catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 13 :: 2010.06.25 — 2010.07.08


In the moment

Pine scented disinfectant: the redolent interior of an outhouse at summer camp permanently imprinted on your cerebral cortex.  Follow the wafting odor away from the unstained boards of that primitive privy to the bunk-beds of nearby cabins and to the ritual of lining up with cabin mates in single file awaiting the call to breakfast. 

Camp.  What other experience can parenthesize and synthesize the thrills, travails and titillation of our childhood and adolescent summers?  The first summer camp I went to was a two-week odyssey.  I wasn’t a momma’s boy by any stretch, but at eight years old, two whole weeks away from home for the first time stretched my comfort zone and batted my emotions back and forth like the cracked yellow tether ball with which I played. 

In the same venue a few years later, as a seasoned and literally happy camper, I was bewildered by the choice of counselor assigned to my cabin.  This was no cool university student ready to embroil us in the foaming white water of a New Hampshire river expedition; this man seemed unimaginably old.  He had eyebrows that dwarfed Tom Snyder’s — eyebrows that could have been declared a UNESCO heritage forest.  Turned out to be a great guy though, and I learned something from that cliché about books and covers.

It was at camp that I discovered the power of a serialized story: The Pilgrim’s Progress enacted in the visual X-Box of its day — flannelgraph.  That azure panel splashed with the grimy hues of the Slough of Despond and Macaw-like colors of Vanity Fair drew me back like free Fruit Loops would every morning.  I had to know what was going to happen to this guy, Christian — what was he going to do with that weight on his back? 

It was at camp that I learned how to make a lanyard with gimp, that brightly colored plastic lacing that was woven endlessly into a myriad of impractical necklaces and bracelets for the folks back home.  But oh, wouldn’t they be proud? 

It was at camp that Psych 101 concepts were first brought to life.  Take the delay of gratification.  An especially tart bag of salt & vinegar chips, a neon orange Creamsicle, a handful of blackballs in a small brown sack — this ambrosia could never taste the same anywhere else in this world if you didn’t have to wait for the tuck shop to open after dinner to get it.

It was at camp that I learned the parts of a canoe and how to do the J-stroke, a most useful skill for keeping a canoe on course when paddling alone.  It was also where I found out that black people could tan and that if you run with a chubby boy on your back while playing British Bulldog, a trip and a forward fall must necessarily produce a fracture of the second metacarpal.

It is also at camp that I discovered the absolute power of a crush.  What’s a fourteen-year-old boy to do when he sees an olive-skinned beauty with a smile that could blind a military battalion at forty paces?  What’s he to do when he discovers that this Venus stepping out of a Botticelli painting is willing to treat him as an equal even though she’s two years older?  He will dream and fawn and sigh and pinch himself to ensure that it’s not just a dream.  And when he returns home he will collapse at the top of the stairs utterly consumed with love – “infatuation” has not entered his vocabulary yet — and the ache will consume his being as only a boy that age can experience.

It is in the aftermath of such longing that truth — not arid, conceptual, lecture hall truth, but bowel-twisting, bone marrow certainty — seeps into my consciousness.  It is in the wonderful clarity of retrospection that I see that I have never lived so entirely in the moment, so utterly carefree of the outside world, than during those days when I called summer camp my home. 

Life these days as an adult is so circumscribed with calculating costs and hedging bets against the future.  Maybe what we all need these days is to sew those name tags onto our clothes, pack a duffel bag with a bathing suit and rain poncho, slide in an envelope of tuck money and wind our way down the dirt road to the edge of the water where a life lived to the fullest awaits.

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