It’s a well-known fact of life in these United States that many children, especially boys, are routinely forced by their parents to spend a week or more at some sort of summer sleep-away camp. In fact, my parents sent me to one such Bible camp one summer. I still shudder in recollection of the memory of that place.
I know it’s surprising to hear, but I have never been especially athletic or even really inclined to do much of anything out-of-doors, since it seems that exposure to the sun for anything more than fifteen minutes at a time causes my body to generate half a dozen or more pre-cancerous moles. But, because they’d supposedly already put down a non-refundable deposit, my parents attempted to put a positive spin on their decision (made, I should note, without any consultation with me) to send me to some horrible nightmarish camp where I was certain I’d die. Their pitch was the typical parental schpiel: “Camp will be fun! You’ll make new friends, and learn a lot of things!” (i.e., lies).
“I could do all of that at the public library, instead!” I protested, but it was too little, too late. My fate had been sealed in the form of a metallic blue DuPont sleeping bag with an electric orange interior lining that smelt of mildew from being stored in the basement unused for so many years.
The dreaded week came all too soon, and I, along with a handful of other boys, was herded into the back of a beat-up “sport utility vehicle” from approximately 1974. It had no air conditioning, and the interior walls were long gone. Thus, the doors and walls were nothing more than stamped pieces of sheet metal. Aside from the driver’s seat, there were no seats, either, so for two hours we were tossed around in the back like panties in the spin cycle.
Once we got to our “destination,” the man who had driven us there opened the back, tossed us into the parking lot, and drove away laughing maniacally.
I knew we were in serious trouble when I looked around at my surroundings. The camp—let’s call it “Camp Dumpaway”—appeared to have been, at one time, some sort of health spa (or perhaps a work camp for juvenile delinquents) that failed miserably. All of the buildings looked as if they had been built in the late 1960s; most were crumbling and had holes in the walls. I really wasn’t expecting that much to begin with, but if you’re going to run a camp, at least show some pride in it. Pressure wash the buildings every once in a while (unless this will weaken their structural integrity because the cobweb deposits are all that is holding them together), and maybe even paint them a nice shade of mauve or something that will encourage the campers to put themselves out of their misery early on.
The obvious state of decay of the place had already sent me into shock; it’s the closest I have ever come to feeling like a prisoner of war. But things just got worse. As we stood in the gravel parking lot with our belongings, uncertain what to do or where to go, a lanky counselor with shoulder-length surfer dude hair wearing an ersatz, unofficial scouting uniform of some kind appeared with a clipboard. It was time to be assigned to our “cabins.”
The structure I was initially assigned to cannot rightfully be described as a cabin; it was more of a garbage heap. It consisted of a large plywood platform “foundation,” over which was a large wooden “A”-frame structure. The sides were shingled all the way down to the base, but covering the open ends was some sort of cheap gauze-like fabric that I guess was supposed to be a substitute for actual window screening.
Provided for us were rickety iron bunk beds, each featuring a mattress roughly of the same quality as a few layers of damp paper towels; these rested atop wobbly, squeaky spring suspensions. Apparently, they had bought these beds from some mental institution, because there were restraints attached to the bed. My bed came with the mental patient still included.
After staying in that cabin for just one night, I demanded to be transferred after a grotesquely fat kid threatened to eat me, completely randomly and out of the blue. “No, I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m not here for you to eat. And while you certainly look capable of doing it, I’m staying as far away from you as—” I stopped mid-sentence, as he had started making slurping noises and baring his teeth (much like a bull terrier that has gotten into the beer). I backed away slowly, then ran screaming to the cabin counselor and demanded to be transferred.
The administrators, wisely sensing that they were dealing with a fussy junior Niles Crane type, moved me to another cabin which actually resembled a house (at least from the outside–there was no insulation or drywall inside); it even had crude indoor plumbing including shower stalls in what was actually recognizable as a bathroom, whereas previously the showers were not much more than black water-filled trash bags suspended from trees in the woods. The idea was that the sun would heat the water in the bags, and you’d jab them with a stick to get water flowing. It’s a nice theory, but in practice, it—well, I wouldn’t know if it worked or not, as I refused to do it.
So, while the living quarters were marginally better, my new roommates were much weirder than Fatty McCannibal could ever have hoped to be.
