The summer after my freshman year at Hofstra University, I was hired as a camp counselor in the Catskills.
My new job was at Camp Mi-Han-Sa up in Ellenville, a small business run by a Brooklyn couple named Hannah and Sam. The camp has been gone for decades. Back then it offered plenty of kids their first summer jobs and provided great vacations for hundreds of Brooklyn kids. I vividly remember being handed a sealed envelope containing two weeks’ pay and feeling proud as hell.
It nearly didn’t happen.
The first week of July, the campers arrived. Most were driven by their parents. The kids all knew each other from the neighborhood and lost no time exchanging gossip.
About half the boys were 6 feet tall. The other half topped out above my waist. No kid was between those extremes. The taller youngsters spoke in Brooklynese baritones, sounding like auto mechanics weary after a day of fixing engines.
The smaller ones could have joined the Vienna Boys Choir had that vocal group operated out of Canarsie. The dudes were 13 or 14 years old and stood staring at me. I don’t remember introducing myself or learning their names, but we ended up getting along just fine.
The staff went off duty at nine. Every evening at five minutes after nine they raced to Ellenville in a noisy rally of backfiring second- and third-hand cars. Two counselors – one guy, one girl – drew night duty and stayed on the premises.
One evening the second week of camp, the night-duty guy was me. My campers were talking quietly in their bunks when a ruckus arose from the girls’ side.
I tore out of the cabin and raced over. Outside the screen door a gaggle of preteen girls in nightclothes and bathrobes shrieked: “Bat! Bat!” and circled the cabin screaming.
Effecting a bravado I didn’t possess, I strode in like a sheriff in the Old West. Somehow I was holding the other kind of bat, the kind used to play baseball. The bat in question was roosting upside down in a ceiling beam. I swung one bat at the other. I missed.
The bat screeched. The girls shrieked.
I stretched up and aimed the handle of the bat toward the flying rodent, whatever it was. I tried poking it. It screeched some more. I poked some more, then swung the bat again. The bat flapped its wings and fluttered towards the screen door, which miraculously swung open. The flying menace screeched a final time and flew off. The girls ran around the cabin screaming.
At this moment Hannah arrived. She took a quick look around.
She opened her wallet and pulled out a $10 bill. She held it out with undisguised contempt.
“Take it,” she said. “I want you out of here before breakfast tomorrow.”
This was both unfair and unpractical. Ten dollars would not have gotten me south of Kingston. It occurred to me that there was a principle involved. I did something I hadn’t done much of during my 18 years.
I spoke up for myself.
“I’m not fired, Hannah,” I said. “I haven’t done anything wrong. There was a problem before you got here and I solved it.”
Drawing a breath, I added: “That’s my job.”
Hannah glowered but repocketed the bill. The girls stopped screaming and watched in complete silence. Hannah turned and trudged back to the lodging she shared with Sam. I watched her back grow smaller and disappear into the dark woods.
A few girls shouted: ““Hooray!”
Two weeks into my first real summer job and I’d already learned a pair of life lessons. One: Speak up for yourself if you want to be treated right. Two: The best way to get rid of flying bats is with baseball bats.
I’ll let you figure out which lesson stayed with me.
Warren Strugatch is a partner with Inflection Point Associates in Stony Brook, a marketing and management consulting firm. Visit him online at InflectionPointAssoc.com