The conclusion of a two-week series on the pull of bad influences in our lives and in the culture.
Summer camp: you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s hot, there are bugs, and you’re being overseen by “adults” who are just five years older than you. There are bound to be mistakes, disasters, and bad decisions being made. At the time we accept these counselors, with their quirks and rules, as givens of the camp experience—sometimes we even looked up to them as role models of young adulthood, only later realizing they had no idea what they were doing either. We asked friends to share some of their stories about the terrible camp counselors they’ve had (or their experiences as being those terrible camp counselors).
(Note: Some names have been changed below, because, well, yeah.)
My former campers, if I asked them on Facebook, would I think remember me as a good role model, though their parents, who must surely have caught a whiff of the beer sweats emanating from me on Visiting Day, are free to disagree. But I want to talk about Tex.
I went to a boys’ camp in Maine for seven summers, and worked there for five more. My CIT year, our parents drove my younger brother and I up, and our counselors were paged to the top of the hill to greet us. (We drove because we were “Furman.” That is, we were, as you say with a slurry, toothless accent, “from Maine.” It’s maybe worth noting how a single quirk can define someone for his entire camp career.) My brother’s counselor had a lump of chaw in his cheek as he shook our father and mother’s hands. He drawled, “I’m Tex.” Tex had dyed blond hair under a dirty baseball cap, a sunburned face. He was, I think now, probably 19, 20 years old.
Now. There was a kid in my brother’s cabin, Bunk 8B, named, for these purposes anyway, Aaron Arensen. The year before, Aaron had represented his bunk in the talent show, singing “New York, New York” with all the control of breath and pitch you’d expect from a pale, plump kid who so clearly wasn’t going to hit puberty in time for his Bar Mitzvah. For the rest of that summer, we would chant his name in the dining hall, and he would stand on a table and lead a singalong.
Aaron sang “New York, “New York” at the talent show again this summer, leading a chorus line with kicks from his stubby little legs, gasping for air, his falsetto finally cracking. In my wisdom, I grumbled that his schtick was getting old.
One night, perhaps a week later, Tex returned to Bunk 8B from the campfire in the staff parking lot, where all the counselors got drunk. He got into bed to pass out, remembering first to remove all his clothes. His bladder, though, was full. Climbing out of bed, Tex stood—naked, shitfaced, disoriented, aching to pee—in the center of the dark cabin.
One thing we never did figure out—in spreading this story in the days following, passing it down in subsequent summers, or, latterly, recalling it over beers—and which the infamy of Tex’s last act as camp counselor has obscured entirely, is the question of motivation. That is to say: none of us quite know whether it was out of malice, misconceived mischief, or honest-to-god blackout blindness, that Tex stood over Aaron Arensen’s bed and released a stream of piss onto him as he slept.
Aaron stayed out the first session, but never did sing again. On the last night of camp, I visited 8B to see the bunk list my brother and his bunkmates had sharpie’d onto a wall, for posterity; last was Aaron “I’m Not a Urinal” Arensen.
Mike, my counselor, wasn’t actually terrible—he just smelled terrible. Like those hot patches of subway air by the bottom of the staircase at Canal Street, though I hadn’t yet smelled that. The seams surrounding the gaping holes of his camp-staff tank were so yellow they were brown. I kid you not. The mosquitoes around him wore gas masks. Once—ask my friend Mindy, she’ll back me up—I smelled him from around the bend on a path in the woods. And a friend of mine from the summer before told me her sister had an asthma attack because she was forced to sit next to him on a school bus… I’m not sure how much of what I said about him Mike heard, but it appears it was enough.
One minute I was walking along with my “My Little Pony” beach towel thrown over my shoulder, bragging about how I could do a front flip off the dock, and the next, I was holding a shovel and a bucket further down the lake, scooping goose poop instead of swimming, thanks to Mike.
I’ll never be able to erase the sandy curves of those turds from my mind’s eye. They were surprisingly large. It was as if a field of pre-K campers had all given up on their Pull-ups at the exact same time.
