I think my jaw dropped. That’s a cartoon action, isn’t it? But I think mine actually did that. All sorts of thoughts were going through my head. About the camp, about me, about my mother, about Reggie. I had no time to think, though. His expression had changed from jovially jocose to suddenly serious. He wanted—expected—an answer!
“No,” I said, meeting his eyes. “I’m not. I like kids. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever met any gay ones, but if they’re kids, I’m sure the label ‘kid’ better describes them than ‘gay’ would.”
I saw him physically relax, and the tension in the room eased.
I seemed to be on a roll so continued. “You said 11 and 12, with a few 13-year-olds scattered in, so these guys won’t have had much or any experience in the sexual aspects of their natures. In fact, how can you even tell that they’re gay at that age?”
He smiled. “I don’t. Their schools, their parents, social workers, even a sympathetic church will contact me. I’ve let it be known the camp is available to kids who could really be helped by getting away from their current environment for the summer, ones who’d benefit being in a nonjudgmental place that will be supportive and give them a chance to relax and be with other kids like them. I get referrals.
“I especially emphasize that kids who either self-identify as gay or think they may be, and ones whose adults think they may be, ones who have been ill-treated by peers because they act in a way where they’re suspected of being gay—that sort of thing—are the ones we’re looking for. At this age, of course, they may simply be going through a phase, but if we’re wrong, so what? We get kids who benefit from this sort of camp, who make friends with other kids like themselves. This will be where they find out they’re not alone and they can be themselves, and it’s all OK. They have a chance here to get to know themselves a little better without condemnation or fear. If, a couple of years down the road, they find themselves only interested in boys, or if they’re then wanting to date girls, well, maybe we helped them get the self-confidence to do either of those. Where’s the harm?”
He sounded almost evangelical, and I couldn’t help myself. “So you’re a dyed-in-the-wool do-gooder.”
He laughed. “Hey, I knew I liked you. Anyone brought up by your mom had to be okay, and I can see you are. So, you’ve had enough time. Twenty minutes should be enough. You signing on? Or do I have to send a pickup truck to get your stuff off the front porch and take you to skid row?”
“I have absolutely no experience,” I said, not quite willing to commit to something this big. “And I’m something of a fuck-up. As well as being a little lazy. You sure you want someone like that?”
“Sure. You just described me at your age. Anyone your age who’s absolutely sure of his future is abnormal. Besides, your mother told me you have the one essential characteristic I need.”
“What’s that? I don’t think she likes me all that much.”
“She says you have a good heart. I need counselors with good hearts. That makes up for almost anything else.”
§ § § §
So I agreed to give it a try. Why not? If it wasn’t good, I could always walk away. I wasn’t signing a contract or taking a blood oath. I was simply agreeing to work for him till camp was over, which was about a week before I’d start college at Michigan.
I did have to know how everything worked. He told me other guys were already in training; that’s what I’d seen when I’d passed doorway number one. He said they’d been at it for two days, and instead of throwing me in there when I would have already missed a lot, he’d cover the ground with me, himself, getting to know me a little better. And he said the best way to do it would be to take me out to the camp. He’d show me around, I’d see the facilities, and he’d talk about how the camp worked.
It was still early, not even 9 o’clock yet, and he asked if I was free to see the camp right then.
“Sure. How far is it?”
“About an hour’s drive.” Then, “Uh . . . you don’t get seasick, do you?”
He snickered at me. “We have to go a little ways in a boat, and if you’re going to be throwing up all over the place, I need to know if I need a bucket before we leave.”
We took US 23 up to Horseshoe Lake, skirted that on 6 Mile Road over to Nolar Road past the golf course, jogged right on 7 Mile Road to Spencer and finally made it to 8 Mile Road, which we took east all the way past the fairgrounds to where it became Vernier Road. We were in Grosse Pointe Shores by then, and just a short time later we reached the yacht club.
My mom made good money, and we probably could have been members had she wanted to be, but she didn’t have the time for it and I’d never been interested. I’d never been to the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club—nor to any other one, either, for that matter. I was astounded by the variety and magnificence of the boats docked there.
