My uncle owned Camp Champlain in upstate New York and various relatives went there, or worked there, so it was a home away from home for me. But I could see that camp was not such a comfortable experience for some kids -- early in the summer, in particular, it was not unusual to hear one or two in a cabin weep at night from homesickness.
I never saw anyone as unhappy, though, as the boy we called Sherman, using only his last name. From the first day of camp, he wanted out, to get back home. We were 11 or 12, I'm pretty sure, but it's been four decades, so the memories are hazy -- though not my memory of the knife. That I'll never forget. And the song, of course.
Sherman had never been to camp before he arrived at my uncle's on Lake Champlain. He was the smallest boy in the cabin but made his presence known by reading us the letters he was sending his parents, telling them how miserable he was: "I wish you were here and I was there." "The counselor plays the trumpet in the middle of the night and won't let me sleep." That sort of stuff. But the letters didn't work. Sherman remained at the camp, and remained miserable, right up until the lunch hour when he took matters into his own hands.
We were at one of the long tables in the barn-like mess hall. He was sitting on my left. Another boy was on my right. They began arguing. About what I can't recall. But, as I said, I'll never forget the knife. Sherman picked his up and threw it. It hit the other boy square in the chest -- OK, it was a dull butter knife, and it may well have been the thick handle that hit the boy. But he fell backward nonetheless and started wailing. I grabbed Sherman in a headlock and probably started pounding on him. Of that I'm not certain -- but the headlock definitely. And the next day he was gone. They'd kicked him out.
I was amazed later when word filtered down that Sherman's parents had asked if he could come back. But it was near the end of camp and my uncle wouldn't budge. We never saw Sherman again.
Nor did we put two and two together when, in the next year or so, a man named Allan Sherman became the most unlikely of overnight celebrities.
A hitherto unknown TV quiz show producer, he was by his own account "a fat, ugly gargoyle," an asthmatic who wheezed and "the worst singer in the world."
Yet in short order, his raspy voice produced three chart-topping albums by transforming familiar melodies into Jewish-themed spoofs. He scored his first hit with a takeoff on the French children's tune "Frere Jacques," his version making it "Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman. How's by you? How's by you?"
His third album, however, sent him to the peak of his success. Released in summer 1963, "My Son the Nut" included a song set to Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours." Allan Sherman titled his version "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp)."
Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh
Here I am at Camp Granada
Camp is very entertaining
And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining
It's about a boy who desperately wants to go home, at least until the end of the song, when he decides camp isn't that bad after all, so "Muddah, Fadduh, kindly disregard this letter!"
I still did not make the connection until my uncle said, "You remember his son, don't you?"
That album topped the charts through summer '63 and Sherman performed with symphony orchestras around the country. He went beyond being just another guest on "The Tonight Show" -- he filled in as its host when Johnny Carson was away. But when President Kennedy was assassinated two months after that summer, the public's appetite for novelty humor rapidly waned. A decade after "Hello Muddah," Sherman was dead, found alone in a Los Angeles apartment on Nov. 21, 1973, felled by obesity and emphysema at 48.
By then, I was out of college and the whole story -- of the camp, the knife, the song -- was part of my cocktail party repertoire. Whenever childhood summers came up, I sprung it. No doubt others imagined that their own camps could have been a model for Camp Granada, but I had the goods, the real thing, what radio's Paul Harvey calls "The Rest of the Story."
Yet every time I told the tale, it left me uneasy. I knew the episode I was playing for a moment's entertainment involved the real troubles of a real little boy whose first name I could no longer even recall. I found myself wondering what had become of Sherman, and it was hard to imagine anything other than a sad, self-destructive life unfolding for him.
But it never occurred to me to find him, and find out, until this summer, the 40th anniversary of the song that became his father's comic legacy.
Not all comedians spring from bleak childhoods, but Allan Sherman lived the cliche. In his 1965 autobiography, "A Gift of Laughter," he recalled being abandoned by his father, Percy Copelon -- a stock car racer, mechanic and inventor -- as a young boy.