Not much conversation passed between my grandson and me when I drove him to the bus for camp last August. Alex was affixed to his electronic game, which I'd requested him to put on "mute." The route to Minneapolis was familiar from countless north woods canoe trips in the past. My mind wandered back to distant summers and my own adventures in camp long ago.
I remembered learning how to make "hospital corners," with the goal of being able to bounce a dime off your bed. I remembered my initiation into the rite of short-sheeting and the discovery of Grapenuts when I slid into bed. At camp I became familiar with outhouses enveloped by mosquitoes and I learned a new word: "biffy."
I remembered my inability to master the useless art of lanyard-making. A Scandinavian ditty that played incessantly on the Brainerd, Minnesota, radio station drifted through my mind. Campfire tales came back to me - "Red Eye," a cutthroat prison escapee and "The Hairy Monster," a human-ape that roamed the hills. I recalled games of "Capture the Flag" when we sought the enemy with an earnestness that approximated real war.
I remembered how the sense of adventure mingled with pangs of abandonment when my parents delivered me to Union Station and the kinship I felt with throngs of soldiers carrying duffel bags jauntily on their backs. I remembered the jolt of the train as we pulled away, the porter making the upper birth beds by snapping the sheet like a whip, the Pullman car rocking on the rails.
When I arrived at camp that July in 1951, I discovered that I'd forgotten my key and I remembered an acute sense of isolation as the other campers opened their footlockers and lovingly arranged their stuff. My pragmatic counselor simply pried the lock off with a hammer - a revelation. It had never occurred to my innocent mind that a lock could be violated so easily. I was to learn over those balmy days that camp values were sometimes at odds with the conventions of home.
I remembered the song about the deacon who went down to the cellar to pray, got drunk and stayed all day, the one about Mr. Johnny Verbeck who ground up the neighbors' cats and dogs for sausage, and the one with the immortal refrain: "The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout." Didn't we delight in those songs partly because they mocked the polite, orthodox notions we'd been reared on? And I wondered if our parents had sent us off to camp so that we could learn certain truths they weren't comfortable in teaching us.
Anxious to retain their status as moral authorities, standard-bearers of middle class, God-Bless-America pieties, they delegated to camp important lessons about the treacherous duality of the world - that clerical robes are no guarantee of dependability, that it doesn't necessarily pay to trust your neighbor, that no matter how purely we live, our bodies are condemned to an ignominious end. I remembered that it was at Boy Scout camp - where the official code paid homage to Cleanliness and Reverence - that I first heard a crude but accurate expose of the mystery of procreation.
After a few hours on the road, Alex began to get a little stir crazy and started accompanying his doomsday war game with battle cries and explosive sound effects.
"The soldiers are under attack, sir! The idiot villagers are attacking the knights! Take that! Defend! Ker-pow! Bzzzap! Aiyee! We're all going to die! Medic!" My reveries were over.
At dinner, he asked me about my own camp experiences. I told him about the skit my cabin put on that featured "a place in France where the women wear no pants" and a midnight raid on the camp kitchen that brought down memorable punishments on our heads.
"Tell me everything I need to know to stay out of trouble," said Alex, who hasn't yet been tempted by the lure of transgression.
The next morning at the parking lot he got a call from his father, a helicopter pilot stationed in Iraq. They had a long conversation that revealed Alex's fears for his dad's safety as much as concerns about his own forthcoming ordeal. When the phone call was over, I escorted Alex to the small crowd gathered by the camp bus. Campers were hugging their moms and dads good-bye.
"OK, George," said Alex grimly. "This is going to be fun - right?" A counselor who identified himself as "Solo," made jocular reference to Alex's enormous suitcases.
"You planning to stay at camp for a year?" Before long Alex drifted away from me. I saw him by the bus, chatting with his future cabin mates. I was reassured. He was going to be all right. My parting words were, "Keep your wits about you," the very words my father spoke when I told him I'd forgotten my foot locker key.
When I picked Alex up two weeks later, he'd been transformed. He was no longer an anxiety-filled novice but a veteran. His legs were covered with scratches and bruises from mountain bike accidents - badges of courage which he proudly showed off. He roamed around the parking lot exchanging high-fives and oaths of eternal friendship. It was hard to draw him away.
Camp was "awesome," he said when we got in the car. He looked out the window with a faint smile on his face. Perhaps he was dreaming about a camp fire on a pristine lake and hearing the haunting cry of a loon. The mood lasted for a good 15 minutes. Then out came the game gadget and he resumed the important business of stopping inter-galactic evil in its tracks. I drove on with "Stodely, stodely, stodely, pum-pa" and "Hagaleena, Magaleena, Hootensteiner, Waltendeiner" playing in my mind.