Finally. Seemed like I’d been waiting to meet them for a month. It had only been a very few days. I was excited. Then I met my boys.
A whole horde of boys, 11- to 13-year olds, disembarked, and Reggie came with them. Half were on his boat, half on one right behind him, a vessel he’d chartered. When they were finally all ashore, the second boat pulled away, and Reggie had the boys assemble in a loose body on the broad main lawn near the fire pit where the evening campfire would be lit.
“Welcome to Camp Tonaka,” he said in a very pleasant voice. Then he gave a very short speech, mostly pointing out each counselor and reading off the names of the boys who should go meet with each.
I was the second counselor on his list. He called out my name, David Harrington, and said the following boys would be in Fox with me and read off their names: Nickolas Callison, Zachery Ryan, Samuel Wessley, Brandis Pierce and Collier Bailey. The five detached themselves from the throng and made their way to me, dragging their duffel bags and backpacks and whatever they brought to camp with them. I was standing, waving my arms, and smiling. They were mostly looking long-faced, reminding me of a pack of basset hounds. The one who was the oldest and looked it, Sam, was actually scowling.
When they’d assembled around me, I said, “Hi, guys. I’m David. I prefer David to Dave, but I’m sure you’ll probably end up with your own name for me, something like Butthead or Dumbass.” I grinned. They didn’t. “Anyway, let’s go to our cabin, stow your stuff and get settled in, and then we can talk a little.”
They looked at me with blank, unreadable faces. I noticed that they didn’t look at each other. I’d been thinking it would be them and me, two different entities. I saw that, no, it would be six entities, at least at first. I felt my eager anticipation drooping.
I’m the adult here, I reminded myself. Make this work! Set the tone!
I led them to Fox. Inside, I said, “Pick a bunk. Any but this one,” and I sat on the one I’d chosen. “There’s a pullout drawer under each one where you can stow your stuff.”
They all just stood there. “Go ahead,” I said, smiling.
They all just stood there.
Ooookaaaaay. This was going to be harder than I’d thought. I didn’t think they were being recalcitrant; I thought they had no idea how to pick a bed. Then I realized: how could they? They were choosing whom to sleep next to, and they didn’t know each other. That would be hard! Looking at them, Zach, the actor, was the only one looking around, eyeing his comrades, acting as all this was maybe the beginning of an adventure that he was ready for. He was obviously more confident than the others. But even he was waiting for someone else to move. No one did. No one made eye contact with anyone else.
My turn, I decided.
“Okay. Time out.” I chuckled. “Hey, guys, I’m just as new at this as you are. Actually, from reading the very brief notes I got on each of you, none of you wanted to be here, and I didn’t, either, so we’re all sailing on the same boat. I’m going to be feeling my way right along with you guys. Well, obviously, the way to begin isn’t by making you choose beds right off the bat when you don’t know each other. See? My first mistake. I’ll make a lot of them. When I do, don’t be shy about telling me. I need to learn how to do this. I’ll probably just finally have learned how on the last day of camp.
“Now that you all feel sorry for me—hey, wait. You don’t. You feel sorry for you. Okay, we need to change that. First things first, I guess. And that, obviously, is to at least learn a little something about each of us, and we should start with who we all are. I’ll go first. I’m David. I’m 20. I’ve never been a camp counselor before. Hell, I’ve never been to a camp before. I live in Ann Arbor, just like you all do, and I’ll be a freshman at U of M starting in a couple of months. I’m here to make sure all you guys are safe and hopefully to help you have a really fun summer, even if you aren’t happy being here, which I know you aren’t.
“Now, I need you guys to say something. Your names would be good so you all at least know who each one is. Calling each other, ‘Hey, you,’ all summer won’t work very well. And since you all have one thing in common, i.e., not wanting to be here, probably saying why that is would help the others know more about you. Like telling us what you’d rather be doing than wasting a summer here.
“And while I’ve got your attention, does anyone know why I said ‘i.e.’ a second ago? What it means?” Silence. “Okay, thought so, my fault. I’m a little nervous, just like you guys. But I’m not going to dumb down how I talk for you. It’s a Latin abbreviation; i.e. stands for id est, which translates as, ‘that is.’ So, now that I’ve humiliated myself by sounding pedantic when that’s the last thing I am—proving I’m nervous, just like you guys—here’s the big question: Which one of you wants to go next?”
As I expected, there was again dead silence and a lot of looking at the floor.