I saw Mike from across the lake. He was blowing his whistle for a buddy check. It was like I’d drowned except I hadn’t. I watched my buddy-less buddy, Casey, run out of the water and heard him say to her, “You’re my buddy,” revealing the jungle of his underarm as he waved his hand. I noticed that Casey had better manners than me. She went right over to him. It didn’t look like she wrinkled her nose up. She held his hand.
I sighed and scooped another fecal fragment into the bucket. I’d never been all that good at using “an indoor voice,” but anyway, this was summer camp! Still though, I felt bad.
I spent three decidedly non-formative summers at a place called Camp Wewa. It was owned by the YMCA, which meant contending with some deep Jew-panic while saying grace and during chapel. Nothing terribly eventful happened to me at Camp Wewa. I certainly didn’t come of age, cop any feels, or forge lifelong friendships. But I did manage to make a bete noir out of a camp counselor, or rather he did me. (Or maybe not—there is every chance I’m using that expression wrong.) His name was Chad, if you can even believe that. His first offense was comforting a crying 12-year-old me who had just been stung by a bee in the goddamn ear by saying I should “tough it out.” Would that I could dispatch an armada of hornets upon his face at that moment! Chad’s main offense, however, was repeatedly hounding me for information that he could use to sleep with my older sister, Dana. He would ply me with buddy-like camaraderie for a few minutes, which was nice, before abruptly segueing into creepy recon mode—asking whether she dated a lot and if I knew her bra size, etc, which was not so nice. I never gave him any useful tips, however, so maybe Camp Wewa inadvertently taught me a lesson in family honor?
The summer after eighth grade, I went to a camp in Maine that was sort of a hippie camp. The camp owners raised llamas. One of the counselors, a woman, probably around 20 years old, wore flowing patchwork robes and flowers and beads and head wraps and stuff, but her personality was gruff and unfriendly. One day, the girls in her cabin told me and my 14-year-old guy friends that she had stayed out all night and returned only in the morning, after they’d woken up. She was in a bad mood, they said, and had told them not to tell any of the other counselors. Later, she offered them a deal: “Look, I don’t want to be here. I know you don’t want me here. Keep your mouths shut and you get to sleep, or not sleep, in an unsupervised cabin.”
We couldn’t believe it; we thought maybe it was a trap. But the next night, it happened again. The counselor had just disappeared. Quit her job, I guess, without telling anyone. So the night after that, four of us waited till our counselor was asleep and we snuck out of our cabin and into the girls’ and hung tapestries over the windows and stayed up all night listening to Tears for Fears’ “Shout” on repeat and having a make-out party. We did this three nights in a row, until we got busted. (I still don’t know how. We weren’t caught in the act, we always got back to our cabin before our counselor woke up. Someone must have ratted to the camp director or something.) We got in lots of trouble, but those were surely the greatest three nights of my life. I felt like the Tears for Fears guy (okay, fine, Roland Orzibal) at the end of the video, playing his guitar solo on top of the mountain. So this is just to say that a terrible camp counselor can also be the greatest camp counselor in the history of the universe.
When I was 13, during my second summer at a Jewish sleepaway camp even though I’m not Jewish, we had a counselor by the name of Eric who was just a complete Phish-head and didn’t really care about enforcing any kind of rules, as long you didn’t go near his extensive collection of Grateful Dead bootleg cassettes. I also didn’t know it at the time, but yeah, he was stoned 24/7.
Then there was Matty. Matty was one of those kids that would basically do whatever fucked up things you dared him to do, so long as you promised him something in return (candy, magazines, money, whatever). So one boring Sunday, four of us got the amazing idea to dare Matty to fuck a Snapple bottle. I don’t really remember why this would be beneficial to us to see him do this, apart from the fact that we could go around telling people that “Matty just fucked a Snapple bottle!!” I believe the reward for doing so was a whopping $5, which we had virtually no intention of actually making good on. But a $5 reward was promised, so lo and behold, Matty fucked a Snapple bottle. For like five seconds… it wasn’t that weird.
