“Keep it down, you guys, it’s Earl’s day off!” shrieked one of my more thoughtful campers, inevitably waking me in the process.
Counselors were allotted one day off per week, minus, if memory serves, the first week and the last week of camp, meaning that during our fifty-six days of often 16-hour-a-day toil and travail, we would enjoy six entire days off. So you can imagine my response to being jerked awake by a considerate camper trying to insure that I slept in.
Days off were created so counselors could recharge their seriously depleted batteries. It was exhausting and stressful proverbially “herding cats”, getting kids to their designated destinations on time, keeping them from drowning or disappearing into the woods.
Or from being strung up by antagonistic cabin mates – not a stretch, if you’ll pardon the allusion. During my first summer, my hostile bunkmates did indeed try to hang me. It was only through the efforts of our beleaguered counselor that I was saved me from an imminent “necktie party”, the atrocity followed by a stern lecture on the evils of nine year-old vigilantism.
There was also, among other duties, activity planning, both for your individual cabin and, when assigned, for unit-wide evening entertainments, “General Swim” supervision, “Cleanup” supervision, “Free Play” supervision, and “Night Duty”, during which scheduled counselors patrolled a number of nearby cabins, handling potential disruptions and unforeseen circumstances until midnight.
Also, if, as with me occurred twice, your campers were six years old, there were “Bedwetting Prevention” responsibilities. You took sleeping children to the bathroom before it was too late.
Further duties involved letter-writing, updating the campers’ parents concerning their children’s progress, straining for the appropriate diplomatic language to describe a child who would not shut up (“Howie is extremely verbal”) or was caught peeking through a knothole at the Girls’ Washhouse (“Kenny is exceptionally curious.”)
The counselors were understandably fatigued.
Gifted since early childhood at eliciting pleasure from minimal activity – my favorite period in Kindergarten was “Naps” – I… you know, when your work day is scrupulously controlled by sirens and schedules, there is an inordinate pleasure in simply luxuriating in your bunk, the cabin mercifully quiet, the rambunctious campers led away by my assistant to a time-mandated breakfast.
Though not before waking me up trying to insure I remained asleep. (Can you sense the residual bitterness, forty years down the line?)
Besides “nothing”, there were other things you could do on your day off.
You could requisition a canoe and paddle that girl counselor who’d flashed signals of interest to a secluded nearby island where you could…
Yeah. That never happened.
Or you could team up with other counselors on their day off, one of them with a car, and visit another camp where you hope to reconnect with this former fellow camper you were interested in, your reunion leading to her suggesting a place she knows where you can be alone together and…
Yeah, that didn’t happen either.
Some people look back fondly on cherished experiences.
Others look back fondly on cherished fantasies.
Doing. Imagining. What’s the difference?
What I do remembering doing on my days off was bumming a ride into Huntsville (nine miles away), where I consumed greasy donuts at “Boley’s” and ate T-bone steak at McDonald’s (no connection to the ubiquitous fast food empire, whose menu to this day excludes T-bone steaks.)
It is not just the ineffable satisfaction of consuming delicacies unavailable at camp. It’s the delirious freedom of eating donuts before dinner, and having whatever dinner you personally selected at any time you decided to eat it!
No institutional organization. No limiting structure. Suddenly liberated, you felt giddily light-headed.
“Free at last! Free at last! I don’t have to eat liver. Free at last!”
Capping this resuscitating experience, the specter of “tomorrow” looming ominously on the horizon, was a movie at Huntsville’s local – and only – movie theater.
There were no movies at camp, except when it rained during a camp-wide program. Only then, they showed movies, and it was always the same movie – Lily. (“A song of love is a sad song…”) This back-up alternative programming became so habitual when the showers arrived the cognoscenti observed, “It’s beginning to ‘Lily.’”)
The only problem with the Huntsville movie experience was…
I sit down with my popcorn, the lights go out, the curtain goes up, the opening titles begin to roll, and within minutes…
… I am fast asleep.
It was an agonizing disappointment. I had maneuvered my day off to land specifically when Major Dundee was scheduled to be shown. It was a western – not Where The Boys Are – something I actually wanted to see!
Featuring numerous battle scenes, Major Dundee was a hugely cacophonous operation. Nobody went quietly.
The movie ended, they woke me up, we drove back to camp, and my day off was over.
Oh well. At least I had gotten the chance to purchase the most recent TV Guide. There was no TV at camp. I liked reading what I was missing.
When I taught school in England, our headmaster, Mr. Kinsman, revealed that he refused to ever take vacations, dreading the sensation of re-shouldering his onerous responsibilities after they were over.
I understood that feeling when the camp’s seven-fifteen A.M. “wake-up” siren called me back to the grueling grind. Maybe it was, in fact, better not to have a day off.
Still, I counted the days until my next one.