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Big Man on Camp


The bunks haven’t changed either. There’s no A/C, and that bunk smell of old towels and sweat pervades the cabin, intensified by the heat wave. Lights out at ten, though Brad usually allows us “flashlight time” for the duration of one cut from a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD. I bunk above Gary, the other new kid, in a coffin-size compartment that barely contains me, and I can hardly nod off in the heat. During morning cleanup, each bunk competes with the others for a sundae party at the end of the week, but nobody in B5-2 is too interested. I’ve arrived on Visiting Day, and the parents have left behind a Willy Wonka portion of sugar-coated love and expiation for their campers. I have no candy because my parents are dead and I’m a new kid, but my bunkmates display compassion (Value No. 7) by offering me some of theirs.

The regimentation of camp hasn’t changed much either—if anything, it’s become worse. Information Minister Marla will tell you that camp is a family, but it’s really a kingdom, a feudal society that demands complete obeisance. My immediate group has been told that I’m to be treated like any other camper. A lot of the other campers seem baffled by me—one wondered how many grades I was held back—but my counselors have no trouble addressing me like a 10-year-old. I’m reminded of this one morning as I go to fill my water bottle from the fountain next to B5-1, the cabin beside ours. Vince with his turned-around Yankees cap tells me there’s a better fountain, with colder water, behind our row of cabins, so I start making my way over.

“Robin, where are you going?” demands 18-year-old Brad, who’s sitting on the porch regarding me cannily.

“Come on, Vince,” I say, but Vince ignores me and starts beating Tony in the face with the palm frond.

“I—” I start to say and point.

“Is it necessary for you to go to that water fountain?” he asks in his best counselor voice, friendly but firm.

I put my head down, Charlie Brown–like, and trudge back to the lukewarm water in front of B5-1.

Another time, while running relays with coconuts during Luau Day, I suddenly get a terrible headache and tell Brad I’m going back to the bunk to get some aspirin. “We’re going to have to have a consult about that,” he says, and crooks his finger for me to step aside with him. He tells me that I’m not allowed to have any medicine in the bunk and that as a camper I can’t go to the bunk alone, so he recruits a 16-year-old counselor-in-training to escort me.

Most of the time I like this place, and I find myself reliving camp in unexpected ways. It’s impossible for me to be the jerk I had hoped to be, but I’m not a sissy either. I’ve tried on a new kind of boyhood, XL, and it fits. I’ve gone mountain biking, kayaking, horseback riding, swimming, played GaGa (where I struck out two counselors in a row), run basketball drills, and golfed, which I hadn’t done since I was 8, when the great-uncle who questioned my masculinity took me out on a course and criticized each swing.

One morning, I climb a 60-foot ladder to a tiny platform where I’m supposed to swing out onto a trapeze and fall on my back into a net below. Slowly I shimmy up to the platform, despite a fear of heights that at 60 feet does not feel unreasonable. A staffer tells me to rub my hands in a chalk bag so I can hold onto the trapeze, but when I actually grab the bar and feel its heft, I’m overwhelmed by a sudden panic, despite the rope harness I’m wearing. “I don’t think I can do this,” I whimper. “I want to get down.”

My bunkmates and counselors stand below, shouting for me to press on. And then all of a sudden I’m in mid-air, swinging.

“On the count of three, I want you to kick up your legs and let go of the bar,” the instructor says, and counts one … two … three, and I’m still swinging from the bar. This time, he says, he wants me to pay attention to the letting-go part.

And I do.


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