CGP Community Stories

Peter Rutkoff, November 15, 2017

Title

Peter Rutkoff, November 15, 2017

Subject

Cooperstown, NY
Otsego Lake
Camp life
Main House
The Wop
Fieldston Ethical Culture School
Cooperstown Chronicles

Sacrifice Meal
Monkey House
Miles Davis
The Beatles
Sgt. Peppers
The Greenie
Ten Minute Bell
Going With
Kitchen Crew
Counselor hood
Eric Sevaried
Earl Hiramoto
Golemby’s Running
Upstate New York
Copperstown

Description

Peter Rutkoff, a now seasoned professor at Kenyon College, grew up attending camps in Otsego County. As a child in the 1950s, raised in New York City, Rutkoff spent his early childhood at camp in Cooperstown, New York. Connected by Fieldston's Ethical Culture School, many of his friends were directed to sponsored camps where they were given the opportunity to explore the area. While given the freedom to choose his own summer experience, camp life in Cooperstown proved to be entrenched in traditions. Everything from baseball, to swimming, metal shop, wood working, and hiking make up a few of the many activities the Ethical Culture Schools' camps were offering its campers.

Rutkoff’s time here in Cooperstown left a lifelong impression on him. His recollections detail the day-to-day camp activities made available to campers. His observations about camp life on Otsego Lake and a camp counselor’s obligation to their campers reveal detailed intricacies of a time gone, but not forgotten. Most intriguing is the material in the interview concerning the role camp life and its culture play in his fictional book Cooperstown Chronicles. His memoirs elude to a place where almost anything can happen; good or bad. It touches on long-lost love, the spiritual elements of Otsego Lake, and the heart-pounding sensation that comes from almost losing a camper on a hiking trip.

I interviewed Prof. Rutkoff at the Biological Field Station in Cooperstown, New York. As a result of his teaching at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, his being here afforded me the opportunity to speak with him in a familiar place. His vested interest in the area make his account of life as a camper in 1950s Cooperstown an important contribution to the community stories project. Rutkoff speaks with a New York accent. This transcript seeks to reproduce many of the colloquialisms in his speech and tone. I have also chosen to preserve some grammatical particularities. It is difficult to accurately reproduce the distinct tone of my interview with Rutkoff. I encourage researchers to consult the audio recordings.

Creator

Charles Clark III

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2017-11-15

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mp3
28.8 mB
audio/mp3
28.8 mB
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2.5 mB
image/jpeg
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Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

17-006

Coverage

Bronx, NY
1942-2017

Interviewer

Charles Clark III

Interviewee

Peter Rutkoff

Location

5838 NY-80
Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

PR = Peter Rutkoff
CC = Charles Clark III

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

CC: This is the November 6, 2017 interview of Peter Rutkoff by Charles Clark III for the CGP Community Stories Project, recorded at the Biological Field Station in Cooperstown.

CC: Good evening, Peter.

PR: Good evening.

CC: The first question I would like to start with is what do you do and why?

PR: I can tell you the what easier than the why. I’m a teacher, my title is Professor of American Studies at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. I always knew that I would teach something. It took me a while to figure out “what” and “where” and “how.” I was a good swimming teacher. I was a great camp counselor, and the Vietnam war radicalized me to realize that history was something that, if we didn’t understand it, we would never get out. So it was a sort of process of the 1960s.

CC: Let’s talk more about the 1960s. Tell me about the neighborhood you grew up in at that time.

PR: Well don’t forget, I graduated from high school in the 1960s. So, if you want my neighborhood that’s the 1950s. Do you want that?

CC: Please.

PR: I grew up in two different apartment buildings that are almost identical inside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was, at the time, a pretty modest, middle class, residential New York neighborhood. My parents were public school teachers. The rich kids lived on the East Side or some of them lived on Central Park West, overlooking the park, but the rest of us. I remember exactly; we paid $120 dollars a month rent for a three-bedroom apartment. Now, that’s the scale, but nevertheless it was not out of sight for people as modest as my parents. The neighborhood was totally safe. I took the bus to school starting in second grade, which would be unheard of, I think, in New York kinds of terms. I rode a bicycle across Central Park to visit my best friend who lived on Lexington Avenue. There were crappy neighborhood stores that you shopped in, supermarket, there was even an A&P on Columbus Avenue that looked rather like a mom and pop store–forget the A&P part–but that’s what it was. You want more details?

[TRACK 1, 3:22]

CC: Having grown in the city, just now, before then you mentioned camp counselor. When did that become a part of your life?

PR: Well, I started going to summer camp when I was six. My parents sent me to a really interesting place for the first four years of summer camp, not here. In the Catskills. It was a left-wing, folklore camp. My parents were communists. Pete Seeger was about the first man I ever saw sitting on a rock playing the banjo when I got off the bus when I was six–now I didn’t know who he was then, but I verified it later. I loved it. My father passed away when I was seven. But four years later, they sent me to a different camp. This time, a camp run by the school I went to in New York. Which was the camp that was here in Cooperstown. So that was in 1952 and I’ve been coming here on-and-off ever since.