Afterwards, Matty demanded his $5 and we just laughed at him, which very much upset him. He kept insisting we give him his money, but I don’t even think we had it. So in walks our counselor Eric, who Matty obviously feels he can gain sympathy from after having just embarrassed himself by fucking a Snapple bottle without receiving his promised reward.
Eric hears both sides of the story, thinks for a second, and then says to Matty, “Well, not only do you not have $5, now they have shit on you that you just fucked a Snapple bottle.”
Last I heard, Matty is a reporter in the Middle East.
I was the terrible camp counselor, as much as it pains me to admit it. It was the summer of 1989, I had just graduated from high school and fallen in love for the first time. I made the decision months before to become a camp counselor at the Girl Scout camp I’d attended for years. I loved camp and the counselors were the coolest people ever. So off I went, days after graduation, tearfully saying goodbye to my new boyfriend with promises of daily letters and visits between camp sessions.
The first half of the summer I ran the arts and crafts cabin; the second half, I taught canoeing. But mostly what I spent my time doing was the following: writing letters to the boyfriend, calling the boyfriend, jumping to answer the one phone at the camp hoping it was the boyfriend (this was pre-cell phone days, of course). When I wasn’t obsessing about him, I was listening to Grateful Dead tapes and sneaking off into remote areas of the woods to smoke cigarettes and learn to play “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd on the guitar. I sucked at that. The guitar part. I was good at smoking and listening to my Walkman.
Of course I got totally busted for smoking and nearly got caught underage-drinking beers with a couple of the other counselors down by the river. Most counselors at that camp went back year after year, or at least until they finished college and got a “real” job. I was not asked back the next summer.
I’m flashed to a sweltering summer at church camp back in aught three. It’s my first summer as a camp counselor, and I have a cabin of raucous 7th- & 8th-grade gents. By Wednesday bedtime the boys have worked out their individual routines within the squealing, toothbrushing, madness that ensues nightly. I’m able to manage a simple ten-second count down to “lights-out.” I hop up onto my sticky, plastic econ-mat when I realize that I still have my contacts in.
“Sorry, guys, I need to turn the lights back on for a sec.” Excited murmurs with the prospect of any deviation from the routine that has become law.
I flick on the lights, and just happen to make eye contact with a simple kid named Daniel. He has this dopey grin plastered across his face, and he’s staring somewhat vacantly at me. I reflexively start smiling back and ask, “Hey Daniel, what are you…”
My question trails into recognition of the unmistakably methodical arm movement that could only be a young man hard at work. My face falls; I start rummaging for my contact case. It’s too late.
A feisty butterball named Sherman erupts, “He’s masta’ batin’!!”
Mass pandemonium. The ooOO-ing rises swiftly past accusations and chortles to hooting and banging. Rick, the muscle-bound 8th grader bunking above Sherman, is on his knees preparing to jump from his bed straight across to Daniel’s. He steadies himself on the rafters as he bellows, “MASTURBATOOOR! MASTURBATOOOR!”
Improvising, I wheel around, “Whatever, Rick, I hear you masturbating every night!”
Rick freezes; I hit the nail on the head apparently. “Naw that’s Sherman!” Rick claims wildly.
“Naw, that ain’t me; that ain’t me—” now desperate accusation are being thrown all over the cabin. The uncomfortable Lord of the Flies timbre is replaced with sheepish grins and embarrassed giggles.
“Cut it out, gents—it’s past ‘lights-out,'” and I kill the lights. A few chuckles then a long, quiet pause. I feel out my contact case in the dark heat, and haul myself back into bed.
My breath levels out, and then comes the slow build to a cricketing chorus. The cabin is a-thrum with the unsettling rhythm of little hands struggling against sleeping bags.
