I was 12 years old. It wasn’t my choice to go. My mother just wanted to send me off somewhere to get me out of the house. I vaguely remember being giving the choice between going to a Christian camp and a regular one. I chose the Christian one because I figured it would be easier to get thru. It’s not that I resented having to go. It’s just that I was generally the loner type of kid who’d rather be at home than out meeting other kids, especially other boys. But I figured I’d give it a try without putting up a fight. Besides, it was only going to take about a week or two from my summer.
I guess all campers had to take a TB test beforehand as I can clearly remember sitting on a gurney and coughing with some creepy physician man’s hand on my stomach. But I never thought the trip would trigger the first case of asthma I ever remember having. Actually, at the time, I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that, shortly after arriving at the campsite, located in what looked like the middle of the woods, it became harder to breathe. It was a concern for me, but nothing to panic over. I knew I could’ve sought medical attention and probably even gotten sent home early whenever I felt the need, but I decided to stay and duke it out, all while taking a considerable amount of effort to do something I’ve always been able to do with ease. In fact, if it weren’t for the asthma, I might’ve actually enjoyed my camping experience.
I saw Byrant; I’m almost sure that was his name; a guy I’d met not long ago in middle school. We used to talk about movies and stuff in Mister Ellis art class. Bryant looked like The Tin Man from the Wiz movie, but he was always cool with me, so it was a relief to see him there in camp. Though we were in different groups; our groups were separated by age and he was put in the one just below mine; and only saw each other when the groups got together at the main site for church service, meals and such, he was a friend among strangers.
Thinking of the meals, it’s funny because the whole trip put me off of Lucky Charms cereal for quite a while. It seems like that’s all we ate. I remember everybody getting tired of it and even seeing huge plastic bags full of the stuff being dragged-in by the staff.
The two camp counselors and leaders of my group were a guy definitely named Smokey, though it might’ve been spelled “Smoky”, and a guy I think may have been called Tank. We all had nicknames. If we didn’t, we were given one by the group. I was supposed to be Al Bundy, but it never really stuck, though I did have a chance to play off of it eventually by saying “Let’s rock” before a ball game, which was hilarious.
Smokey was the loud and crazy type, always making jokes and having fun, while “Tank” was more quiet and subdued. He was so quiet and subdued that I don’t even know if he was there the night Smokey started waking us up during what seemed like the middle of the night for some obnoxious fraternity play.
He’d wake us up, or see if we were really asleep, by shining a flashlight in our eyes and making us go in the bathroom or something. It was all in innocent fun, and he was a choice counselor in that regard, but I was in no mood for games. So when he came to me and flashed the light in my face, I pretended like I was asleep for real. It worked because he left me alone after that and went on to someone else.
It was antisocial behavior like that, along with staying on the sidelines while mostly everyone else played basketball and other sports, that brought criticism my way when I was the first in my group to win the coveted Camper Of The Day or Camper Of The Week honor. “He don’t even play basketball with us,” the other kids said. And they had a valid point. But maybe they were just upset because they didn’t win. After all, the next winner; the homesick boy who cried in the cabin because it was his first time being away from his family for so long; got that he only won because he cried and the counselors wanted to make him feel better.
Despite the peer complaints and a courtside altercation between a tall skinny black boy and one of the “ugly” brothers, we all basically got along; no fights; that is, until the very last day.
It was morning and we were about to leave for home when the counselors, mainly Smokey, instigated a physical encounter between a guy named Bear; the biggest kid in our group; and a kid from the group cabined right across from us. It wasn’t supposed to be a real fight but a wrestling match or something to see who was tougher and stronger. Smokey rooted for Bear while the counselors from the other group rooted for their guy. But their guy let it go to his head as I clearly remember him getting up in Bear’s face and pushing him or something like that. Bear wasn’t with it. He obviously didn’t want to fight the guy. And that caused the guy to assault him more. That’s when Smokey flipped.
Smokey, who was a full-grown adult, at-least by our standards, attacked the kid; a teen who looked and acted more like a young adult himself. In fact, it may have even been the same guy who’d gotten into it with the “ugly” brother a few days before.
Smokey jumped on him, angry over the fact that the boy kept attacking Bear even though Bear wasn’t fighting back, and took him down to the ground. I remember all the commotion, with “Tank” and the other counselors trying to break it up, as Smokey and the guy rolled around on the ground in a violent struggle. I, like other kids in our group, felt sorry for Bear and appreciated the fact that our Smokey decided to defend him so vehemently. But at the same time, Smokey was very much out of line for jumping on the boy, who appeared to be totally startled by the attack.
It was the most interesting moment of the whole trip, seeing Smokey flip-out like that. But at that point, I think it’s safe to say we were all just ready to go home. The testosterone-driven madness, which at one point brought-up talk of going ice-water swimming like the Polar Bear clubs; an environment marked by YMCA-like antics and daily boot-camp-style shout drills, with love-Jesus talk thrown in for good measure; had grown tiresome. Home-life nostalgia had began to set-in and were simply ready to go, especially me.
One of the first things I did when I got home was sit down to a bowl of anything but Lucky Charms. One of the next was to have my mother take me back to the doctor for an asthma inhaler.