[TRACK 1, 4:50]

CC: Describe for me camp life on Otsego Lake

PR: Camp life was, I loved every minute of it. It was the family I didn’t have. For the times? It was an interracial camp. There were actually African American kids at camp. We were all friends with each other. It wasn’t fifty-fifty but it was a mix. A mix of well-to-do and not-well-to-do, middle class or working class. The school and the camp had a certain kind of philosophy about what an educational institution should be, and the camp was one, and it was a place that allowed individuals to be themselves. So, I felt at home and free in this kind of [pause] spiritual community. It was very crude. There were no showers. You took your soap to the lake, on Wednesdays and Sundays. We all lived in tents, which was a platform tent. It was, a wooden floor and a tent above it, and there were like four or six kids. A latrine and an outhouse behind the tent, which was called The Greenie. Which I could still show you, it’s still there. Of course, you mostly pee’d out the back of the tent when you had to get up in the middle of the night anyhow. You were under the trees, you were under the stars, it was very unsophisticated in material kinds of terms. You had a trunk full of t-shirts and blue jeans that you put under your bed, that was it. It was real basic and most of the kids who went there went there forever. Meaning, three or four or five or six years. A lot of us came from the same school. A lot of us would come back and work there as counselors. So, I have this sort of stream of friends from this camp, from here [Cooperstown], that lasted 20 years.

[TRACK 1, 7:21]

CC: This school that you’re referencing, is this Fieldston?

PR: Fieldston was the name of the high school. The school that it was part of, is called the Ethical Culture Schools, which is a kind-of a humanist, nonreligion-religion, kind of like Unitarianism, but it had an older Jewish base so we used to say, it’s Unitarianism for Jews.

[TRACK 1, 7:56]

CC: You mention friends you’ve made at this camp who have been funneled to this camp from the school. Describe the connections that you have with these people that bring you back to this place [Cooperstown].

PR: Well, they last to this day. So, given where we’re sitting now, the camp’s all the way at other end of the lake on the other side, in a little bay called Hyde Bay. And it closed in 1971. When I started to come back here for a variety of other reasons, which was about in 1990, I started inviting friends from camp to come spend the weekend. We’ve been doing that ever since. One, dear, dear friend—a woman I’ve known since we were seven—she was here for the weekend this past May; her name is Alice. Alice was from Great Neck, which is a suburb of New York City. But I knew her from camp. It turned out she married a good friend of mine, who I went to school with. So, the whole thing keeps rolling along. These have been lifelong, deep friendships where nobody needs to explain anything.

[TRACK 1, 9:32]

CC: Could you describe some of the things you all bonded over while here at camp?

PR: Oh, sure. It was a very active, but noncompetitive camp. So, as I wrote in this book of short stories [Cooperstown Chronicles], making fun of it, but it was true–the goal of every contest was that it should end in a tie. Everybody should feel good about themselves. And so, you played on teams, you played softball on teams, but it didn’t really matter. If the teams were unbalanced, they would switch the players around in the middle of the summer. We bonded over, sort-of-social friendships; most importantly, we did folk dancing every night and sometimes outside, sometimes in a social hall. You made your first girlfriend and boyfriend, in my case–most of my friend’s case–at the camp and you stayed friends forever. We would. This is a cool thing, I think. After we stopped going to camp, which was around the age of 14, my group stayed together, even though we were from all different parts of the city and from different schools. Once a year, on Christmas eve, an old singing group called The Weavers would have a midnight concert at Carnegie Hall and we all went to that. That was like our bonding moment and we could all sing the same songs. You’ve probably never heard of The Weavers, but that’s okay.

CC: I have not heard of The Weavers.

PR: You’ve heard of Pete Seeger?

CC: I have heard of Pete Seeger.

PR: He was one of the four Weavers.

[TRACK 1, 11:27]

CC: Ok, it makes sense now. In Cooperstown Chronicles, the book you mentioned a bit earlier, there is a chapter that talks about doo wop and music. How have your experiences in the camp influenced chapters like the one that speaks about doo wop music?

PR: Well, each of those chapters was based on a fragment of truth or even an episode of truth, but in which, I then, told a kind of fictional story. So, the doo wop one is about an old friend of mine from high school who I brought to camp to be a counselor. His real name—it doesn’t matter—was Pete Rothman. His father was a doctor–Jewish doctor–named Dr. Rothman. His mother was an opera star at the Metropolitan [Opera] named Rosemarie Brancato. So his nickname was “The Wop.” So that’s where the doo wop was a play on doo wop, which was a sort of street corner form of singing, on the one hand, but making fun of this guy on the other. That particular story is built out of his coming to camp for that one summer and the interaction that about five or six of us have. But here’s a funny part of the story–I think. I wrote a long scene in that story that never happened. It’s a scene about smoking dope and going to the kitchen and laughing hysterically because you couldn’t control yourself. Now, those things happened but not that [smoking dope]. But a friend of mine called me up after the book was published. He said, “God you got that right! That was just what I remember!”

