Guilt by Omission
Barry was our whipping boy. Every cabin at every overnight camp has one—the socially stunted kid who’s relentlessly teased, physically tortured and brought to tears at least once a week. Gitmo interrogators have nothing on 11-year-old campers when it comes to dreaming up novel ways to demean a human being. The waffle-belly was a staple of the Cabin 5 gestapo. Simply hold Barry down, press a tennis racket against his stomach, rub him raw with a hairbrush for a few minutes, remove racket and—voilà!—waffle-belly.
And it got much worse. The ultimate violation: Ben-Gay or toothpaste applied to certain, um, sensitive areas. In retrospect, the physical and emotional brutality of these acts is astonishing—not to mention the homoerotic implications for the perpetrators.
Me? I was like the German citizen during the Holocaust who, though refusing to partake in the madness, was too afraid to stand up to the villains. Just mind my own business or I’ll be next, I thought.
Oddly enough, Jay—a regular bed-wetter who needed rubber sheets—managed to escape the sadistic inclinations of his bunkmates, largely because his best friend from home was one of the ringleaders. Even at 11 years old, it’s all who you know. —JACK SILVERMANA Tough Row
Freshly picked, unwashed green beans smell like dirt. I would know, because in my strict agrarian family, instead of summer camp, there was indentured servitude. They started me off easy, though. First, “vacation” at my great aunt’s somehow translated into reorganizing her quilting supplies. Soon, the interfamily labor loan program assigned me to haul junk from the shed of a second cousin. When I wasn’t clearing out an old barn or batting down a wasp’s nest, I was embargoed domestically for Project Refinish Our Hardwood Floors. But mostly, while my friends lounged by pools inventing secret handshakes, the vacations of my youth were spent in Byrdstown, Tenn., crouched in the blazing sun, picking vegetables. To an 11-year-old girl bent on exploration and whimsy, there is no incentive to pick them, string them, break them, pile them in the washtub or help can them for winter. Tomatoes and corn never stood a chance. And so it was there, near the good earth, contending with heat and insects, that I began to smell the honeysuckle. It smelled like daybreak, like tree-climbing and bike rides. In the right world, you’d be commissioned to spend the summer gently removing the pistils to extract the edible nectar. But you’d have a better chance of being asked to choose the very switch to whip your hide—the hide that needed whipping due to its proclivity for honeysuckle-picking instead of green bean-picking, the very thing that got you into trouble in the first place. —TRACY MOORETop Down
The day I was born, one of the things my father felt was old. So he did what many men do at the first intimation of twilight: he bought a car. Not just any car, but a rolling Bruce Springsteen song—a 1965 Dodge Coronet convertible, V-8 engine, red the color of Lana Turner’s lips. It was summer made manifest in sleek lines and chrome. Our house in the country had only box fans, not air conditioning, and on steamy August nights they pulled in heat and moths more than they cooled anything down. So my parents would place my brother and me on the backseat floor, put the top down, and gun the motor down Rutherford County’s dark back roads. We lay on our backs, looking at stars, while the AM radio crackled Ringo Starr’s “Photograph”—a song I always associate with sultry nights and the smell of honeysuckle. The car became mine in high school, and while other kids were wasting their summer at camp, I was cruising around at midnight watching June bugs ping harmlessly off the windshield, or speeding for shelter from a sudden storm with a long-legged girl whose kisses tasted like rain. I’m not exactly crying because I missed out on macramé. —JIM RIDLEYUnrequited Memory
I was 12. He was 113⁄4. Our eyes didn’t meet across a crowded room so much as two counselors wearing Hefty sacks dragged us into a conga line of California Raisins and made us dance around the dining hall. We spent the whole dance together and met again when the boys’ camp came over to celebrate July 4th. We sat together beside the lake, watching fireworks and swatting mosquitoes. I broke out in hives.
At several dances over two summers, we swayed awkwardly to Hall & Oates, The Police and Lionel Richie. We never touched. We talked about New Orleans and Nashville. He liked sailing. I liked horses. After the last camp dance, he wrote a letter saying that his friends told him he should have kissed me. I sort of wished he had, but all I knew about kissing was what this slutty girl in my cabin had told us all: “Just touch your tongue to his and start moving it in figure 8’s.” I’m glad we avoided that.
