My First Job: Child Labor Law Violations or Perfect Adirondack Summers?

My first job was working at my parents’ campsite in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Less than an hour from the Canadian border and closer still to Lake Placid, my father enjoyed telling people that he didn’t build a campsite to make money, he built it to raise children. While we didn’t have Jersey Shore television show back then, I’m certain my parents were frightened that if we summered in Jersey, we would be kidnapped and tanned against our will by the late 60’s counterpart of Snooki.

The land that would eventually be a 50-site campground was initially a property cleared for the Syracuse football training camp. There was an empty cinder block building that would house an office, a snack bar, a laundry and a game room. One of dad’s earliest investments included little Charlie Brown trees that create a forest atmosphere there today. If you go to North Pole Resorts, the current owner will show you some the original concrete treeless photos, concrete evidence that my father never went camping.

One of the first rooms to be finished was the large recreation room. It was wonderful for playing guitar as the concrete walls and floor created a sort of special effect I like to call “pre-verb,” effortless and loud, no pedals, microphones or electricity needed. The wreck-room acoustics were conducive for the stand-up comedy musings of my friend, Vinnie. We weren’t yet ten when we would hang out and Vinnie would put on a little show. When he found something that worked, he would parlay that into an entire summer of material. Vinnie could take one word, and say it in multiple contexts and screams. Pergaments was one of his favorite jokes. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what Pergaments was, and he was always outraged by one Pergament thing or another. Fast forward forty years, his outrage is focused on Pergament’s successor, the Home Depot. His rants can be seen re: the big-box hardware store at his own comedy club, Vinnie Brand’s Stress Factory.

One of my chores was to sweep the large concrete wreck-room floor every day or two. Kicking up the dust kicked up my asthma, but the cure for that was this red, sawdust like stuff that I would sprinkle on the floor and then sweep up. My parents were so good at parenting, they wouldn’t let a little bronchial tube constriction prevent some good old fashioned sweeping.

The pool was Pop-Pop’s domain, and he would let me use the chemical tester. I felt like a scientist, squeezing the drops into the little plastic cylinders and shaking. Delighted when the color was the desired match, I counted it as personal failure when the chlorine or Ph was out of whack.  We would pour liquid chlorine directly around the edges of the pool when things were too clear in the tester vials. My grandfather was too kind to throw me in the deep end, when I couldn’t swim at age 14, my father did it for him.

My sisters and I learned a lot about humanity from our garbage collection duties. Despite the sparkling clean bathrooms, campers would dump their porta-potties into the garbage cans from time to time. Guys would shit in the wall hung urinals (how is this even possible?) and it wasn’t unusual to see someone of either gender doing dishes in the bathroom basins. Early on, I realized that left unobserved, people were essentially pigs.

The job that most suited me was registering campers. I loved our antique cash register and I enjoyed making change. The first summer it was $3.00 a night for a site and $3.50 with electricity. Rather than pay the fifty cents, some campers would run a long extension cord across the road. From this I discerned that pigs were also cheap. While the non-electricity-paying-poopers-in-the-urinal types were statistically rare, it only takes one to ruin your day. Later in life I realized that people arriving at their holiday destination don’t need a precocious child that knows how to make change. What they need is a rest room.

Exciting summer memories include the Apollo moonwalk. We built a little “lunar lem” out of wooden pallets and all the campers huddled around their 13” televisions to see the “giant leap for mankind.” It was also an exciting summer because my Aunt Patty and Uncle Bill and got married! My sister’s and I made a big “Just Married” sign, attached it to a golf cart, and drove it down the campsite road a few times. My generous Aunt and Uncle were constantly inviting me places, but my mom would find a reason not to let me go, to try to give them some honeymoon time. It was by the mysterious shadows cast by the shimmering luminescence of their lantern that I realized, like father, I would never be a tent camper.

A solid portion of the business relied on campers that would return year after year. Early spring would bring “the fishermen,” two guys that brought their wives and a daughter my age that would be my pen pal through many winters. They fished the stocked AuSable River, and brought their catches to the office each day for my mom to freeze. A Canadian family with two sons my age also came annually. The perfect family, the dad was always cooking something and the mom used Comet to clean around the edges of the pool and flirt with my Pop-Pop-pop. On rainy days the sons and I would play Yahtzee and The Game of Life under their camper awning, and one night the “no fraternizing with the campers” rule was lifted and I was permitted to have dinner at their campsite. A loud argument erupted between the two adults. Formerly a family straight out of Walt Disney World’s “Carousel of Progress,” they now were a normal family, like mine, or any other.

In the fall that year my mom took ears of corn out of our chest-style freezer. It was both funny and sad when the corn turned out to be the Canadian’s fish. We imagined them sitting around ready to have their Adirondack trout dinner, only to peel the wrappings off of the corn-on-the cob catch of the day.


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