One boy, probably due to a clerical error, was much older than any of the rest of us. He had a proclivity for being buck-naked all the time, and would sit on his bed, eyeing us all suspiciously in an alarming manner.
There was one boy who attempted to provide us with a soundtrack, which was a nice enough gesture, except that the only CD he had brought was The Proclaimers’ single “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” which played on an endless… repeating… loop. OVER and OVER and OVER. By the third time I hated the song; by the seven hundredth time, I had forgotten all words and language other than the song lyrics.
There was another kid who never uttered a single word. He looked like he was a wooden statue. In fact, I never saw him actually move. I would look away for a second, and when I would turn back around, he was frozen in a different position somewhere else.
And then… there was James.
James had problems.
James was a short, fat kid who wore t-shirts that didn’t quite stretch all the way over his pudgy belly. His head was highly reminiscent of a startled and fully inflated blowfish (with fat lips). He plausibly seemed to be the offspring of John Waters and Louie Anderson, and his personality was some ungodly combination of Barney the Dinosaur and Richard Simmons.
I’m also fairly certain that James was as gay as a French horn, which would have been the least interesting thing about him if he hadn’t had the unwelcome habit of flitting from boy to boy in the cabin, showering each of us with uninvited and disturbing attention. One afternoon, for instance, as we were walking back from the archery range (which consisted of a dirt clearing in the woods with three foam circles nailed to trees at one end), he skipped up to me and tried to hold my hand, swinging it wildly back and forth as if he expected me to start singing “A Tisket, A Tasket” with him.
Alarmed and also grossed out, I yanked my hand away, but this did not deter him from patting my buttocks anyway–and it wasn’t so much a “pat” as him rubbing my butt cheek in a circular motion, which led me to hip-check him away. He apparently thought I was teasing him, as he giggled and said something like “Oh, Ryan, I like you, you’re so silly!”
“Gross. Leave me alone, weirdo, or I’ll break your neck.” Though there’s no question that I was physically incapable of such a feat, Lord knows I would’ve tried my best to do it.
However, this threat did not prove sufficient to deter James. One morning I woke up a bit early and, in an attempt to beat the morning rush to the bathroom, decided to take a quick shower. I thought everyone else was asleep. It sure looked like it. Each camper was in his own bunk, except for James, who was (as per his usual) sleeping on the floor beside our counselor’s bed.
Midway through my shower, as I was lathering up my hair, the curtain was abruptly ripped asunder, and there stood James. Of course. I leapt away and screamed, and did the best that I could to cover my private parts with my washcloth as he eyed me like a cat sizing up a mouse.
“Ryan!” he exclaimed, in a perverse “I won’t tell if you won’t tell” tone of voice. “You aren’t supposed to be in the shower!” (I don’t know why he thought this; there were no bathroom rules that I was aware of. Perhaps he was thinking of some sort of correctional facility that he had been housed in?)
Retaining a grip on my washcloth with one hand, in what may have been the only instance in my life where I actually landed a punch, I bopped him squarely on the nose with my other fist. I didn’t hit him hard enough to really injure him, but he toppled over, knocked his head against a sink, and crawled back out to his bed. I yanked the curtain closed and finished my shower.
* * *
Later in the week, a guy named Brian twisted his ankle and was rendered unable to walk without assistance. Why the boy wasn’t sent home is beyond me, so instead we took turns serving as human crutches. Guess who was the first volunteer. “Come on, friend!” James shrieked, dragging Brian along by one arm, clearly not understanding the task he was supposed to be performing.
I felt bad for Brian, so I approached James. “James, why don’t you let me help Brian?”
Clearly still upset by my violent refusal of his sexual advances in the bathroom days earlier, he simply screamed “NO!”
“James, come on. I don’t think that Brian wants to be dragged behind you like a dead poodle on a leash, especially with his ankle in so much pain. Why don’t you let—”
“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!” he screamed as he jumped up and down, stomping on Brian’s bad foot numerous times.
Before I can explain how I kept Brian’s leg from being mangled beyond recognition, I need to introduce our cabin counselor, whose name was Steve. Steve was, in a word, “festive,” and he probably had no business working with children. Had the FBI known that he was associating with prepubescent boys, it’s probable that they would have sent several helicopters and a SWAT team to retrieve him.
