I want to get in one last camp story, before it’s “Back To School.” It’s funny. No matter how old I get, the end of August still means camp’s over, and the day after Labor Day means, “Back To School.”
Those calendar signposts stick with you. When I started writing for television, and production started in July, it always felt wrong to me. It felt like I should be at camp. So, in some deluded form of wishful thinking, I always dressed like I was – cut-off jeans shorts, a t-shirt and sandals. Unfortunately, clothes only make the man. They don’t make the place.
I don’t know when our camp started offering riding. It was probably when a rival camp did, and they were trying to keep up. We did not have the same horses from summer to summer, but they appeared the same, because they were all past their prime, some of them way past. You could almost read the relief in their eyes. It’s like they knew they were hovering near the cutoff point:
Summer camp…or glue.
Regular readers know that I’m a cowboy in my mind. The freedom, the danger, the excitement, I love it all. But only in my imagination. In real life, I favor comfortable predictability and a reliable alarm system.
My one memorable moment concerning riding at camp occurred when I was about twelve. We were out on the trail, and the horse in front of me suddenly kicked up its hind legs and one of them hit me in the shins. And I didn’t cry.
It was a character-defining moment. Everyone expected me to cry. And I didn’t.
And it’s not like it didn’t hurt. It hurt like hell. But I didn’t cry.
You could hear the horseshoe thumping against the bone. That’s why everyone thought I would cry. But I didn’t.
I mean, they heard that terrible sound, and there I was, sitting in the saddle, not crying, and insisting we continue the ride…okay, I’ll stop. But I’m still impressed with myself.
Our first riding instructor was a fellow named Mel. Good looking, charming fellow. Always had a smile on his face, but a certain kind of smile, suggesting he was doing well with the ladies, after the campers went to sleep.
Mel had the idea of actually grading us on our riding ability. However, since most of the campers had no riding ability, he decided that half the grade would be applied to a written test, quizzing us on our horse-related I.Q.
It was a workable, and face-saving, idea. If you were smart but couldn’t ride for crap, you could still end up with a reasonable grade. Not that I’m talking about myself here. Okay, I am.
Unfortunately, Mel went a little too far. It was his intention to test every camper in the camp. This led to a memorable moment in the Dining Hall during after lunch announcements, when a counselor named Deeny, who was filling in as the Junior Unit Head – six to nine year-old kids – while the real Unit Head was on his day off, came up to the microphone and said,
“I would like to remind all Junior campers that they will be taking their written riding tests this afternoon, right after Rest Hour. In preparation for that test, I would like to invite those Juniors who do not know how to read or write to meet at my cabin during Rest Hour, where I will teach them how to do it.”
Mel immediately backed down, mandating riding tests for only those campers who were able to read and write.
We had a number of riding instructors over the years. But there’s just one other one that I remember, and I think that’s primarily because of his name. His name was Fred Quebec. It sounded like an alias to me. Like he’d been involved in some ugly riding mishap at another camp, and going on the lam, he had replaced his real last name with the surname of a French-Canadian province.
But it wasn’t just his name that has kept Fred Quebec prominently in my memory. It was also something he said, which was either very profound, or exceedingly stupid, depending on how you look at it. I will leave that decision to you.
A camper was mistreating a horse, whipping it, or kicking it, which you’re permitted to do with horses, but this kid was abusing the privilege. Well, Fred Quebec, who could normally be found napping on a bale of hay, happened to notice. At which point, he shouted,
“Hey! Treat that horse right, will ya? He’s only human.”
I knew Fred was right. But I still laughed my head off.