One time I was a junior counselor circa fifth grade at my elementary school’s day camp. Even then I was petite but for whatever “Saved by the Bell”-inspired reason, I took on the challenge of carrying a sprightly third grader or whatever around on my back. I didn’t take too many steps across the auditorium’s sweeping stage before falling backward, thus squishing the child. She was OK. I think.
Swimming was my idea of pure heaven growing up in Georgia, so it was no surprise to my parents that when I was 12, I wanted to sign up for Girl Scout “Water Camp.”
The first thing we did at camp was meet our counselors. And since it is apparently illegal to allow middle-schoolers to know your real name, they all had pseudonyms. There was “Rhett” (60 bucks her real name was Scarlett), “Dingo” (from Australia, natch), and a charming young woman called “Nails.” As in “tough as” or, more aptly, “down a chalkboard.”
The tough personality reflected in her name wasn’t of the endearingly scrappy, Annie Get Your Gun variety, though. Hers was a demeanor that left you awake in your bunk at night, pondering your own weaknesses and failings.
Two things about Nails stand out still: the time that she taught us how to rig our sails and I got the instructions backward, turning mine into something like a sad, lumpy ghost, and she yelled at me in front of everyone like I was her dog that had just pooped on a Persian rug.
And secondly, a lunchtime canoe trip across the lake. Now, I may not be able to rig a sail to save my life, but I can certainly paddle a canoe like Burt Reynolds on steroids (Deliverance is never far from the mind of any Georgian).
This fateful 100-degree day, I was paired with my best friend at the time, we’ll call her Angela, and another girl I knew from school, who we’ll call Beth. Turns out that Beth, who nabbed the hardworking spot up front, hadn’t had any water all day, nor had she brought any. So by the time we got to the middle of the lake, she was dehydrated and we were all out of water.
Angela, seated helplessly in the middle, offered to change places with Beth while I stayed in my spot at rudder. That’s when Nails came speeding through on her motorboat, creating a whoosh of waves that rocked us to the point of almost tipping.
“What are you doing?!” she yelled, helpfully. “Don’t you know that everyone is already to the other side and starting to eat? If you don’t get to that other side, you are NOT GOING TO HAVE LUNCH!”
Standing from her perch on that giant boat, which easily could have towed us to shore if it was really that urgent, she continued to mock us for being hot, tired and apparently completely devoid of brain cells.
Beth looked like she’d just rather drown.
Fortunately, nothing gets between this gal and a ham and cheese sandwich. So I bucked up, helped coach Beth and Angela through the switch and, with Angela to the front, we powered through. Stumbling onto the shore like those initial plane crash victims of “Lost,” we squinted back at Nails, who was laughing with the other counselors. Probably about us.
The next year, I quit the Girl Scouts.
The summer after freshman year, I thought there’d be no better way to spend my time than at a lakeside, mid-coastal Maine arts camp teaching monologue workshops and musical theater classes while boozing around a campfire on my nights off. Wet Hot American Summer-style, right? Wrong. The counselors broke into two cliques on the very first day of training—those who were former campers obsessed with their childhood oasis and therefore TOTALLY the cool kids, and those who were not—which made for a social atmosphere amongst the counselors eerily similar to that of our pre-teen campers. I had told my employers that I was a lifelong theatre kid interested in improv, and so they assigned me to co-teach an improv class with one of the Camp Lifers. This kid had a serious Napoleon complex and needed to tell me that I knew absolutely nothing about improv whatsoever within minutes of meeting me. IT’S SUMMER CAMP, BRO. I had signed up for this shit to make friends and make some art and stuff, not be put in my place by somebody who wouldn’t settle for anything less than “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?”-level work from 12 year olds. I opted out of the improv class and somehow wound up teaching a half-joke of a belly dance workshop that my campers loved. The majority of my memories from that summer are good ones and involve a lot of Shakira, but I’ll never forget how some jackass trying to relive his childhood prowess crushed that for a minute.
