Buddy Holly, Frozen Coke, and the stairway to heaven
“Oo-ee-oo I look just like Buddy Holly
Oh-oh, and you’re Mary Tyler Moore
I don’t care what they say about us anyway
I don’t care ‘bout that”
Buddy Holly by Weezer
When we were young, we went to camp Dearborn in Milford, Michigan every year for two weeks of summer vacation. We looked forward to it, mostly because we were there with our cousins. In fact, our extended family reserved between eight and ten tents every year.
What they called tents in Camp Dearborn were really wood frames set on concrete slabs, enclosed with hard steel screens and draped in a very heavy, olive-drab canvas. Each “tent” had a canvas awning over a picnic area that held two picnic tables -- big enough for almost any family back in the 1970s. There was a kitchenette area that had an electric stove and a refrigerator enclosed in a wooden cabinet. All this was set upon the same large concrete slab. The slabs sat in rows , about 10 feet apart, and there were many, many rows back in that time. Together, it was called “Tent Village.”
For us kids, this was the perfect vacation. There was a vast playground area, a sandy, man-made beach, a large swimming pool, a fishing lake, a paddle boat lake, arts and crafts every morning and organized sports every afternoon. The pièce de résistance, however, was the canteen.
The canteen was near the beach, and it was a fair but not impossible walk from all of the tents in Tent Village. The canteen served burgers, hot dogs, fries, and other short order food. Most people, however, stopped there for one of two things: ice cream and frozen Coke. I had my first frozen Coke at the canteen; this was years before 7-11 stores began springing up with their variety of “Slurpees.” It was the only place to get a frozen Coke, so naturally it was one of those must-haves every vacation.
I have many memories of Camp Dearborn vacations. Some are brief, like the memorable family portrait we had when I was about 15 years old. One of the things they did every year at Camp Dearborn was come around and offer to take a family photo. Mom would corral us before we ran off to one destination or another and make us wait for the photographer. Trying to keep five boys around the camp when the playground, ball diamond and lakes were calling could not have been easy, so I don’t think she can be blamed for failing to anticipate my younger brother Mark’s clothing malfunction. Like Janet Jackson’s infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Mark’s clothing failed to cover everything when he sat down. Those were the days of fringed denim shorts, usually homemade back then, and Mark’s shorts were more fringe than shorts. I don’t think anyone noticed at the time, but when we noticed later, we didn’t let him live it down.
Most of the photos were funny for one reason or another -- each a slice in time preserved for later. In another memorable one, almost all of us were scowling, especially Mom, probably from a fight just before the photographer arrived. These were taken back in the days of flash and film photography, and you didn’t dare ask for a retake unless it was the photographer’ s fault. Another family photo was amusing because of our elephant bells (bell bottom pants -- the pant legs so wide at the bottom they covered your shoes), tye-dye shirts, headbands and wristbands a la Greg Brady (of the Brady Bunch television show).
One of the photos that sticks in my mind is probably when I was about 12 or 13 years old. In that photo, I was gangly, pimply, and wore Buddy Holly glasses. Now, don’t get me wrong -- Buddy Holly glasses were cool in the 50s and 60s, and they may even be cool now, but in the 70s, if you had to wear glasses, they had to be wire rimmed, like John Lennon, John Denver, or even Elton John. If you really think about it, Buddy Holly is similar to Albert Einstein -- you want to be like him, but not necessarily look like him.
As I mentioned at the beginning, many cousins joined us there in Tent Village, among them were Grace, Ann, and Anthony. I didn’t get to hang out with Anthony until I was a bit older, as he was several years my senior. Grace was my age and in every class I had (all the way through school), and Ann was just a year older than us. Grace was the social butterfly. With Ann, Grace introduced me to the other attraction of the canteen -- the nightly teen dances.
The dances began around 7 p.m. and lasted until 10 p.m., concluding each night with “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. That song ended the night for many years, through 1975 at least, though it was released in 1971. In fact, the entire three hours of music was virtually the same each night. There was a DJ who would encourage people to dance and count down the last few songs of the night, but he probably was using a pre-recorded reel to reel.
I loved listening to the music and slurping frozen Coke, and on occasion, I might suggest to my friends that I was thinking of asking a girl to dance. I was terminally shy, and it was apparently my cousin Grace’s mission to help me get over it. After a futile night or two of exhorting me to get off the sideline (which was actually yellow parking bumpers, as the dance took place in a roped off parking lot), Grace set a trap.
It was Friday -- the big night before everyone left camp and went home. Grace, who made friends easily, mentioned that we were stopping to pick up a friend of hers as we were making the nightly trek to the canteen. We stopped at a tent several rows over, and Grace came out with a beautiful blonde girl about our age. Grace introduced her friend to all of us -- Ann, my brother Paul, and me. Then she turned to her friend.
“Well, what do you think?”
Blondie (I don’t remember her name) made a non-committal, guttural, somewhat unladylike sound. Grace took that as a cue to resume our walk toward the canteen. Grace and Blondie led the way, but they weren’t so far ahead that we couldn’t hear their conversation.
“He’s cute, isn’t he?” Grace said, trying to sell Blondie on the idea of dancing with her terminally shy cousin at the dance.
“Hmm, maybe, I guess if he got rid of the glasses,” Blondie said.
“Mike, take off your glasses,” Grace said. I looked at her like she was crazy, mostly because I knew I wouldn’t be able to see a thing, but also because my glasses were a big part of me by then. Nonetheless, I complied. Grace asked for Blondie’s evaluation again, and this time she was slow in responding. Meanwhile, I was doing my best not to get tripped up by objects in my path; the lack of 20/20 sight didn’t do anything to improve upon the awkwardness of my young teenage body.
“No, I don’t think so,” Blondie said dismissively. Grace was not to be deterred, however.
“Mike, push your hair to the side....”
I put my glasses back on and took another look at the sourpuss face of Blondie, now not nearly as pretty as I had first thought.
“Forget it, Grace,” I said. And we continued on to the canteen in silence for a while, then we let Grace and Blondie pull ahead.
I didn’t ask a girl to dance that night either, but thanks to Grace, I didn’t spend the night worrying about it. It was the first dance that summer that I truly enjoyed -- talking with the guys, sipping frozen Cokes, and listening to Robert Plant end the night. It was my Stairway to Heaven.
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