Believe it or not, the best things that happened at Christmas when I grew into my teen years were not the ribbon candy or the expensive gifts. Rather, they were Pop’s poetry and Mom’s hospitality.
My dad was quite a poet, not always original in terms of rhythm and rhyme—he wrote a lot of parodies, often based on A Visit from Saint Nicholas or The Raven—but people loved to hear him read. His greatest work he saved for me, every Christmas from the time I was thirteen until a few years after Sandy and I got married.
When you’re thirteen, it’s hard to get excited about Christmas. Yes, the gifts get more expensive, mostly electronics, and that’s kind of nice. But the magic is gone. No Santa Claus. You’re not even young enough to fake believing in him anymore. And with the passing of Santa, Christmas becomes just a glorified birthday; only it’s Jesus’, not yours. You just get the presents.
Pop decided to create some magic of his own at Christmas. He started hiding my gifts, and Mom’s too. Now hiding Christmas presents was nothing new. Mom and Pop always hid my gifts because they knew my curiosity and greed would lead me to hunt for them. Oddly, one Christmas my hunting paid off.
I was probably ten at the time. The “Magic 8 Ball,” which had been around for maybe a decade, was having a resurgence in popularity thanks to heavy advertising. Of course, Kurt, Judy, and I all had to have it. And, in the course of my pre-Christmas searching, I located the prophetic sphere behind some undershirts in Pop’s wardrobe. It wasn’t a major gift. Little more than a stocking stuffer. But I knew I could fake suitable happiness at receiving it.
Christmas Day came that year with its usual array of presents under the tree, but no 8 Ball. Curious. Maybe they bought it for one of my aunts to give me. That afternoon we went to Aunt Midge’s for the extended family gift exchange, but no one presented me with the little black and white oracle.
Back home at the end of the day, I decided drastic measures must be taken. I didn’t want to appear before my friends without a Magic 8 Ball. I needed a completely believable ruse to get Mom and Pop to produce the present without my giving away that I’d been hunting for it (and found it).
“Gee,” I mused for all to hear, “I was hoping I’d get that Magic 8 Ball for Christmas. It‘d have been fun to fool around with.” And then I busied myself getting ready for bed.
Out of the corner of my watchful eye I saw Mom give a little look to Pop. Then Pop went up to their bedroom. He came down a minute or two later exclaiming, “Hey, Phil! You’d never believe what I found just lying around.”
And he handed me the 8 Ball.
“I guess it must’ve fallen out of Santa’s bag,” Pop added.
I thought I’d better humor him. “Yeah. I’m sure glad it turned up.”
A few years later the need to humor my parents about Santa Claus was gone, and Pop’s poems began. Each little masterpiece contained two clues within its verse: a clue to the item’s identity and a clue to its location. This was way better than a jolly old elf in a red suit.
I wasn’t allowed to look for the gift until I’d figured out what it was. That was pretty easy for things I’d asked for, like a stereo receiver or a new set of speakers. It was harder for a pair of slippers. But it made for a fun Christmas for a kid who had almost outgrown the holiday.
The other family tradition that began when I was a teenager concerned decorating the tree. It started the night John and Lorraine got engaged and continued into my college years. The tradition was basically this: I could invite a reasonable number of my friends over to decorate the Christmas tree with the Baisley family.
I wonder if allowing me to have friends over for decorating was to help Mom and Pop get over John’s moving away for good. By Christmas of ‘67, John and Lorraine were living about a mile away from 1304 E 93rd Street, too far to return just to hang ornaments on a five foot tree. Anyway, it was time for them to start their own family traditions.
Our new tradition began with having Judy and Kurt over. They were like family anyway. The difference was, as much as we had played together, we rarely worked together. And this was like work: placing dozens of antique glass balls strategically on the boughs of a pine tree in a way that Mom would approve.
Mom liked the balls arranged in order from largest to smallest as they went up the tree. The shortest boughs, the ones at the top, were for her favorites: two glittery birds and a pink glass pine cone. Each year she ascended a step stool to place those herself, in just the proper spots.