Camp Lovejoy was a day camp in Altamont, NY, run by the Boys Club of America, which was the poor kid’s YMCA, pretty much, and basically if you have ever seen the movies King Rat or Empire of The Sun, you will have a feel for my day-to-day at the camp, not so much straight-up jail or refugee camp as much as Prisoners Of War: The War on Freedom, for kids to live their lives in an Unstructured Fashion when there’s No More Pencils No More Books. After an endless, bumpy, diesel-smoked bus ride every morning we arrived at camp and were herded to an assembly area where we sat baking in the morning sun until our Counselors found us and put us into groups, after which we would bake in the sun some more until an Activity could be found for each of us.
The assembly area always smelled faintly of rotten eggs, which had something to do with the water fountain, the water of which smelled completely of rotten eggs, but it was OK to drink, they told us, and you could hold your nose to make it easier, but I almost never drank it, which was why I was always really thirsty when I got home every day from camp fucking Lovejoy. Anyway, sometimes the activity was doing Plaster of Paris (fun), making a lanyard (never got the hang of the “corkscrew” stitch), swimming in the nasty pond on the campground (no thanks), or making models (the best, but could do this at home please?). One time the Activity was Archery, and I was totally into it but I shot a Counselor in the leg with an arrow so I couldn’t do Archery anymore.
Many days, my activity was the core Lovejoy experience of baking in the midday sun listening to AM radio and sitting there with my kinda sleepy camp Counselor (whose name has been forgotten to Protect the Innocent), watching her knock out a perfect corkscrew stitch with the lanyards, listening to her talk about her boyfriend and how she was a Heroin addict, and that’s why she always wore long-sleeve shirts, because of the “tracks” on her arm from sticking the needle in. It really didn’t make sense though, because she wore these thin, frilly blouses, and you could see right through to her arms and the connect-the-dots parts and also totally her no-bra area. She showed us her pale splotchy arms on purpose one time, held one out and let me touch it, the little red pinholes. Said the arm was the easiest place to put the needle and you could use a rubber tube or a belt to make your vein stick out really good and then put alcohol or light a match on the needle to kill all the germs and then stick the needle in kinda sideways so it would go into the big vein bulging out like a worm. I would try it at home on my own arm, to make the vein stick out. She said she switched to putting the needle between her toes, but she was always gonna have to hide the arm-tracks. I could not understand why somebody would need to stick a needle in their arm, and I didn’t think she was stupid or anything, I just felt sad and tired around her, and that is what I carried away from my whole Camp Lovejoy experience, being sad and tired for all kindsa reasons. Lunchtime was the highlight of my day (unless I already ate it on the bus ride there, in which case it was another helping of sad) and I noticed that while she drank soda all the time (some stuff that was called Purple Passion, which was grape soda mixed with ginger ale, I think), she hardly ever ate anything except maybe a piece of fruit all day. She used to eat an orange in a peculiar way, carefully peeling it so it was all in one peel, and then gnawing on the peel instead of the inside part. She said the peel had way more vitamins than the inside part and was healthier to eat. The only activity we ever did with her in the weeks I was there was one day we all brought ingredients for a “Sloppy Joe” meal and somehow she cooked it, but of course no way was she gonna eat hamburger.
For a few summers during college I worked part-time at a gift store in my hometown. The second summer I was there, I was behind the counter with a newish employee—she’d started a couple months before, was friends with some of the other girls who worked there, and she looked incredibly familiar. We finally somehow figured out that she had been my camp counselor at sleepaway Girl Scout camp (I had been 11 or 12, she had been in college). That camp had been hugely important to me as a kid and I had adored my counselors like they were saints or movie stars and had always wondered what happened to them after the summer was over, but never saw any of them again. That summer, she and I wound up hanging out—me and her and some of our other coworkers; they were all five or six years older than me and I felt unusually cool and grown-up. It was weirdly special and also just weird. And then it got weirder. After I’d gone back to school that fall, I went home for a visit and found out she’d been fired from the store—for shoplifting? Like I think in some incredibly lame way, something like the store’s owner thought she had been pilfering stuff so set some kind of completely obvious trap for her, and she fell for it, and then was promptly outed and sacked. I guess she kept me from getting lost in the woods of north Georgia when it really counted but, yeah, I’m gonna say she was the worst counselor I ever had.