CC: You’re speaking about the moment where you all are listening to Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band].

PR: Yeah.

CC: The record that came out in ’67.

PR: Yeah.


[TRACK 1, 13:30]

CC: Could you speak more about that particular summer?

PR: Well, that story I think is set in that summer. And I think the earthshaking thing, I think that’s a true moment in that story, when some guy shows up at camp, old friends of mine, with the record and says, you know, “You gotta smoke this and listen to that!” and that was like “oh my gosh,” this is wonderful, and so Sgt. Pepper opened up musical horizons that I didn’t know were there. I was a fan of folk music and cool jazz. I loved Miles Davis. But the Beatles, that’s pop music and then I realized, “these guys are amazing!” They’re really good and they were just exploring new vistas. So, it was very exciting. We even tried–it’s not exactly the same thing–by this time I’m working there and the summer of Woodstock, I wanted to go to Woodstock on a day off, but you couldn’t get there because there was too much traffic. But lots of music, lots of music. Again, days off, we would hitchhike. Simpler times. The part of western Massachusetts which has lots of music was about a two-hour ride. It was a place called Tanglewood, which was a place where the Boston philharmonic played outdoor concerts. But there were also lots of folk and jazz places there as well. So, it was just great to head off for a day and a half. Hitchhike to this place. I remember sitting on the stage listening to Dave Brubeck because there weren’t enough seats in the audience. They said, “Well, you all can come up and sit down.”

[TRACK 1, 15:30]

CC: You talk about music and remember it vividly even. Could you speak about the type of musical influences that you’ve had that have matured over the summers you spent here in Cooperstown?

PR: As a kid? These summers?

CC: Not necessarily so much as a kid. In the book [Cooperstown Chronicles] Peter goes back to the camp around 25 as a camp counselor.

PR: No, I went back at 19. As soon as I went to college, I went back to camp. Anyway. I worked there until I was 30. Okay?

[TRACK 1, 16:16]

CC: What has been your musical diet, that reminds you of Cooperstown?

PR: Mostly, the folk music part of the things that I like in music are the parts that come right out of the camp experience. The other things that I was just describing to you, for example, you know, I was a New York kid as well, so I had access to all kinds of other music. That kept being reinforced by different [experiences], like I said, hitchhike to Massachusetts and hear Dave Brubeck. But I wouldn’t have heard that at camp. But camp was like a bunch of guys playing acoustic instruments and singing folk songs, which, of course, I had to learn how to do too–badly.

[TRACK 1, 17:10]

CC: Tell me about some of these folk songs they would have you sing.

PR: Oh, it’s pretty much the standard repertoire of the day. “Kumbaya.” You know the song?

CC: Certainly.

PR: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Wimoweh it’s called. So, in that kind of nice resonance, because there’s this mountain at the end of the lake called “Sleeping Lion.” There must be 500 camp songs; we had a common repertoire of folk music.

[TRACK 1, 17:55]

CC: In the book [Cooperstown Chronicles] you describe a network of camps around the lake and in the area. What real world experiences…what were some of the names of these camps, rather?

PR: I remember what they were but we had no interaction particularly with them. But, right next to us was a place called the Hyde Bay Camp for Boys. That was already different because our camp was co-ed. They came from a private school in Baltimore and they had very fancy racing sailboats. Where we had a bunch of tubby, beat-up, crappy sailboats, befitting the image of the camp. So, they seemed like the kids from the East Side. Closer to town were two riding camps. But, I didn’t know anything about them except that you would pass them every day called Otsego and Chenango. There were a couple of church camps. There’s this church camp that just closed called Beaver Crossing, maybe. It was by the opera. So, there were lots of camps. All of which have disappeared.

[TRACK 1, 19:21]

CC: When I mention the camps because I know in the fictional book you wrote Cooperstown Chronicles, the character Peter talks about competiveness in terms of the camps playing against each other in baseball.

PR: Yep, never happened.

[TRACK 1, 19:52]

CC: …and it comes up repeatedly–not only throughout the book–but in your personal life as well. Could you talk more about what baseball means to you?

PR: Baseball is basically a function of growing up in New York City where there are three major league teams. And if you look it up, which is a quote from Casey Stengel, you’ll discover that between 1947 and 1965, there was one New York team in the World Series every year but one. So, they were on TV every day. You could go to the games. It wasn’t a big deal. I grew up just going to baseball games. And my father’s mother, lived across the street from Yankee Stadium, in an old, beat-up, working-class, Jewish immigrant neighborhood. And my grandpa, who didn’t speak much English, took me to my first game.

[TRACK 1, 20:50]

CC: Can you talk about that experience?

