When I was a boy I was put on a train and shipped off to my first summer camp for eight weeks. This was not such an unusual occurrence back then; in fact one had no choice: it was either two months or nothing. Considering my sisters had willingly and happily done this since they were very young was considered a kind of precedent. It killed two birds: it kept me occupied and out of the house for almost an entire season, and my parents could fight in peace. The problem was that for some reason still unknown to me I was sent to one of the most athletic and competitive camps in the entire universe, and as I was genetically predisposed to be neither athletic nor competitive it was, from the first minute I stepped into the place, clearly a poor match. I was also only seven years old.
By then I hadn’t really done much in my life. There had been the tonsillectomy (the smell of ether lingers in the memory to this day), kindergarten and first grade, the usual things kids did at that age. I’d spent most weekends with old Russian relatives in Washington Heights, but so did a lot of others my age, and it was there that I saw kids as young as thirteen or fourteen with tattooed numbers on their arm. Even then, ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps, the malign penumbra of the war and its horrors was inescapable. No, it wasn’t quite a penumbra, there was nothing of the shadow about it. It was, rather, something perceptible in the air, a kind of low rumbling sound, as though the horrors had their very own register on the musical scale, and some heavy foot were on the sustain pedal.
Until then the most grown-up thing I’d done was to see one very adult movie in the cinema, “East of Eden”, dragged there by my older sisters on a warm spring night in Washington, DC. The theatre was filled to capacity with bobbysoxers, who had come primarily to watch the star of the film, James Dean. I went so I could eat popcorn and candy for ninety minutes, guaranteed to keep me quiet and uncomplaining. We had gone to the nation’s capitol because I had been invited to roll Easter eggs on the White House Lawn, at best a baffling experience for a small Jewish boy, as was shaking the hands of President Eisenhower and his shifty-eyed Vice President, which is probably when I became a lifelong Democrat.
The camp was in upstate New York, not many miles from the Massachusetts border, and I remember very little from my time there, having, I presume, blocked most of it out. I do remember once exclaiming “Shit!” about something and having the counselor (who was all of 18 or 19) hauling me off to the bathroom and stuffing a bar of Ivory soap in my mouth. He asked, “Where the hell did you hear that word?!”
“My mother,” I said truthfully.
That was my first and last year at that camp, and when summer next rolled around I was sent to a camp over the border in Massachusetts, which I attended for two years, the high point of which was the time a counselor tried to drown me.
I don’t swim, and I ascribe my reluctance even now to attempt to learn it to this experience. The counselor had lined us up on the dock by the deep water part of the lake (all camp-goers know the system of docks and piers which separate the depths). Each of the other boys jumped in. I did not. I refused to do so, knowing that were I to do something so idiotic I would die in thirty seconds and be washed up onto the beach, half-devoured by whatever monsters lived there, come morning.
The counselor didn’t buy this, and simply pushed me in, like Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in “Kiss of Death”, when he shoves the old woman in the wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Unlike Tommy Udo, the counselor decided to join me, and because it was handy, the St. Christopher medal on the chain around his neck became my salvation. I seized it and twisted it and probably would have strangled the man had he not dragged me out to the raft, what seemed to me to be many miles away in the center of the lake.
Which is where he left me. He swam back, and I sat there, bobbing in the inky waters of the lake until, some time later, the owner of the camp happened to wander by and asked the swimming instructor what I was doing there, sitting and doing nothing very much at all. The counselor told him that if I wanted to come back I would have to swim back.
“But I can’t swim,” I shouted back across the vast distance between us.
I went on to point out that my parents had paid a thousand dollars to send me to their camp, and that these two men would hardly leave me there to die. There’d be lawyers and scandals and it would certainly find its way to the front page of the New York Daily News. “Innocent boy dies in camp incident. President Eisenhower orders investigation.”
The counselor swam back, tossed me a kickboard and led the way to solid ground. He hated me then, and in his old age he may hate me still. Simply put, I had won.
When I was ten I was sent to yet another camp, a much better one, also in the Berkshires. My counselor that summer I remember only as Dave, who had been in the army and wanted to be a writer. He smoked cigarettes and owned a pair of bongo drums, and I suspect now liked wine and pot, women and jazz, and I consider him a benign influence on my life and career. Camp traditionally was a time for ghost stories after lights-out, and until then the counselors had always followed this faithfully. But Dave was different.
One evening, just after sundown, as we lay in our cots and watched the gathering night through the screens, as the sounds of whatever wildlife lived on the campus, insects and frogs, rose in their usual nocturnal chorus, Dave took out his bongo drums, lit a candle and opened a book.
He began to read: “’One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armor-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes. ‘What’s happened to me,’ he thought.’”
And then, for thirty seconds, Dave tapped his bongos in a slow and steady and ominous rhythm. Then he went back to reading.
In this way, we, who knew nothing of the author, were introduced to his works.That summer Dave read us maybe six or seven of them, from “Metamorphosis” to “The Hunger Artist” and “The Country Doctor”. They weren’t ghost stories, but for me they were a revelation.
When I came home late that August my mother asked what I liked best about camp. Most kids would have mentioned baseball or tennis or swimming.
“Kafka,” was all I said.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports