As I stood there counting names, not heads mind you as heads can be counted twice, it was mighty distracting to have so many trying to get my attention. Yelling things at me like, ‘Joe!!’, and ‘You’re still in your pants!’, and ‘What’s wrong with you…’ All to the unending guffawing of these supposedly ‘special’ people. My people. On top of it, this was a high risk area. The pool. Where we are all to be on extra high alert.
To their credit the reaction was the one I sought by coming down to do my name count in the same fashion I always did, at 6-10 activity areas 4 times a day but proceeding to walk directly into the middle of the pool, fully and normally dressed, while maintaining as stern an authoritarian countenance as I could project at all of 23 years old. All the while never breaking from my task of making sure all were accounted for and safe. Once I was done I left, not saying a word, just soaked through from the waist down, dripping all over and smiling ear to ear on the inside. I was making a memory that would last for all those who saw it. My attention seeking behavior pointed to bringing a smile to the faces of our guests. My guess is I’m the only one that really remembers that. I was pretty cool.
I really was.
Camp was home in a way I’ll never really experience again. It was a childhood home. The home I was an integral part of, but not one I was in any real way in charge of. I was an older brother maybe, or a young uncle that sometimes seemed more like a cousin. I always would be perceived as a kid there as they saw me at my finest and my, well, not so finest in my early twenties. Not so finest covered a LOT of territory back then.
Still, it was home. I discovered the world there. Discovered myself in the process. When I was done, at least when I thought I was, I launched. Out into the world armed with the confidence and skills I would never ever have found without having spent my four years there. Yep. Four years, 2 of which were year round. Unlike other camps that do year round programming this camp was not one that was really set to have tenants in the winter, other than those that come up for weekend programs and the director. But that director, she liked me and trusted me and needed the help so I had the chance to stay. To be the kid leaving dishes in his room. To be the teenager too big for these little beds, ready to push off on his own but not yet willing to pull the trigger.
Four years in I started to get self conscious about it. I should really be going I thought. So I did. I moved to New Hampshire where I went to start a new life, one that was supposed to be a lifetimes journey.
10 months later, having shown thoroughly that I was not yet ready to make that step, I was lost. Not yet 26 at this point, the summer of 1999, I loaded my belongings, said all my apologies, cried some tears that hurt because they were the first final tears I’d ever cried for myself, and I headed back to camp. I could be a driver. That was alright by me. Just what I needed. I knew they didn’t need a driver, not often enough anyway.
The journey back was terrible. I was full of failure and judging myself harshly, the way I could back then. But at the end I was home. For whatever reason it always felt like I was already there when I passed through the traffic light in Palenville, some 15 or so miles down the mountain, headed toward the winding roads that were so harrowing the first few times, but came to be second nature to me as the years passed by and this road became the primary means of egress from my mountain life.
That summer, the one I spent as part time asst. director (Not in title, but I sussed it out when I was tasked with firing people and covering for the director on days off)/Driver, was when I came crawling back with my tail between my legs. But when I got there I was welcomed happily by the few senior staff I knew and the guys. Oh, the guys. They were the reason we were there, all of us, everyone of us, but that year they were the actual reason I was there at all. I needed to be somewhere where I was loved and so many of them loved me without reservation. The camp was really a lodge, and our ‘campers’ were known as ‘guests’. Intellectually and developmentally disabled adults that had no idea how much it meant to me to hang out at the store those nights at after hours with them, playing pool and listening to music on the porch. Or sitting with them on the swinging benches that were placed around the Gazebo. Or just hanging out in the office listening to the camp live around me while I felt so securely and perfectly placed in a life I loved. How much it meant to me to be somewhere where I knew what I was doing and how to do it well. Where I was openly and obviously seen as someone worth spending time with.
I didn’t get close to any of the staff that year. It was the year the guests became more my family than the staff. They were permanent after all. Staff turned over, mostly, every year. There were returners, but by year three there’s only a handful left from year one.
That said, this past week I got a tweet from a man who was a kid there working at the camp that summer. Peter. He was an Irish lifeguard and he remembered me. Stuck out to him that one night I afforded him the privilege of breaking curfew on my porch. I was given the exec’s cabin for the summer and I took full advantage and knowing I had no one to really hold me to account for an infraction I knew to be minor I said come on up, have a drink and a smoke. And we did, and we chatted. It was nice. And he remembered.
It’s funny what you remember. I have memories that die every day now. Ones that have just lost space or priority or value for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s age and distance that are crowding out so much. But for whatever reason it didn’t crowd out that one extra beer and smoke after curfew for Peter and his bringing it up to me rescued it from the waste bin I’d yet to empty in my mind. Now it’s there, given a lifeline, safe for a few more years.
I’m certain on my death bed I’ll think of my son’s. The times I’ve spent with them in this short time we’ve already had have filled me to overflowing. I’m sure I’ll flash to the night I met my wife Karen. It’s a memory I visit often to thank my lucky stars. I’m equally sure I won’t think of that night on the porch with Peter. Won’t happen I’m afraid. But I’m glad it made another appearance, because family, the family you grow up with, well all of it is significant. The silly times you made everyone laugh as you walked away beaming from the inside, and soaked from the waist down and the times you came crawling back, embarrassed, with all your life in tow and they didn’t for a second see you as anything but welcome and they were even thankful, happy that you were there.
I’ve said this to everyone who’s ever asked about camp and it’s true today. ‘If everything falls away, if my life literally crumbles around me and I’m left with nothing, I’ll always have camp.’ After all, if it all were to go away where else would I go other than to family.