I’M LEAVING TOMORROW FOR TWO months in the great city of New Orleans, which should translate to exciting stories aplenty in the coming weeks. 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 kind of fucked up. In a place like LA 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 man killing you on a subway or public bus. Instead of poison ivy, you try not to catch AIDS. Those sorts of things. I’m not a “city kid” but I spent my first five years in New York, and I think it led me to develop fears and anxieties more realistic than monsters under the bed. The funny part — again, not at the time but looking back — was that circumstances in my life always seemed to conspire to give me worse and 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 me to see just weeks before. I liked Air Force One so much I saw it twice more, once with my elderly grandfather who didn’t enjoy the gratuitous violence as much I did, probably because it caused him to have hellish flashbacks to WWII.
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 — enjoy 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.
Don’t know why, but I suddenly developed a pretty strong fear of my parents being suddenly, 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 wanted anything from the family, 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. My parents should’ve known something was up when I chose to keep a hockey stick and a baseball bat near my bed, yet hated playing sports of all kinds, but I never said a thing. Why upset them? Parents want their kids to be comfortable and happy.
Camp Dudley, on the other hand, was openly contemptuous of the comfort or happiness of children. I mentioned it briefly in the introduction to the last post, but there’s more to it than bats. Let me preface this by saying this is strictly my experience, and Camp Dudley has been “inspiring boys and men alike” for over 100 years, so don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. But having tried it, I will now knock it.
My parents drove me up to Dudley on the recommendation of family friends whose kids claimed to have had a good time there. My clothes were packed in a large, pine-scented trunk — similar to a coffin — and all I had, aside from clothes, were toiletries and a Walkman with a single mix tape. That was it. Camp Dudley was meant to be like “the good old days”: 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,” he said.
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 and postcards. I’ll explain why shortly.
First order of business was passing the swim test. Much like their 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 dangerous breed of barnacle: “You could cut your feet, or worse!” There, I met a Black kid named Chris, and we became friends. I couldn’t figure out why the rest of the kids picked on him — I thought it was a little hypocritical, given that Camp Dudley was about good Christian values — until I learned that Chris had a real knack for screwing everything up.
That revelation came on a several day camping trip at the end of the first week, with a pair of counselors who, looking back, had probably been smoking way too much weed for guys who needed to look after kids. I never witnessed it, but their general “oh well, whatever…” attitude gave it away. As did their hair.
We found a campsite far up a 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 they always distracted you from those sorts of negative thoughts by coming up with fun rhyming or alliterative nicknames, like “bear bag,” or “beaver fever,” the cholera-like virus you get from drinking river water.
Having mentioned our “bear bag,” what do you suppose happened the first night? That’s right, the Goddamn thing was torn down and ravaged by a bear. All that was left were pots and pans and a packets of instant oatmeal, proving once again that if a wild animal won’t eat it, it’s probably not real food.
Buckets of rain started pummeling our tents the minute we woke up to find our “bear bag” destroyed. In order to not catch “beaver fever,” Camp Dudley supplied us with Alka-Seltzer-like tablets to decontaminate the water, but our drug-addled adult guardians only brought half the proper supply. Then, after they detoxed our first whole jug of water, it got knocked over by Chris.
We looked bad coming down the mountain at the end of our camping trip. The rain had stopped but all the excitement we might’ve had about nature had been snuffed out. On the way, we ran into a party of Australian campers who’d just arrived, set up a grill, and were cooking surf and turf. They asked if they couldn’t offer us some “shrimp on the barbie.” Our counselor said, “No thanks.” I wanted to hit him. Then we go to the road where our bus was supposed to meet us, and Chris knocked over our last of jug of clean drinking water too. That one was fruit-punch-flavored. We all wanted to hit Chris.
Back at camp that night, they held a bonfire and singalong for the kids who’d been out in the woods. Each group was assigned a church hymn and asked to rewrite the lyrics to cleverly tell the story of their camping experience. Our group’s song was a takeoff on “When Morning Guilds the Skies,” and went like this:
“When Morning Gilt the Skies,
Our Bear Bag Didn’t Survive…
I jumped in with, “We Starved for Three Days,” but our counselor made us change it to “We Fasted for Three Days,” because “Fasted” implies that we chose not to eat, not that someone fucked up and a bear took our food.
Afterward, the lead counselor had us gather in close and the tone got serious. “Listen, guys, I don’t know if you know this, but Camp Dudley is located just a few miles from a mental asylum, and we just got word that four of the 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 in the area before sending us back to our cabins, then said, “So make sure you lock your doors tonight and hopefully we’ll see you tomorrow.”
It was the Camp Dudley equivalent of a ghost story, because there was never any “gotcha” moment, or “boo!” We weren’t told it wasn’t real, and all the kids walked back to their cabins unsettled and resigned to the potential fate of an early death. When I got in bed that night, I popped on 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 hand, I got real acquainted with “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers and “I’m Just a Girl” by No Doubt.
In the end, I think I came out on top.
Because I couldn’t call my parents to say what a 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 my cabin window and saw our counselor sitting at a table with a bunch of postcards and letters in front of him. He was reading our mail! This “Christian Camp” was more like a “Jewish Camp,” where correspondences had to be approved by the S.S. before they went out. I didn’t write my letter that day, and when I finally did, I tried to word it in a way that wouldn’t alert the guards but my parents might understand:
“Although I am having a fine time here, nothing can match the warm comforts of home…”
I lost 20 pounds by parents’ weekend despite eating dessert after both dinner and lunch. Sure, we played sports and had outdoor activities, but most of the weight came off while trembling in fear of bats, barnacles, and murderers. None of my clothes fit anymore, but I took special care to pick out the most filthy, tattered set I could find for my mom and dad when they arrived. It looked 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, either: “We’ve gone days at a time without food or water but the psychological abuse has been more than adequate.” I’d alternate between talking and letting my sickly physical appearance do the work while I played stoic: “I’ll be fine. It’s okay. Just two more weeks? I’ll probably make it.”
That’s how I finagled my way into an early exit. It’s one of the few times in my life I’ve played the sympathy card, but I’m a city kid at heart — in my own words: “kids raised in cities always seem to turn out kind of fucked up” — and the great outdoors were killing me.
Right before I left, my counselor took me over to the basketball courts to have a heart-to-heart during a game of HORSE…
“So, you wanna leave?”
“Was there anything I could’ve done different?”
“No, you were fine.”
“The other kids?”
“Nope. Everyone was good.”
We had absolutely nothing to say to one another but it was a nice gesture from this 20-something 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 single thing they could. Every single thing but one: getting the hell out of there. And I did.