I took the bull by the horns. “Zach? If anyone here is brave enough to start, I’ll bet it’s you. You enjoy standing in front of an audience of both strangers and peers and pretending to be a character someone else has invented; if you can do that and enjoy it, you can certainly talk in front of us five. How about it? Show us all how it’s done? Please?”
Zach looked at me, and I was caught by how really cute the boy was. He looked better than his picture. I hadn’t thought that would be possible. He smiled and actually stepped away from the other boys, closer to me, and then turned to look at them. He was 12, but 12 with an actual presence.
“I’m Zachary.” He was actually making eye contact with them when he spoke. “Everyone calls me Zach. I’m 12. David’s right: I didn’t want to come here. I love acting, and the community playhouse is putting on Billy Elliot this summer. I don’t dance much, but I was going to audition for the part of Billy’s gay friend, Michael. It would be a perfect part for me, even the gay part, and I really wanted it. I can’t do it if I’m here.”
Zach looked at me, then gave me a wan smile and rejoined the others. I looked at them, raising my eyebrows, trying to look beseeching. And was surprised.
Out of the group came Brandis. He was a slight boy and walked with a lithe gait, almost like he was floating across the floor. He wasn’t cute like Zach but had the sort of face and dark aspect that would probably make him very handsome as he grew into his looks. He came and stood where Zach had.
“I’m Brandis. Yeah, I know.” He briefly dropped his eyes, as if waiting for catcalls, but got none. “I wanted to go next because I wanted to be in the same play Zach was trying out for. I do dance. I’ve been taking ballet lessons for five years now. I love ballet. And that’s my favorite movie, Billy Elliot. I’ve seen it five times! But my dad insisted I go to camp, instead. He doesn’t mind if I’m gay. He does think I need a break from dance practice. We had a major fight about it. He won. I’m here. I’ll try to have fun, but I don’t see that happening.”
“That’s great, Rad,” I said, looking at him. He looked back at me, obviously questioning the name I’d called him, so I explained. “I made up nicknames for all of you. Yours was difficult, but I thought Brad would be better than Brandy. What I want to call you now, now that you said you’re going to make the best of this, is Rad Brad. Because that attitude is radical, one I hope you can all make a stab at. But one-syllable nicknames are better than two, so I’ll call you Rad.”
I held up my hand for a high five from Rad, and he smiled and slapped it, then walked back to the others. Zach stepped out and high-fived him, then they stepped back with the others together, still standing next to each other—and both smiling.
At that age, it doesn’t take much to make friends, I thought.
When no one else came out, I prompted them with, “Next? What, no one? Oh, come on. You just saw what happened. No one got crucified up here! By next week, you’ll all be friends. So why not start the ball rolling now when you’re all together in not wanting to do this. Do you want me to call names out? You can do this on your own. Come on!”
They actually looked at each other, probably because they wanted to see who was going to be bold enough to go next. When no one did, I simply waited. With the pressure mounting, Sam finally stepped out.
“I’m Samuel, but David’s probably going to call me Sam,” he said, very straight-faced, but then he actually smiled, something he hadn’t done before, and he suddenly looked like a kid again instead of a grouchy old man. He had dark hair and brown eyes and looked much better smiling than grousing. He didn’t sound nervous at all. “I’m 13,” he continued, “and what I like to do is write. I’m a little introverted. Well, that’s icing the cake. I am an introvert. I don’t talk much; I don’t join in much; I just sit back and watch and digest what others are doing. I wanted to stay home and finish some stories I’d started. I do that—start and not finish things. I was going to, then Mom . . . well, you all know how that works!”
Then he looked up at me. “Sam?”
“Sam,” I said. He smiled and rejoined the others.
Two were left, and after looking at each other, Collier stepped out. “I’m Collier, and have no idea what David’s going to do with that!” He chuckled, which caused the others to do the same. Typical of a redhead, I thought, making others laugh. All except Nick. I’d been watching him. As the group yet to speak had been shrinking in numbers, he’d been getting more and more nervous. I wasn’t sure why but assumed it was simply nerves. Some boys that age—well, any age, really—simply hate the idea of being in front of others and speaking. I began wondering how I could make it easier for him.
