Primal Fears

(Originally published August 29, 2010)

I’M LEAVING TOMORROW for two months in New Orleans, which should translate to great stories aplenty. But before that, some good old-fashioned nostalgia as summer draws to a close.

I have a theory that kids raised in cities always turn out to be a little fucked up. In a place like Los Angeles or New York, you develop a particular kind of hardness; rather than worry about your mom killing you if you flunk a test, you worry about a homeless killing you on a subway or bus. Instead of poison ivy, you try not to catch AIDS. These sorts of things.

I’m not a “city kid” but I spent my first five years in Manhattan, and I like to think it led me to develop fears and anxieties more grown-up than monsters under the bed. The funny part – as always, not at the time, but looking back – was that circumstances in my life always seemed to conspire to give me worse things to fear.

At age 12, I went with my parents to see the movie The Devil’s Own. It was Rated “R” but so was Air Force One, which my friend’s dad brought us to see just weeks before and I liked so much I saw it twice more, once with my elderly grandfather.

Regarding The Devil’s Own, the key detail is that I watched it with my parents, who I love very much.

The film opens on a pleasant scene: an Irish family – father, mother, and son – enjoying a nice, relaxing dinner. “That’s just like my family,” I thought. Then a guy in a mask kicks open the door and shoots the boy’s father in the head.

Inexplicably, I suddenly developed a strong fear of my parents being gruesomely murdered. To ease my concerns, my mom told me, “Don’t worry, it’s just a movie. On the other hand, I just read in the news about a family in the next town. Two strangers broke into their house, tied everyone up, and forced the kids to watch as they made the parents drink Drano. Don’t drink Drano, by the way; it’s an awful way to die. Anyway, I don’t know if the two strangers even stole anything, or even wanted anything, except to see the terror in the children’s faces of course. They never caught those two men, but some say they’re still out there, waiting for their next victims. Well… goodnight!”

For two years, I slept with one eye open, ready to defend my family Home Alone style if need be. My parents should have known something was wrong when I started keeping a hockey stick and baseball bat by my bed, despite hating sports of all kinds, but I never said a thing about it. Why upset them? Parents want their kids to be happy.

Camp Dudley, on the other hand, was openly contemptuous of the happiness of children. I mentioned it briefly, but there’s more to it than bats.1

My parents enrolled me at Dudley on the recommendation of family friends whose kids claimed to enjoy it. It was about a five-hour drive. My clothes were packed in a large, pine-scented trunk – similar to a coffin – and aside from clothes, all I had were toiletries and a Walkman with a single mix tape. That was it. Camp Dudley’s meant to be like “the good old days,” with no electricity and four showers for several hundred kids. Your best bet for hygiene was to jump in the lake. My dad said it reminded him of his own childhood in the ‘50s: “Those were very bad times.”

I was sentenced to four weeks. Parents were allowed to visit after two but kids weren’t allowed to call home before that. All we could do was send letters or postcards. I’ll explain why shortly.

First order of business was passing the swim test at the lake. Much like their sensationalistic warnings about rabid bats, camp counselors cautioned us not to climb the sides of the docks because there’d been an explosive growth of a particularly aggressive breed of barnacle: “You could cut your feet… or worse!” I met a black kid there named Chris and we became friends. I couldn’t figure out why the other kids picked on him – Camp Dudley was about good Christian values; who cares if he was different? – until I discovered he had a knack for screwing things up.

This revelation came on a several day camping trip at the end of the first week, with a pair of counselors, who, in hindsight, were way too baked to be looking after kids.

We found a campsite far up the mountain and used nylon rope to secure our “bear bag” – the sack with all our food and supplies – high up in a tree. The name concerned me, because it implied bears, but Camp Dudley had a policy of using fun nicknames for unpleasant things, like “bear bag” or “beaver fever” (the cholera-like illness one develops from drinking unpurified river water).

Having mentioned our “bear bag,” what do you think happened our first night? That’s right, the Goddamn thing was torn down and ravaged by a bear. All it left were pots and pans and packets of instant oatmeal, proving once again that if a bear won’t eat it, it’s probably not real food.