Steve was also something of a soccer fan—or, at least a fan of soccer apparel, but not actual jerseys or anything–just the stuff you’d buy at Dick’s Sporting Goods to wear for an intramural game or something. His wardrobe consisted entirely of Umbro shorts in a variety of tacky patterns, as well as various coordinating soccer jerseys (but again, not, like, Christiano Ronaldo’s number or whatever–just plain ones with no team for some reason). These ensembles were never complete without ridiculous, colorful knee-high socks. Weirdly, he did not keep his clothes; each night, as he’d get undressed for bed, he’d give his clothing articles away to various campers. He insisted on giving a pair of his shorts to me, though I threw them away in the bathroom trash can as discreetly as I could.
James was utterly enamored with Steve, probably because Steve didn’t really bother to rebuff James’ creepy advances, unlike everyone else, so as a last-ditch attempt to rescue poor Brian from being manhandled by James, I blurted out, “James! Steve is calling you!”
James looked at me dumbly, dropped Brian to the ground in a crumpled heap, and ran to the front of the line, shrieking and flailing his arms wildly until he reached Steve, who characteristically did not wave him away like a mosquito. Needless to say, Brian was quite relieved that James would no longer be serving as his second good foot.
* * *
Towards the end of the week came an overnight “camping trip” to “Old Camp Dumpaway,” which none of us had been informed of prior to arriving. So, in other words, every boy staying at the camp, from youngest to oldest, was forced to carry his sleeping bag (but no backpacks, pillows, air mattresses, blankets, tents, or even tarps) up what had to have been an 80º grade for about six miles.
Once we “arrived” at a non-descript clearing in the woods that looked much like any other clearing on the entire property, save for the remnants of what I think were two burned-out chicken coops to one side, we were told to put our “gear” away.
“Huh? What gear? I have a sleeping bag from my father’s days as a Boy Scout that’s probably a fire hazard,” I thought. “That can’t be considered ‘gear.’”
Apparently it was, though; once our “gear” was “stowed” (i.e., thrown in a circle next to some random trees), we were informed that we would immediately go on another hike to some dumb overlook that we were repeatedly informed would be the most beautiful thing we’d ever see. In our lives. Ever. Never mind that there were kids dropping dead from dehydration right in front of the counselors, or that we’d just spent the past hour and a half walking up a near-vertical incline to this “old” camp location that couldn’t have been historically significant to more than approximately four people, all of whom were almost certainly dead.
Undeterred, the counselors led us onward, and after another exhausting hike we arrived at a completely unremarkable mountainside cliff. The view was of trees as far as the eye could see, with a smattering of scrubby mountains in the distance. And running right through the middle of it was an interstate highway.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” gasped the counselors, as if they were seeing a painting by Cezanne for the first time.
“No… there’s a road running through the middle of it,” I started to say, but I stopped in mid-sentence when one of the counselors flung a kid over the cliff (I heard him screaming as he fell—the scream abruptly stopped). The counselor, a ridiculous looking guy wearing a stupid floppy hat emblazoned with the Exxon logo, yelled down at the presumably dead camper and told him to “crab walk” up the side of the cliff to get back up to the top.
I never saw that child again.
After a period of “reflection” at this overlook (wherein more than one camper reflected specifically on how to progress to the next level in Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time on his Game Boy), we trudged back to the “campground” and learned that it was time for dinner. “Tonight we eat in style,” the counselors told us.
If this was actually an honest statement of opinion and not a failed attempt to bolster our floundering morale, then it’s likely that these same counselors would have considered “Moma’s Rodeside Resterant” (sic—this is a real place in the mountains of North Carolina, if it has not succumbed to bankruptcy or the county health inspector yet) to also be “stylish.”
Each of us received a sheet of aluminum foil, a rock-hard potato, and a dirty yellow onion.
“What is this?!” I asked a passing counselor.
“Dinner,” he said, plopping a big glob of raw ground beef into the center of my foil sheet using a rusty (or perhaps just filthy) ice cream scoop. The fact that someone had carried raw, unrefrigerated ground meat up to “Old” Camp Dumpaway was understandably alarming, especially since I had seen no one carrying a cooler or chill chest of any kind.
