November 20, 2019

Memories of Summer Camp

My first and only experience at summer camp was magical, or so it seemed to me. I entered a world I had never known before, and by summer’s end had gained some recognition into who I was and who I was not. No mean feat at 13.

A city boy, I developed at camp a feel for the country, which meant the forests and lakes of upstate New York. The silence and solitude of canoeing across an open lake got to me immediately. I prevailed on one of the boating counselors to make me an assistant in exchange for doing some of the grunt work around the dock. Every day at dusk, before putting the boats away, the two of us would set out across the lake in silence. I thought at that moment the universe belonged to the two of us.

It turned out that I had a talent for cross-country running, not a popular activity at camp that summer. Mostly I liked the sense of being alone – away from counselors, rules (Lord, there were so many rules) and, yes, even from the other campers – and running a makeshift course through the woods was exhilarating. My mind could range free as I ran: First I would empty my head of everything, then conjure up images from particular books I was reading to an imagined future that lay just beyond reach waiting to be encountered or fashioned by me. It was only in midsummer that a singular recognition dawned on me: I was an only child who did not particularly like the press of living with so many other bodies and voices. Running cross-country was a way of escaping.

So was birding. I was an athletic kid, used to the rough-and-tumble of school yards and city sports. But when a nature counselor passed along a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds,” another new world opened for me. Later in the year, and indeed in the years after that, I would head off spring weekend mornings for Central Park, Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx Botanical Gardens, binoculars and Peterson’s guide firmly in hand. Of course, this too was a separate world – and one, moreover, inhabited mostly by adults. They were different from my parents, and from my relatives too.

They were quieter, for one. And they extended me a courtesy I treasured; despite our differences in age, they treated me like an equal, a member of some loosely affiliated but unincorporated “club” of bird-watchers, rather than as some 13 or 14-year-old kid.

Once, my father, suspicious that I might be engaged in some unsavory activity, questioned me about what I did when I was out birding. I tried to describe for him the sight of several blue herons I had watched that morning. They were sitting, perched on a long, thick, low tree branch hanging over the sluggish Bronx River. Suddenly, first one, then the other lifted off the tree, cutting arcs and patterns over the water, then began circling upward across the sky. My father stared at me blankly for a minute, not sure whether I was teasing him, then turned away. It was not one of my more successful moments.

There were mishaps at camp, to be sure. Once I seriously miscalculated and overturned badly in a canoe far out in the lake. Luck and the quiet skill of the boating counselor (I wasn’t so foolhardy as to break the waterfront rules and canoe alone) saved my hide, meaning perhaps my life. Fortunately, at 13 immortality is assumed and it neither deterred nor dampened my enthusiasm for boats and canoes.

It was inevitable that I would antagonize a counselor. I was grateful only one had singled me out for “not being part of the camp.” I lacked team spirit and set myself apart, he told me. I was going to be his summer project. It was clear he did not much like me. Nor, truth be told, did I care for him.

I volunteered for overnight hikes and between those trips, working with the boats and hanging out with the nature counselor, I managed to stay out of his way. Most important of all, I avoided complaining about him. It was between the two of us, and I didn’t want him to hear me grouse, nor was I willing to have him prevail.

By summer’s end, it had settled on me that I was a contrarian and pleased to be one, though at the time I did not know the word, nor had ever heard it in conversation. That was not supposed to be the outcome for a boy away at summer camp, where learning to get along and go along were the defining and accepted rules of the game.

But I knew I did not particularly care one way or the other about getting along, and I definitely resisted going along. It was astonishing to me that I had survivedthe camp experience, had not fallen afoul of more counselors who saw me as subversive, as someone who was not a team player and had therefore taken it upon themselves to straighten me out. But that had not occurred.

Nor was I singled out for being a nonconformist by some of the other kids. In general I was neither popular nor unpopular. Just someone who went through the summer camp unremarked, an outsider and yet not quite an outsider, for there was no active rebellion. I thought of myself as moving in a sidewards way, more aslant the others than in the same direction or in confrontational opposition.

Deep down I knew that I had begun, quite consciously, the difficult task of becoming my own person, and wanted time and space in which to sort things out. At camp, without much effort, I had that chance.