PR: Oh, yeah, I can remember it like it was yesterday. It had two components. One was the sort of–I wouldn’t say conning him–but it was easy to say to him, maybe I’m nine years old, “Grandpa, take me to the game.” And part [of it was] my father had died. So, who’s going to take me except his father who doesn’t know shit from baseball. But, who says in his old European accent, “It’s alright! I’ll sit and read the newspaper. We’ll have a good time!” So, he takes me. But, I’ll never forget the first look I had of Yankee Stadium. It was like, I think, I even quote something like, “Oz.” It was bright. It was greener than green. The players were bigger than big. They were all handsome and suntanned. It was like, “Oh, my gosh!”

[TRACK 1, 21:58]

CC: From that point, your love for baseball–doesn’t appear to [diminish], it does grow.

PR: It maintains itself, yeah.

CC: Speaking of that maintaining, is that one of the reasons you enjoyed camp so much?

PR: No. It had nothing to do with it. Cooperstown is a place, literally where we went once a week or once a month, on picnics. And maybe once in a while you went to the Baseball Hall of Fame but in those days the Baseball Hall of Fame was a bunch of old baseball gloves and jocks. It was not a museum of anything, it was a collection of artifacts. It wasn’t a big deal. You talked about it. But, no, it was a coincidence. Part of my passion about baseball, has to do with the fact that I absolutely–as a kid–fell in love with Jackie Robinson. Mostly for political reasons. I told you my parents were left-wing. So, integration was where we were and Robinson was the carrier of the banner of that, so you could love baseball and love Jackie Robinson and be a good lefty all at the same time.

[TRACK 1, 23:30]

CC: How does baseball address some of these social issues that you find important?

PR: The same way in a sense that the movies you and I have been discussing for years do as well; they are mirrors. Baseball is a reflection of what’s going on in the larger society. I don’t know whether you have been over, yet, to Doubleday Field…

CC: I have.

PR: So, there’s a plaque now, that didn’t use to be there, remembering the first black player named Bud Fowler, who is from Cooperstown, but nobody knew that until about five years ago. In other words, baseball is pretty much a mirror of the changes in American social structure. It reflected the immigration waves. When the Poles were coming to the United States there were Polish baseball players, Irish, blah, blah, blah. So, it was always part of that.

[TRACK 1, 23:30]

CC: Speaking of baseball as a reflection, going back for a minute to the novel. The camp kids in the novel, when a batter or a defensive player makes an error, and please correct my pronunciation if I’m wrong, you all yell, “Golemby’s running”?

PR: That’s the first short story I ever wrote and it was based on remembering somebody yelling that when I was a kid. Golemby was a way overweight guy. He took forever to run to first base. So, if you were playing in the field and somebody said–and you like bobbled the ball at shortstop–somebody would say, “Golemby’s Running.” Which meant, don’t sweat, you got plenty of time. Pick the ball up. You can get the guy out. So, it became kind of shorthand for “relax.” I was literally driving somewhere and that phrase came into my mind. And, that’s what started me writing these stories.

[TRACK 1, 25:44]

CC: Could you talk about some other things that have inspired you, like “Golemby’s Running”?

PR: The other ones all sort of emerged out of remembering episodes that I could then build a fiction out of. For example, when I was a counselor I took this canoe trip and I screwed up. I let a kid light a firecracker and he half blew his hand off. And, we were way-the-hell-up in the middle of the Adirondacks and I had to take him down myself to a doctor. And then use another kid to go with me and we got lost on the way back. It was a big scary adventure, which I wrote about in some truthful detail. So, there were episodes that I would use to get, kind of, the accuracy of¬, like I said, details.


[TRACK 1, 26:45]

CC: Details are important…

PR: Very important. Especially in fiction. Because that’s how you convince the people that you’re lying to that you’re telling the truth.

CC: When you talk about relationships in the writing of Cooperstown Chronicles you describe the courting of another young lady as, “going with” …

PR: Yes, that was how we phrased it.

CC: Could you talk about the significance?

PR: It stood for going steady. Sometimes that was arranged by some external force. “Hey you and ahh, you like each other, ohh!” and then you’d dance with her one night. Then all of a sudden you were a couple. So, you were “going with” somebody. And it would last the summer or it’d last the week. Depending on how old you were.

[TRACK 1, 27:43]

CC: Sticking with some of the terms that you run across in this book. You reference there being a “sacrifice meal.” Talk to me about the “sacrifice meal.” Is it a function of the type of school that you went to that sponsors the camp?

PR: Yeah. It came right out of that school’s commitment to what we would have called now, social justice. Which was saying, “uh, look. There are poor people out there. Let’s take a typical camp meal and instead of eating the meal we’ll have potato soup. And we’ll donate the costs–the difference–to some charity. And you all discuss what the charity should be.”


[TRACK 1, 28:34]

CC: Could you describe what that process was like?

PR: Well, we would literally have these meetings, sitting on the grass, 120 kids and the counselors, and the directors. It was like a Quaker meeting. Everybody would say what they wanted. I think I caricatured it in the short story. But, it was like people being very earnest at eleven years old about what they wanted to have the camp money go for because it made you feel like you were doing something good. Mid-century liberalism at its worst or best.