The rest of the tree we all were allowed to decorate, within reason and under Mom’s watchful eye. All the while, Chet Atkins strummed Song from Moulin Rouge, and Perry Como sang about turtle doves, drummers drumming, and a partridge in a pear tree. My friends and I strung tinsel, one or two strands at a time, and then hung ornaments that went back a generation or two in Mom’s family.
Kurt and Judy were our first decorating guests, but they weren’t the last. The next year it was Scott. Scott was Jewish, but he was about my best friend at the time; and he’d never decorated a Christmas tree. As much as I valued his soul and wanted it “for the Kingdom,” as we said, what I really valued was his companionship, and that meant joining me in a very special family ritual.
Scott came over to decorate the tree and have a snack with my family. He even told Mom and Pop how some Jews erected “Hanukkah bushes” in lieu of Christmas trees. No conversions that night, but a lot of love was shared. If love, as the Bible says, “covers a multitude of sins,” then 1304 East 93rd Street was a house of salvation for all who entered regardless of their theology or lack of it.
In 1969 the house got a little crowded. First I invited my track teammate and best-friend-in-progress Morty Epstein. Being Jewish, like Scott, Christmas was a bit of a mystery to him. Like all New York Jews, he got the part about Santa and shopping, but the religious significance of Christmas was as unfamiliar to him as the Hanukkah miracle was to Christians.
Judy was home from college and didn’t have a special person to share that holiday with, and I’d missed her; so I invited her over to decorate the tree. The other invitee was Cheryl Lopez. I don’t know when or how I developed a crush on Cheryl, or how, in spite of it (maybe because of it) we became friends, but I know that I wanted her to experience a Baisley Christmas. I invited her to join Judy and Morty at my house for tree decorating night. We had a blast.
Pop was at his best that night. We laughed so hard. I enjoyed Morty’s company so much that I forgot he was there for the express purpose of being evangelized. Isn’t that what Jews were for? Judy didn’t know Morty before that, and she enjoyed watching him experience Christmas for the first time.
The thing I remember most, however, was Cheryl’s arrival at about 7:30 in the evening. Morty had arrived much earlier. He might’ve come for dinner. Judy came over after her family had eaten. When Cheryl arrived she hugged Judy and then she hugged me. Matter of factly, like it was just the way we’d always greeted each other. I’d never been hugged by a girl before that, not even Judy. I felt warm, secure; not like part of a great love affair but like I was someone as special to her as she was to me: no strings of any kind attached.
Cheryl and I continued to hang out when spring returned. I left for college the following August. By the time Christmas came around again, Cheryl was no longer part of the Grace youth group, even though she was still a high school senior.
The following year, when I was home from Bible college for the holidays, Helene Weintraub joined the tree decorating tradition. She was a senior at Canarsie High and used to date one of my track teammates. She decorated her first Christmas tree with Morty and the Baisleys that year while Perry Como crooned and Chet Atkins strummed and picked.
Como and Atkins accompanied our last Christmas in Canarsie as well: 1971. Morty, who by that time had converted to Christianity, made his third holiday appearance that year. I don’t remember much else. I finally got the dating thing figured out in college, and my mind was in New Jersey with the freshman girl I’d be spending part of Christmas break with. Holidays were never the same after that. I guess we all grow up sometime.
Hardly anyone remembers Perry Como these days, but I still think he did the best ever rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas. A couple of years ago I downloaded Chet Atkins’ From Nashville with Love album. Good music, but I don’t play Moulin Rouge for Christmas anymore. Just the other day I Googled “ribbon candy.” The same company still makes it, and you can order it online. I wonder what Morty is doing.
Even though I was the proverbial “picky eater,” food played an important part in my growing up, as you’ll hear in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Every time I hear the 50s classic, Song from Moulin Rouge, I think of Christmas. I can’t help it. A version of the song, expertly strummed by country guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, played on Pop’s hi-fi the night John and Lorraine got engaged and on every Christmas tree decorating night until we moved from Canarsie.
John never dated in high school, at least as far as I knew. He always had his head in a book. John was so studious he owned—and read—the Great Books of the Western World: Fielding, Swift, Gibbon. He even read The Canterbury Tales without waiting for it to be assigned in English class! Who would date a guy like that anyway?
