The moon and me

(NASA on the Commons)

You were supposed to be at least 9 to register. At 8, I was almost a year younger than everyone else in the cabin. But my parents were in the same Nili Hapoel Mizrachi group as the camp director, and he said it was okay. Besides, I knew his daughter, and we would share a bunk. My older brother went to the same camp, although he was on the boys’ side, and I would only see him at meals.

That is how I ended up in sleepaway camp in the summer of 1969, with no friends, shy and a little bit awkward, with wild orange hair I didn’t know how to take care of, and unable to comprehend that there was more clothing beneath the top layer of shirts and shorts in the trunk my mother had packed so beautifully that I didn’t want to disturb it.

The camp had once belonged to the Girl Scouts. We slept on creaky metal bunk beds in dusty log cabins built along a narrow dirt path that meandered through a tall, dense forest. The bathroom was in a separate building. If, God forbid, I had to go in the middle of the night, I had to leave the warmth and safety of the cabin and make a run for it, cold, alone, and terrified by the loud, otherworldly voices of owls, deep-throated frogs, and creatures that rustled in the brush at the side of the path.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t a sporty child. I greatly preferred to lose myself in the many worlds books could offer me, and camp consisted mostly of walking long, hilly distances to play dodgeball and volleyball and gaga in the hot Wisconsin sun.

At a time when girls wore their hair long and straight, and rubbed baby oil on their skin to encourage dark tans, I had short curly hair and vampire-pale skin. Instead of tanning, I turned an astonishing and painful pink. After lights out, the other girls talked about going on Shabbos walks with cute boys. At 8, I still thought boys were gross. None of this made me any more popular.

After dinner, we played games dreamed up by the staff, who ranged between the ages of 18 and 21. There’s nothing like playing “Capture the Flag” under the stars with only a sliver of moon to light your way. But, since this was a Zionist youth movement camp, we also played “Aliyah Bet.” First, the campers designated as Jews were rowed across the lake in the dark. The counselors made us get out on the opposite bank, then rowed away. We were now in “Israel.” Our task was to make our way through the forest back to camp, while avoiding the scary kids who were assigned to play British soldiers. I’d like to stress that this was IN THE DARK! ON A LAKE! It’s a miracle no one died.

One humid night in July, the entire camp was unexpectedly summoned to the Beit Knesset. This was strange. It was late, way past our bedtimes. As we filed in, I saw large screen television sets spaced at intervals around the room. We were directed to quickly seat ourselves around the televisions. Then the lights went off, and the televisions came on.

The TVs emitted a ghostly glow. The picture was grainy and contrasty, gray and unclear. Some kind of mechanical structure was silhouetted against a pocked white surface. Behind it lay a band of fathomless black sky. Moments later, a spacesuit came floating down a ladder. The glass globe of an astronaut’s helmet reflected the light. At that moment, I realized what we were seeing, and gasped; we were witnessing the first moon landing.

Hundreds of campers filled the hall, hushed and reverent. The only sound was the static-y dialogue between the spacemen and Houston. The screens multiplied the event across the room; seven LEMs, seven Neil Armstrongs, seven Buzz Aldrins. The astronauts bounced over the cratered, powdery surface and planted the American flag. We gazed in wonderstruck silence, mesmerized by the impossible sight of men walking on the moon.

We were allowed to watch for another half-hour, and then we were dismissed. We streamed out of the Beit Knesset and into the night, staring up at the moon as we trekked back to our cabins, awed by the knowledge that astronauts were still walking around up there.

As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approached, my thoughts often drifted back to that night. Where did all those TVs come from? Did the camp rent them? Borrow them? Whose idea was it to let us watch the moon landing, anyway? The camp director? Or the crazy counselors who decided the following week to break out Color War by announcing that Nazis had overrun the camp?

I must have told my parents I liked sleepaway camp, because I returned the next summer, and every summer after that. I began to love my time in the Wisconsin countryside, the valleys overgrown with long grass that rippled in every breeze, the breathtaking vistas that opened up at the top of every hill, the carpet of pine needles crunching underneath my sneakers. The cook, a local farmer’s wife named Harriet, made things I had never been served by my European parents, unimaginably glorious American foods like corn bread, pancakes with syrup, grilled cheese, peanut butter cookies. I discovered I was good at archery, at cooking over a campfire, building a tent, rowing a boat, paddling a canoe. I made friends. I discovered rock-and-roll. I learned how to dance. I learned how to daven. Once, I saw the northern lights. As humankind began to explore the boundaries of space, I began to explore the boundaries of growing up.

When I close my eyes, I can still see it, the sandy floor of the Beit Knesset, the upturned white faces, the flickering images of men on the moon. There are moments in our lives that are so remarkable, so unique, that even while they are happening, you know you will never experience anything like them again.

And though I was only 8, I knew this was one of them.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review,, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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