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Camper follows his nose, arrives at boxing victory

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Camp Recro was nestled on beautiful Lake Sebago, high on a mountaintop in the Bear Mountains region of New York state. It was a respite for low-income kids from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to escape the heat of summer.

I loved the camp for its camaraderie, bunks with no electricity (lanterns were distributed at night), outdoor latrines, camp songs around a campfire, hikes through the woods and the burnt cocoa served at breakfast. But mostly I remember the event. It happened during the “Color War” competition, held annually during the final days of camp, when I was 10.

The campers were split into two groups. Half were picked for the “Blue” team and the other half for the “White,” and they opposed each other in various sporting events including softball, track, basketball, swimming and boxing. Points were awarded to the winning team for each event. The team with the most points at the conclusion was declared the winner and given exclusive bragging rights for that year.

The Color War was do-or-die time for the campers, and the competition was fierce. Your best friend became your worst enemy if he was on the other team. Since I was fleet of foot, I would invariably be entered in the 100-yard dash and the four-man relay events. Most of the time I would bring home the bacon, I mean gold (many campers were Jewish), and I always looked forward to the track races.

One unforgettable day, while I was basking in the glory of winning a long and grueling relay race and enjoying the sweet smell of success, the boxing coach, “Dirty Dan” Lifschitz, approached me.

“Alex,” he said mellifluously (I knew right away that this was a bad sign), “Our next event is boxing,” he cooed sweetly in my left ear. “Our 90-pound entrant, who was scheduled to fight Honahan, developed a serious podiatric condition — cold feet — and backed out of the match. We have no one else to substitute for him except you.”

“Honahan, the camp bully?” I gasped. Honahan, whom no one dared say hello to for fear of misinterpretation and, invariably, a black eye? Honahan, who kept in peak physical condition by punching out every other camper at least once during the summer? Honahan, who had a fearsome reputation and the well-earned nickname of “Honahan the Horrible” Honahan and who was so feared that even the camp cat ran away from him?

“No, coach, I didn’t renew my health coverage yet. Get someone else,” I said in a pusillanimous whisper.

“But we have no one else,” Coach Dan implored. “It would be embarrassing for you, me and our team to admit cowardice and forfeit this fight. Look, I will throw in the towel and stop the fight the minute you start bleeding.”

“Let’s throw in the towel right now unless you tell Honahan that I like my nose just the way it is.”

“No, we can’t do that,” he said in a beseeching manner. “You have to trust me, and I guarantee that we will not allow you to be beaten up — too badly.

“Show the world that the Blue Team is not afraid of Honahan.”

“The Blue Team might not be afraid of him, but I am.”

“Come on, Alex, step in the ring and represent the Blue Team.”

So, there I was, between the coach (a rock) and Honahan (a harder place). And before I had time to decline once again, the entire Blue Team was around me, cheering me on. How could I refuse? After all, I only had one life to give to the Blue Team, but why were they asking me to give it at such a young age?

I S-L-O-W-L-Y changed into my bathing suit (the dark one so the blood wouldn’t show), laced up my sneakers with an unsteady hand, donned the ominous boxing gloves and inhaled one last, deep breath. I took my seat at one corner of the ring with a snarling Honahan staring at me from the opposite end.

I don’t remember much of the fight because my mind was a total blank. But when it was over, I was told that in the first round I had bloodied Honahan’s right nostril. During the second round I had bloodied his left one, and during the third and final round I had bloodied both nostrils. Miracle of miracles, I won.

Immediately after the decision was rendered, 100 Blue Team voices, in unison, began to sing our fight song in honor of me. The song sent chills up and down my spine. I was the hero of the day.

After dinner that night, Mr. Migliorisi, the camp director, made a stirring speech about a camper’s courage. I listened proudly as he spoke of the uncommon valor exhibited in the boxing ring that afternoon.

“A young man, with a great heart, set the example for all campers to follow. Against great odds, he faced adversity and stood up to it. I want you all to give a rousing camp cheer for that young man.” (I started to rise from my chair.) “Our courageous fighter, Brian Honahan,” gushed the director. I sat down.

In defeat, Honahan had won. I wonder if I had allowed him to administer a savage beating on my nose, would I have received the accolades that were rightfully mine? No, I love my nose too much.

Through it all, I still have a warm spot in my heart for summer camp. I believe it can be one of the most rewarding experiences a young boy or girl can have. Where else can a 10-year-old kid have the opportunity to box and beat a “Honahan” and be a hero for a day? Not at Disney World!

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.

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