A nerdy and effeminate counselor reminiscent of Josh Gad, who I assume was in charge of the cooking portion of the excursion, stood up on a rotting tree stump and began screaming at all of us. “Okay! Fold your onion and meat and potato together inside the foil!” He tried to assemble his own foil packet while lofting his meat, onion, and potato over his head, as if he was some sort of ghastly flight attendant in the wilderness. He succeeded only at dropping the meat into his hair.
The next instruction was shrieked moments later: “Carry your ‘hobo burger’ to your cabin’s camp fire!”
While I knew that the meat-and-potato-filled packet was the “hobo burger” being referenced, I couldn’t help but comment aloud that “Hobo Burger” sounded like a failing fast food chain located in two counties in Maine–the kind that would have a ghastly clown-type thing you’d have to scream your order into at the drive-thru. A random child with no sense of humor informed me dryly, “They’re talking about your food, dummy.”
I took my “hobo burger” to Steve; he put it directly into the middle of the fire using a moist stick he found someplace, and while we waited for the food to “cook” (i.e., scorch), we had to watch a stupid variety show that the counselors had clearly decided to do approximately fifteen seconds earlier. It contained at least one sketch admonishing us not to touch girls’ breasts lest they become pregnant, and ended with the counselors all trying to sing “Love Shack” by the B-52s, but badly off key and with seventy percent of them unsure of most of the words to the song (or the tune, for that matter).
The “entertainment” ended, and the food was distributed. Steve handed me my foil baggie, which had reached an internal temperature approximately twice that of the surface of the sun, on a Styrofoam plate. As I was filling a thimble-sized Dixie bathroom cup with “beverage” (cheap military surplus fruit drink), the packet melted through the plate and fell on the ground.
I did not eat at all that night.
Sleeping was a challenge, as well. The leaders forced us to sleep in a circle radiating outward from the campfire, with our toes about five inches away from the flames. I was burning up, but when I opened my sleeping bag, the unseasonably cold night air blew in. “Better to freeze than scorch,” I thought.
All things considered, I was reasonably comfortable, at least after I figured out how to contort my body to best compensate for the rocky, uneven ground beneath me, but of course the wind started to blow and various dried leaves blew into the sleeping bag. A toad decided that it would join me, as well.
I did not sleep at all that night.
* * *
The schedule for the last night of the week listed a cryptically named “Indian reenactment.” The counselors left we campers to our own devices for several hours (most of us, completely wiped from the week’s activities, spent the meager period sleeping) while they all gathered inside a little run-down shack in the middle of the woods that had previously been utilized for arts and crafts activities; these had included braiding two plastic cords into a useless “keychain” thing, which I threw away immediately, and also an hour where we were provided with a box of popsicle sticks, glue, and nothing else, including instruction.
At a designated time, just after the sun had set, all of the campers gathered to sit on wooden benches arranged in a clearing. Not long after, the counselors emerged from the woods, each dressed in precious little clothing—all of them, no matter what their level of physical fitness or amount of body hair, was wearing an upsetting “loincloth” constructed of a leather belt and a dish towel. Each of them also wore a large, elaborate and almost offensively stereotypical American Indian headdress that had clearly been sourced from the “Clearance Blowout!” bin in the Party City costume department.
One of these “Indians” began to tell a contrived-sounding story about a group of children that randomly came across Indians dancing in the woods. (I presume that, in some lame, “meta” kind of way, that was supposed to be us, the audience.) As he told this story, several of the other “Indians” built a bonfire and, for some reason, liberally doused it with kerosene; when lit, flames blasted roughly four thousand feet into the air, probably reaching at least the lower ionosphere. It lit a dead tree on fire and crispened hundreds of thousands of leaves on others.
Then… the dancing came. (I use the term “dancing” very loosely.) To use a grandmotherly turn-of-phrase to express my horror: Sweet peaches and cream! While I understand that the counselors were attempting to reenact a Native American dance of some kind (likely without actually knowing what one looked like), it looked more as if they were simultaneously having grand mal seizures whilst flailing their arms violently in the air. Though, if this was in fact their aim, they succeeded mightily. Not surprisingly, James passed out. I just shook my head, closed my eyes, and blocked out as much as I possibly could until I realized that we were all on our way home.
There is no moral to this tale, as a child whose parents have decided to send him or her to camp really has no option but to suck it up and go. Take it from me—suggesting the public library as an alternative will never work.