I would trade any day in the real world, reheated meatballs with the folks at home the drumbeat of the future at school hanging with my boys doing nothing at Crocker Park Mall, for five minutes at summer camp. After the next two summers have come and gone, when I’m older, after my last year at camp, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s a sure thing.
I’ll be a senior by then and I’ll know a thing or two. I’ll be bigger and wiser. I’ll know how to handle the kids both right-on and off-track.
Summer camp is different than being at home different than freshman year high school different than Lakewood, Ohio, different in every which way. There are fewer grown-ups, which is a good thing, and nobody’s parents are there, even better. There are no Mr. Rote’s Mr. Krister’s Mr. Hittbone’s. thank God! The counselors are almost like you. They let you run amok and hope no one dies. All your friends are together again and there are more of them than at home. Nobody yells at you for two weeks. The counselors scream at you if you do something dumb, but you don’t get yelled at for doing something wrong just by mistake, like at home.
Even when you do, it’s all over in a few minutes, not like at home, where it never ends. No sir, it never ends, it just goes on and on. You’re on the bottom and you’ve got to keep your trap shut.
The summer sky at summer camp is big and fresh and windy. There are birds on the wing. There are swallows thrushes woodcocks buffleheads. We’re way up in Canada, on the Georgian Bay, at Wasaga Beach. It’s spic and span, too. Some kids don’t shower when they’re at camp and that’s disgusting, although nobody cares too much about it. But one time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when his two weeks were over, and he hadn’t showered even once.
“No, go back, go hose yourself off, and brush your teeth! What is wrong with you?” his mother said through her nose.
Last year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. I tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood, they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a bedbug sniffing dog.
It was a Beagle, just a little bigger than Scar, my Beagle at home. He was lean, brown black white with floppy ears and a loopy smile. He knew what was up, though, coming into our cabin with an all business look in his eyes.
He was a scent dog. Scar is a detection dog. He searches out BS wherever it is, like up in Jack’s room. Jack is my older half-brother who thinks he knows everything and talks down to me. Scar finds it and growls. We live on a wider bigger better street in Lakewood, broad tree lawns and a concrete roadway, but Scar still sits on the front lawn looking both ways, ready to growl. He knows the future isn’t what it used to be, not with my stepbrother Jack on the way.
Our sniffer was so good he got a bead on a sneaky bedbug hiding behind the plastic cover of an electric outlet. The next day everyone whose cabins had the bug plague piled their stuff into big black plastic garbage bags and threw them inside the cars at camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.
My friends and I are in the smallest of the nine boy’s cabins, which is cabin 6. The only space we have on the floorboards is for us to slide back and forth to our beds. Matias is my best friend and number one. He’s shorter than me shiny blue eyes like buttons and stick slender. We like to run around, not get too uptight, and soft chill at the end of the day. We’ve been rooming together in the same cabin for seven years and know each other better than anything.
Lukas is my second-best friend. He’s a little taller than me, funny, and chunky. He chews green frog gummies and spits them out on the cabin floor, where we squash them flat like pancakes. He likes to play paintball. He’s strong, too, but not loud or belligerent. He has in-grown toenails. Don’t step on him! One night he punched someone who stomped on his bad toe.
He was, like, “Dude!” and stood up and pushed the guy and then got punched in the stomach for it. Logan punched him back in the face, but without being mean about it. We were at the Night of the Super Starz in the mess hall. We were just sitting there watching the show when the stomper started it, and then he suddenly started crying. He had a bruise on his cheek and a black eye.
There was a midnight mass after the show, but Lukas wasn’t allowed to go. He had to go back to our cabin early, although all that happened the next day was the counselors made him sweep the mess hall. He just helped, but not too much, since that’s somebody else’s job, anyway.
Lukas is in cahoots with ghetto folk. He’s not poor, but he likes being hip hop rundown. He’s from Toronto and lives uptown, although I don’t know where that is. He said he lives in a neighborhood of chinksters, like in Chinatown. He smokes weed sometimes, although he’s not good at it. He and one of his friends went to a creek on the far side of camp and smoked some. He got funky paranoid and dreamed up disasters.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said.
Story time with Lukas at the head of class is always for grins fun gut-busting. When he spits out a gummy, and goes loosey-goosey, man, oh, man. He knows a lot of dirty jokes, too.
In our cabin at night we talk about movies, TV shows, and our favorites on YouTube. We talk about girls, some of them more than others, and we talk about video games a lot, even though we don’t have any at camp. They’re not allowed. The one of us in our cabin who doesn’t talk much is Titus, who we call Tits, unless we are calling him the Titmouse. He just sits in his corner all secluded. He does play some video games, so I talk to him about that, sometimes, but not much.
