Throwback to 1969: My American Camp Summers with BUNAC

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Old school BUNAC alumni, Phillip, got in touch with us recently to share his unforgettable memories from his two summers spent at Summer Camp USA in New Hampshire in 1969 and 1970.  The British Universities North America Club, as we were formerly named back then, inspired him to go and work in the travel industry - an industry that has become his lifelong career. We are so proud to have played such a prevalent part in Phillip's youth. With over 60% of current BUNAC staff having experienced the amazing magic of Summer Camp USA  themselves, we are passionate about listening to these stories and sharing them. So, without further ado, here's Phillip!

I was a nineteen year old Physical Education student in my first year at St Luke’s College, Exeter, when I saw a notice advertising a summer job in the USA with flights and ‘pocket money’ thrown in, courtesy of the British University North America Club.

I was young, fearless and free spirited, so I signed up for six weeks as a sailing instructor in New Hampshire but booked flights for a ten week stay in the USA with no idea about what I would be doing between the end of my contract and my non-changeable, non-refundable flight home! 

A few months later, I found myself in New York, boarding a Greyhound bus to New Hampshire followed by six wonderful weeks at Camp Winaukee, teaching watersports to young Americans and making friends with my fellow Camp Counsellors.

The camp looked out over Lake Winnipesaukee (meaning: ‘beautiful water in a high place’) and log cabin bunkrooms provided comfortable accommodation for about ten campers and two (adult) counsellors per cabin. The 7– 12 year old campers stayed on the mainland but the 13 – 15 year old campers stayed on a nearby island, as did I.

The sports facilities (which were excellent) comprised of American football, baseball and soccer pitches, outdoor basketball and tennis courts and the watersports equipment included sailing dinghies (similar to our Enterprise class), ‘Sunfish’ sailboards, native Indian style aluminium canoes, kayaks and motorboats for water-ski-ing, all of which I was able to teach. 

I especially remember that the food was truly amazing – I once ate five fried chicken ‘quarters’ in one sitting!

The camp was very professionally run on a strict ‘loco parentis’ basis and the majority of the Counsellors were either teachers, undergraduates or professional sports coaches. Just about everyone stayed on site during the day, but in the evening a rota system allowed small group us to leave the camp and visit nearby bars for a few drinks and to meet the locals.  Happy days!

Each day would start with everyone lined-up in front of a flagpole for the raising of the Stars and Stripes flag! This was followed a huge breakfast and a compulsory programme of sports and activities. Campers could then opt for their favourite activity or hobby in the afternoon (with compulsory rest periods). Evening activities were optional, relaxed and more fun and leisure orientated, including rehearsing for the hilarious End of Camp Counsellors Concert!   

Finally with camp over, I looked ahead to a whole month in front of me and no particular place to go.

“Hey Phil, come home with me”, said a Counsellor by the name of Big John. “I’m driving down to New Orleans and could do with the company.”

“Come and visit us in Fresno,” added Rick, another Counsellor. “That’s in California.” 

‘Sure, why not?’ I replied - to both!

A few weeks later I found myself behind the wheel of a five litre Ford Mustang GT driving down the Eastern Seaboard of America on US95 with BJ asleep beside me. I wasn’t his passenger; I was his co-driver!

I hadn’t realised that BJ’s intention was to drive the whole 1,600 miles from New Hampshire to New Orleans more or less non-stop, but that’s what they do in America. The roads are straight and the cars are big.

Two days later we arrived at BJ’s home where I spent the following week exploring New Orleans and sleeping, occasionally, at BJ’s. Then, one Monday morning, I stitched a Union Jack flag onto my rucksack and set out to hitch hike to Fresno, not appreciating that it was 2,100 miles away!

I didn’t make it. At least not by hitch-hiking.  After three days and 1,000 miles on the road, I found myself stranded outside El Paso near the Mexico border and had no choice but to take Greyhound buses the rest of the way to LA and then on to Fresno. 

I spent a couple of days with Rick and his family, but, I was running out of money and realised that I couldn’t afford to fly back to New York! Hitch hiking was out of the question, so I decided to return to BJ in New Orleans who said that he would be able to find me some work as a Barman. 

I flew standby from LAX to New Orleans, but not to a Barman’s job.

Whilst I was in Fresno, Louisiana had been hit by Hurricane Camille, then the second most powerful storm in American history, and BJ asked me to help him repair his blown-off roof and help his neighbours clear up the storm damage, earning me enough money for my final Greyhound Bus ticket back to JFK and, just in time, my flight home. 

I returned to Camp Winaukee in 1970 but, this time, with a more sensible plan. I would teach sailing for six weeks, spend just one week travelling in New England and then return home with enough dollars to buy my first car!  

I had an even more enjoyable and fulfilling six weeks at Camp Winaukee, especially as I knew many of the kids and Counsellors from 1969. One of these youngsters was Craig Davies, who’s Dad, Hal David, was famous for writing, in partnership with Beret Bacharach, ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ - which probably won’t mean much to today’s student population (ask your parents!)

After camp finished, I travelled around New England and Cape Cod for a few days before returning to the UK and the purchase of my very first car - a second-hand Morris Minor! I now work in tourism and have been back to the USA, especially New England, scores of times. It’s a great country with great people and I often think back upon these first and very formative experiences. Thank you, BUNAC. 

By Phillip Cooke (aged 68)

Feel inspired by Phillip's 1969 memories? You're not the only one. Join our BUNAC Alumni community Facebook group - a platform to share your travel memories, reconnect with old friends and keep up to date with everything BUNAC. Alternatively, if you're eligble for Summer Camp USA now, why not start your application and experience your own American summer next year? 

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