by Janet Gilmore

Janet Gilmore (the lefthanded archer, center) takes aim at bullies in the summer of 1957 at Willow Grove Day Camp. (We don’t know if she hit her target. It is classified information.)

When I cleaned out my car the other day, I found a gift certificate to the Olive Garden that I got in 2006. Do they expire? Darn, how could that happen? Some grown women cry over expired coupons. I didn’t cry, but I welled up. It wasn’t the money, though, it was — well…

What’s that line from “A Raisin in the Sun” — “What happens to a dream deferred?” If this were the movie of my life, the screen would get all swirly right now and take you back to the greatest days of my life.

In the summer of 1957 my parents sent me to Willow Grove Day Camp. To a city kid like me, summer camp was a gorgeously exciting, brave new world. TREES! WOODS! A POOL!

An urban kid, I’d never seen more than half a block in any direction before. My world was bounded by lines of row houses. The camp woods seemed to go on indefinitely. Kids could run forever on dirt rather than concrete and SWIM!

And just to make life sweeter: the day was organized into “activities” for me (I was a can’t-sit-still kid), and even better; most of the activities were competitive. I could do exactly what my parents had been telling told me NOT to do all my life.

For all of my 11 years, I had been one of the oldest kids on my block. There wasn’t much competition from the younger kids. That changed on Day One of camp, when my “bunk” went to the “mess hall” for some “bug juice.” Just the sound of the words changed me into a shameless gloater, who would use those words in front of younger kids back home who’d never been to camp just to underline my alpha-kid position.

Camp was bliss.

I discovered my own raw potential that summer, both athletic and personal. I met girls as bossy and competitive as myself. I was encouraged, cheered on by grown-ups, to run fast, play tether ball, develop a killer volleyball serve, twirl a baton, play a melody flute, cheerlead, play Pick-Up Sticks and swim fast, faster, fastest. And where else could I learn to shoot a bow and arrow without a neighbor opening a rowhouse window to tell me to “be careful with that thing?” I loved the girls who strove as hard as I did and kept me honest. My bunkmates.

There was a Willow Grove Day Camp reunion in June, 2006. “We have to go,” I told my husband, Hugh.

“We?”

He went anyway.

The one person I most hoped would be there was there that day, Howie Zeitz. Known to generations of kids as “Uncle” Howie, co-owner of the camp and the most enthusiastic “camper” of us all. In the wintertime he taught Phys Ed at South Philadelphia High School; in summer, he ruled over the Magic Kingdom. I had the feeling he really turned himself loose at camp in the summer, like the kids. We loved him.

I spoke to him at the reunion. He remembered me as soon as I told him my name, or gave a very good imitation of remembering. He leaned over and confided in me. “Jan,” he said, “you were one of the greatest campers to ever come through here.”

How about that? I could live off a compliment like that forever. And I agreed with him 100%. I knew that of the thousands of campers over the years, not one of them could possibly have been more wholehearted than I.

“Wow! Thanks, Uncle Howie,” I breathed. “I loved it here.”

“Stick around,” he said. “I think we might have something for you later.”

I dragged Hugh all around, re-visiting my former glory in Bunk #7, the archery field, the Arts and Crafts hut and the pool. Eventually, a small awards assembly was called. You know, “the person who came the farthest to attend,” and so on.

We applauded politely, and then suddenly my name was called for being “the oldest returning camper.” I doddered up and accepted a $50 gift certificate to the Olive Garden with reasonable grace, and we drove home. “Oldest returning camper,” I laughed. Then, “Well, let’s go to Olive Garden tomorrow!”

“I don’t like Olive Garden,” said Hugh. I was disappointed, but then he said, “I know — why don’t you treat Howie? You’d probably have a lot to talk about.”

A fantasy was born. Me, walking into Olive Garden with Howie and the staff saying, “You must be Jan! Greatest camper award, right? Congratulations!” Cue triumphant music.

I called the camp office the next day. They said Uncle Howie wasn’t there, but took the message that I was trying to reach him. He didn’t call back. I left several messages over several months.

No response.

Why would Uncle Howie not return a phone call from the greatest camper ever? Should I have mentioned my status when I called? Tired of taking messages, the camp office was glad to give me his e-mail address. After three un-answered e-mails, begging Howie to go the Olive Garden with me, I got the following message in November:

“Dear Jan, You are so very kind, thoughtful and wonderful to continue to think about us. We’ve had a hectic time but are now comfortably in Florida. We do get back to Philly occasionally, so hold on to that certificate!”

I’m calling Olive Garden tomorrow to explain why I haven’t used my gift certificate yet, and asking them to renew it if it has expired. “You see, Uncle Howie has been away, but I’m sure he’ll be back from Florida any day now, and we’ll have our special celebration. What? Who am I? You know Willow Grove Day Camp? Well, I’m two things — the oldest and the greatest camper…”

Some cynics among you might think that Uncle Howie whispers life-summarizing phrases like “greatest camper” to everyone, but I’m not a negative person like that. In fact I’ve kept up my skills in case I’m ever called on for a quick demo. Tetherball anyone?