Call of Duty is my game, except I don’t play it on my xBox anymore, only on my computer. I love it when they say, “In war there is no prize for the runner-up.” I’m not sure what games Titus plays, although he’s mentioned some of them.
Nobody knows what’s wrong with Titus. We love Tits, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t do anything, which is the problem. At night when we’re all laying around in our cabin he’ll start crying. The Titmouse’s bulgy black eyes get soggy and his hair tuft goes limp. He will just sit teary-eyed on his bed, looking at the floor. When we ask him what’s wrong, he says, “I don’t know. My stomach hurts.”
We don’t ignore him, and we never do anything to him. We punch him every once in awhile, but not hard, on the arms. Mostly when he’s looking, but sometimes when he’s not looking.
He gets pinkeye every summer. We don’t make fun of him, though. But then he got double pink eye. That was too much. We were all, like, “God damn it, Titus!” Everybody made fun of him as a joke, and then he cried and got mad. but not because of that, just because he’s Titus.
The girl cabins are on the other side of the flagpoles, up a sandy hill. Amelia, who is part of Natalie’s tootsie posse, but who is actually nicer and even pretty, has a reddish birthmark on her face, like a spotted dog. I think she’s self-conscious about it because she always turns to her left whenever anyone takes her picture, away from the birthmark.
We never say anything about the birthmark to her. We talk about it in our cabin, but nothing bad, really, although sometimes we’ll say, “What’s that thing crawling on her face?” One night, Titus was laid out on his bunk in the corner while we were talking home stories when out of nowhere he said, “Did somebody have their period and rub it on Amelia’s face?”
We all sat there quiet for a minute. Like, who says that? Then we just burst out laughing, although Matias looked embarrassed. I think he has the hots for Amelia. It was a brutal thing to say, especially coming from Titus. We call him Tits because he has them. He’s always been flabby and lately he’s been getting heavier. He doesn’t play any sports, at all.
Kajus sleeps in the corner opposite Titus. He’s a big-time flea bag. He thinks he can play guitar, but all he does is play the same part of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ over and over. Who needs that? We are always yelling, “Shut up!” We finally broke his guitar, but it was a piece of junk, anyway.
We broke the new fan his parents got him, too. Lukas was angry that day, his toes hurt, and he started taking it out on the fan with a comb. We hauled it out behind the cabin and beat it with a hockey stick. It was hanging on rags when we were done. The spiny part was smashed, giant chunks were missing, but we just kept beating it. We threw bottles of water at it, finally.
We did everything to it. Kajus wasn’t too happy when he found out.
When his parents came mid-week from Toronto, they asked him what happened. He told them we did it, but not surprising to us, they didn’t believe him. After that he tipped a Mountain Dew on my bed. I poured the rest of it on his bed, and he pushed me, so I punched him, and he punched me back, and I finally punched him harder but not crazy hard, and he stopped.
We have a food-eating contest every summer after the Counselor Staff Show. The little kids have to go to bed, but we stay up late to play the game. Whoever volunteers are blindfolded and have to eat whatever the counselors make. Everyone has to keep their hands behind their backs and lap it up like a dog. Sometimes the other guys puke, but I never throw up.
The counselors made bowls of Rice Krispies with ketchup mustard strawberry jelly lots of salt and all mashed together like potatoes. It was horrible. It was like eating last place on one of my stepmom’s cooking shows she watches all the time on TV. Everybody cheers you on and you have to eat it as fast as you can if you want to win.
Some nights if we have stayed up late the night before, we try to go to sleep a little earlier than usual, no later than two or three in the morning. We don’t keep track, but we have to get some sleep because the counselors shake us up at seven-thirty for calisthenics. They march us to the sports field and make us do a butt load of jumping jacks, push-ups and crunches, and we have to run the track, even though the sun has barely come up.
If they see you are tired and slacking, they will make you do more. We jump on the used tire monkey bars and mess around. They make us do pull-ups on it, but it’s small price to pay.
We wake up every morning to music. It’s always Katy Perry or Duck Sauce, or whatever the counselors want, played from loudspeakers hidden in the trees. Even though I try, sometimes I don’t hear it because I’m flat out asleep. The counselors carry water shooters. If they say you have twenty seconds to wake up, and you don’t jump right out of bed, they start squirting you. They shake your bed and jump on you, and scream, but mostly they’re going on to the next bed, so it doesn’t last long.