Reggie parked, and we walked a short way to a locked gate. He entered a code on the pad and we made our way down to the wooden walkways that fronted and then ran alongside all the boats, creating docking slips. Reggie led me to a large, sleek-looking boat. It was mostly white with royal-blue trim. It seemed to me to stand several stories high. I knew nothing about boats and could just watch how Reggie did things. He climbed aboard; I followed, feeling somewhat in awe and considerably uncertain.
He made his way all the way to the top story where the boat’s controls were. He took a key from his pocket and started the engines. They rumbled with a low thrumming sound and caused the boat itself to feel alive with vibrating shudders.
“Just stay here, David. I need to cast off the lines and then we’ll be off.”
He was back in a few moments and fiddled around where the boat’s controls were located; suddenly the rumbling became a deep throbbing and the boat began a soft vibration.
“Lots of horsepower,” Reggie explained, grinning at me. “Twin diesels.”
We began to move, and I grabbed onto the railing that ran along the edge of this deck. Reggie backed the boat out of its slip, then turned it and we began a slow voyage past all the other boats docked in the marina.
We were going so slowly I figured I could walk faster and was going to say something, but then I saw a sign on a post in the middle of the channel we were in. It stated the speed limit was 5 mph. That seemed to be about the speed we were going.
Eventually we reached where the boat harbor became the lake itself. Then we were in the lake, Lake St. Clair, and there was nothing on our sides and in front of us but a huge expanse of blue water.
“Ready to go a little faster?” Reggie asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Hold on a little tighter,” was Reggie’s reply, and almost immediately the deep throb of the engines rose in pitch and volume. The boat itself seemed to rise as well, and I was glad I’d tightened my grip when asked to. Very quickly, we seemed to be actually flying over the water. The wind blew my hair back on my head as I looked into it.
I couldn’t stop smiling! This was fantastic! I looked over at Reggie and found he was watching. He must have liked my grin because he matched it with one of his own.
We continued to soar for several minutes. The lake was pretty empty. I did see a couple of sailboats far off in the distance, and a small island or two that we flew past. I was loving the experience but beginning to wonder where we were actually going when I saw Reggie point slightly to the left of where the bow was aimed. I looked that way and saw an island. It was considerably larger than the other occasional ones we’d passed. I saw lots of trees. The island was hilly, too, a few of the hills probably reaching 1,000 feet above the lake. I wasn’t good at judging the size of such a place, but it had to be at least several hundred acres. It was a large island!
Reggie slowed us way down as we approached, then circled the island and floated us into a large cove on the back side. There was a dock sticking out in the water, and Reggie eased the boat to a stop alongside of it.
“Can you put the bumpers out? he asked me. “I’ll take care of tying us up.”
I was about to ask what the bumpers were and how to put them out when he just shook his head at my look of confusion and waved me to come with him, chuckling. We climbed down to the main deck, he pointed to large round tubes which had ropes on one end tied to the side railings and just told me to throw them over the sides. Then he climbed down onto the dock, taking two long lines with him. He pulled the boat up so it was squeezing against the bumpers, holding them tight to the dock, and he tied off the boat.
I stepped off, feeling a little wobbly. The term ‘land legs’ came out of nowhere, and I guessed that’s what I was experiencing.
The dock stretched not too far out into the cove. The cove itself was sheltered on three sides, looking like someone had used a giant ice-cream scoop to remove a bite of the island. But it was a large bite; I could see a section of beach with fine white sand and an area obviously earmarked for swimming marked by a rope held up on floats with a couple of large rafts set out near the outer limits of the roped-off area.
The water in the cove was calm. The lake we’d crossed had had swells and small waves, but the chop had about disappeared when the boat was flying over them. Here, the water was flat and calm with no chop at all.
We walked off the dock onto very gently rising land that soon leveled out into a large grassy area that had recently been mown. “Welcome to Camp Tonaka,” Reggie said, gesturing with one hand at what lay before us.
There were buildings scattered here and there, only a few of any size, only one more than one-story tall. They loosely encircled the main flat grassy area that had a fire pit with logs to sit on around it. A flagpole stood tall with both the U.S. and Michigan state flags barely moving in the light breeze.
Behind and not too far from the buildings were woods. I could see paths leading into them from various points. Reggie led me toward the largest building but then veered off to one next to it, a much smaller one. He unlocked the door and beckoned me to follow him inside.
It was a spartan, two-room cottage, one room for sleeping, the other set up as an office. “This is my place,” Reggie said. “Doesn’t look like much, does it?”