Buckets of rain were already pummeling our tent when we awoke to find our supplies destroyed. In order not to catch “beaver fever,” Camp Dudley supplied us with dissolving tablets to decontaminate the water, but our drug-addled counselors brought only half the necessary supply. Then, after detoxing our first whole jug of water, Chris managed to knock it over. So they spent a few more hours trying to build a fire in the rain to boil the bacteria out instead.

Our camping trip ended two days early, right as the rain stopped. We looked rough coming down the mountain. On the way, we ran into a party of Australian campers who just arrived, set up a grill, and were cooking surf and turf. They asked if we wanted to enjoy some “shrimp on the barbie,” because they had more than enough. Our counselor said, “No thanks.” (I wanted to hit him.) Then we got down to the road where our bus was supposed to pick us up, and Chris knocked over another jug of drinking water, our last one, with the rum-punch flavoring. (We all wanted to hit Chris.)

Back at Dudley, they held a bonfire sing-a-long for the kids coming back from the woods. Each group was assigned a church hymn and asked to rewrite the lyrics to tell the story of their camping experience. Our group’s song was “When Morning Guilds the Skies”:

“When Morning Gilt the Skies,
Our Bear Bag Didn’t Survive…”

I jumped in: “We Starved for Three Days.” Our counselor made us change it to “We Fasted for Three Days,” to imply that our not eating for three days was a choice we happily made.

Afterward, the lead counselor gathered us in close and got serious.

“Listen, guys, I don’t know if you know this, but Camp Dudley is located just a few miles away from a mental asylum, and we just got word that four of their most dangerous inmates have escaped. One of them strangled five women and left them by the side of the road. Another used a knife…” I’m not doing it justice; he went through a detailed description of four murderers he claimed were on the loose, then sent us back to our cabins, saying, “Make sure you lock your doors tonight and hopefully we’ll see you tomorrow.”

It was the prototypical Camp Dudley ghost story because there was no “gotcha” moment at the end. We were just told it was true, and that we should go back to our cabins to possibly die. When I got in bed that night, I popped in my headphones, let my Walkman run through both sides of the cassette five times each, then “woke up” for breakfast. On the one hand, I didn’t sleep. On the other, I memorized “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers and “I’m Just a Girl” by No Doubt.

In the end, I think I came out ahead.

Because I couldn’t call my parents to say what I miserable time I was having, I had to write them a letter. One day, on my way to get paper and pens, I peeked in our cabin window and saw our counselor sitting at a table with a bunch of our postcards and letters. He was reading our outgoing mail! I didn’t write my letter that day, and when I finally did, I tried to word it so as not to alert the guards:

“Although I am having a fine time here, nothing can match the warm comforts of home…”

I’d lost 20 pounds by parents’ weekend despite eating dessert after both breakfast and lunch. Sure we played sports and did other outdoor activities, but most of the weight came off while simply trembling in fear. None of my clothes fit anymore, but I took special care to pick out the most tattered, filthy set I could find, so my parents would see me looking like I’d gone not to a summer camp but a hobo apprenticeship.

I told them everything, everything I couldn’t through our censored mail. I didn’t exaggerate a single bit (“We’ve gone days at a time without food or water, but the portions of psychological abuse have been more than adequate.”) I’d alternate between that and playing stoic while letting my sickly appearance do the work. (“I’ll be fine. Just two more weeks? I’ll probably make it.”)

That’s how I finagled my way to an early exit. It’s one of the few times I’ve played the sympathy card, but I’m a city kid at hard – “a little bit fucked up,” in my own words – and the great outdoors were killing me.

Right before I left, my counselor took me to the basketball courts for a heart-to-heart during a game of HORSE:

“So you wanna leave?”
“Yep.”
“Was there anything I could’ve done different?”
“No, you were fine.”
“The other kids?”
“Nope. Everyone was fine.”
“Yep.”
“Yep…”

We had nothing to say to each other, but it was a nice gesture from a guy who looked like the lead singer of Everclear. He’d done his best, but there was no way I was sticking around. They’d made me afraid of every thing they could. Every thing but one: getting the hell out of there.

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