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.