An important rite of passage for American children is their first time away from home without their parents. Maybe it’s a weekend with the grandparents. Maybe it’s a three-day trip to a Disney park as a guest of their best friend’s family. My first trip away from home by myself mirrored that of many of my neighbors: summer camp. Everyone went there, boys, girls, everyone; and they seemed to enjoy it. I’d hear my friends talk about swimming and boating and campfires at some exotic Catskills location, and, of course, I wanted to try it.
My opportunity finally came in the form of the Christian Service Brigade. Christian Service Brigade was the fundamentalist Christian’s Boy Scouts. We learned things en route to rewards, kind of like merit badges. Along with tying knots, those things included Bible verses and basic doctrines of the Church. We played games in Grace Church’s fellowship hall during the winter, and we did outdoorsy things in the spring and fall.
Like Boy Scouts with their Cub Scouts, Brigade had its younger version, the Stockade. Stockade was for kids twelve and under. I was part of the “under.” My late year birthday kept me in Stockade even when other kids in my school grade were promoted to Brigade. This kept alive my jealousy of the Brigade guys longer than most of my fellow Stockaders.
We had every right to be jealous of the Brigadiers; they did the fun stuff. Our games were tame, like kickball; theirs were wild, uninhibited, like dog piling, where everyone jumps on top of one kid and a splendid time is had by all.
Indelibly etched into my brain is the winter night I felt the most childish, the farthest separated from the Brigadiers, who included some of my own 93rd Street Gang members. We Stockaders were in the balcony of the fellowship hall, probably having a Bible study. All of a sudden a commotion sent sounds of unparalleled excitement from the floor below. Before we had a chance to crowd the railing to see what had happened, an adult leader rushed in to shepherd us out of the balcony. Blinded by our confinement in a little lobby, we could only imagine the thrill of what was happening beyond the double doors.
Soon the details began filtering out to us. It was more awesome than we’d imagined. Big Nick had broken his arm. This was too much. Can you imagine what kind of fun the Brigadiers must have been having for Big Nick to break an arm? We never had that kind of fun in Stockade. Jealousy ruled the Stockade that night and for weeks afterward.
During my year in Stockade we heard a lot about Brigade Camp. It sounded like a cross between those Catskills camps my friends went to every summer and Marine boot camp. I begged my parents to send me once I found out that Billy Knudsen was going too; and, although he was ahead of me in school, he was close to my age chronologically, and he was still in Stockade like me. I’d be in camp with my hero from the 93rd Street Gang. Oh happy day!
The week of Brigade Camp finally arrived, and Mom and Pop drove me there. It was somewhere Upstate, probably the Protestant side of the Catskills. Billy and his parents arrived about the same time, and together we went to register. That’s when things started to unravel.
By virtue of his being older than I, Billy ended up in a different cabin. My one link to East 93rd Street—home—was broken. I was on my own among seven strangers, one of whom was our counselor, who was indeed stranger than most. He had this perpetually faraway look in his eyes. By midweek, rumors were flying about his use of chemical additives. None proved to be factual, but that hardly mattered to us campers.
Mom and Pop had warned me about homesickness, so I anticipated a certain longing for my own bed and my stuffed animals. (Stockaders weren't expected to need stuffed animals.) What they didn’t warn me about was having to pee in the middle of a cold, dark Upstate night. And that first night I had the urge.
The thought of venturing into the black void between my cabin and the toilet/shower complex terrified me. Least of all were the skunks and bears I might encounter on the way. My greatest fear was that I might meet another boy on the way to relieve himself. I had a kind of performance anxiety about peeing in public. If I had to pee next to another kid, well, I might as well wait until morning. That night I did.
The next night I could not hold it in no matter how hard I tried. I slipped quietly out of my bunk, secured a pair of flip-flops to my feet, and opened the cabin door to a frigid Upstate night.
The distance from my cabin to the shower/toilet house was maybe 50 yards. It seemed like a mile. Every step brought a new sound: the chirp of a cricket, the patter of rodent feet, the whoosh of a breeze through tree branches. My nose hairs stood on end anticipating the dreaded scent of a skunk.