When he returned from the Marines he was more rugged and a little less bookish, and his days of formal education were behind him. He finally developed an interest in girls. First there was Gabrielle, who lived in the apartment below the Kriegels. She was cute, and our parents got along well. Of course, they were members of our church. That was the primary criterion for dating a Baisley.
At Grace Church we learned the importance of dating good Christian girls. Were a boy from Grace to have a relationship with a Jewish girl, or even—God forbid!—a Catholic girl, they would be reminded of the scriptural admonition, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Girls like that would corrupt our pure Christian faith, perhaps leading us into idolatry. Keep away! Nevertheless, the Catholic girls in the Gang, and the Jewish girls I’d occasionally hang out with, were always welcomed by Mom and Pop. Still, they’d have preferred John and I date fundamentalist Protestant girls.
I don’t know why John and Gabby broke up, but a year or so later John began talking a lot about someone named Lorraine. Her family was on the periphery of Grace Church, probably members but not regular attenders. If Lorraine had attended regularly you might still not have noticed. She was very quiet and shy.
John was in love within a few dates, and he picked just before Christmas of 1966 to pop the proverbial question. Employing a flair for the romantic I never suspected, John invited Lorraine to our house to help decorate the Christmas tree. Having friends over for tree decorating night became a tradition after that, but never again resulted in a wedding.
I thought Mom and Pop put up the tree too late each year. Even in the 1960s most people had their homes decorated shortly after Thanksgiving. Stockings hung by fake chimneys long before they’d be filled on Christmas Eve, but not at our house. Some years we didn’t even put the tree up until the night before Christmas, and never more than a few days before. That came from a very old tradition of leaving the tree up at least until Twelfth Night and sometimes until mid-January. The holidays came late to the Baisley household, but they hung on with a vengeance.
By 1966 John had left rock & roll behind and taken to the country sounds of WJRZ, Radio 97 out of New Jersey. Hank Williams was gone, but the other Hanks—Locklin and Snow—were big, as were Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells. Chet Atkins was one of John’s favorites and his easy style caught on at our house, so much so that Pop went out and bought the guitarist's From Nashville with Love album for his own record collection that fall. When Lorraine came over to decorate our tree, Pop was playing that album.
I didn’t know it at the time, but John had revealed his romantic scheme to Mom and Pop a few days earlier. The plan was to be decorating the tree and have Lorraine hang an ornament on a branch from which an engagement ring already dangled. To give the lovebirds a little privacy, Mom said she’d come up with a reason to excuse the rest of the family for a while. Sure enough, while unpacking the ornaments, our old glass star came up broken.
“Art,” Mom called, “We’re going to have to go to Kenney’s to buy a new star for the tree. Phil, you’ll come too.”
At fourteen, I didn’t really want to spend much time shopping with my parents. Neither did I relish watching my brother and his girlfriend make goo-goo eyes at each other. I, wisely, decided to go to Kenney’s Department Store before Mom had to find a way to force me there.
Kenney’s was only two blocks away, and I knew from walking by a few days earlier that they had plenty of Christmas stars. It should have been a quick trip, but they decided Kenney’s might not have a good selection, so we ended up at the Times Square Store a few miles away.
An hour later we returned to 1304 and found John and Lorraine beaming brighter than the tree lights. Lorraine showed us what she’d found in the Christmas tree, and we stopped for a congratulatory toast of ginger ale. They were married at Grace Church the following September.
Christmases were memorable at our house long before there were diamonds in the tree. For one thing, that was when the ribbon candy appeared.
Ribbon candy is an extremely sweet confection that actually looks like ribbons of color. I could Google the intricacies of how the candy is made, but I prefer the mystery. It tasted like peppermint and spearmint and root beer and lime, and it visited our house every December. That’s all I care to know.
I never liked ribbon candy all that much. Even as a child I was developing taste buds geared more to sour and spicy than sweet. But ribbon candy meant Christmas, and Christmas meant gifts and days off from school and times when church actually felt good. Christmas without ribbon candy just wasn’t Christmas.
