Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Summer Times - 'Night Duty'"

Aside from taking care of campers – making sure they didn’t run away, write home “I hate camp” letters, or die – counselors had a plethora of other responsibilities as well. In fact, counseloring was pretty much a 24/7 undertaking. From a salary standpoint, our pay rate worked out to less than a nickel an hour.

This was especially true for the Junior, or first year, Counselors. In my day (young fella), Junior Counselors received a salary of twenty-five dollars for the entire summer. Except they didn’t. There were deductions for the purchases of toothpaste, soap, flashlight batteries, the occasional candy bar, stamps, a camp t-shirt, et cetera. After my first year as counselor, I was sent a check for eight weeks of sweat and toil in the amount of a dollar sixteen.

Among the counselor’s myriad responsibilities was “Night Duty.” Basically, it was babysitting. But that doesn’t really distinguish it, since the whole job was babysitting. “Night Duty”, as reflected by the name, was babysitting at night.

At Camp Ogama, each unit – Junior, Intermediate and Senior – consisted of three boys’ cabins a three girls’ cabins, which, except for the Juniors, were situated at opposite ends of the camp. “Night Duty” involved counselors taking turns, on a rotating basis, patrolling their respective areas after the campers had gone to bed.

During “Night Duty”, counselors would sit on nearby benches, reading by flashlight, battling mosquitoes and trying to keep warm (August nights were particularly bone-chilling). Every twenty minutes or so, “Night Duty” would get up and reconnoiter the terrain, making sure all was quiet and nothing was on fire.

After-dark troublemakers were given warnings, and if those didn’t work, they were invited outside to join the “Night Duty” person on the bench. “Trouble” generally involved talking, joking around, fake and/or actual farting, and generally goofing around after “lights out”, which was frowned upon, because it was supposed to be bedtime, and bedtime was for sleeping. So that’s what we made them do.

There were rumors of “Night Duty” atrocities for chronic misbehavers, talk of dragging the kid outside in his pajamas, and making them hold out two rubber boots filled with water at arm’s length for thirty minutes, or till they promised to behave, whichever came first. I can’t imagine that actually happening, at least not often. And if it did, who could last longer than twenty seconds? It’s hold out the boots, “I’ll be good!”, and you’re back in your bed. Any longer, and that kid’s going to have really sore arms. And they’re never coming back to that camp.

In contrast to the other units, the Junior Unit’s cabins of both genders were situated in one area, comprising a cozy, little persons’ community. As the result of this arrangement, the boys’ and girls’ “Night Duty” representatives would generally sit together, usually on one of the cabin’s bulb-lit porches, the porches and on-site bathrooms being amenities uniquely available to the Juniors’ cabins.

On particularly chilly nights, the boy-girl tandem might choose to fortify themselves under a blanket. However, at least in my experience, the mere glimmer in the mind of making any kind of a “move”, and the camp’s owner would suddenly materialize out of nowhere, strongly encouraging separate blankets.

Junior Unit “Night Duty” also involved a distinguishingly “extra.” One summer, the cabin I was in charge of consisted of eight six year-old boys. Three of them were listed, according to their application forms, as “frequent bedwetters.”

It might have been wiser if they’d gotten the bedwetting issue behind them before being shipped off to camp. But no sir, there they were. I guess the thinking was, why should they miss out just because… I don’t know. But it was problematic. Each bedwetter came supplied with an obligatory rubber sheet, to protect the camp’s mattresses from the consequences. The bedwetter’s sheets were entirely on their own.

Now here’s the thing. Bedwetting is a biological and, who knows, maybe a psychological concern. It’s inconvenient but manageable. To be teased as a bedwetter, however, is terminal. You may survive the incident, but the scars are everlasting. (Not speaking from personal experience, though I bear everlasting scars from other matters.)


For the entire summer, it was my job to keep my non-bedwetting campers from discovering that their cabin-mates included three players from the other team. I had to be prepared with a “cover story” at all times.

“How come Howie needs a rubber sheet?”

“He’s allergic to the mattress.”