I glanced around, considering. “Looks like a place someone who’s rarely here would have. I’d guess you spend your time outside, maybe with the campers, maybe watching everything that’s going on, instead of sitting behind a desk doing paperwork.”
“I hate paperwork!” he said, scowling. “Let’s walk around. I’ll talk and you can see what the place looks like.”
We strolled around the area and Reggie pointed out what there was to see. It was mostly just a rustic place that had been carved out of a woods-covered island. Where we were, which seemed to be the main communal area of the camp, was broad lawn that had been cleared of trees and brush. There was a sprinkling of buildings, a couple of them larger than the rest. The smaller cabins weren’t set together like a planned community would have been but were sitting here and there hodgepodge, occupying a very loosely organized half circle, quite obviously not having been built according to a predetermined plan.
Reggie saw me looking at the cabins. “Those are where the boys sleep. The larger buildings are the mess hall and kitchen and toilets and showers. We have electricity; there’s a generator that supplies all the power we need.”
“You built all this?” I asked.
“No, I bought it. This was originally set up as a religious retreat. It was perfect for me. More than I needed, really. We have all these cabins for the boys—more than we need right now, actually, though we’re still expanding each year. There are also some empty cabins up in the hills. If any of the boys want to use them for anything, they’re available. The sect that owned this island set them up for choir rehearsals, religious activities, whatever. There’s some furniture in some, some are bare. A couple of them have pianos, I imagine for choir practice. I keep them tuned in case anyone wants to play. A few have electricity; a few only have lanterns. However, the camp is mainly for outdoor activities, typical stuff, you know, swimming and boating and hiking and such, and I hope most of the boys stay outside most of the time. But I’m no taskmaster. The boys can do what they want to do. Personal freedom for boys who often haven’t had that.”
We took a couple of the paths leading out into the trees. One led to a small waterfall. “There’s a natural spring back further along the path. It supplies our drinking water,” Reggie explained.
Another path led to where he’d developed a sports area for soccer, softball, volleyball, basketball. Reggie explained. “I thought gay boys might not be athletic. Learned differently. Some aren’t, some are. Same as any group of boys. That’s how I learned we needed facilities for all sorts of activities, both athletic and not.”
We took another path that rose with the lay of the land and seemed to just be a hiking path through the woods. I wondered if Reggie was checking out what shape I was in, as he kept glancing over at me and grinning. The fact was that one of the ways I’d been decompressing this summer was running. Morning and night. He was in good shape because he wasn’t laboring at all, even though most of the walk so far had been uphill. But I wasn’t breathing hard, either, and I could see he recognized that.
We walked on until the ground eventually leveled out, and then we came out of the trees and upon a vista that looked back at the western edge of Lake St. Clair. We were far enough away that the shoreline was not discernible in the distance even though this was a very clear day. The lake itself was dazzling in the sunlight and was speckled with a few sailboats and islands.
“I love to come up here and just relax,” Reggie said, looking out over the lake and not at me. “Puts life in perspective.”
We stood there, not talking for a spell. Then Reggie sat down on a convenient fallen tree, and so I sat down, too. He explained to me how the camp was run, what my responsibilities were, any number of things. But he did it in a casual way, not like he’d be expecting me to toe the mark or answer a written test on any of it. He made it all sound very relaxed and stress-free. “Any questions?” he asked when he was done.
“Probably too many to think of at the moment. Okay, one comes to mind. Why the turnover in counselors every year? Don’t the ones who’ve already done it want to come back? Didn’t they like doing it?”
“No, that isn’t it at all. It may not look it, but we do a pretty good job picking you guys. I get counselors who not only like kids, but like being with them, can get enthusiastic about what the kids are getting into. They’re smart, motivated guys. Usually, after a summer with us, they use that energy towards their own pursuits. Summer internships. Summer classes so they can graduate early. All our counselors are in college. All were highly recommended.”
“I’m not in college. Not yet.”
“Yeah, but I know all about you and why you haven’t started college yet. And I know you’re smart. I don’t know if you like kids, but if you didn’t, you’d have turned down the job when you found out what it was.”
He had a point. And I had another question. “We’re with these kids 24/7. That means we have no time to ourselves? No breaks from them?”