They say confession is good for the soul, so I’ll confess it was the presents, especially the toys, that meant the most to me on my first fourteen Christmases. Mom and Pop spent way too much on my toys. I know that now. And I think I know how they paid for some of it. It has to do with the evolution of Baisley Christmas trees.
When I was small
And Christmas trees were tall
So sang The Bee Gees in their 1969 song, First of May. We all go through the realization that as we get bigger, the things that used to look large seem to grow smaller. That’s just an illusion. It’s we who were growing; the objects remained the same. Except at our house. As I grew taller, our Christmas trees really did get smaller.
When I was very young, Mom and Pop would take me shopping for our Christmas tree. We’d always go at night after Pop got home from work. The string of incandescent bulbs over each row of trees on the lot gave a magical look to the place. And the scent of pine filled the cold night air.
We always bought our tree early in December. Pop wanted to go to the lot before the selection was picked over. He would hold out trees for Mom and I to agree on. We never looked for the “perfect” tree because we knew such a thing didn’t exist. Instead, we looked for one big enough to fill the space from floor to ceiling—about eight feet—and between the refrigerator and the telephone table.
In those days we lived primarily in the dining room. The kitchen was tiny, and there was no room for the fridge. There was space in the corner for a table and two chairs. Mom and Pop ate breakfast there together. When I got up, after they were finished, I ate breakfast there as well. The fridge sat right outside the kitchen doorway—there was no door—separated from our living/dining area by a plastic, trellis-like room divider. Eventually, when Mom and Pop moved their bedroom upstairs, the living room moved to their old bedroom, and the all-purpose home of the fridge became our single-purpose dining room. The fridge still looked funny sitting in the corner behind its plastic wall.
I had some great Christmases in that room. After an almost sleepless night, I’d wake my parents, who’d been sleeping in the room between mine and the living/dining room. Five a.m. was the usual time. They’d escort me to the tree. Presents were never wrapped; I always assumed Santa saw no purpose in wrapping gifts that would be immediately unwrapped. It was always stuff I’d seen in the Sears Christmas catalog, such as a World War II battle set with hundreds of soldiers and tanks and scenery. One year I got a Civil War battle set with spiked fences on which many blue and gray bodies I impaled.
From then on, including the famous engagement ring Christmas, we would celebrate the holidays under--rather than beside--the tree. The brick-like skirting even provided a hiding place for less-valued gifts like socks and underwear.
A few years ago I was reminiscing with Jen about those wonderful Christmases beneath the tree.
“How tall were those trees?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said, “The table stood about three feet, so I guess the trees were about five feet.”
And then it hit me. The height of our trees diminished in proportion to the price of my Christmas presents. Mom and Pop didn’t have enough money to buy an extravagant tree and extravagant gifts, so they focused on me. Ungrateful me, I never realized it let alone thanked them for it.
Christmas has always meant more than toys and gifts. It’s traditions and family and friends. You’ll hear more in Part Two of Ribbon Candy Christmases in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Episode Sixteen: Being Away
Brigade Camp was a terrifying experience, but it wasn’t the only one in my young life as a solo traveler. Somehow, even the most benign of sleepaway trips had a way of scaring me. Maybe it was Mom and Pop’s way of toughening me up. That certainly could apply the summer I visited Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie.
Uncle Robbie was my grandfather’s brother. He and Aunt Elsie had one son, Robert, who was married to Billie, with whom he had three children: Rodney, Ruth Ann, and Ronald. They all lived close to one another somewhere north of Poughkeepsie. I remember that because when I was very young, Poughkeepsie was my dream of an oasis.
Every summer, the Baisley clan would descend on Uncle Willie’s house near Saugerties for a family reunion. Uncle Willie was another of my grandfather's brothers. On the same property, his son, Clint, was building a house. Year after year, reunion after reunion, it never seemed closer to finished.
I loved our family reunions. Mom and Pop and I, and John when he was home on leave, would get up early on that Saturday morning. Mom would pack some picnic food, Pop and I would toss our baseball gloves in the trunk, and off we’d go. I’d quickly fall back to sleep.
