The first time I went to camp, I didn’t know I was going. That’s my claim, though I’m open to alternate versions.
My mother insisted it wasn’t possible I didn’t know I was going.
“Where did you think your clothes went?”
She had a point. As camp departure day approached, I must have noticed my drawers had no clothes in them and my closet was full of empty hangers. I’d even seen her sew nametags. Yet, somehow, it never sunk in. Maybe I thought she was sewing my brother’s nametags. But on my clothes?
The most likely scenario – knowing me – is that I knew about it, but I pulled a panicky “one-eighty” on the drive to the place the buses were leaving from, and, being too crazed to be reachable by reason, I’d been assured by my mother that okay, I didn’t have to go.
So when we got to the West Prep – the jumping-off point – I was convinced I’d been reprieved.
I wasn’t going to camp.
The departure place was frantic. My brother immediately raced off to join his camp buddies. It’s funny. Toronto wasn’t that big, but somehow, you rarely saw your camp buddies in the city. It’s like you had city friends – from school and your neighborhood – and then you had camp friends, hailing from more distant neighborhoods, as well as from nearby towns, the States, and even Venezuela.
Camp buddies hadn’t seen each other for ten months. That accounted for a proportion of the frenzy. The other part was the knowledge that escape from parental control was moments away. The parents had lost a lot of control already.
I recognized a few kids there myself. When they asked me what bus I was on, I told them I wasn’t going. I truly believed that.
Finally, the kids started boarding the buses. You know, I’m writing this now, decades after it occurred, but typing, “the kids started boarding the buses” just gave me retroactive stomach flutters.
This was goodbye. For eight weeks. Away from everything familiar and safe, and off – a hundred and fifty miles from home – to who knows what?
I was very happy not to be going.
My brother was on the bus. We’d already said our goodbyes. Suddenly, my mother remembered she had my brother’s flashlight in her purse. Flashlights are essential at camp. There was little outdoor lighting and flashlights pointed the way in the dark.
My mother handed me the flashlight and told me to take it to my brother. I walked over to his bus, climbed aboard, and headed down the aisle to where my brother was sitting, horsing around with his reunited camp posse.
“Mom told me to bring you this.”
My brother grabbed the flashlight without comment. Somehow, it was embarrassing for a twelve year-old boy to acknowledge he had a nine year-old brother. It was like a ghost had brought him his flashlight.
I turned back to get off the bus. And then, it happened.
The bus doors closed.
And I was off to camp.
If my stomach was fluttering when I typed, “the kids started boarding the buses”, my heart just came very close to stopping when I typed, “And I was off to camp.” I’m getting quite a workout here.
Be me for a second. You’re totally convinced you’re not going to camp. And then, the bus pulls out
…and you’re going to camp.
(A phrase sticks in my mind that my mother often repeated about me over the years: “He always needed a little push.” The flashlight was my “push.”)
My head was spinning. I went up to the driver and said, “I’m not supposed to be going.”
The driver said “Yeah?” and kept driving. I didn’t like my chances of getting him to turn around.
I noticed the bus passing the street our house was one. This was definitely final. I wasn’t going home. I was going to camp.
Having no other choice, I went back to sit with my brother. My brother wasn’t interested. He was sitting with Alan Siegel. Alan Siegel, who had once slammed a door on my brother’s hand, leaving him with a permanently claw-like fingernail. That’s who he wanted to sit with.
(I forgive him. It was normal. I mean, who would you rather sit with, a rambunctious, if dangerous, contemporary, or a whimpering little sibling bordering on nervous collapse?)
I found a seat up front, beside a staff member.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” I told him.
The staff member smiled. It’s probably what they trained them to do in these situations.
Half way to camp, we stopped at a place called Orillia, on the banks of Lake Cuchiching. (That’s not important; I just like saying Cuchiching.) Campers got off to stretch their legs and buy Cokes and some chips. I went to throw up.
I’m not a good car traveler at the best of times, and these weren’t them. I wandered into a park. I remember a tall statue of an Indian. He was barefoot, and had a giant big toenail. I remember losing my breakfast on his feet. Like the Indians didn’t have enough trouble, they needed a Jewish prisoner throwing up on their statue.
We returned to the bus and continued our journey. I’m not a great describer, so I won’t do this justice, but there’s something remarkable about the highway we were driving on, even to a person in a state of shock.
When you looked out the window, you’d see these giant boulders bordering both sides of the roadway. It’s like there’d been a mountain there, and they’d blasted through it, and now, the remains of the mountain were on both sides, and we were driving through the middle. Even to a traumatized kid, it was a sight to remember.
It was also a reminder that I wasn’t in Toronto anymore.
We drove past small Ontario towns – Bracebridge, Gravenhurst – where a former Leaf hockey player named Todd Sloan had opened a restaurant – and finally, Huntsville, where, as a staff member years later, I’d spend many of my days off. Huntsville had a great bakery called “Boley’s”, and a restaurant called, “McDonald’s” (not the hamburger chain) that served T-bone steaks.
(I can’t vouch for the quality of the food. On your day off, everything tastes great. It was certainly better than camp food, which featured liver and Welsh rarebit. I have no idea what that is.)
We turned off at the northern outskirts of Huntsville, and proceeded for nine miles down ever narrowing roads, so narrow at their narrowest, that branches would be brushing against the bus’s windows.
Finally, we turned left, driving under an overhanging wooden sign reading, “Welcome to Camp Ogama.” The bus drove down a road, past a riding stable, an archery court, the camp’s main office, past the playing field, before stopping at its destination, in front of the Mess Hall.
We were there.
As the campers piled out, the staff raced to greet them with an almost frightening enthusiasm. Boy, were they ever trained to be happy to meet us.
As I descended unsteadily from the bus – the driver insisted I get off – a female staff member, a veritable superball in shorts, bounced up to greet me.
“Hi, there! Welcome to camp!”
“I’m not supposed to be here,” I informed her.
The staff member just smiled. And ushered me into the Dining Hall for lunch.
Tomorrow: To Climb the Unreachable Bed
A bushelful of thanks to Kelly and Miguel who came to my house and made my Internet to work again so I could publish this post. You're my heroes. You rescued a whimpering Jew.
Anyone interested in my "Cosby Show" posts can find them in June's batch (click on arrow to the left of "June") under "Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen, B, C, and D. They may not be true, but they're as true as I can make them.