There were hundreds of summer camps in Maine in the ’60s. It was a seasonal gulag for middle-class white kids, ages eight to sixteen. To be shipped off to the woods by my parents for eight whole weeks was a consummation devoutly to be wished. Hiking down the road, rowing a rowboat, lying in the grass staring the sky, not a parental cloud anywhere. I spent ten summers at the one camp, two rows of cabins on a hill overlooking one of Maine’s perfect lakes; eight of those years as a camper, and two as a junior counselor.
My first summer on staff, I abruptly ended up in charge of the entire swim program due to some staff shake-up I can’t recall. Though I made a fool of myself in all land-based sporting endeavors, I was a really good swimmer with a knack for helping older kids who were ashamed about their inability to swim. I had patience and a whistle and sunglasses and I got extremely tan. I wrote my mom and asked her to send me a pair of white swim trunks, the really snug, square-cut kind. I showed off on the dock in that happy, self-conscious, “I have a whistle” way.
Counselors got one day off a week: they left camp after breakfast and were expected back at midnight. I took my days off with my three greatest friends: Phil, Ned, and Jimmy. Typically, the four of us would water ski behind Jimmy’s outboard till we could hardly stand up, then go check out a movie in Portland. Towards the end of the summer, our day off got rescheduled so that we shared the day with Phil’s brother, a senior counselor. He was an upperclassman at Amherst, breathtakingly cool and a little condescending in a way that could gratefully be interpreted as intimate. That very night he was hosting a cookout across the lake. And after water skiing, we could go.
The little, gray cottage was surrounded by cars and enchantment. R&B and barbecue smoke beckoned, pushing back the gloom of the overhanging hemlocks. In a pressed, short-sleeved madras shirt, khaki shorts, and Weejuns with no socks, I took that apprehensive step into the glamorous world of people three or four years older than me: college kids. The older counselors were drinking Schlitz from bottles or a concoction of gin and grape Kool-Aid, the camp version of a Purple Jesus. There were hamburgers and hotdogs, too, but no one paid any attention. I was offered a white enameled camping cup full of the devilish purple brew. Underneath the ‘grape’ flavor and the juniper wallop of the gin, I could taste metal from the chipped rim of the cup. The Temptations spun on the portable record player and “My Girl” insinuated itself through the fun.
I got sunshine on a cloudy day…
I drank a second cup of the Kool-Aid and a third. I’m pretty sure I danced. I know I swayed. The party shut down at 12:30. All of us were going to be late back to camp. The moon was on the rise, huge and throwing shadows. A caravan of half-a-dozen cars crept stealthily, lights out, down the dirt road, past the infirmary and the maintenance shed and into the parking lot. I rolled down the car window, stuck my head out, and hollered at the top of my voice – Wavus Camps SUCKS! – slammed the door, and wobbled off to my cabin. The next day: no puking, no hangover. In the afternoon, the camp director pulled me aside. “Bob, in all the commotion last night, it was your voice I heard. This is a warning. Anything – Anything – happens again; you’ll have to leave.” My first drunk. I got in trouble, but nothing happened.
I felt my future billow out before me – one long summer in Maine.