Camp Thunderbird

January 22, 2010 | 1 Comment

Category: Auto-Biography

When I was a boy, I went for two years to a summer camp in Bemidji, Minnesota.  It was almost all Jewish boys, many from Chicago’s North Shore.  My second year, I was put back into the cabin with the kids from my first year.  I requested that I be put back with younger kids.  The kids from my first year had all reached puberty.  I wasn’t close.

One of the cabin counselors, the cabin I requested I be removed from, was a middle-aged cartoonist named Pogo.  All the other counselors were college students.  Needing a summer job was not a surprise for someone seeking to make a living as a cartoonist.  I was fascinated by his craft but didn’t understand his humor.  He specialized in dirty jokes on cocktail napkins.  Still, I was in awe of his ability to create a spontaneous likeness.

My first year, I had been placed in Wild Thing’s cabin.  Each counselor had a nickname.  Wild Thing was a 19-year-old.  All the 19- and 20-year-old counselors felt to me to be some other species.  I had no older siblings and so had nothing to compare them to.  Music, alcohol and sex were on all their minds.  This was about when the Beatles hit.

An evening shortly after camp had started, Wild Thing off somewhere, I walked into the main room with the half dozen bunk beds.  Five campers were lined up, facing the doorway, masturbating.  They were having a contest to see who could fling their semen the farthest.  I had never masturbated, considered masturbating or was even clear on what masturbation was.

I was seven or eight, receiving the birds and bees talk from my mother, when she explained how sperm coming out of the penis impregnated the woman’s egg and made a human.  I asked her how the sperm knew to come out of the penis instead of pee.  Mom said she didn’t know.

I was exposed to lots of new things in summer camp.

Periodically a truck would wind its way through the campground, dragging a generator spewing a cloud of bug bomb through the cabins and the woods.  The camp was filled with asthmatics with lots of allergies.  Some would flee.  I would hack my lungs out for a while after the truck passed by, astonished that the stuff wasn’t poisonous.  It left a white dust and dead insects everywhere.

I remember occasionally whipping out my handkerchiefs, I always carried two, and flinging them playfully at boys that were annoying me.  My nose ran nonstop all summer, a combination of pine tree, bug bomb and mold.  My handkerchiefs looked like they were baked in biscuits and gravy, an intimidating sight to friend and foe.

I remember stepping outside the mess hall one evening.  A circle of campers were holding hands and dancing in classic Jewish fashion around one particularly allergic, shy and fat kid.  They were singing the traditional Jewish dance song, except they were singing the words, “Oozie amoeba, Oozie amoeba…..”

In the mail, I received care packages from my grandmothers that included smoked oysters, salami and rye bread.  My cabin mates were astonished at the amounts and frequency of my grandmother missives.

I could draw and I could swim.  I remember wood-burning a Northern landscape into the paddle of one of the counselors.  I swam a mile, across the lake and back.

Peter Dubin and I went out on the lake in a kayak.  I couldn’t get the hang of paddling.  I accidentally smacked him up the side of the head with one of the blade ends.  Then, I did it again.  Then, again.  Peter was crying and screaming at me.  I couldn’t figure out how to paddle without whacking him.  I was just used to a regular paddle.

What I spent a lot of time doing those two summers was going on canoe trips around Minnesota and in Canada.  I didn’t particularly like summer camp.  Peter was my only friend, so getting out of camp on these journeys felt like a satisfactory alternative.  Paddling, portaging, cooking, setting up tent.  That was the routine.  I was small for my age so I always seemed to hurt, but that was OK.  Paddling around Canada, we sometimes saw no other person for more than a day.  Chipmunks were tame.  We saw moose, deer, etc.  I don’t remember viewing extraordinary beauty.  I think it was mostly about getting from day to day someplace where I wouldn’t be constantly exposed to behavior I found intimidating or didn’t understand.

I remember once, in a particularly remote, woody area, having seen no one for almost two days, I walked out of the camp into dense forest to find a place to take a crap.  I dug my hole.  Pants down, I was squatting, and a girl appeared, saw me and continued walking by me, making believe I wasn’t there.  Then, her family walked by, a dad and brother.  The dad said hi.

In another ridiculously remote place, we managed to get all our gear and canoes out of the water during a storm in the late afternoon.  We piled our stuff on what looked like abandoned railway tracks.  Then, we heard the train.  Scurrying to get everything off the tracks, we completed doing so just before the train came around the corner.

Some evenings I would get up with asthma or have to pee.  The sky was filled with more stars than is even imaginable today.

Though I don’t remember the beauty much, for many years afterward I drew scenes of the wild.  Over and over again I doodled woods and rivers.  Never was there a person in the pictures.


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