Waking up was the best thing ever, because I’d wake up in Poughkeepsie, the halfway point. We would always stop at the same roadside restaurant for breakfast. For me that meant pancakes. Yum! And there was more. That restaurant had a little rack filled with cheap toys, plastic soldiers, water pistols, and the like. I rarely got toys that weren’t birthday or Christmas gifts, except from Aunt Barb, but on reunion day Mom and Pop always let me pick out one item from the rack. Being a parent myself now, I realize that toy was a small price to pay for keeping me quiet the rest of the way to Uncle Willie’s.
A lot of adults I didn’t know showed up at those reunions, and some kids I really didn’t care to know. I had some male cousins who made fun of me for being small and not very good at sports. But my female cousins, who were more plentiful and closer to my age, made it all worthwhile.
Most years, Lois, Ellen, and Doreen would be there. They were the daughters of Pop’s brother, Jim, and his wife, Catherine. I admired Lois, a couple of years my senior. She was cute, smart, and never used the fact that she was bigger than I to her advantage. Ellen was my age, but I still preferred Lois’ company. Doreen was just a little kid. They lived in Lynbrook, Long Island, right upstairs from Pop’s sister, Lil, and her husband, Pick. Uncle Pick’s real name was William Lattimer Kidd, but he was Pick until he retired and moved to Florida. There Lil and Pick recreated themselves as Lillian and Bill.
I saw Lois, Ellen, and Doreen most Saturday nights at Grandma's, so being with them at the reunion wasn’t a special treat. Being with Pam and Susan, Cousin Clint’s daughters, definitely was.
I had a crush on second cousin Pam from the moment I first met her. I think I was eight and she was ten. Each year, as we hung out together on Cousin Clint’s swing set, it seemed we had more in common. Mostly it was music. I’ll never forget the afternoon we belted out Diane Renay’s Navy Blue and then laughed and laughed. Neither Pam nor Susan ever judged me for being short or skinny. I always looked forward to family reunions because of that.
One year, family reunion held an additional component. I was not going back to Brooklyn in the evening. Instead, that year I was going to spend a week with Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie at their home outside Clinton Corners. They’d be heading into the city the next weekend and would drop me off at home.
Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie lived in a remodeled gas station at the side of a state highway. The abandoned pump island still dominated their driveway. It was an unusual home that had fascinated me on my previous visits. Of course, none of those visits involved spending the night. But the chance to play with Ruth Ann and Ronald, who lived down the road, was worth it.
Days at Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie’s were kind of fun. They kept me busy with chores, board games, and jigsaw puzzles. Aunt Elsie was a decent cook, and the fresh-from-the-garden quality even made vegetables taste good. Nights, however, were a different story.
Whoever had turned the old gas station into living space had neglected one important feature, a bathroom. Yes, the house had indoor plumbing. Running water gushed from a kitchen sink, and another sink occupied a corner of the dining room. But the toilet was in a tiny shack about thirty yards from the back door.
What slithered, crept, or skulked through that thirty yards in the daylight seemed harmless. Chipmunks, garter snakes; they seemed friendly enough. One evening a strange odor filled the house. That, I was told, was a skunk that had probably been frightened by a dog.
I’d heard about skunks and even seen pictures in my Golden Nature Guide to American Mammals. And I was afraid of them. They looked sneaky, and I worried that an encounter with one would embed their stench forever in my skin. One time, just to terrify me, Karl and Max Kriegel hung a giant poster of a skunk in a room in their house. They threw me in there with it and I screamed.
Once I knew that skunks visited Aunt Elsie’s backyard, my need for a midnight pee intensified. Every night I waited as long as I could until finally I had no choice but to put on my slippers, grab my flashlight, and face the unknown. It was awful.
At least Robert and Billie had a bathroom in their trailer. In later years their house would have been called a mobile home, but in the 60s it was a trailer. I got to spend a night there midweek in my stay upstate.
I liked my cousins. Rodney was older than me and a bit of a bully. He never let me forget who was bigger and stronger. I tolerated him, knowing that we had enough in common, like a love for pocket knives and bike riding, to keep our relations friendly.
