No doubt the spring weather has many kids — and their parents — looking forward eagerly to summer camp. They probably envision warm days filled with swimming, hiking, boating, cameraderie. It's a nice image.
My image of camp is not so nice. Let me explain.
I'll start with the late poet Galway Kinnell. When I read last fall that Kinnell had died at age 87, I didn't think of his long poem, "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World," about Manhattan's Avenue C, of which the New York Times obituary made much (though I certainly do like his line about the drunks and other street people, "everyone who took it easy when he should have been out failing at something"), or of the (second-hand) signed copy of his selected poems in the bookshelf by my living room window. Instead, I recalled a very short poem, "Hide-and-Seek, 1933," that appeared in The Best American Poetry collection for 2007:
Once when we were playing
hide-and-seek and it was time
to go home, the rest gave up
on the game before it was done
and forgot I was hiding.
I remained hidden as a matter
of honor until the moon rose.
I somehow picture him crouching in an orchard, although an orchard wouldn't have offered many hiding spots. He would have been six in the summer of 1933, exactly my age when I remained hidden in the woods of New York state long after the other kids had given up.
That summer, my parents had sent me far from our one-bedroom Bronx apartment to a camp upstate. We had spent several summers on Cape Cod, where I had waded down the Pamet River, climbed the dunes at Balston Beach, started first grade, learned to swim, but for some reason — maybe they didn't have the money, maybe they didn't want to spend that much time with each other, maybe they just thought camp would be good for me — they stayed in the Bronx and I went up the Hudson Valley to camp, where I slept in a big open room with other boys my own age and a teenage counselor who read to us at night about Sinbad the Sailor.
No doubt at some point I had thought I'd like that camp, just as later I thought, despite a mounting body of experience, that I'd like other camps. I never did. At Boy Scout camp, I wound up sleeping on the floor of a mess hall after the tail end of a hurricane flooded our tents and turned our trails into running streams. At 4-H camp, I was hit in the eye (accidentally) by a thrown stick.
But that first time was definitely the worst. How bad? The camp published a newsletter. One story detailed personal characteristics of the boys in our group. All it said about me was that I slept a lot. That wasn't much of a distinction perhaps, but it sounds like a pretty good indication of depression or at least avoidance.
Camp just wasn't my thing. We learned to ride horses. I had never been on a horse, but I had watched cowboys mount up in Western movies, and for my first ride, I tried to do the same. I put one foot in the stirrup and swung myself up, sailing headfirst over the saddle and down the other side.
We also took little hikes. One route crossed an old wooden bridge over a creek. I'm sure it wasn't very high off the ground — the other boys breezed right across — but some boards were missing, and I was terrified.
I didn't much like those other boys. One of them had found a little snake and kept it in a metal bucket. Some afternoon, when my bunkmates were all away doing something or other, I walked past the snake and something just snapped. I picked up a big rock and smashed it.
I thought another boy was picking on me. He was always surrounded by a little group of in-group kids. That winter, when the camp held a reunion in a big Manhattan apartment, he was alone; I wrestled with him and pinned him to the hardwood floor. I felt a sense of payback. He laughed and acted like it was all in fun, like everything had been in fun. For him, it probably had been. I may have been the only one who wasn't having a good time
Even so, by and large I had it easy. At the end of the summer, the camp showed a movie and set the evening up as a kind of date night: Every boy was supposed to ask a girl. I didn't. But the people organizing the evening wanted everyone to have a partner. So they paired me up with a girl who didn't have a date, either. She was about 14. She was very nice to me, and I had fun. I didn't realize until years later how cruel the camp had been to pair her up with a first grader.
But I certainly felt that things weren't right. Years later, in a box of letters my mother had saved, we came across a post card I had sent my parents from camp. In my blocky first-grade printing — which is, really, not much worse than my handwriting now — I asked them to "please send me a shot gun."
All that may seem beside the point, but it suggests my state of mind when I set out with my bunkmates on an overnight hike into the nearby woods. We must have carried sleeping bags or blankets in our arms; we certainly didn't have packs. And we didn't go very far. We walked to a clearing, where we put our gear down . Our councilors sent us off on a game of hide-and-seek.
I wanted desperately to keep from being found. I went way into the woods. There was underbrush, but I kept going. Finally, through the trees, I saw a lake. Kids were swimming. in the lake. It looked familiar. I had walked almost all the way back to our camp. I crouched in the underbrush, out of sight. I wish I could say, as Kinnell did, that it had been a matter of honor — which seems rather grand for a 6-year-old. It wasn't. It was a matter of cluelessness, of fear, of loner determination. I didn't see any of the other kids. I didn't hear any of the other kids. I stayed until it started getting dark. I finally went back to the clearing.
Kinnell's poem doesn't talk about what happens later. One imagines the wet nose of the family dog, congealed gravy on a cold plate, a worried parent's reprimand,. But what happens later doesn't matter. It's not the point. The point is that boy staying hidden after his friends leave, that early glimpse of a personality set apart, of a person not afraid to be apart. The moment is complete.
It wasn't complete for me. It was only part of the story. By the time I arrived in camp, it was dark. No one had found me. I expected the other kids to be impressed. They weren't. The game was forgotten. Everyone else was already in bed. It was late, and they were all just going to sleep. No one cared that I had stayed hidden. And evidently, no one cared that I hadn't come back. They hadn't even bothered looking.