A keen eye could ferret out the bedwetters with little difficulty. Other campers brought two sets of sheets to camp. Bedwetters brought six. When the inevitable “accidents” occurred, the telltale sheets would be spirited away for early laundering, or, if they were needed immediately, for “hosing.” Just another of the counselor’s countless duties.

What does all this have to do with “Night Duty”? Well, sir, the only known way of averting “accidents” was a procedure known as “lifting.” Each night, at exactly eleven o’clock – I’m not sure how this particular hour was selected, but that’s what we were instructed – “Night Duty” counselors would step into the cabin, wake up the bedwetters, and, preemptively, walk them to the bathroom, which, as mentioned, was located on the premises. You came out the cabin door, turned left on the porch, and there were the bathrooms.

Two stalls.

Unfortunately, I had three bedwetters.


What I neglected to mention earlier was that not only was it necessary to protect the bedwetters’ identities from the non-bedwetters, it was also necessary to protect their identities from each other. Maybe they wouldn’t do this today. Maybe they’d find an empowering value in “group identification.” You wouldn’t feel it was “just me.” But back then, the rule was crystal clear:

No one was to know that anyone else was a bedwetter.

Two stalls and three bedwetters not only created “privacy” concerns, it was a practical problem as well, because despite the two-stall limitation, all three bedwetters had to be “lifted” at the “magical hour” of eleven P.M. If you think I’m exaggerating the urgency, there were times when we’d “lifted” two campers, and when we came for the third kid, it was already too late. Apparently, they’d become conditioned to “letting go” at eleven. Wherever they happened to be.

Good thing the Junior Unit provided “Night Duty” teams, even though one of the duo was female. (Somehow, this was a “medical problem”, and that made things okay.) Two “lifters” was the minimum. There was no way one person could “lift” three bedwetters by themselves, and get everybody where they needed to go on time.

It almost felt choreographed. A sleepy-eyed “Camper One” is ushered out of the cabin, into “Stall One.”, and you close the door. “Camper Two” is then brought out, and directed into “Stall Two”, and you close the door. When he’s finished, “Camper One” is led out of “Stall One”, to be returned to his bed, though rarely without curious inquiries.

(Indicating “Stall Two”) “Who’s in there?”

“The other ‘Night Duty’.”

When “Camper One” is back in bed, you wait till he falls asleep. Then “Camper Two” is returned to his bed, and you wait for him to fall asleep. At which point you hurry over to “Camper Three”, praying to God that you’re not too late.

It was a frantic race against the clock. On a good night, two counselors capably executed the “Three-Campers-Two-Toilets” routine, returned them happily to their beds, and gone back to sit on the porch.

Under separate blankets, of course.
You’re right, writer-inners. I didn’t mention all the “period” comedies. I guess I was focusing on were shows set in earlier centuries, rather than earlier decades. In the earlier century-type shows, the settings and costumes proved, in my view, to be too great for the willing suspension of disbelief. Your televising something that took place before the invention of television. For many people, that’s more suspension than they can handle.

In response to another question, Major Dad was in its way a cowboy show, at least in the way I imagined the lead character. The Major embodied many of the values associated with a Garry Cooper cowboy. The funny part was to carry that embodiment into modern times.

Keep those questions coming. They challenge my views, and give me new things to think about. Sometimes I’m embarrass for having written incomplete posts, but as I’ve written elsewhere, “I embarrass; therefore I am. Embarrassment seems to be the only reliable proof of my continued existence.


growingupartists said...

Excellent writing Earl. Keep this up and you might actually find yourself going places. Not against your will though.

diane said...

Oh, I am going to keep that last sentence in my little book of quotes. "Embarrassment seems to be the only reliable proof of my continued existence." I can soooo relate. Still laughing - thank you!!

Zeide said...

You forgot to mention the counselors
lounge, the walks to Ravencliffe,
the panty raids, the calling, "boy
on the path, the mess hall, the flag
raising and most of all the canoe trips to the park with Ernie, Haskell, Mike and many other trippers. The best times of my life.