I spent one fortuitous teenage summer at Bible camp in sticky south Florida. After chaperones bussed us into the wilderness, we spent a week having daily devotions, eating bland camp food and hanging out at the lake (one-piece bathing suits only, natch), which had been accessorized with that summer camp staple, the Blob.
This being evangelical youth camp, the church leaders were constantly trying to demonstrate their coolness and relevantness to Teenager Things by working clunky pop-culture references into virtually every sermon. One warm night, with scores of high-schoolers packed into a tiny air-conditioned room on folding chairs for the nightly Bible lesson, one of the counselors decided to drop some serious exegesis skills on that summer’s greatest hit: “All Star” by Smash Mouth. He popped in a CD and played the track, that glorious poppy anthem of 1999, and taking his place at the podium, proceeded to break it down for the Lord. And break it down did he: “So much to do, so much to see/so what’s wrong with taking the back streets?” became, of course, a reference to the Christian Way. “You’ll never know if you don’t go/you’ll never shine if you don’t glow” became an urging to get us to sign up for mission trips.
We filed out silently that night back to our cabins, I guess to start growing our soul patches for Jesus.
Every summer my hardworking, stay-at-home mom would send me and my brother to Beverly Hills Sports Camp, which yes, was a real thing, and had about as much sports in it as fruit juice in Gatorade. Part of the reason why I hated BHSC so much was because of one diabolical camp counselor named Cherish. I don’t remember what Cherish looks like because her personality was so awful and so at the very height of ranging Bitch-a-tude that it completely overcame her looks in my memory and I only see her in my mind now as a tall woman in denim shorts without a face who has “In The Hall of The Mountain King” play behind her wherever she goes. I realize now she was probably only 16. One day, Cherish’s co-counselor was sick and for reasons I still don’t understand, she asked me to help her out. For that one day, Cherish and I were equals, or as equal as a 12 and 16 year old could be. She didn’t make fun of me, she asked me to sit next to her on the bus, and she wasn’t a complete and total asshole demon of Fuck You kingdom. Cherish, wherever you are, I hope you have lots of children and that they are all beautiful little nightmares.
There were a few of your garden-variety Long Island Jews there. Which, you know: durr, because it was summer camp and that’s where the garden-variety Long Island Jews go. These were alums, mostly, spending their summers home from Penn and Syracuse and the University of Maryland back in the place they’d spent their previous summers; these guys were absolutely opaque to me even then, weird prickly dentists’ kids who listened to Billy Joel a lot and played card games like Asshole even in the absence of beer for the Asshole to chug. At one of these games, I remember hearing, the Asshole had to chug orange juice.
And there was a program of some sort, which was where all the Brits and Aussies and the odd South African came from, the counselors who wore Speedos down to the lake because those were the sort of bathing suits they had, who wore goofy hats and had never shot a basketball. And then there were the mystery adults at the camp—the grown men teaching and coaching and reffing basketball or baseball, or the gentle, toasted Deadhead in the nature/radio hut, or the forty- and fiftysomething men who were, for some reason, spending their summers as group leaders or camp directors.
Stuart Horton Billard—there was a Roman numeral after his name, but the number itself changed with his whim—was one of these, and he did project some authority, albeit in a strange and offhand way. That he projected any authority at all was impressive, given that he was a gray-haired, leathery sexagenarian who seldom wore a shirt, always wore a floppy hat, and spent his day at the archery range, doing his utmost to keep kids from injuring each other or the camp’s bows. “Don’t twang your wang,” he’d say, sternly, to kids messing around with their bowstrings. Which was, at the time and in retrospect, a pretty amazing thing to say to a dozen 11-year-olds, and we laughed, but the wang-twanging—or this particular type of it, anyway—ceased. He talked constantly—his voice was pebbly either from cigarettes or yelling at the nine-year-olds to put that down or both—in shaggy, tangled monologues that, if mostly probably for himself, sometimes glanced off of us. It’s hard to say how much we listened to him.
