For four blessed summers during our childhood, my brother and I were shipped off to summer camp. xxxxxxxxxxxxx xxx xx xxAlong about midsummer, when life in the neighborhood had started to get really boring, my mother would pull a couple of footlockers out of the closet. She’d set out stacks of Camp Stewart gym shorts and T-shirts, dozens of white socks, several pairs of tennis shoes, and two pairs of cowboy boots. Then she would sew name tags on everything. Before long, the lockers would go into the car trunk, Dad would check the oil in the Buick, and my brother and I would officially set off for our summer away from home.
From South Louisiana, where we lived, we drove due west for eight hours, straight into the setting sun. We headed to an area known as the “hill country” of Texas. Dozens of camps like Camp Stewart filled the area. Most of them were located on the Guadeloupe River, a meandering waterway that was just perfect for swimming, skiing and canoeing. The climate was ideal: It got hot as blazes in the daytime, but at nighttime, it was clear, dry and mild.
I am not sure why we went to camp in Texas. Many of our Lousiana friends headed to North Carolina for camp. Invariably, when we all got together after our camps had ended, the North Carolina campers would have really long hair. They would talk about how their camps had let them do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, however they wanted.
That was not like my camp. The Camp Stewart ethos was clearly established when you drove through the front gates, where a sign read, “Enter a Boy. Leave a Man.”
Every hour, on the hour, the boys went to activities. There were mandatory haircuts, and there was a personal inspection every Sunday. (“Show me those fingernails, son.”) We learned the grace of losing, and the importance of winning, in tennis, baseball, swimming and every other competitive sport imaginable.
We were taught to fire a rifle and were given National Rifle Association pins. We learned how to saddle and bridle a horse, how to start a fire with cedar bark, and how to portage a canoe.
Every day after lunch, we sang “Grand Ole Flag.” At special services held at “Joy Bluff,” a huge sandstone outcropping on the river, we sang “The Old Rugged Cross.” During those ceremonies, a big cross atop the bluff would be set on fire, and it would topple, cinder by burning cinder, into the Guadeloupe River below.
At nights we saw movies like The Guns of Navarrone, projected on big sheets hung from the rafters in the gym. Sometimes the counselors would get us all spiffed up, and we’d go to dances with girls at Camp Mystic or Camp Waldemar.
Life on the Camp Stewart gridiron, which I now see was pretty much a training ground for athletic, Republican, Christian kids who might make outstanding Texas oilmen some day, was one big blast. I have no regrets, and, honestly, when my son gets old enough, I think we’ll take a look at sending him to Camp Stewart.
I learned about independence and self-sufficiency. I learned a lot about friendship too. I often wonder where most of the people I went to Camp Stewart with have ended up. I have virtually no idea what happened to my tennis team buddy Doug McGrath, our swim coach Mr. Tetley, or Ed Crain, a little cowboy kid from Dime Box, Texas.
I do know, however, what happened to Robert Ettinger. I ran into him unexpectedly one morning, and when I did, it brought back a flood of memories.
It was my first day at boarding school in Austin, Texas, and I was taking a shower. I knew virtually no one there. But I heard a voice pipe up from across the bathroom.
The fellow asked, “Didn’t you go to Camp Stewart?”
I said, “Aren’t you Robert Ettinger, from New Orleans?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re Bruce Dobie, and your brother beat me up on Fight Night.”
He did not make the statement menacingly or threateningly. We were years beyond it, and Robert held no grudge, but it was obvious we were on to something that we would never forget.
Every term at summer camp featured a “Fight Night.” The camp counselors would set up a boxing ring in the middle of the gymnasium, and kids from every cabin, wearing big, heavy boxing gloves, would climb into the ring and fight each other.
There was only one, three-minute round, and there was never any shortage of willing boxers. As I recall it, kids would just challenge each other to fight. The boys who had been challenged were usually too afraid of being labeled sissies, so they never declined the challenge.
I had never fought on Fight Night, but I remember it as being an intense experience for the kids who did get into the ring. Fight Night was all in good fun, but the fighters naturally got worked up about the whole thing. Because the entire camp stood by at ringside, and because the gymnasium floodlights were focused on the fighters, it seemed like a huge spectacle, worthy of fanfare and gripping our interest.
I will never forget the evening when my brother climbed in the ring with Robert Ettinger. The fighters may have been nervous, but I was even more tense. After all, it wasn’t just any old kid who was fighting Robert. It was my little brother. He was family. He was the same guy whom I had been looking out for, pretty much my entire life. He was also the same kid who, without our parents around, I’d been looking out for all during summer camp.
If Chuck were to get pummeled, beat up or hurt in any way hurt, I was going to feel really rotten. If he were to leave the ring a loser, hanging his head in shame, I was absolutely going to die.
My brother was tall and had long arms, but he was skinny. Robert was even taller, and he was beefier. If my brother had any advantage in the fight, it was his toughness. In a boxing ring, I knew my brother was not going to be a dancing, prancing Muhammad Ali type. He would be more like a Joe Frazier, keeping his head low, charging ahead, feeling no pain.
Before the fight, I staked out a spot right next to the ring. The second the bell rang, I had immediate cause to worry. Chuck was clearly half a head shorter than Robert. As they closed in on one another, my stomach did cartwheels, and my mind thought evil things. I wanted Chuck to savage Robert. I wanted him to drive a fist into Robert’s solar plexus. I wanted Robert to fall, senseless and dizzy, to the floor. What I wanted most of all was to see my brother raise his arms and gloves in victory.
For three minutes, arms and gloves flew furiously, recklessly, and, to tell the truth, harmlessly. If anyone had been keeping score, they would have chronicled a total of only two or three punches that landed with any effectiveness. When the decision was read, and Chuck was announced the winner, I felt a flood of pride, and relief, for my brother. Chuck was overjoyed.
I remember him and Robert talking with each other after the decision was read. They were being good sports about everything. Quickly, my nerves settled. All my worries went away, and calm returned. My brother was unharmed, he was a winner, and I was glad for him. For the rest of Fight Night, I didn’t have a concern in the world.
I have not kept up with Camp Stewart. I do not know if it stages Fight Nights anymore. Undoubtedly, there have been complaints from parents who find the concept too aggressive. As I look back on it, however, I think things were pretty much all right like they were.
My son is only 10 months old, but I’ve got a feeling that in a couple of years he is going to want to beat on other boys for absolutely no reason. Someday, too, he may want to climb into a boxing ring, wearing big old gloves that can’t hurt anybody and throwing punches until he’s too tired to move. Sometimes you can’t explain little boys. Sometimes, you let them do crazy things.
Fight Night, it seems, wasn’t just for the fighters. It was for older brothers too. I am sure I was not the first camper to stand by that shaky old Camp Stewart boxing ring, worried like hell for the sake of a younger brother who had strapped on his gloves and was facing an opponent much bigger than himself. On those occasions, an older brother can feel his breath getting short and his eyes beginning to burn. If the younger brother is hurt, the older brother knows, he himself will feel the hurt even more. If for any reason that younger brother is shamed, the older brother will try to bear the shame in his stead.
Camp Stewart probably didn’t intend for the campers to learn any deep, meaningful lessons at Fight Night. But at Fight Night, I know that I learned one truth: It is one thing for you, and you alone, to get into a fight with somebody. It is a different thing entirely to watch your brother up there in the ring.
If Robert Ettinger had beaten my brother up on Fight Night, and then if he’d been a jerk about it, he would have had another fight on his hands. On his way home, he would have been tackled in the dark of night by a 10-year-old Bruce Dobie, make no mistake about it.
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