He chuckled. “If this works for you as it has with others, you won’t really want time off. You get to like the kids and like being with them. Yeah, you’re responsible for them, but the responsibility isn’t like it would be in a city where there are many things they need protection from. You can easily get away from them for short periods, like when they’re around the campfire and someone’s telling stories or there’s a community sing, or at night after they’re asleep. No, you don’t get full days off unless you really need them. Hey, I’ll be there. You need something special, come see me. I’m adaptable.”
That sounded good to me. I’m not one for hard and fast rules. I like adaptability.
I thought of another question. “The kids are always with each other?”
“Only if they want to be. The groups we’ve had, there’ve always been some loners. Many of these kids have realized they’re different and have separated themselves from others their age because of that. They can mix with other kids here without judgment, but some aren’t trusting enough to do that. So some will want to be alone. What I hope is, their counselors will give them that space, but manage to talk to them and get them to open up and eventually join with other kids. But we’re judgment and pressure free.”
“Okay,” I said. Then a thought hit me. “What about sex? All these gay boys, together, all knowing the others are like them. Is there rampant sex? Do you allow that?”
Reggie smiled as I was asking the question, like he was expecting it. He turned from the scenic vista to look at me when he answered.
“My first year here, I thought I needed to reassure all the parents. I told them we wouldn't be allowing any unsupervised activities by the campers. Showers would be monitored, and campers wouldn’t be allowed away from the central area in pairs or even groups. Any more than one lone camper must be accompanied by a counselor. The purpose, of course, was to prevent any sexual activities by the campers. Hell, this was a camp for gay boys just coming into their hormonal years! I thought it would be an open orgy if we didn’t have rules and procedures preventing that. So I set things up so that wouldn’t be a worry. Counselors accompanying twosomes and larger groups was one way. I also had a meeting at the beginning of each week when new boys came, and I told them all that private masturbation was okay if they desired that, but only if one was by himself. Anyone caught doing it with another kid would be sent home.”
“How’d that work out?” I asked. Just thinking a little about what he’d said, it sounded like he’d set himself an impossible chore. He’d have needed ten times the number of counselors that he had signed up.
He laughed. “Work out? David, I absolutely didn’t know my ass from a teakettle. The thing is, these kids were kids. Not much more than little kids, just leaving that stage of their lives, and they’d been taught by their environments to hide who they were and what feelings they had. Most of them were shy, and none of them trusted me, certainly, or the counselors, and barely each other. Of course they had the opportunity for illicit sex; there was no way we could keep an eye on all of them all the time. But it turned out they just weren’t ready for the sexual adventures that I’d been thinking they were raring at the bit to try. They were inexperienced, and many of them were only just learning about pleasing themselves. Sex with someone else? Someone they didn’t really know? No way, Jose.”
I nodded. “So you don’t do that any more? Watch them like a mother hen watches her chicks?”
“No. But not just because most of them aren’t going to do anything anyway. It was more because I rethought my objections to their having sex. These were young boys. They were going to have sex eventually, but at their own rate. What harm would it do if I ran a relaxed camp, and if they found someone they wanted to experiment with, probably for the first time? Well, so what? Where was the harm?”
“Welllllll . . .” I was looking at him in wonder. “I can see a lot of potential harm. First, how about the parents suing you when their darling Byron comes home and says he’s been screwed every night by six bunk buddies? Or what about the heartbreak when some kid gives himself to another, then finds out the kid was making the rounds and doesn’t care for him at all? Or the reputation of the camp if the kids tell everyone at their schools that sex is a free-for-all here? To name a few things off the top of my head? Wait a sec and I’ll think of six more.”
He was shaking his head as I spoke but smiling at the same time. “You’re falling into the same trap I did,” he said. “These guys generally aren’t that adventurous sexually. They’re simply not ready for that. They have anxieties and trepidations about sex, just like we all did at that age. I suppose a few are ready, but most aren’t. The few, well, perhaps they find each other. Perhaps they become very active. But it’s with someone else who wants what they want. I don’t see the harm. It’s innocent beginning fumblings. If some of them have a first-time experience and they both enjoy it, well, again, no harm, no foul. And conversely, arguing against what you suggested, I think it gives the camp a good name among young campers.
