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Tales from my summer camp days as a teen include bad soup, temperamental chef and kitchen fire

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

If schools are closed, and hurricane season is under way, then it must be the start of summer.

This is around the time when, as a high school and college kid, I used to get ready to leave for the mountains of New Hampshire for three months. I couldn’t wait to get out of the city and breathe in that fresh, piney air.

I worked in a summer camp there for seven seasons. It was a dream job each year, although it didn’t pay all that much. But, since I wound up getting a degree in journalism, the low pay was good practice.

After spending several summers in camp as a kid, working in one was sort of a natural progression. Plus, it allowed me to get out of the city and get paid for it - a little.

I was on the kitchen crew my first year at age 16. The camp owner realized that we were not all that far away from being kids ourselves. He gave us a lot of leeway, and we were allowed access to all of the camp’s amenities.

Summer camp back in those days was expensive, but not when compared to current prices. The cost of two months in a live-away camp in the mountains, with everything included, may buy today’s child perhaps two weeks.

Back in those days, summer camp was a marathon, and the kids and staff formed a community for the entire summer. Our leader was the camp director, who also owned the place. My immediate superior was Chef Karl, who ran the kitchen. I was his potwasher.

I went to work three times a day and made sure that K arl had all the clean pots he needed. It was a crummy job, but the benefits included sailing and water skiing.

One day, Karl had his assistant make the soup for lunch. Some of the big pots he used were already piled up in my area of the kitchen when I showed up for work. I could tell that the vegetable soup may have been a bit overdone because a lot of it was burned to the bottom of the pots.

“Hey, Karl. You may want to taste that soup,” I yelled over to him from my side of the of the kitchen.
Karl yelled something back, but the kitchen noise drowned out most of it. All I could make out was shut something up and just do your job.

Karl was not the most congenial person I had encountered up to then. He worked as a cafeteria cook on a college campus during the year. He spent his summers at the camp, cooking during the day and drinking at a bar a couple of miles down the road at night.

I let those nasty pots soak for a while. From the corner of my eye, I saw Karl take a sip of the soup. Then he started saying some things that I also could not make out. But I think it was profuse cursing.
The soup came off the menu.

When lunch was over, Karl paid a rare visit to my side of the kitchen. “Hey kid, thanks for saving me,” he said.

“No problem,” I answered. “Glad to do it.” After that, Karl and I were buddies.

I have one more Karl story.

One day, we were getting ready for dinner when Vinny Degaetano came into the kitchen from the maintenance shed. He worked there as a helper. Let’s just say he was not the brightest tool in the shed.
“Hey, Karl,” he yelled as he entered, “Is the kitchen roof supposed to be on fire?”

We all rushed over to the area Vinny pointed to and saw that the roof around the deep fryer vent was in flames.

“I don’t think so. It’s one of those days,” Karl responded calmly as he grabbed a fire extinguisher, leaned out the window and started to put out the flames. A couple of us climbed ladders and started shooting fire extinguishers at it from the rooftop.

The fire was out in a few minutes, but the jokes were just beginning.

Instead of saying hello, or good morning, from then on, we greeted Karl by: “Hey Karl, is the kitchen roof supposed to be on fire?”

Enjoy the summer, dear reader, wherever you are.