Collier was continuing. “I’m 12, and I’m learning how to paint. I was like Sam. I was going to do a lot of that this summer and try to get better. Summer is the best time to paint outdoors, and I like doing landscapes. In the winter it’s too cold, not only for me but for the paint as well. You can do charcoal and pastels then, but I like oils. And in spring and fall, school gets in the way. So I was looking forward to summer. Then my dad got transferred to San Francisco, and he’s been out there a month now. Mom wanted to go out and look for a house or apartment with him, and I was in the way. So, I got sent here. Now you—” he looked right at me “—will probably be making me hike and swim and play softball and stuff like that—which I hate!—and what I want to do is go off by myself and paint.”
He stopped, glaring at me in a challenging way. I looked back at him and smiled. “Colley,” I said. “I decided to call you Colley because I really like that name. And no, not like the dog. That’s ‘ie,’ kind of like the Latin without the periods between the letters. No, I’m thinking ‘ey’ at the end. I think it fits you. Sort of happy-go-lucky, even if you’re not happy now. I think you usually are. You have that body language. And I’ll talk about all the hideous things I’m going to be forcing you to do—all those awful activities kids do to have fun—after we have our last introduction.”
Colley nodded and stepped back. That left Nick. He was very reluctant to step forward. I waited a few seconds, then intervened.
“I think Nicholas, who from now on is Nick unless he objects, isn’t too eager to come forward, so, if he doesn’t mind, I’ll talk for him. Nick is a violinist. Also 12. He didn’t want to come here because he wanted to spend the summer practicing the violin and maybe taking a lesson or two, maybe learning a special piece. Now I’m guessing at all that, but I think it’s probably pretty accurate. Now, because he may be shy, like all of you are except Zach and maybe Rad, he’d probably be very happy if you’d all just gently squeeze his shoulder to show you like him fine, that you don’t mind that he didn’t want to talk, and that you’re glad to have him with us. Then maybe you can give him some space to make it easier for him to adjust to the group. Is that okay, Nick?”
He was looking at me with his eyes wide open, and then, to my surprise, he said, very softly, “Thanks, David. Yeah, I’m shy, and I hate it.” And blushed.
The rest of them did what I’d requested. Each touched him briefly, then looked back up at me.
“Time to pick a cot and unpack. Now I’ll bet anything Zach and Rad will pick ones next to each other. The rest of you, well, you’re on your own, but it’s easy. So, go ahead.”
Then I sat down on my cot and simply watched. Zach and Rad made their way to the back end of the room, Zach took the last one and Rad the one right next to it, the middle one in that row. That left three more cots, the two in my row and the one on the front end of Zach’s and Rad’s row, which was right across the aisle from mine. Nick quietly took the one across from me, which put him next to Rad, leaving the other two for Sam and Colley. Sam quickly took the back one. I guessed he wanted to have a position from which to observe all the rest without having to twist his head.
§ § § §
When they were all settled away with their things in the drawers under their cots, I called them together. They came to the front of the cabin, and I realized talking to them like this meant they either had to all stand, listening to me, or sit on the floor. Neither seemed very congenial.
“Let’s go outside. We need to talk, and it’ll be nicer there. Follow me, please.”
I took them outside and walked around just a little, showing them where they’d eat and where the toilets and showers were. Then I walked over to the fire pit and asked them to sit on the logs that encircled it. The logs had been secured in place and the tops flattened so they were comfortable to sit on.
“Guys,” I said when they were settled and facing me, “None of you wants to be here, and none of you wants to do things boys your age do at camp. So, that’s where we are. What you want to do is your own thing. But the question that’s really important is, what do I want?”
I looked them over, and while they were all paying attention, no one responded. Well, so maybe I wasn’t ready for a Saturday-night standup gig yet. I hadn’t asked that as a question as much as I’d posed it as a joke to loosen them up. Hadn’t worked. Tough crowd.
“What I want is simple,” I said, plowing on. “I want you each to enjoy your summer. When you go back to school a couple of months from now, I want you to be able to think back on this as the best summer of your lives. I won’t accomplish that—we won’t accomplish that—unless we figure it all out. That’s why we’re talking here.”
They were all sitting, and I was standing, and that didn’t make this the collegial situation that I wanted. So I looked around and found a wooden box that was being used to store kindling for the evening fire. I hauled it over to where the boys were and sat on it.
“Look, guys, I’m not going to be able to please everyone 100%. For instance, I can’t get Zach into that play; I have no way to get him to rehearsals. Same with Rad. I’m stuck on this island the same as all you guys. So as much as it hurts, Rad and Zach will have to give that up. That sucks. It really sucks. However, it doesn’t mean they have to sulk in Fox all summer. That would be even suckier.