[TRACK 1, 29:17]

CC: When you talk about the sacrifice meal and everyone is having an opportunity to “give their two cents,” so to speak…

PR: That’s exactly what it was.

CC: Talk to me about the character you all nickname Eric Sevareid.

PR: Yeah?

CC: What were that particular character’s thoughts about sacrifice meals?

PR: There was a brother and a sister, and I’m still friends with the sister, who just always had an opinion about everything and always had to talk about it. Now, Eric Sevareid was also the name of a real TV commentator on CBS so I was playing with [START OF TRACK 2, 0:00] that name. You heard the name Walter Cronkite?

CC: I have.

PR: So, Eric Sevareid was the guy who did the political commentary on the Walter Cronkite News Hour in the 60’s. You had interesting ways as kids of making fun of each other using funny nicknames. Like, the kid who wasn’t so smart, we called Uni. “Uni” stood for, Univac, which was the name of an early computer. The kind of computer that took up the whole room. Funny and a little cruel.

[TRACK 2, 00:54]

CC: Funny and a little cruel, but within the context of a camp and baseball and poking fun at batters or errors, it doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary that that would happen.

PR: No, and it wasn’t what we would, today, call “bullying.” It was poking fun. There was one guy who was very, very overweight–aside from Golemby. His nickname was Adie. But that stood for “Adipose,” which was another word for being fat.

[TRACK 2, 01:27]

CC: Now, when you go back to the camp…

PR: Now.

CC: …not now. When you were 25, 19, you’re going back to the camp as a counselor. Do you stay in the main house or do you operate out of The Greenie?

PR: No. Everybody had a group of kids that they were in charge of and you lived with them, in these tents. So, there would be like five boys and a college kid. The girls had little wooden buildings, bunks, but the boys had tents. But nobody had a flush toilet.

[TRACK 2, 02:16]

CC: Talk about what the experience is like. You are here in the 60s as a counselor. What is that experience like being with five other children? You talk about the sort of panic-set adventure in the Adirondacks. Were things like that happening–not necessarily to that drastic extent–were things like that happening in the camp?

PR: Not a lot, you know? It’s remarkable to think about putting 9, 10, 11, 12-year-old girls and boys under the control of college students. But, we all were good at it and there were very few screw-ups.

CC: I will admit, it does sound like a different time, compared to contemporary thought.

PR: Now! But did you read the whole book, because there was an undercurrent of not-so-nice going on there that I was trying to get at? And I don’t know if you caught that in the last story or not.

[TRACK 2, 03:29]

CC: You’re talking about the heartbreak between the partners that Peter potentially had with Sue and Ellen…

PR: No, I’m talking about the man who was murdered in his home by an adolescent boy he had picked up in a park somewhere and taken home with him. This was a sort of a beloved old counselor and only a couple of us knew about the murder later. But, it made you rethink, “Well, what was this guy doing all those years that we were there?” He was something of a pedophile.

CC: You’re not talking about Lew? Are you?

PR: No, I’m talking about a guy named Fes. But Fes was based on real. I don’t know exactly what happened and so I made that part of the story up. You know. That it happened.

[TRACK 2, 04:30]

CC: How did that affect camp life?

PR: Well, we didn’t know about it. This was revealed long after the camp being closed. However, people have come up to me over the years and saying, “Well, you know, he did bother me in such-and-such-a-way or so-and-so was having something of a relationship with him that struck me as uncomfortable.” So, people knew but didn’t know, which is kind of how those things seemed to work.

[TRACK 2, 05:07]

CC: Growing up, did you get any…were there any implications that any of this type of behavior was going on?

PR: Not that I was aware of in a conscious way. Looking back? Yeah, sure, you could see some things. But, no, if it happened nobody talked about it. I don’t remember it except one other case of it being other than this one particular person. It was–in the language of today–a heteronormative world and we were all after getting laid as fast as we could. However we could, with all these nice Jewish girls who didn’t want to do it anyway.

[TRACK 2, 06:05]

CC: You talk about hitchhiking in this area. The camp is coed. Speaking of getting laid, the whole courting process, going with someone, did that extend beyond the grounds of the camp?

PR: Not certainly as kids. The hitchhiking part is what you did as a counselor, college age kind of stuff that’s going on. The most you did as a 14-year-old was making out, that I ever heard of.

[TRACK 2, 06:51]

CC: Could you talk about the fictitious relationship between Peter & Ellen? From what memories throughout your adolescence did you borrow from?

PR: Ellen was a version of a serious girlfriend I had in my early 20’s.

[TRACK 2, 07:23]

CC: Is that something you want to expound on?
PR: Yeah.

CC: You both met here at the camp.

PR: We went as kids. We knew each other. I’m about three years older than she is.

CC: Not from the same neighborhood as you.

PR: She’s from Brooklyn. I was from Manhattan. But, then [pause], I’m trying to remember, I think there was a point at which I had already been working there for three or four years. Then she joined the staff. So, she’s like three years younger than I. But, she was like from a different child generation, at that age. So, then we worked at camp together for the next three or four years. We’re good friends and then had a sort of serious affair that lasted about six months. We’ve been friends ever since.