After we’re done exercising, we go back to our cabins, clean up, and raise the flags before breakfast. There are three flags: American, Canadian, and Lithuanian. But, sometimes we’re too tired to clean up and instead fall right back asleep in our cabins and are late for the flag raising.
When that happens it’s time to swallow the pill. Whoever is late has to step out into the middle of everybody on the parade ground and do the chicken dance. All the boys on their side of the parade ground do the chop, swiveling their arms like tomahawks and chanting. Nobody knows what it means, but they all do it, and the girls stand there watching. Then they do their own dance, like cheerleaders, except they aren’t cheering for you.
Everybody gets their fair share.
All the cabins have to keep a diary for the two weeks of camp. We get graded on it every day. If you write something stupid, like “ugi ugi ugi” or anything that doesn’t make sense, you get a bad grade. The counselors tell us to be sincere.
“What does that mean?” Lukas asked, but they just laughed.
Matias always writes our diary because everyone else in our cabin is retarded. Titus once wrote something dumb in our diary, even though he said it was sincere, and at the flag lowering that night we all had to do the Rambo, running down the slope to the flagpoles with no shirts on and singing “cha cha cha” while everyone did the chop.
We wrestle in the old older oldest boy’s cabin. It’s the biggest cabin, so it’s got space for fighting. We move the beds and duct tape a sleeping bag onto the wood floor. There is no punching allowed, no hammer blows, or anything like that, but you can kick and throw each other on the ground.
We aren’t supposed to fight, because the camp commander doesn’t like it, but everybody wrestles and gets bruised up.
One night at wrestlemania Chase and Arunas were locked up when Chase grabbed Arnie’s head and flipped him over. Arnie slammed hard into a bedpost and got knocked out. We let him lay there, but when he didn’t wake up for twenty seconds, we threw dirt on him. He jumped up and was fine after that.
The next day we were walking to New Wasaga Beach, which is where the whole camp goes every afternoon for a swim, and Arnie jumped on Chase’s back for no reason and almost cracked it. But they didn’t punch each other. They’re not haters. Besides, the counselors were watching, and that would have been trouble. They say only they can get physical.
Every year another year goes by and when I’m back at summer camp it’s like I never left. As soon as I get there, I unload everything I’ve brought, my clothes sleeping bag snacks. All my stuff has my initials written on it with a Sharpie. We find our cabins and claim our beds, and then your parents are gone before you know it. Sometimes I don’t even realize they’ve left.
You see your friends again, everybody in your cabin, and everyone you’ve ever camped with. There are high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. “What’s up dude.” We all punch each other and laugh it around.
We reunite with the girls and get overdue hugs from them. When all the moms and dads are finally gone, all the parents that nobody in his right mind thinks about from that moment on, we have sandwiches in the mess hall. Father Elliott says a prayer and the camp commander makes a speech. He writes the camp rules in big block letters on a chalkboard.
The best night of summer camp is every night, but the best night is the Saturday night we play our manhunt game. Sometimes it’s called Fugitive or Stealing Sticks. It’s always the same, although it’s always different. This year Lukas called it Nazis and Jews. He said he saw a movie about Polish Jews fighting against the Nazis, shoot-outs and torture, but nobody could understand what he was talking about. We all said, OK, that’s what it is. The little kids had to go to bed. The older campers were the Jews and the counselors were the Nazis. We started running as soon as it got completely dark, so we had a chance, and then the counselors came after us.
It was like Capture the Flag with no holds barred. It was as much fun as ever. We banded together and surprise caught a counselor and he had to sit in the shower for an hour. It served him right!
The Titmouse never plays, and he didn’t play this summer, either. He said it was wrong and started talking about Lithuania, where all of our parents grandparents uncles aunts family are from, and how terrible things happened there. He said it was a holocaust, not a stupid summer camp runaround, but we just told him to shut up, and he got sulky. Nobody knows what’s wrong with Titus. I know what’s wrong with him. He knows he’s low man on the totem pole and nobody cares what he says.
The next day rumors started spreading about our game. “It was probably grown-ups complaining,” the counselors said, old folks complaining about our horseplay. Take a breather, folks. We’re not planning on killing everybody in sight like grown-ups did in WW2. We talked and paced around about it. In the end, though, the game will go on, although everybody is thinking we better call it something else next year.
It doesn’t matter what the powers that be think they can do about it. Grown-ups think they know everything, but what they don’t know is what goes on when they aren’t around. It’s a legend at camp, boss man, not like an old man with his crazy stories, always telling you the way it was, what he used to do, how we should do it his way. What we do at camp is our own tradition. You can’t stop what we do just dead on a dime, kicking our legends to the curb.
It wouldn’t be right.