“Now I’ve been thinking about what we should do that would be fun this summer, but it sounds to me like that’s pretty much settled. Nick wants to practice his violin. Well, why not? He can.” I turned so I was addressing only Nick. “There are quite a few unoccupied cabins here, some of them up in the hills, only a short hike away. You can select one and take it as your own. Then, it’s okay for you to spend as much time in it as you want. This might even be better for you than being home. Fewer interruptions. Fewer chores to do.”
I laughed, and that encouraged at least a couple of grins. They were boys; they knew about chores.
I spoke to each in turn. “Sam? Same thing. Grab yourself an empty cabin. Some have a few pieces of furniture in them. Find one with a desk and chair, take your laptop there, and you’re all set. I don’t know if the island has Wi-fi or not, but you don’t need it to write from your head.
“Colley? The island is yours. There’re all sorts of great views here, and you can pick any or as many as you want. Set up your easel, or lean your canvas against a tree, and go at it. This is a perfect setting for you.
“Zach and Rad. I know just the thing. Actors these days are often asked to dance, and dancers, to be in plays, have to be able to act. So, you guys can find a cabin of your own, too, and teach each other your specialty.
“How does all that sound?”
Colley was the first to speak. “Really? I don’t have to be with all the other campers, doing what they do?”
“Only for meals and the evening campfire,” I said. “That’s the only rule for everyone. I make all the rest of the rules for you guys, and I just made them. You’re on your own to do whatever you want. All summer long.”
They were looking at me like they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. So I amplified. “I’m not going to make you do anything at all and certainly none of the activities you said you hated. None of that terrible swimming. No ugly softball. Not a single hike. Not a bit of time in those tippy canoes. Nada. Now, if any of you change your mind about any of this, if you see other boys having fun and think you might want to try something other than being on your own, tell me, and I’ll get you involved. Otherwise, you’re on your own.”
I looked at them individually again. “Sam, you can write till your fingers are sore and your imagination needs refueling. Or if being outside tickles your muse, you can hike up a trail with Colley, and where he sets up his easel, you can plop down with your laptop and use nature for your inspiration. That way, neither of you will be lonely.”
“Nick, you can spend the entire summer practicing in one of those empty cabins. If we never see you, if that’s how you want it, you can do that. It won’t help you get over the shyness you hate but should make you a better fiddler by summer’s end than now, and I know that’s important to you.
“And Rad and Zach, I have a feeling, looking at you two and the smiles on your faces, you’ll both be better at what you do with each other’s help, and that you two are going to be great friends before this summer ends.
“Remember, there are rules, however. Not mine. I don’t have any rules. Rules, schmules. But if you’re not at meals or at the campfire, you may have a new counselor pretty quickly. So I ask that you show up for those when you have to be there. Okay? You’ll probably enjoy the campfire. There’ll be stories, a singalong, maybe marshmallow roasting . . . who knows what all. It’ll be as new for me as it is for you.”
I stopped then and just sat there with them. After a few moments, Sam asked, “That’s it? You’re really not going to make us get involved in all those camp activities everyone else will be doing? Playing sports of all sorts? Being in competitions? Seeing who’s the fastest and strongest and can hold their breath the longest under water and is King of the Mountain? Seeing who can piss the farthest and longest when there are no counselors around? Which team can capture the flag? Which cabin has the best time climbing the highest hill on the island and coming back down again?”
I looked at all of them. “Who here wants to do those things? Huh? All those wanting to do those things, raise your hands! No? That doesn’t sound like fun to any of you? Well, me neither!”
They all looked skeptical. I laughed. “Guys, I mean it. You didn’t want to come to camp. So, we’ll act like we’re not even at camp. Do your own things. Alone, or with each other, or with someone from another cabin—however it works best for you. I really mean it: I want you to have a great summer. I’ll help with that any way I can. Be creative; get ideas; make them work. But doing things just because other campers are doing them—no. We won’t do that. What you’ll do is what you want to do. OK?”
I saw some tentative smiles forming. I nodded. “That’s better! Now, I can imagine getting some flack from other counselors and campers because we’re not joining in. So we might need a plan if that happens. You may have some ideas how to do that. Let’s talk and keep our ideas just between us.”We did talk and became more of a group as ideas were tossed around. What happened, though, was we never needed them. Only one person was ever affronted by Fox going its separate ways. Just one: Luther.