could almost hear the snick as my fortunes moved out of reverse gear.
Camp Hi-Rock was right on the border of New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts states. It was beautifully set around a lake in the middle of a forest miles from anywhere. At the camp's administration block I was introduced to Jimmy, Bernie, Dan and Don.
It was only after an hour or two when I'd been introduced to Art, Mark, John, Dewey and many other very pleasant-looking young chaps that a horrible suspicion began to dawn on me. This camp was all-male.
That summer there was no escape and I just had to make the best of it. What Camp Counsellors do is teach various sports to children from about five to 14 and generally look after them the rest of the time. Problem number one was that there were no judo courses for me to teach. The soccer class they gave me consisted of one young man whose great enthusiasm was not matched by his talent. In the end they gave me a crash course in (native American) canoeing, and I taught that mostly.
That's how I found out that confidence is everything. No matter what I demonstrated in the canoe, it went wrong but I learnt never to bat an eyelid. I even sank a canoe once when I was demonstrating capsize strategies.
As the summer ripened and I accepted my fate I began to enjoy myself. I was starting to scent something new and heady. I got my first-ever suntan. I found I could control the children in my charge without too much difficulty and then began to take real pleasure in their company. We went on overnight trips where we built fires, toasted marshmallows and slept under the stars.
And I found a girl. She was pretty and I met her on my one visit to our sister camp 20 miles away. She'd got fed up and was leaving camp that week. She invited me up to her parents' house. After two months without even seeing a woman other than the camp cook (who was big in the way that only American women can be big) I only just managed to stammer out a yes.
My fellow counsellors whooped out congratulations when we got back to camp. What I hadn't known, and they had, was she was the daughter of a famous newsreader. I'd fallen on my feet.
I spent a balmy weekend up at her parents' place in Connecticut. The evening I arrived we watched her father read the news on television and then I met him when he got home an hour or two later when he got home.
She and I took a walk and passed by a big, secluded house owned by friends of her family, the Newmans. The Paul Newmans. They were out so I never got to meet him. We ate some waffles (this was 1973 - I hadn't even heard of pizza, never mind waffles). I told her that when camp was over I was going to stick out my thumb and hitch till I dropped. The sun was setting gloriously over the ocean as we wandered along the beach. A warm wind blew, the breakers crashed. She tugged me to a halt, put her arms on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and asked if she could come.
Well, what could I say? She was all brown skin and sun-bleached hair and she was mine for the asking. I held her gaze, pursed my lips, raised my eyebrows - and overdid it.
"Maybe," I said. She didn't ask twice and that was the end of that. So when camp ended I did what I said I was going to do. I took a ride with a pal to Boston, I stuck my thumb out and I went looking for America.
It was the summer of Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water". It boomed out at me from car radios when I was riding, and truck-stops where I was dropped off. Early on, a girl picked me up from the roadside. She told me her parents were away and asked me if I wanted to go and stay with her for a while. I didn't hesitate. I had America at my feet, maybe for the only time in my life. Some things are just more important than women. I said I'd better keep going.
I cut my jeans off at the knee and rolled on. Up through New England and into Canada. I crossed the border with Roger, a hippy type in his minibus. The customs officer's fingers delved along a small shelf above Roger's head. Then he waved us through. Ten minutes later Roger pulled down from inches further along the shelf what looked like a half-ton or so of grass. I felt untouchable.
On I went. Down through Ohio and across Philadelphia, including one amazing non-stop 800-mile ride in a yellow Beetle driven by a truck-driver on holiday from Arkansas. After four weeks on the road I steamed into Delaware. An Air Force Sergeant picked me up and propositioned me. I turned him down and he booted me out. I didn't care. There's always another lift. Finally I caught a Greyhound into Washington, and the journey home. My suitcase was so battered the airline wouldn't accept it till I got it taped up.
When I got back to the UK I knew life was going to be fine, I just knew it. And I was right. While I'd been away my application to be an English language assistant in a French school had come good. Six weeks later and I was off to the Auvergne. I never looked back.
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