I often try to put into words the virtues of Camp Takajo and why I think they are so important. This letter from Jason Levine, one of our great campers from the ’90s, is an eloquent and vivid description from the perspective of a young man over twenty years removed from his last summer at Takajo. I asked Jason if I could share it with you. I encourage you not only to read it but to share it with your son or sons. It will give you some insight from another vantage point about why the Takajo experience is so deeply embedded in so many us.
I hope this letter finds you, your family, and the entire extended Takajo family well. It’s certainly a trying time for us all, yet I’ve been encouraged by the broad smiles and welcoming messages you and the rest of Takajo’s leaders have been sending out to the young boys heading to Long Lake this summer. It’s a reminder that warm, safe places exist in the world for children to shrug off the anxieties of quarantined homes and health precautions to remember what it means to be young. Speaking candidly, I envy them.
With the current public health crisis we’re facing, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the people and organizations I care about and how they’ll be affected. Takajo is a community that has meant a great deal to me in my life, especially when I look back and remember what I learned as a young man during those wonderful summers on Long Lake. It’s been many years since my camping days, but I feel, in my heart, I’ll always be a Takajo camper. I still keep in loose touch with a few Takajo friends, and I’ve had the opportunity to see bunkmates like Sloan Eddleston and David Meyerson most recently. I’m looking forward to reuniting with many more at the Maine camps event now rescheduled for October. In many ways, I wish I would have stayed in better touch with camp over the years, if for no other reason than to let you know how much it still means to me as I go through my life as an adult.
When I talk to other people about their summer experiences and childhood memories, those who went to camp in some form often talk to me about a friend they made, an activity they didn’t like, or an experience that made them face a fear. They speak about it in the past tense, recalling things they did and the places they went. Listening to them feels different from how I remember my seven years on Long Lake. What I remember about camp is something more holistic and soulful, a feeling of learning and belonging well beyond sports games, bunk nights, and outdoor adventures. It is a reminder of character, a memory that helps me recall who I am and who I strive to be.
Of course, I remember the beautiful setting, the fun times, the practical bunk jokes, the times we (rightfully) got in trouble for doing stupid teenage things. I remember clear afternoons in a Phantom on the lake, feeling like the sun would never set, and I could sail on forever. I remember the look of pride and encouragement on Don Matthews’ face when I waterskied outside the wake of the Whaler for the first time. I remember running down to the waterfront barefoot with a small white towel in the rush of other similarly-attired enthusiasts to dip in the lake on cold Maine mornings. I remember Hank Fortin telling us Warriors all the hobbies and skills rotation with his signature Boston flair. I remember Kevin Eagleson coming into Bunk Algonquin every morning to rouse us with broomsticks and a ‘friendly’ bed lift; I will never catch or pass a basketball with one hand, ever. I remember doing “10 sets of 10 laps” to answer Bob Lewis’ call to Swim the Lake. I remember celebrating our team triumph when we beat Winaukee and Cedar to take the top spot in the Takajo Lacrosse Invitational. I remember how great it felt to throw a strike and put Paddy Mohan into the Carnival dunk tank to win a pizza party for our group.
I remember what it looks like on top of Mt. Katahdin and how it feels to get knocked out of the raft by a big rapid on the Penobscot. I remember pushing through a rainstorm on PEI to ride from one camp to the next and make our daily journey, only to find out on arrival that a small insurrection in the group behind us put their bikes in the back of some local’s pickup and hitched a ride to stay dry (I won’t name names, but the leader of the pack rhymes with Schneil Schminsky). I remember fearing heights on the rope swing and the climbing wall but pushing through it to feel the rush of conquering that fear. I remember the silence of Takajo in winter, covered in snow, with only the groans of an iced-up Long Lake to challenge our echoing voices on K-Quad.