[TRACK 2, 08:29]

CC: You talk about the number of friends you have met and are able to keep in touch with, could you talk more about how going to camp in this area, in Otsego County, on the edge of Otsego Lake, strengthens the bond–you think–between two children over the course of a lifetime?

PR: That’s an interesting question. I think on the one hand there’s this sort of context of the natural beauty of the place and that it was literally sheltered from the world we all came from. Once you got here that world didn’t exist. You weren’t allowed to call home. If somebody got a package of, say candy, from their parents, the rule was you had to share with everybody. It was a real sort of [“enforced” is too strong a word], it was a structured community. And, the less the outside world intruded on it, the better. The happier everybody was. So, it was a place where a certain kind of vanity and egotism stopped existing. It was a place where social and racial differences were not important. [Unclear] I have a dear friend who was my sports counselor, then, a Black guy, who’s like a big shot out there in the world today. He comes every summer when I have these little reunions and he will always say, you know, “This camp was the most racially benign place I’ve ever been in my life.” And he says that [to] today. He was dean of the school of social work at Boston University; [he] founded City Year. So, he knows what he’s talking about. But he taught me how to play first base.

[TRACK 2, 10:47]

CC: He taught you how to play first base. Was that your favorite position?

PR: you know what? It’s again, how these things worked as you were a kid. I was playing first base. I was, maybe, twelve and he comes up to me afterwards and says, “Hey, you’re really good at that.” I said, “Who me?” you know? And then I decided from then on that I was good at it.

[TRACK 2, 11:08]

CC: Going to this particular camp, was this your first interaction with people of a different ethnicity than yourself?

PR: No, because the schools had a similar philosophy.

[TRACK 2, 11:24]

CC: How were the camp children–especially being integrated at the time–received by the Otsego community?

PR: Honestly, I have no idea. I didn’t experience, buzzing, cognitive dissonance. I didn’t experience any of that. But, I don’t remember–either as a counselor–being aware of it when I was with kids who were from mixed racial backgrounds, going different places. It didn’t have a role. I remember thinking that, and I just talked to about this with somebody the other day, that “they,” meaning Cooperstown people, thought we were some kind of left-wing nudist colony, off-beat, weird. But, it wasn’t about race. It was just like being hippies before there were hippies.


[TRACK 2, 12:24]

CC: What does a hippie Rutkoff look like, growing up?

PR: Uh, no different than this one. Except, a little younger…and I wasn’t hip or hippie then, it just meant that’s what we thought they thought.

CC: Understandable.

PR: Ethical culture? What?!

[TRACK 2, 12:58]

CC: Now, speaking of ethical culture, we talked about the sacrifice meal, how did the school–or the camp rather–include ethical culture or ethical behavior or ethics, in general, into the camp?

PR: It was all built on the unseen, structures of progressive education. Which I only know after the fact. Everything you did, you talked about. Everything you discussed, you discussed in public. It was a “non-authority” kind of place. The role of the director was to make sure everybody was safe, to handle the petty cash, to hire responsible counselors, and get the hell out of the way. You know? Literally, for example–I know this because I helped work it–my first wife was somebody I met working here and she became the head counselor, and we would literally–every kid had his own schedule, based on what they wanted to do–so, for example, you would have art class at 9, swimming at 11, sailing at 2. That was your schedule. Right? So, you could do what you wanted, as long as you did it. Choice and structure.


[TRACK 2, 14:37]

CC: You say, “choice and structure” but no one is allowed to call home.

PR: Oh, that’s true. Yeah.

CC: Talk about how that affected the dynamics at work between the camp counselors and the campers.

PR: This is actually a good question. Because so many of us had gone to the camp, as kids, we internalized all of the rules and culture of the camp, and god forbid anybody would want to change them, because they were fucking with paradise. In other words, if it lasted two summers it became a tradition and you don’t mess with tradition. And lots of camps work this way. So, it was a very closed community [pause]. One more thing that’s important, the schools and the camp had a policy that a third of the kids had to be on some kind of financial aid, which was a serious commitment in the 1950s for example, and one of the goals of the camp was that you didn’t want people to be able to dress, act, in ways that were revealing of the background that they came from. Everybody was really supposed to be equal. Right? So, you didn’t have “fancy clothes” and “not fancy clothes.” Sneakers were sneakers. None of that kind of branding crapola, that you’ve all grown up with. It was like we were all playing in the same sandbox with the same plastic lunch pails so-to-speak. It was very nice, because it gets rid of all those jealousies, and enemies, and competitions.

[TRACK 2, 16:33]

CC: One would be able to say that baseball itself is an example of a meritocracy, where you’re judged on something that certainly doesn’t have anything to do with your skin color or your intellect–beyond understand the rules and knowing how to play…

PR: You can say that, but it’s not true. That’s the academic speaking.

CC: Certainly. Certainly.

