Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

When the school year ends next week, hundreds of lucky Arlington kids will shift to summer-camp mode.

These scamps have no way of knowing – if my experience can be trusted – that their coming blacktop adventures are as fun for grownups as for themselves, and the memories may endure a lifetime.

Recently I tracked down a man who was my playground counselor in the summer of 1965 at James Madison Elementary School. Bill Goodrich, now a Washington attorney, confirmed my fond recollections of weaving colorful lanyards and playing the dusty wooden billiard game “Caroms.” But he couldn’t have appreciated how his time coaching me on the guitar playing the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” would have stuck with me.

“I can’t think of a better first job for anyone to have,” Goodrich said, recalling his hourly pay at $1.75 as a high school senior sporting a gray recreation department shirt. “Occupying 30 or 40 kids all day wasn’t working hard, just doing what we were asked to do. It was a very formative experience for me, to understand how much impact could result from small efforts you make.”

A big difference back then, of course, was that there was no day care to speak of, and we kids – once overdosed on summer re-run television – simply wandered over to the playground unchaperoned.

“By today’s standards the entire setup was remarkably unstructured – not to be confused with disorganized or unorganized,” says my friend Glen Schneider, who spent summers in the late ‘60s as a counselor at Glebe and Patrick Henry Elementary. “Kids were largely on their own to choose their activities or just hang out and `play.’ This is in painfully sharp contrast to today’s world in which almost every kid’s activity has a time slot, a schedule, a coach, a parent volunteer and a T-shirt or trophy for everyone.”

Describing the few bats, balls and jump ropes the county provided to supplement the monkey bars, Schneider said, “Parents were almost nonexistent, though occasionally a mom would show up with popsicles, Kool-Aid or brownies.”

His contemporary, Snooky Brooks, now a casino manager, spent summers during college as playground manager at Tuckahoe school among others and carries memories of molding kids’ character. He halted the bullying of one boy who had cystic fibrosis (helping him in later life become a scorekeeper for men’s softball). And one of the tots he taught not to traipse through the mud was Ramsay Midwood, who today is an Austin, Texas, country rock musician with a few CDs under his belt.

What has changed in Arlington camps, says Carol Hoover, a section leader in the Parks and Recreation Department, “is the diversity of workforce – we pay more attention to the community so that camps feel welcoming to all races, nationalities and skill levels.” What is the same, she adds, is that kids who attend often grow up to be counselors and managers, now trained to protect health, safety and inclusion of those with disabilities. Today’s staffers wear blue T-Shirts, and the army of volunteers, she reports, wear shirts of baby blue.

Hoover, beginning last fall, helped set up 90 camps in schools and community centers, in themes ranging from soccer to history to nature to creative arts. Parents applied as early as February. The lanyards, she said, are still around. The Caroms? Not so much.