Last week, I called him—just Googled, and there was his number at a law firm in New Orleans. The first floor of his house got four inches of water, but his office was fine. His kids are a little older than mine. He still sails. He has no memory of me. —CARRINGTON FOX Hello Mudda. Hello Fadda
Even as a ’tween, tomboy activities were much more enticing for me than braiding hair or hanging out in the top bunk of the camp cabin reading Are You There God: It’s Me Margaret, which is what most of my contemporaries were doing. (I wouldn’t need such reading for several more years, and even then, it seemed really insipid. Honest to God, who looks forward to bloodletting?) In any event, there were even worse things than having nothing in common with the girls in my cabin during an unfortunate two-week stay at Camp Soaring Hawk (now apparently called Camp Barnabas, featured recently on ABC’s Extreme Makeover.) As if their insistence on reading wearisome Judy Blume tomes wasn’t enough, these paperback distractions were embedded in care packages from home. Each passing day brought another brown-box delivery for one of my fellow campers. My parents didn’t get the memo. While I don’t think about it often, I’ve never forgotten. But after the latest birthday card came in the mail, I’m ready to purge the memory. It included the usual sweet, loving, eye-watering message from Mom—and this surprisingly expressive sentiment from Dad: “You’re my pride and joy, even if you are middle-aged.” I love you guys too. —LIZ GARRIGANHoofin’ It
I never went to camp as a kid, teenager, adult, whatever. What I did do most summers was work with my dad on the racetrack in New Orleans. He was a blacksmith. He usually started the day by “running his traps,” which meant he went barn-to-barn asking trainers which horses they wanted shod. It wasn’t unusual to shoe eight horses a day, 30 minutes per horse. I was the horse-holder, probably the dullest job on the planet. The only excitement was when my father, Bill, inevitably became pissed once a horse started acting up. Thoroughbreds misbehave for any odd reason: biting flies, sore muscles, nervousness, boredom. To make them behave, my dad usually swatted them in the ribs with a hammer or whatever tool he happened to possess at the time. If that didn’t work, we took the shank and ran it between their gums and upper lip, a technique called a lip-chain by grooms on the track. My job was to hold the shank firmly enough so the chain didn’t slip from the upper gum. If it did, my dad—sweat dripping from his face, his back bowed from years of bending over—gave me a cursing as good as the one the horses got. And he wonders why I never became a blacksmith. —WILLIAM DEAN HINTONChild of the Corn
Standing still as death, flashlight in hand, finger on the switch, I wait and listen. It is late in the summer, when the game really gets good, when the corn gets high and the nights stay warm. I don’t know who’s “it” and I don’t quite know where I am, but I know that I’m scared—which, I guess, is the point of playing a nighttime game of hide-n-go-seek in the August corn. In front of me is black, to both sides green. Behind me I hear a noise and my breath stutters. It doesn’t necessarily mean that “it” is nearby—many girls, especially the younger ones, travel in packs—but I trot down the row anyway, risking some light. The impossibly small window of visibility my flashlight affords me darkens everything else. This game never ends up fun. Then, like magic, the corn thins and I am in a familiar field, at least half a mile from the lights of the farmhouse and the safety of my bed. From the corn I hear yelps, giggles and the occasional startled scream. I pause, placing my right hand softly on my chest, then start walking back, taking the long way around. —LEE STABERTBloody Sundae
It was in the kitchen that I saw her blood. We were there making ice cream. It was going to be vanilla, made with real beans. I can still feel the gritty texture on the roof of my mouth. But it wouldn’t have been done yet—when he cut her, I mean. It was still us churning the old wooden contraption until our thin arms grew tired. The room was screened in, and giant mosquitoes banged against the loose mesh in a ticking cadence.
I was staring out that screen, watching as evening descended through the piney treetops. Behind me, as the others churned, the two of them—both maybe 9 years old—argued.
“It won’t,” she said.
“Yes,” he replied, whining, insistent. “It will.”
“Well, I don’t believe it.”
“My dad says it’s the sharpest one money will buy. It can too cut you.”
“Not a chance. Don’t be stupid.” She hissed that last part, so I turned to see her anger.
I saw him push forward, holding a wood-handled pocketknife. It slashed through her hand with silvery speed.
Her ruby blood came fast, falling on the white linoleum floor. It pooled by the ice cream churn, and the others stopped what they were doing and stared—stupidly silent as she began to wail. A counselor took them away. I never saw them again. —P.J. TOBIAFlat Out
Summer 1996. Hulk Hogan has just turned his back on the Hulkamaniacs by joining the N.W.O. The Rock is making a name for himself in the WWF. With very little mat experience, I join my high school wrestling team at George Mason University wrestling camp. You don’t need amateur wrestling experience to be a pro, and I want to be the Ultimate Warrior more than I care about Dan Gable. I’m not worried.
My first opponent: Tucker Foote, prep champion wrestler, future Yale lacrosse captain. I begin to worry. Nothing fancy. Shoot for a single. Wrap it up. Pin him. Kill him. Win. The whistle. Shit, this isn’t fake. He wants to kill me. Lights, camera…. The lights, fixtures on the ceiling shining fluorescent into my retina as my head pounds the ground. Don’t be a fish, Rudolph! Fight, goddamnit! My coach photographs it. Squeeling, squirming, trying to survive. A fish out of water. Twenty seconds, tops, and my back’s to the ground. There is no “One, two, three.” Just “One.” A hand smacking the mat. And it’s over. —DAVE RUDOLPHDe-camped
I could never really get behind the whole camp thing. “Wouldn’t you like to spend a week in a remote cabin with 20 other girls, none of whom know each other?” my mother would ask me at the end of each school year, and then act shocked when I answered no. She handed me pamphlets for programs with names like “Tiny Tots” or “Sunnybrook River Guides” and tried unconvincingly to act jealous that she no longer got to sit on a Kool-Aid-stained picnic bench and make artwork out of macaroni and bendy straws. But I never bought it. She could make something out of macaroni and bendy straws if she really wanted to, nobody was stopping her. One year she teamed up with some other moms from our kindergarten playgroup and sent me to a local day camp—you know, the kind that specializes in sing-alongs and capture the flag. It was pretty fun. I got to play on the jungle gym and drink Hi-C juice boxes, but then my friend Lindsey broke her arm and they wouldn’t let us on the monkey bars anymore. I think that was the last year I had to go to camp. After that, I spent my summer months hunting for treasure in our suburban subdivision, swimming in the local pool or hanging upside down from the couch in the living room, eating Fruit-by-the-Foot and watching Nickelodeon on TV. Unlike you people, my formative years were climate-controlled. —CLAIRE SUDDATH