There were stories about Stu, things confidently asserted about him which seem unlikely in retrospect—he was a millionaire or he was the prodigal son of a millionaire or he was a professor of religion or politics. There were stories about all the adult counselors, if only because grown-ass men choosing to live in a bunk with a dozen pubescent Jews named Seth and Zach and Zack and Scott kind of demands an explanation, but the stories about Stu were different—the others were scurrilous, mostly, limited by the capacities of the tweenage imagination, unlimited by any sense that these were real people we were talking about, or that we could ever be that old or unknowable. And anyway why was this shirtless older dude hanging out with us at the freaking archery range, instead of doing something else, someplace else? Every summer, a kid or two tried to escape from camp. Stu had been there, by choice and as an adult, for decades. Stu’s stories, though, had a sense of the legendary about them—there was, as I remember it, almost something melancholy about the narrative journey we wrote for him, and the implausibility of his being there earned a more implausible and ornate backstory. I don’t recall the details. I’m not sure they matter.
If Stu seemed like a mystery then, though, he is less so now. There is still no real explanation for how or why he put up with and put himself through all those awful Umbro-clad bougie-brash Seths and Zachs, one after another summer after summer. But it has become easier for me both to imagine and respect whatever it was that kept Stu coming back to camp.
The kids made fun of the adult counselors, because that is what kids do, but we didn’t really goof on Stu, despite his aforementioned goofiness and shirtlessness and those half-bawdy monologues and the general incongruity of his place in our summertime lives. We understood him, to the limited extent that we could understand anything, to be a man doing something that somehow gave him some peace and enjoying the doing of it, even if we couldn’t quite get why he liked it or how he enjoyed it. There was a cool presence and a good-humored grace in the way he inhabited that particular choice and did his weird job. Stu seems less the strange influence I figured him to be then—another inexplicable and incomprehensible adult, another person telling me not to do something—than one I wish I’d listened to a bit more closely, or at least asked a few more questions. I would’ve started with “Why?” because that’s usually a good place to start. I would’ve looked forward to hearing where his explanation wound up.
I decided the best use of my post-freshman-year summer was to be an RA at a journalism camp. One Friday afternoon, I took the camp car to the grocery store to get a cake—we were going to be celebrating some of the kids’ birthdays that night. I had left my phone in the car and returned to an incredibly angry voicemail from Leslie, one of the head instructors asking where the car was and demanding I return it immediately. Puzzled and cake in hand, I went to give the keys to the overly outraged Leslie. Ten minutes and a loud, humiliating lecture in front of the rest of the staff on making sure the proper people knew the car’s location later, I returned to my room nearly in tears. That was when I looked out the window and noticed the car leaving the parking lot; Ron, the instructor I had a giant crush on, was driving, and Leslie and Ben were his passengers. Ron returned an hour or so later without them, and I noticed their absence at dinner and breakfast the next morning.
Leslie and Ben got married a couple years later, and I learned the truth from Ron: they had needed the car for a little getaway that officially cemented their relationship. They have a beautiful baby boy now, too, which did a lot to melt that chip, but goddamn that little episode rankled.
There’s not much I can say about Peter because he only lasted three days. At age 13, I was sent reluctantly to a sleepaway camp in New Jersey for four weeks with a friend of mine. Peter greeted us immediately after our parents dropped us off, and we noticed right away that he was pretty hyper. We didn’t know any British guys so we figured that’s how they all acted. On his bed, which was adjacent to mine, Peter kept a Kermit the Frog doll that was missing all of its appendages. Kermit dolls aren’t sold that way. He came home rip-roaring drunk the first two nights, verbally abused all of us (we were “wankers”), and put the kid next to me in a headlock. Peter also sexually harassed a female staff member, unless it wasn’t sexual harassment to tell a woman that he’d love to put his face between her breasts. Peter was fired that day and replaced by a guy named Jason, who gave me and my friend our first pornographic magazine. We got along with Jason much better.