[TRACK 2, 17:07]

CC: Could you talk about how these activities were supervised? You’re on Otsego Lake…

PR: They were always interactive with counselors. As a counselor you had responsibility for a group; five, normally six [unclear], but they went off on their schedules, right? And you became the baseball teacher, or the swimming counselor, or the drama coach, during the course of the day, and then in the evening and mealtimes you came back together in your tent group. Does that make sense?

CC: Mhmm. Makes sense.

PR: Everybody was a specialist. I was the “swimming guy.”

CC: I was just about to ask.

PR: Yeah.

[TRACK 2, 17:56]

CC: You were the “swimming guy.” What were some of the activities that you supervised or chaperoned out here on Otsego Lake?

PR: I’m gonna say something first.

CC: Please.

PR: The lake was one of the great teachers of our life and that’s one of the things I love about this place, today. Is that I learned how to tell the weather. I can tell you if a storm is coming. Because I paid attention to the water and I did that as a kid. And you do it as you learn how to sail. And you certainly had to do it if it was running a swimming program with 120 kids and you want everybody to be safe. So, just the total environment for a city kid to be out here, like at the end of the dock, and the stars are out at night, and the wind is blowing. And you look across the lake and the cows are lying down. “Oh, there’s a storm coming tomorrow.” So the lake was a great instruction to me and that’s one of the reasons I feel so attached to the locale. It kind of was one of my basic teachers.

[TRACK 2, 19:14]

CC: Can you describe for me¬, beyond just knowing how to tell the weather by the lake, could you talk more about how the lake itself was one of your teachers?

PR: The lake was the first place I felt competent in the world. Where I had felt pretty incompetent in the world up until I became a pretty good swimmer, and a canoeist, and a sailor. I had control and even excelled at some things that had to do with the water. So, it was good for myself.

[TRACK 2, 20:06]

CC: Can you talk about how you interact with the lake now?

PR: I can’t not be here and not be around the lake. It still has that kind of, it has a very elemental, spiritual feel to me, and if I were a Christian I could say it has a kind of baptismal feel. But the water has a very particular quality that I’ve never experienced anywhere. Literally how it feels and it’s [pause], it’s so spiritual and sexual both at the same time. I was happier at this camp and at this lake than any place in my childhood, by far.

[TRACK 2, 20:56]

CC: Could you describe for me this spiritual connection as it were, that you have with the lake?

PR: It’s again, a sense of being connected. It’s a “oneness” with things. So, I’m at home, in all the different levels you can be at home in this locale. I was at home in the water, I was at home in the camp community, I was at home with friends. Yeah. You ever hear the phrase from William James called “Beloved Community”?

[TRACK 2, 21:33]

CC: Beloved Community?

PR: Yeah.

CC: Beloved, yes. But, together? No.

PR: A community that’s totally mutually supportive and loving. And that’s what we had there. It was really unusual. It’s utopia.

[TRACK 2, 21:52]

CC: Can you describe for me, your initial thoughts coming into this camp? You start camp at age 10, do you remember how you felt coming into the camp, this new place, meeting these new people?

PR: This was a new camp. I had been to one I liked. So I was pissed off that I was being sent to a new place. But I don’t remember having any adjustment issues at all. I happen to have a photograph that a friend of mine sent me of my first summer at the camp and we had an amazing counselor, a Japanese American guy whose name was Earl Hiramoto, and he could do everything. He didn’t talk. But he did. He made jewelry. He could sail. He canoed. He was like shorter than you [addressing narrator] and larger than you and stronger than hell. There’s all these personalities.

[TRACK 2, 22:57]

CC: This particular counselor you’re talking about, in the novel at least, he runs the metal shop. What were some of your experiences in his class?

PR: I don’t remember them particularly. But I liked metal shop. In metal shop, you could make jewelry. Clay, you made crappy ashtrays. Pottery. You know? The only thing I remember, is making a really nice peach-pit ring, for Ellen. But we were older then. You know what a “peach-pit” ring is?

[TRACK 2, 23:41]

CC: A “peach-bit” ring?

PR: Peach pit. Take a peach pit and you sand it and you sand it and you sand it and then you drill a hole in it. And it comes out like this beautiful piece of polished, gnarled, wood.

CC: Okay! I don’t know why–in my mind–I imagined the jelly peach ring you buy in the store.

PR: No, no. This is like a…

CC: …an actual craftwork!

PR: Yeah. Some people walked around all day long sanding the thing down finer and finer and finer and finer.

[TRACK 2, 24:22]

CC: What are some other craftwork shops or skills they taught at these camps?

PR: Well, that was really cool, you learned how to use tools. You know? Wood working tools. Saws. Plains. Drills. Sandpapers. Grits of sandpapers. All that kind of stuff. If you wanted to, and I liked wood shop so I was good. When I was 14, we would have a camp yearbook. I became one of the two editors. That was like a big deal. I felt, prestigious and elevated, and I gave out assignments and we printed the whole thing. It was a quaint, for that age, and for my time in life, it was an accomplishment. “The Editor”

[TRACK 2, 25:19]

CC: Describe for me some of your duties as the editor; fifteen [years old] as an editor of the yearbook.

