*Campers’ names have been changed.
It’s 9 P.M., and I’m in the cookies-and-milk line with 350 other campers. Or at least I think it’s the cookies-and-milk line. If there’s a line at Camp Echo, I get in it. Two campers, Blake and Randy*, and their counselor, Mike, stand in line in front of me, and they’re not moving to my satisfaction. “Line’s moving slow, huh?” I say, glancing at my watch, but they just look at me. I guess type-A personalities don’t belong in the cookies-and-milk line. Finally, I get my tiny carton and my oatmeal-raisin, and join my 10-year-old bunkmates from cabin B5-2. They’re gathered on the deck of the “Nest,” a fifties-style diner, what I would have called the Canteen back in my first go-round as a camper more than 40 years ago.
About twenty campers of various ages crowd a Ping-Pong table like grown-ups around a blackjack table.
“Let Robin play,” one of my bunkmates shouts at a player.
“No,” the boy says. “I’ve been waiting.”
Yeah, buddy, I’m thinking. Scram. This is my game.
My counselor, Snoopy, comes by. Young enough to be my son, he stands a head shorter than me but is three times as muscular. “My real name’s Craig,” he told me yesterday, “but the people here can’t pronounce my name. They call me ‘Creg,’ so I’d rather they just call me Snoopy.” He’s from Birmingham, England, and this is his third stint at Camp Echo, where I’ve arranged to return for a Summer Camp Do-Over of sorts. The camp, over 80 years old, is located near Merrick, on Long Island, about an hour from Manhattan, and draws largely from the five boroughs, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It’s only my second day here, and I’m infatuated with Snoopy in the way that 10-year-old boys get infatuated with their counselors. The problem is that I’m not 10. I’m 48, married, the father of three girls, a college professor. Infatuated with my counselor.
What I’m experiencing is “regressive pull,” a concept I’d never heard of until it was explained to me by Marla Coleman, the camp director and owner. Usually, it’s a bad thing, the tendency of a counselor to start acting like a child around a bunk of children. “With you,” she says, “we’re seeing its positive benefits.” I take this in with the force of revelation—it’s what brought me in the first place to Camp Echo after 30 years away, I think, and it explains why I’m so invested suddenly in cookies, milk, and Ping-Pong.
As a kid, I was a failed camper, an unimpressive physical specimen, an almost-sissy who had to use his brains to deflect the bully’s animus and divert his attention: “Psst, I’m not the one you want. There’s a sissy over there.” At Atlantic Beach Day Camp when I was 8, I organized a pickpocket ring in lieu of swim time. A year later, I learned to dog-paddle at Camp Catawba in North Carolina when an older camper shoved me into the pool in the deep end at night and then ran away. I never learned how to do the crawl, a source of shame my entire life.
Thirty years ago, I was an even bigger disappointment as a counselor at Camp Echo. The camp administration threw me into a bunk of the brattiest 10-year-olds anyone could imagine: privileged, whiny, spoiled—me when I was their age, but much worse. I remember the kids in my bunk placing bets on how long it would take to get rid of me. They liked the other counselor in the cabin; his name was Joel, and he listened without protest as they guessed whether I’d last one day, two, or a week at most. I was their third substitute counselor two weeks into the summer, and I had no idea how to handle the kids who flatly refused to obey me regardless of any consequences I offered. When I complained to one of the senior staffers, he’d poke his head in my cabin, do a General George Patton impression for a minute or two while the kids looked at him beatifically, and then he’d say, “See, you just have to be firm, Robin,” and then he’d close the door and the barbarians would riot again.
One day, the head counselor told me to get my subordinates to swim no matter what, but one kid refused to go. Nowadays, counselors learn positive techniques to handle such situations. But I had no models other than regressive pull, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time. So that’s what I did. I pulled. I pulled him off his bed and led him down the stairs of cabin B5-2, and then he dropped to the ground limp and expressionless, so I pulled some more. I dragged him about ten feet toward the lake when the head counselor marched up to me and said if he ever saw me lay a hand on a kid again, he’d fire me. The kid looked up at me with a smile, snapped his fingers, and pointed in “Gotcha!” fashion.