Camp Lutherlyn, Camp Haiastan, and “Pumpkin Suni”
Vahe H. Apelian
Reproduced from Armenian Weekly (2001 ?).
BUTTLER, PA: Driving our children to the annual AYF Junior Seminar in Camp Lutherlyn became an annual ritual in our family since we moved to Cincinnati in 1995. Camp Lutherlyn is located in Prospect, Pennsylvania, 325 miles or so from us. There is no AYF chapter in Cincinnati, which is why we took upon ourselves to drive our sons to the camp.
This was the last time that David, our youngest son would attend the seminar as a junior participant. He was placed in the grown-ups cabin, a situation that made us realize that a phase in our lives has now come to its end. Butler, the town next to Prospect, had become our Memorial Day weekend gateway. My wife and I rummaged the local antique shops and the flea markets or fairs and enjoyed Pennsylvania outdoors as our children attended the seminar these past six years.
Most parents have not visited Camp Lutherlyn and for good reason. The AYF chapters bus the children there, covering a distance which is not meant for the faint-hearted or for those who have not set their minds for making the long journey a memorable experience. Ours was no different. During the past years, we accumulated our share of experiences of missed exits, wrong routes, memorable lunch stops and familiar landmarks.
But none of these will ever come close to the way I related to the camp on our way there, on the highlands of Pennsylvania, some five seminars back. It was to be David’s second attendance. I asked him if he remembers anything from the educational from the previous seminar. He said he remembered well what “Pumpkin” Suni and his friends did for the Armenian cause. David’s slip of toque was agonizingly evident and yet conspicuously innocent. Born in America and now growing up in the Mid-West, toque twists of Armenian names or wrong connotation, is the least I would have been concerned. I was sure that in time, he would learn the correct pronunciation of the name that had fired the imagination of countless children and youth, including mine.
My father enrolled me in the Papken Suni Badanegan (Youth) Mioutyun (Association) when I was David’s age. We held our meeting on Saturday afternoons in the old building of the Beirut Gomideh. At least once a year we held the same debate over whether Papken Suni and his friends served the Armenian cause by their deed, or whether it was a reckless act. We knew the outcome of the debate and few us ever volunteered to be in the team that negated the act. But at times we did since someone had to.
And now Papken Suni’s name had acquired a new twist with my American born son who was growing up trick or treating the neighbors on Halloween day with their overgrown pumpkins. But the spirit of the act had now caught his imagination too. The passage of the legacy of sorts had indeed taken place.
For three days, during the long Memorial Day Weekend, Camp Lutherlyn becomes the microcosm of the best the Armenian community offers to its children. Arriving from different states of the East Coast, the kids get together to renew their friendship and relate to the past year’s camp experiences as if it had happened only yesterday. Soon they realize what was meant to be only yesterday is in fact 365 days old now. Nature has taken its course and they are now a year older. For all those parents who are not there to see, we bear witness of the joy of their children seeing each other and for being together for one more time and the all too evident sadness at the departure time after three memorable days. And yes, sadly, we will miss that too. Come next year we will not be there anymore.
For the past six years, we witnessed the dedicated work of the AYFers who organize the annual Junior Seminar. It’s a huge undertaking and is well organized by the AYF Seniors or Alumni who are now shouldering their own personal responsibilities. These dedicated young men and women devoted countless hours to make the Junior Seminar a memorable event for the few hundred kids who attend.
David is an AYF member-at-large and attends the seminar independently. However, right upon our arrival, he fits with the crowd. By now we know what to do. After we pull our car on the campground and see David saluting and hugging his fellow campers of past years, we head towards the main station and give David’s name. The attendant pulls a file bearing his name. In that file, we find the program, the layout of the camp, his assigned cabin and the names of the kids who will be with him in the cabin. A similar file is prepared for each and every camper.
Each cabin is given the name of a memorable ARFer. This year David’s cabin was called Mikaelian. The next cabin was named after Palabegh Garabed, the next one over, the inevitable Papken Suni. Along with the names, a brief biography of the person with a picture is also posted on the door of the cabin. On this Memorial Days weekend, past ARFers who also sacrificed, at times with their lives, are also remembered. Each cabin has one or two councilors. Along with the educational, the dances, the three evenings in the cabins, the long drive to and from the camp, constitute the bulk of the experience for that year.
In August David will attend Camp Haiastan for the last time as a camper. Daniel, our elder son, is now a former camper, counselor, and lifeguard at Camp Haisastan. David may follow in his footsteps and may opt to become a councilor too in the future. However, their time as an impressionable youth has now come to pass.
On behalf of our family, I would like to thank all those who organized these seminars and the experiences both at Camp Lutherlyn and at Camp Haiastan. Unknowingly maybe, they opened a window for our children in ways that we, as parents, would not have been able to do by ourselves. And for all those who made these experiences possible and memorable for our sons, we remain ever grateful.