Just short of an eternity later I reached the toilet. Praise the Lord, no other campers were there. Oh my God! No other campers were there! I stood alone at the urinal.
I had to go, but to do so meant making myself totally vulnerable for at least a minute. If a bear stuck his head in the door, I couldn’t run. If another boy entered the building, I would be completely out in the open. Every second burned with agony.
Finally I finished and made my way back to the cabin. My warm sleeping bag felt so good after the cold night air: the cold night air that was already making me need to pee again. Nights at camp were horrible.
Days at camp weren’t much better.
Day One started out with great promise. After a breakfast of cereal and milk—eggs might have been on the menu, but I didn’t eat eggs at the time—the Activities Director helped us sort ourselves into interest groups for our major week-long skill building activity. Since some of the choices included boating (swimming proficiency, which I lacked, required) and air riflery (Mom made me promise not to try it), I opted for horsemanship. I loved horses. As a backup I picked something a short, skinny, non-swimmer could do, or so I thought: archery. I got my second choice.
What could be more equal to my experience than archery? I’d watched Errol Flynn in Robin Hood six times in one week on the Million Dollar Movie on WOR-TV. I loved the television series, Ivanhoe. And every time I heard the story of Custer at the Little Bighorn, I couldn’t help but admire the skill of the Sioux warriors. Yep, it would be archery for me.
I learned a lot that week. At our first session with the archery instructors I learned a new song. Each of the skill building groups had a theme song. Ours, sung to The Caissons Go Rolling Along, was The Archers of Good Ol’ BC. BC referred to Brigade Camp not some prehistoric ancestors. I memorized the song overnight because they told us there’d be a test the next day.
There wasn’t. There was, however, more to learn: bow and arrow safety.
If you had asked me, prior to my joining the Archers of good ol’ BC, what bow and arrow safety was all about, I would have naively responded that one should not point a loaded bow at someone.
At Brigade Camp I learned about the safety equipment we were issued. First, I had to slide some kind of leather band up the arm that held the bow. This was to protect my arm from the arrow passing by and from getting thwacked by the bow. Then I had to put a little leather Band-Aid-like device on my string hand fingers to protect them from something. After a few practice attempts at putting on the safety equipment, I was ready to load and aim my first arrow. But that would come tomorrow.
Wednesday activity time arrived—finally—and we, the Archers of good ol’ BC, were ready to shoot. The targets seemed close enough for our amateur status, although we were sure we could hit them from much farther away. I joined the line that stretched opposite a row of concentric circle bullseyes, donned my safety gear, received the long-awaited bow and quiver of arrows from the counselor, and prepared to fire. That’s when I realized I was not as suited for archery as I’d imagined.
Pulling back the string, with an arrow on the bow, required a lot more strength than my skinny arms were used to mustering. I tried my best, grunting a little, until the string was as far back as I could get it. Then I released the arrow. About halfway to the target it dropped to the ground.
My learning curve that day included the concept of trajectory. Lacking the arm strength to pull the string tighter, I had to find an alternate route to the target. The counselor suggested I aim higher and let gravity do the rest. With renewed confidence I set arrow to bow and tried again. This time the arrow hit the ground only a few feet short of the target. Gravity worked, but a little too well.
Determination drove me to one more attempt before the end of activity time that day. This time I would use my new friend, trajectory, to its fullest potential. I aimed high, and yet I kept one eye on the bullseye. Summoning strength I didn’t know I had, I pulled back the string and then let go. Thwack! The string cracked in my ear, and the arrow was on its way. A second later its silver tip struck, bullseye! Then it bounced harmlessly to the ground. My best, my absolute best shot still did not possess the velocity to pierce the target, but at least I knew I’d hit dead center.
My archery improved slightly during the remaining two days of Brigade Camp, and that part became my favorite time of the day. Meals weren’t too bad either. I liked the way we called the watered down Kool-Aid, “bug juice.” Still, terror lurked in two locations on the camp’s acreage: the playground and the lake.
You'll read more about the playground and the lake in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.