“Anyway,” he continued before I could jump in with more worst-case scenarios, “the rule I made was, if you want to experiment sexually with another boy and he is as willing and agreeable as you are, go for it. But do it privately and keep it entirely between yourselves. My only rules are that no one is to be forced or coerced into any sexual activity. If that rule is violated, I’ll not only kick the perpetrator out of camp, but I’ll tell their parents about it.”
“So it’s don’t ask, don’t tell?”
He laughed. “Certainly don’t tell. There has to be some asking, but it’s discreet between two hopeful and probably very scared and shy boys.”
I had to wrap my head around this. What was I getting into? But Reggie assured me there wasn’t that much sexual activity going on. There wasn’t much time for it. The kids spent their days doing what they wanted to do, unlike most camps where activities were mandated, but with the variety of things available, most kids found excitement with other kids doing kid things. Boating and swimming and crafts and hiking and organized games and athletics and nature study. Along with the counselors, he brought in experienced adults to monitor and teach these activities. They only stayed during the day. We counselors were there 24/7.
Reggie explained the camp routine and my place in it. He made it all sound so simple and like a camp I’d have loved to attend when I was 12. We eventually took the boat back. I was feeling pretty good about my summer job, and the wind trying to scalp me as the boat flew toward Grosse Pointe Shores, seeming to only touch the very tops of every third one of the gentle waves, just added to the excitement I felt at being part of this adventure.
“David! Get up! You’ll miss the bus!”
Damn! It was way too early. I hoped camp itself wouldn’t start in the middle of the night like this. But here I was, getting out of bed way before a decent hour to do so, picking up my packed duffel, swigging a cup of coffee and jumping into the car so Mom could drive me to where the bus was loading to take the counselors to camp a day before the kids would arrive. Why so early? Damn!
Reggie had hired a small bus to take the counselors-to-be, like me, and the one counselor-who’d-already-been to be driven from Ann Arbor to catch Reggie’s boat to the island. It was only 7 in the morning. Ugh!
I was the third one on the bus after stowing my duffel with the others under the bus, and my eyes lit up. The back seat was vacant! I made my way back to it and immediately spread myself out on it and shut my eyes. It would take most of an hour to reach the marina, and I’d spend that hour asleep. Yes!
I’d already dozed off when I felt a hand squeezing my shoulder, then shaking it. “Hey,” a rough voice said, “you’re in my seat. Move it.”
I cracked open my eyes, pissed at being wakened, pissed at a hand holding my shoulder. I saw who it was: the one counselor who had experience. This will be his second year at the camp. I’d not met him yet, but Reggie said his name was Luther Block when he showed me his picture; he’d shown me pictures of all the counselors and told me their names so I’d have an easier time when I met them.
I didn’t wake up gently; I rarely did unless allowed to waken in my own way, a little at a time. Luther Block had grabbed me. I’d been asleep. It always took me a few minutes after waking to get my bearings, to straighten out my thoughts. I wasn’t being given that opportunity now. In my mind, I was still far away, in a much different place.
“Are you deaf, buddy? Move it! I’m Lute Block, the senior counselor. What I say goes. You got that? Now move.”
I forced myself up so I was sitting instead of lying on the seat. I looked up at Lute. He was looming over me. He looked to be at least a year older than I was, and I guessed he had me by about 20 pounds and two or three inches. The look on his face was not friendly. He looked like a typical bully should look: large, unpleasant, threatening, and totally confident in his ability to get whatever he wanted.
I didn’t respond quickly enough for him. “You need me to move you, is that it, buddy? Suits me.”
He started to reach for me. I said, “Hold it.” I said it in a voice I hadn’t used lately. I was awake enough by now that my head had cleared and all fragments of the dream that visited me much too often were rapidly dissipating. I regretted the voice I’d used. It had slipped out while I’d been very busy reminding myself what I always reminded myself on awakening: decompress! I was supposed to be decompressing; that was my purpose this summer. That’s what I was all about. That’s what being with a group of kids was going to help me do.
He reflexively pulled his hand back, hearing my voice. I took the opportunity to push up onto my feet. I worked to erase the hardness from my eyes. I did look into his. He looked back, not showing any happiness at my complacency but evincing an egotistical look of victory. He followed up with a growl. “Remember this. I’m senior here. I call the shots.”
I walked past him to one of the empty seats, settled into it as comfortably as possible, and shut my eyes.