Ruth Ann was a bit of a tomboy, and I loved her for that. Maybe a year younger than I, she loved to play in the dirt with toy trucks or plastic soldiers. She and I, along with Ronald, made an intricate highway system using an old butter knife to scrape out roads in the dirt of their driveway. Rodney threatened to destroy our work, but he didn’t. It lasted through both of my days at the trailer.
I thought my week at Aunt Elsie and Uncle Robbie’s would rival the terror of Brigade Camp, but it didn’t. Except for the threat of a skunk and the taunts of Cousin Rodney, it was a pretty good week.
No weeks matched the ones I spent at Aunt Barb and Uncle Freddy’s for sheer joy. Listening to Uncle Freddy’s 78s and playing with Aunt Barb’s plastic clothespins were great fun when I was very young, but once they moved to Lynbrook, and I approached my teen years, the times spent on Ocean Avenue were some of my fondest memories. Many of those memories centered on Faith, who lived next door.
Faith played a key role in my one and only night of terror in Lynbrook. It was a Friday night, and I had just turned eleven. Faith had invited me over to listen to records and watch our favorite TV show, The Twilight Zone. I loved that show. I’ve always enjoyed a good short story, and that’s really what The Twilight Zone consisted of. That night, one of the series’ best known episodes premiered: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
William Shatner starred in the episode as a traveler on a plane who sees some kind of gremlin messing with the wing. Neither his seat mate nor the flight attendant can see it since it disappears every time someone besides Shatner looks out the window. Just when Shatner, and the viewers, think the creature is gone, the passenger looks out the window again and there it is, full face looking in.
I practically jumped off Faith’s sofa. I’d never been so scared of anything in my life, not skunks or rats or bullies. Faith was scared too, and her parents said I could stay there a little longer until I felt safe enough to walk next door to Aunt Barb’s.
I never did feel quite safe enough, but after a while I called Aunt Barb, explained the Twilight Zone episode, and asked if she would put all the lights on in the back of the house and meet me at the back door as I ran full speed from Faith’s yard to hers.
I made it safely to Aunt Barb’s house, nestled fearfully in the guest room bed, and dreamed, of course, of the creature. The next morning I asked Aunt Barb for some crayons and a length of white paper tablecloth. I faced my fears head on by drawing my best rendering of that airborne monster. It never bothered me again. I wish I could say the same about William Shatner.
What were the holidays (Christmas or Hanukkah or other big days) like at your house? For the Baisleys, that was when the ribbon candy appeared, as you’ll see in next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
Once I’d succeeded in at least grazing the archery bullseye, I began feeling a little more confident at Brigade Camp; that is, when I wasn’t near the two scariest places at the campground: the playground and the lake.
I liked playgrounds. They were familiar and mostly friendly back in the city. Oh, a friend might send you into a butt dive on the see-saw, but it was all in good fun. I had no fun in the playground at camp. First, there were no monkey bars, which were my favorite piece of playground equipment. Second, the playground was surrounded by fields of some sort, and out of those fields came mice, dozens of them every evening during free time. (Free time wasn’t really free. You had to be on the playground for half an hour after supper.) Mice terrified me. It was the tails, I think. The thought of having my feet on the ground with a mouse nearby, ready to run up my pants leg drove me to the presumed safety of the swings. Safety, ha! The swings turned out to be the most dangerous place at camp.
We heard all about the swings from kids who’d been at Brigade Camp before. They were taller than most swings, which was fine with me. Anything to keep my feet from the mice. They were not, however, tall enough to keep the counselors from giving little kids a push strong enough to send them over the top.
I’m sure you’ve heard of “over the top,” where the swing and passenger loop the crossbar. We’d heard about such things back in Canarsie, but even preteens dismissed those tales as urban legends. But this was rural, not urban, New York. And we were at a Christian camp where people only told true stories. Then there was the evidence for all first-time campers to see. At the end of one of the lines of swings, chains a knotted mass of steel, a solitary swing hung in the breeze far over our heads. The rumors were true!