But still, the things that resonate most with me are the consistent focus on what it means to be a good person, a moral competitor, a true friend, and a valued leader. I remember our twelve ideals. I remember being reminded of Takajo’s shared history and our appreciation for all the people who have taken part in building it – literally and figuratively – for us to enjoy and learn and grow as campers. I remember being instructed to lead with sportsmanship when I needed to step up as a team captain. I remember what it feels like to take a hard loss with dignity. I remember the honor I felt while reading the camp creed at my final council fire. I remember the basic discipline instilled by cleaning our bunks, pausing in silence before meals, wiping down our tables after we ate, and standing tall during the calls for flag-raising and lowering. I remember being supported and encouraged when I struggled. I remember what it feels like to be part of a team. I remember feeling cared for authentically by people like you, Warren, Hank, Paddy Mohan, Neil Minsky, Hal Williams, and countless others in ways large and small.
It feels almost nostalgic to imagine a world where those human qualities are not just exhorted in speech, but encouraged in behavior and reinforced through leadership. Discussing the right or moral thing to do as an adult today is so often met with a “Yeah, but…” kind of reaction. Sometimes it feels as if expediency and self-interest have overtaken our basic sense of right and wrong, our ability to recognize the intrinsic benefits of caring for one another, acting with a conscience, speaking the truth, and nurturing mutual respect. I was heartened when I visited Takajo’s homepage recently and saw “Building Character through Example” and “Yesterday’s Values for Today’s Boys” front and center.
In my career, I’ve served in government, advised large corporations, and built startups into successful ventures. I’ve also worked with passionate owners of small businesses dedicated to hospitality, musical theater, healthy food, and sustainability. I’ve learned by working for public figures like Senator John McCain, but also from noble people with unrivaled humanity whose names will never enter the history books. In short, I’ve seen a lot, with people from all walks of life, facing situations that challenge them internally and externally.
What I’ve learned through experience and reflection is that there are rewards for integrity, but they are long-term gains. Sometimes we need the patience to see them realized. I recognize that the world is a complex place and that with responsibility comes difficult choices. There’s no consolation in a value-less life, but being a person of integrity requires courage and conviction. We’re all individuals, making our own choices, but we benefit from periodic reminders of what we owe each other and how that bond makes us stronger, happier, and more fulfilled. Takajo helps young boys develop their ability to remind themselves of what is truly important long after they have become men. Without my Takajo summers, I’m not sure if I would have the well of understanding from which I could draw this sense of self, especially in difficult times when it’s needed most.
I want to share with you a short story to illustrate what I mean. My wife and I married last year in June. It was mostly a small affair because we wanted to invite everyone up to an inn in Vermont to enjoy a full weekend away with us, at a pace relaxed from the daily grind in the city. Genna’s cousin brought the man she has been dating as her plus one, and it turned out that he was also a Takajo camper. His name is Tom Cromer. We spent a serious amount of time during the wedding talking about what a special place Takajo is and how lucky we feel to have had the experience we had. It was such a powerful reminder to me that Takajo was and is a community whose bonds stretch beyond personal relationships and across time.
Tom and I had never met before that day. We are of different generations, and our camping summers came under different leaders. Morty led the camp in his day, and you were the one who sat at our kitchen table, spoke with me about coming to Takajo, and greeted me when I stepped off the bus each summer. It’s an incredible thing to feel such kindred spirit immediately with someone you’ve never met, and I know that it comes from the strength of the culture and the power of our individual experiences at Takajo.
If my wife and I are lucky enough to have a son someday, I hope he gets to fall in love with Takajo the way I did. I hope he can step off that bus in late June with a smile on his face and an outstretched hand to greet him. Nothing would bring me greater joy. Until then, if there’s anything I can do for you or the broader Takajo community, I’m only a message away.
May this summer bring us all a new spirit of healing and humanity that lasts for many years to come. I look forward to the next time I can pass under the arch, read the ideals, and smile.
Bunks Chappaqua, Mohawk, Onondaga, Kanawha, Penobscot, & Algonquin x2
Takajo Alumni- Continue the conversation.
Join Jeff and Jason on the Takajo Alumni website: https://takajo.360alumni.com/#/register
Top Photo- Names from left to right: Lee Hepner, David Gordon, Jordan Seiken, Robyn Bornstein, Evan Cohen, Jason Levine (Me), Sloan Eddleston, David Meyerson.