PR: You have a committee and you decide what stories are we going to have in the magazine. This is like the end of June and the thing’s gonna come out like seven weeks later. You’re gonna cover the baseball season. You’re gonna cover sailing. You’re gonna do the trips. Those kinds of things. But it was more the camaraderie of working on it together with whatever the particular activity was and we had this crappy–you don’t even know what this is– [pauses to think] a machine that you had to turn a handle and a crank to make copies?

CC: I can imagine.

PR: Before there were Xerox machines, there were these blue, sticky things called stencils, and you typed them. And then and you put it on a machine with ink. And you turn it and make copies. It’s really primitive. Rexograph was one of them, it doesn’t matter. But the whole process of doing that together, “Oh my god! We have to get this done in two days. We’ve gotta make all the stories. We’ve gotta type it up. We’ve gotta put it out. We’ve gotta lay it out. We’ve gotta collate it.” That was all fun.

[TRACK 2, 26:49]

CC: So, you mention woodworking; we spoke about metals, you just talked about the yearbook, Are there best crafts in the year book? Are there best metal crafts in the year book?

PR: Well, it wasn’t so much as awards. But, yeah. There were always, depending on–you know–who’s doing what. But there was always a story about all of those kinds of activities. Which always read exactly the same and ended up with a phrase like, “…And all in all everyone really had fun this summer!” [Pauses to look at phone for photo] I’m gonna find a photograph for you.

[TRACK 2, 27:34]

CC: You talk about the baseball season and some of these other sports. I know baseball in particular, a big thing about baseball, is keeping stats. In this particular yearbook, did you keep records and scores?

PR: Maybe some scores. Maybe a highlight or two. But, nobody was keeping batting averages. At the end of the summer we always had a camp counselor game. It was like an all-star game, and of course the counselors are 20-year-old big guys. And the kids are scrawny little things. But it was fun.

[TRACK 2, 28:23]

CC: How were those games? It sounds entertaining.

PR: They were simply entertaining. Yeah. That goes back to the “Golemby’s Running” stuff. There would be maybe, three girls would stand up and be cheerleaders at a game. But maybe not. But, it also gave you a sense–like I was talking about other stuff–a sense of, you’re actually accomplishing something. Now, on the scale of baseball activity? I think I wrote this in the book, I got to be a pretty decent softball hitter. In the scheme of things, so what? But, I could hit it in a sense, “out of the park,” which was in a place called the bushes. When I got back to that place 20 years later, the bushes are like over there [gesturing to a nearby area]. But at the moment it felt great.

[TRACK 2, 29:30]

CC: Naturally. You talk about hearing that familiar sound when the bat hits the baseball and you’re playing outfield and the ball goes past your glove and someone yells “Golemby’s Running.” Were errors on your part a big part of the game?

PR: And also, that’s a part of the thing that I made up as part of the story…

[START OF TRACK 3, 0:00]

PR: …it’s sort of true. But I can’t remember, actually, that actually happening. But that’s not the point. But, errors, you know? Nobody gave a shit.

[TRACK 3, 00:13]

CC: It sounds like at this camp, few people would [narrator shows interviewer photo mentioned earlier] One of the camp counselors…

PR: Me! 20 years old!

[TRACK 3, 00:30]

CC: 20-year-old Rutkoff!

PR: Yeah! All that blond hair. But that’s you know, I was pretty tough looking.

CC: That you were. I will admit.

PR: But I didn’t know it.

CC: Maybe that was a good thing.

PR: Probably. [Pause] Keep going. I’ll find it.

CC: Lovely.

[TRACK 3, 01:04]

CC: So, you’ve just shown me a photo of you at 20…

PR: Maybe 22. Something like that.

[TRACK 3, 01:23]

CC: …22, 20. What does camp life look like at that time? What are the children coming in telling you about how the camp is changing, if at all?

PR: Very little. It was this whole business about, “We’re going to do it just like we always did it.” And, “we do it because we love it and we love each other” and “you’re gonna have a good time too!” It’s a miracle how few kids, that I remember, got homesick. I don’t remember anybody actually leaving in the middle of the summer because they were unhappy. So this is imagining but the memory I have of camp is a place where people were happy and felt like they belonged. Sorry if this is boring to you.

CC: Not at all! I actually enjoy this. We’re passed the time but we can..

PR: Whatever you want. I don’t know why I can’t find this picture.

Duration

30:00 – Track 1
30:00 – Track 2
02:37 – Track 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

1,411.2 kbps

Time Summary

3:22 – Relationship to Cooperstown
9:32 – Camp Culture
27:43 – Sacrifice Meal
8:29 – Otsego County Bonds
20:06 – Otsego Lake
22:57 – Craftwork at camp
19:52 – Love for Baseball

Files

Citation

Charles Clark III, “Peter Rutkoff, November 15, 2017,” CGP Community Stories, accessed August 19, 2018, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/328.