During the Cold War there were a number of outdoor-oriented camps—mostly in the northeast—that were set up for the children of labor union members, Communist Party activists, and other left-of-center people who, like parents everywhere, wanted their kids to have a chance to run around in the woods, swim, and sing camp songs in the summer. I learned about two of them while researching the Willie McGee case: Wo-Chi-Ca (which stood for Workers Children’s Camp) and Kinderland. Wo-Chi-Ca was in New Jersey and Kinderland was in upstate New York.
Both places were obviously very special to the people who attended them, and both have active “alumni” associations whose members keep in touch as a way of remembering their shared past. Of course, they were demonstrably different from the utterly cornball Boy Scout camp I attended when I was a 12-year-old in Mississippi—the legendary Camp Kickapoo, where redbugs, ticks, and snakes far outnumbered human beings, and the scrambled eggs were served by the scoop. “A Brief History of Camp Kinderland,” a timeline published on the Kinderland Web site, gives you a feel for just how different:
1936: The “Fascist” team wins Capture the Flag. The Loyalists team loses.
1937: The last year that campers marched to breakfast, with fists in the air, saluting the Flag of the Soviet Union. The thinking changed from less pro-Soviet to more anti-fascist.
1947: World Youth Festival in Prague celebrated in Camp; greetings sent from Prague by ex-camper, staffer . . . Marx Wartofsky, representing the Jewish Young Fraternalists.
The camps’ political leanings drew squint-eyed attention from government officials, and both faced harassment during the 1950s. An A.P. story from 1955 (“Camp Heads Balk State Red Probers”) reported on a grilling by a committee of the New York state legislature, whose members questioned grown-up representatives from Kinderland and its adult counterpart, Camp Lakeland, about what the hell they were up to out there. The Fifth Amendment was invoked often as witnesses dodged accusations of indoctrinating the kinder. The hearings also featured that staple specimen of Red Scare investigations: a one-time believer who, like Whittaker Chambers himself, had changed his tune.
“The former camper was Pvt. Stanley Wechkin,” the story said, “now 20 years old.” Wechkin, a Kinderlander in 1947 and 1948, recalled “group singing of ‘well-recognized Communist songs,’ such as the Soviet national anthem, songs from the Spanish civil war, and ‘Bandera Rosa’ (the scarlet banner), the last line of which he said was ‘long live communism and liberty.’ ”
Should kids have been exposed to such things? I don’t see why not. At Kickapoo, I was forced to participate in the “buddy system,” sing “Oh What A Goose I Am” (we were told we were singing in Korean!), and take ice-cold showers in front of cackling strangers. It was the next best thing to being in East Germany.
Anyway, Kinderland came up in the McGee case because I found old letters in the papers of the Civil Rights Congress—the New York City-based group that ran McGee’s defense—whose contents make it very clear that, during the summer of 1950, two of McGee’s four children were sent there.
Or so it was said in these letters. McGee’s four children were actually in Las Vegas, Nevada, that summer, a curious fact that I explain fully in the book. So who were these two kids? I offer theories about that, but I was never able to nail down exact details on names and faces. I spent quite a bit of time looking for Kinderlanders who were there in that era, to see if they knew.
And if that weren’t confusing enough, there was this: According to a book called Tales of Wo-Chi-Ca, a history of life at that camp, two of McGee’s children were sent there in the late 1940s. Their names were given as Adolphus and Marjorie, but neither name matches the real names of McGee’s four children: Willie Earl, Della, Gracie Lee, and Mary.
While I was at it, I contacted some Wo-Chi-Ca veterans about all this, but they couldn’t solve it, either. Even so, I refuse to give up, because you never who might turn up with the answer. In that spirit, here are the documents I found. If anybody out there knows something, contact me.