July 12, 2024

Retired founder of Newton deli writes book about his coming-of-age experience

Phil Muta, author of ‘Camp Laura,’ says everyone should take time to tell their stories

Phil Muta holds up a copy of his first book, "Camp Laura," during a signing March 27 at PJ's Deli. Muta founded the Newton-based deli 37 years ago and has since transferred ownership to his son and daughter-in-law. Doing so allowed Muta to finally tell a story he had wanted to write for almost 40 years, long before he owned the deli.

Phil Muta had a story stuck in his head for close to 40 years. At the age 80 and with his ownership of PJ’s Deli now transferred to his son and daughter-in-law, the Newton man finally found the spare time to memorialize an experience he had as a teenager working at a camp in Pennsylvania with four other friends.

The book is called “Camp Laura,” and it is largely based on Muta’s true stories. At the behest of friends and family, he held a book signing this past week at the corner booth of PJ’s Deli behind the soda dispenser. He sat next to a dozen copies of his novel, which were arranged in three neat piles.

On the cover is an illustration of a man and woman sitting in the back of a pickup. A cabin can be seen in the background. Of course, as the first chapter of the book mentions, many of the structures of that camp have long disappeared. Burned down, torn down, worn down. All that is left is Muta’s memories.

When it came time to retell his stories and record his experiences into a novel, Muta said it turned into a “labor of love.” It was hard work, but well worth it.

“It was like visiting an old friend,” he said. “Everybody has a story in them. This was my story that I had to get out. I wish everybody would write about their stories. It kind of writes your story in stone when you publish something. It’s nice to write something that you love and care about.”

In addition to the fond memories he had hanging out with his friends, the camp was also where Muta found his first girlfriend, who was a camper. The book also recalls all the trouble Muta and his friends got into and the interactions they had with the other campers. It should make readers laugh and even feel sad at parts.

With one book down, Muta is enjoying his fourth career as an author. Prior to owning PJ’s Deli — which has been serving the Newton community for 37 years — he enlisted in the military and then worked for Western Union. Which means Muta wanted to write and publish “Camp Laura” before he ever owned the deli.

“I started the idea maybe 30 or 40 years ago, and I didn’t start writing it until just recently,” he said. “But I had always wanted to do it. I kept putting it off, kept putting it off. Everybody can write a book, but it’s real hard to sit down and start. I wish everybody would start. I wish people would put their stories down on paper.”

Phil Muta signs a copy of his first book, "Camp Laura," during a book signing March 27 at PJ's Deli in Newton. "Camp Laura" is based on the real experiences Muta had as a teenager working at a camp in Pennsylvania. The 80-year-old wanted to tell this story for several decades but did not find the time until recently.

While some of the story elements may be heightened for dramatic purposes, Muta maintains the book is still very close to what really happened. The nicknames of himself and his friends — like Kuni and Lats and Clock, for instance — remain intact.

The more he aged, the more Muta found himself reminiscing of the time he had at the camp. For some reason, he said, the older you get, the more you think of your younger days. Of course, he also feared he might forget his story as time went on, which made Muta even more determined to finish “Camp Laura.”

Muta said, “It’s almost like the older you get, the more you go back and the more you remember or revisit your youth. I don’t know why that is. That’s what this book is about, just revisiting my youth. I learned that life throws a lot of curveballs at you. Sometimes you hit them. Sometimes you strike out.”

Whether he knocked it out of the park or will be sitting on the bench the rest of the game, Muta is glad to have revisited his youth and finished a story he had wanted to tell for almost four decades. He also learned he did not go through life alone and shared experiences with many people he loved.

“You know, you never go through this life alone. You always have your friends. Without them it would really be a miserable life.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.