I loved swinging, and I had to be on the BC swings to keep away from the infernal rodents; but every day I survived camp brought me closer to the moment a counselor would sneak up behind, grab my swing, and push me into a deadly loop.
It happened on Thursday, the week almost completed. I’d come off a reasonably good day at camp. I’d hit the target more than once at archery. I’d avoided both swimming and drowning in the lake. I’d even made an impressive defensive play on the soccer field during Team Sports hour, earning at least a little respect from my bigger, stronger peers.
I was feeling pretty good about myself as I began pumping my feet to swing higher. I never saw the counselor sneak up behind me. I only heard his snarling, sadistic voice,
“Need a push?”
The words, no thank you, stuck in my throat. It was too late to protest. He grasped my swing in his vice-like grip and pulled it back. Then, having gained the attention of every camper on the playground, he gave me a mighty push.
I swung higher than I’d ever imagined, but no more than an inch or two above the horizon as viewed between my shaking feet. As I descended I heard the laughter of every experienced camper and every counselor. I’d been duped. No one ever went over the top. I laughed along with the others, wondering deep inside what other lies I’d been told at a Christian camp.
By far the scariest part of Brigade Camp was the lake. I wasn’t afraid of the water. I’d been raised around water. Uncle Freddy had a bungalow right on the bay shore in Oakdale, Long Island. I loved that place, although jellyfish and horseshoe crabs worried me. I spent a lot of time in boats as a child. Water didn’t faze me. Swimming did. More accurately, the fear of everyone learning that I, an almost eleven year old, could not swim totally unnerved me.
Every day at camp included a water activity. As with skill building, you had to choose one. Refusing to admit Beginner Swimming was the correct choice, I had to decide between Intermediate Swimming, Advanced Swimming, and Diving. Concluding, after far too little deliberation, that Diving would be the least embarrassing to a non-swimmer, I chose it. The rhyming similarity between “diving” and “dying” escaped me. I would be a diver.
Logic indicates that diving and swimming are closely related. At Brigade Camp the relationship would be thus: the diver walks to the end of the dock, where the water is deep, dives in and—here’s the key point I’d missed—swims to the shore or to the ladder on the side of the dock.
I can’t say for sure that I never thought of the swimming part. I just figured I was joining the group to learn how best to get into the water. That’s all I would be evaluated on in the eyes of the instructors. Getting out of the lake was my responsibility. I wouldn’t be judged for it, so it didn’t matter how I did it. My primary means would be to dive in and then hold my breath while I simply walked underwater to the shallows. I kept the idea of rescue by lifeguard as my backup plan.
I never did learn to dive, or swim for that matter. The first day we lined up to be tested on our swimming ability. I positioned myself at the back of the line, and we ran out of time. I would be tested on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, just before Water Sports, I got violently ill. Stomach cramps, intestinal distress, the works. No swim test for me. I spent the afternoon at the infirmary and in my dorm.
On Wednesday I felt better and went to diving class hoping they’d forgotten that I hadn’t been swim tested. I learned the basic elements of going headfirst into a body of water, and then I joined a line of boys prepared to give it a try.
As my turn to dive approached, one of the counselors called to me, “Philip, did you ever pass your swimming test?”
I couldn’t lie. “No,” I said quietly.
“Then maybe you’d better come over here and take the test.”
I told him I couldn’t take the test because I couldn’t swim. He asked how I expected to dive if I couldn’t swim. I told him getting out of the water was my problem. I was only in class to learn ways of getting in. He spent the next two days trying to teach me to swim. He failed.
Rail-thin kids don’t float, which makes swimming very difficult. Eventually, I had to swim. The moment came when, as a young adult counselor at a Christian camp, I wanted to swim in the pool. I’d seen enough people swim to understand the basics. It was simply a matter of adding water. That day I walked to the deep end, recalled my one and only diving lesson, dove in and somehow made it to the ladder. It worked!
Brigade Camp was a terrifying experience, but it wasn’t the only one in my young life as a solo traveler. Somehow, even the most benign of sleepaway trips had a way of scaring me, as you’ll discover in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.