Remembering camp

For several reasons, unrelated, I’ve been remembering my experiences of camp.

I went to a generic all-boys YMCA camp on a lake, in the woods. It was nominally Christian – we had chapel every Sunday, under the pines, in required green gabardine (stiff, uncomfortable) shirts with the camp’s logo on it. Most of the kids came from the mid-sized city two hours to the south. I didn’t. We shot rifles, did archery, waterskiied. Made lanyards, cut wood, and bullied one another playfully. And mercilessly.

As I remember it, I often was punished. For foul language. For getting in altercations. For having porn. For being obnoxious. Punishment, always, was “buckets.” It would take this form: “N, you have 50 buckets. Two at a time. At 6 feet. And to the flagpole.”

Sometimes it might be one at a time. Sometimes, on the beach. Sometimes, at 3 feet. Sometimes to the beach. Sometimes, to the flagpole. Or the dining hall. Or the riflery range. Once, to the archery range.

The way it worked was this: I would bring an empty bucket (or two) to the beach. Or to a 3-foot depth. Or to a 6-foot depth. I would fill the bucket(s) to the rim with wet sand from the bottom of the lake. And then, would deliver the bucket(s) to the stated destination. Six-foot buckets sucked, because they involved endless breath-holding and diving. No tools were permitted, and a counselor checked each bucket to be sure it was well and truly filled to the rim. Both on emergence from the water and on arrival at its destination.

Now. Buckets of wet sand are heavy. And I was small. I don’t remember how tall I was, but I know my waist and legs were mismatched: I had the waist of a toddler, and the legs of a pre-teen. Throughout my pre-teen and teen years, I wore highwaters – not because my parents couldn’t afford pants that fit, but because we had to choose between pants that fit my waist reasonably and pants that reached my ankles. The former was a functional imperative; the latter, a fashion consideration.

And then there was the one-bucket/two-bucket distinction: permitted to carry one bucket at a time, I could use both hands to bear the weight transmitted to my body by the thin metal handle at the top of the bucket. I could alternate, first bearing more weight with my right, then my left, hand. I could carry the bucket to my side, allowing my shoulder to droop. I could carry it on my head, allowing my back to bear the weight. But a two-bucket punishment was brutal: the metal handles cut deeply into each hand, and the only respite came from stopping. Which, of course, prolonged the punishment.

Camp exists in a foggy haze today, nearly forty years later, but I remember buckets, all too well.

I also remember my prepubescent sexuality. A friend and I somehow had a copy of Playboy. In my memory, it’s the Valerie Perrine issue, but I may be conflating my camp Playboy with one of the issues I treasured at home. In any event…. my friend and I would trade the magazine back and forth. This was before masturbation (at least for me – not for my friend, I suspect, who was, and is, 18 months older than I – and who was precocious). I didn’t need to masturbate, though, to drink in the confusing, but alluring, bodily sensations a Playboy produced in me. We shared the magazine around, generously. Or not just generously: our ownership of it made us into stars, of a sort. Especially when Mike, the senior counselor, confiscated, and took it to his cabin. In some sort of bizarre shaming (or perhaps intended seduction), he told us we were welcome to continue to have access to our magazine – but only in his cabin. I didn’t see the magazine again until he handed it back to us on the last day.

I remember “She waded in the water….” Maybe you know the song. You can read the lyrics here. They’re sung to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Imagine, a room full of boys, finished with lunch, singing at the top of their (our) lungs, “She waded in the water and she got her ankles wet, but she didn’t get her <clap> <clap> wet yet!” The song made me squirm. My cock (or really, my dick) twitched, and ached, and stiffened, as I imagined some unnamed girl (or maybe some specific girl I carried in my memory – Pam? Courtney? Angela???) getting her <clap> <clap> wet!!! In retrospect, it was like a giant circle jerk. Minus the “jerking,” I suppose.

The camp had one or two socials a summer. The Y operated a sister camp, across the lake. We mocked it, mocked the girls who went there. Called the camp a “kennel.” But we were 500 boys, approaching, and wending our way through, puberty. Our mockery was an elaborate denial of what we really felt: a sort of desperate, magical yearning. A fantasy that somehow, something might actually happen at these socials, socials at which a bunch of awkward boys found themselves together with a bunch of awkward girls they’d never met, loud music playing. We all knew, from movies, that we were supposed to dance, that the boys were supposed to ask the girls to dance. I’m sure some did. For me, though, the socials consisted of a sort of purgatorial Gravitron, boys on one side, girls on the other, with the ride not stopping for two or three hours. In spite of my desperate, magical yearning that somehow, against all odds, I might… I don’t know, marry? one of the blurry girls 100 feet away on the other side of the ride room.

I recently read a terrific novel about camp, by an old friend of mine. The book isn’t about my camp, but it might as well have been. My friend, though, is gay. His experience of an all-boys Y camp in the woods, though it had much in common with mine, was profoundly different, too. For me, camp was a sort of hothouse terrarium in which growth and expression were limited, structurally. The director’s two daughters and the nurse were the only vagina-possessors we saw for eight weeks (other than the aforementioned sister-camp residents, twice). We attached all sorts of hopes, and dreams, and rumors, to those two poor teenaged girls. I can’t imagine how many boys count Tina and/or Di as their “first love(s),” even to this day.

For my old friend, camp was an entirely different experience. My hothouse terrarium was his… biosphere? Exploratorium? Garden of earthly delights? It was complicated, of course, for him, too, but man…. It’s just remarkable to imagine how different two boys’ experience of the same thing can be.

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