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Big Man on Camp


The author waiting to go swimming.  

At dinner, another boy turns to me and puts his finger to his nose. “If you see this,” he says, “do it, too.”

Presently, Snoopy puts his finger on his nose and I put my finger on my nose and so does everyone else, until one lone camper remains who hasn’t yet put his finger on his nose.

“You! You! You!” they chant at him, and he smiles broadly, and I’m thinking, You what? You nincompoop? You idiot? You blind fool who can’t put his finger on his nose fast enough? Is that all? Don’t these kids even know how to humiliate each other properly?

The bunk leader, according to Snoopy, is a boy named Jason. This is the kid I would have been terrified of when I was 10—he has the haircut and the look of a little Roman centurion. “Yessss! We have cooking today!” he yells one morning when Snoopy tells us the day’s schedule. I like cooking, too, but I never would have admitted it within earshot of a centurion boy when I was 10.

What’s going on with these boys? Of course I’m envious. I want their childhoods. In my day, positive reinforcement hadn’t been invented yet.

“Sounds delicious!” says Gary, a new kid like me, with a sweet voice, who would have been beaten up twice, once for being a new kid and once for having a sweet voice.

The bunk comedian, Dale, has blond hair and a mischievous grin. He sometimes wears a top hat around the bunk (he might have wound up in a body cast for that alone). “You just missed Top Hat and Tiara Day,” he tells me.

“I think it’s time you and I had a heart-to-heart,” he whispers on Luau Day morning while we’re sitting on the cabin porch waiting for Snoopy or our other counselor, Brad, to take us to breakfast on the beach of Camp Echo’s spring-fed lake.

“Why?” I ask, thinking he’s going to critique my yellow luau shirt, when he bursts into a song from The Lion King.

On the way to lunch one day, a darkly tanned boy named Vince who wears a turned-around Yankees cap runs after chunky Tony, saying he’s going to kill him. I should point out here that while I’m not in favor of Vince killing Tony, at least Vince seems more like the kind of boy I’m used to. He pulls Tony to the ground and sits on him. At this point, Tony is laughing.

“Do something, Robin,” he begs.

“Sorry, I’m just a camper,” I say, wondering if I too should sit on Tony just to prove it.

“Boy, I wish you were a counselor right now,” Tony says.

Vince lets Tony off the ground and starts kicking him in the butt as Tony walks with me. “Come on, Vince,” I say, but Vince ignores me and starts beating Tony in the face with a palm frond left over from Luau Day. Tony covers his eyes and starts crying. I ask if he’s okay, and Vince is concerned as well. Once Vince determines that Tony is going to be fine, he starts kicking him in the butt again.

Normally, as a grown-up, I would have stopped this before now, but regressive pull has me in a headlock, and Vince and Tony have accepted that I have no authority here. So have I. Later, I ask Tony if he’s okay. “Sure,” he says with a big grin. “Vince and I always fool around like that. We’re friends.”

What’s going on with these boys? Of course I’m envious. I want their childhoods, their camp experiences. Even though kids lately are often portrayed as hyperparented, heavily medicated, and overscheduled, the boys of cabin B5-2 seem a lot better off than my generation was.

Somehow, I grew up more or less well adjusted, though I’m not sure how. I didn’t have anyone helping me along like these kids seem to have. To me, childhood implies threat and alienation. My dad died of a heart attack when I was 7. My mother had to go back to school and work, and I spent most of my days unsupervised. Positive reinforcement hadn’t been invented yet. I remember my great-uncle worrying in front of me that I was a sissy. My mother told me girls wouldn’t like me if I didn’t gain weight. Family, schools, and camp worked hand in hand to turn us into little arts-and-crafts basket cases.

Certain things haven’t changed about camp, at least for me. I sputter and gulp my way through the crawl test, barely earning the blue plastic bracelet that serves as my ticket to the deep end. I still can’t shoot a basket. My four-foot-five compadres consistently outscore me.

The food hasn’t changed. Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken potpie, grilled cheese and curly fries, chicken tenders and, one day, their opposite. Chicken toughs, I call them: chicken breasts of a variegated southwestern adobe color. Pitchers of water and high-fructose colored juice sit at either end of the table. If campers don’t want to finish their juice or water, they simply pour it back into the pitcher. For this reason, I try to grab water as soon as I sit down. Green juice that tastes like gummy-bear blood and backwash is not my idea of refreshment.


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