So, maybe this is too dark, but I had a creepy counselor that I only realized was creepy in hindsight as an adult. I used to go to an all-girls camp in Maine, a seven-week sleepaway camp. My second summer there, when I was 9, I had this counselor named Amy. The counselors got, like, one night off a week, and Amy would always tell us about her sexual exploits, most of which consisted of meeting random guys in bars and making out with them in their cars. I think she thought she was being progressive, giving us sex-ed, but it wasn’t really educational. She also once showed us an issue of Penthouse. Not really appropriate for 8-year-olds, but of course at the time I thought she was cool and mature and I could learn about boys from her stories. She also was frequently topless around us and I was fascinated because the only other boobs I’d ever seen were my mom’s.
When I was a camper, I loved going to archery, because it was run by a counselor who was only peripherally interested in archery. He would disinterestedly let us take a couple of rounds on the range, but that would quickly get put on pause in order to entice us kids to play a variation of dizzy bat, which would end with the field strewn with vertiginous kids lying flat on the ground, clutching onto the grass to keep from falling off the tilting earth. He had a bow that he kept strung in the normal fashion, but then he also attached a longer string with lots of slack to the ends; this way he could attach an arrow to that limp line and it would look like he had an arrow cocked, even though there was no tension on the line. And then he would chase his friends around as they begged him to stop.
Some days we’d tape balloons to the targets and try to pop them with our arrows. After one such shoot, he solemnly detached a limp, broken rubber balloon corpse that had been shot and proceeded to solemnly dig a small hole and perform a funeral service for it, sticking a tiny cross made of sticks into the ground to mark the memorial. When the kids laughed, he gravely told them that he truly believed that balloons had souls, and that they should be treated with respect, and then went on with his service. When the period ended and the kids had left, he pulled out the tiny cross, dug up the balloon and threw it away, scuffing dirt over the old grave. The next day one of the kids from that period came back to archery and was telling everyone else about the grave. But it was gone, and the counselor denied it had happened, saying to this 11-year-old, “Why would I possibly hold a funeral for a balloon? That would be weird.” And he never admitted it.
I went to archery at least once a day not because I wanted to become an expert marksman, but because I wanted to learn more card tricks and head games. But then he played a prank on me for which I would never forgive him. After five summers and endless hours at his activity, I was accepted to be a CIT, and I eagerly signed up to work in archery. I could just picture my summer apprenticeship in which I would be the one passing out the dizzy sticks. I would work with my mentor to come up with brand new ways to make campers doubt their sanity. I would be the head gamer instead of the head gamed. It would be glorious.
And then I showed up, only to find that he had decided not to come back that summer. Instead, they had gotten someone new to camp, someone who really really loved archery. Someone eager to teach kids the nuances of target shooting and wrist guards and sighting. In short, the least fun things you could do at archery. But his enthusiasm proved contagious, and soon archery was being taken seriously by kids. And as I sat there, trapped, for two periods a day for eight weeks, I was expected to concentrate on nothing but proper form and helping kids not to jerk the string as they let go of an arrow, and counting up the scores on target after target after target after target after target. And if you suggested breaking for a card trick, you were met with bewilderment and impatience from all the kids who just wanted to keep trying to get that next goddamn patch.
Some said the old counselor decided not to come back because he needed to make more money. Some said he was taking summer classes. I suspect that this was all part of an elaborate practical joke on me, six years in the making. Well played, archery counselor, well played.
Previously in series: Bad News Brenda, Drunk In China, The Writer With The Pink Velvet Pants, A Little History Of Blackmail, Drinking While Pregnant and Giving Bad Advice To Kings
Nadia Chaudhury was a city kid who never went to summer camp, but imagines it’s exactly like Wet Hot American Summer, right down to going into town.