The next day at breakfast, Reggie got up on a table to talk to the group. He’d never done this before, so all the boys quieted quickly, seeing him up there.
“Guys,” he started, “I’ve decided to give all you a little excitement. You’re all having a great time, I hope. Uh, are you having a great time?”
He looked at the kids expectantly, and they got the hint and started clapping and yelling. Reggie smiled, then held up his hands for quiet again.
“Thought so! Well, while you’re having a great time, your counselors are working their fingers to the bone, and they deserve some fun, too. Don’t you agree?”
This time he raised his hand, wiggling his fingers, and the boys shouted their approval. Reggie had a way about him: he could have sold hamburgers to vegans.
“Okay, okay, I agree. So, I decided it would be good to give them a chance to show what they can do. We’re going to have competitions for them. They’re always getting you to join in on things you’re not sure you want to do. Same here. Turnabout’s fair play! We’ll have a swimming race. A foot race. Horseshoes. Foul shooting. Archery. Boxing. Canoe-paddling. A one-foot hopping contest. You know, all the usual stuff.” He laughed, so the boys did, too. They were looking eager. The counselors were looking like he’d gone loco.
“Now you all know how shy these counselors are. If I put out signup sheets for these various events, none of these guys would put their names down. So I’m doing that for them. The guys who can run real fast, I’ll sign them up for the canoe race. The best swimmers will be shooting foul shots. Like that.
“So no one will get much practice time because most of the point of this is that these guys’ll look silly doing this stuff and give you guys something to laugh about, I’ll schedule one event and name the competitors just after lunch each day, and the event will then start at 1 PM. You guys like the sound of this?”
Again, roars of approval came from the campers. What boys don’t want to see their minders held up to ridicule even if they like them? Maybe even more if they like them!
My guys did what they always did each morning: head out to their various pursuits. I spent the morning stretching, loosening up, getting my head in the right place.
At lunch, Reggie announced the first event would be a boxing match, pitting the famous Lute the Brute against—drum roll, please—the leader of the Fox, David the Devious! Luther’s face lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I managed to look ill. Sam started to rise. I think he was going to tell Reggie that was absurd. I reached out and put a hand on his arm. “Thanks, Sam. But this is just for fun. No one will get injured.”
“But he hates you! This’ll be the chance he’s been wanting!”
I smiled at him. “Trust me, Sam. I know what I’m doing.”
His look showed he didn’t believe that at all. Certainly not with this! I went back to looking shook up, didn’t eat anything more, and walked with my boys back to Fox at the end of lunch.
“Guys,” I told them when we were alone and the door shut, “don’t worry. I don’t like fighting. I think differences should be settled by talking them out, by being reasonable, by listening to what the guy you’re disagreeing with has to say, not with fists. But I do know how to defend myself, and Luther’s a lot more about intimidation and threats than actually getting into it with someone. So come and watch, but don’t worry. Okay? This is for fun!”
No, it wasn’t okay with them, and I liked that. I’d become very fond and protective of them, and perhaps they now felt the same about me. That put me in great spirits, knowing that. A real high.
At 1 PM I left Fox, the boys trailing after me. I was wearing what I always wore, a pair of shorts, a tee shirt, and sneakers.
We walked down to the area where the fire pit was located on the broad, flat lawn. There, Reggie had used powdered chalk to mark off a boxing ring. No ropes, no posts, just a marked area the size of a boxing ring.
Luther was there, looking eager. He had on shorts and a muscle shirt. His musculature showed clearly. Overall, he was much bigger and stronger-looking than I was.
Reggie had two pairs of boxing gloves, and we were helped by our boys putting them on. That was the extent of our equipment. No mouthpieces, no cups, no nothing. The rules were no hitting below the belt, no kicking or head butting, stay within the chalk lines or lose points. We’d have three two-minute rounds and points awarded during each, and when he blew his whistle, we were to immediately stop whatever it was we were in the middle of doing.
I had to make a show of not wanting to do this, so I loudly asked Reggie when he was done explaining the rules, “Why me? I’m not a fighter.”
“This’ll be fun,” he answered, a broad smile lighting his face, looking for all the world like a naïve innocent.
Luther and I entered the ring. He stood in one chalked corner, me in the opposite one. He was bouncing on his toes, looking menacing, ready to go. I was looking uncertain, shoulders slumped, eyes down.
Reggie blew his whistle.
I came out from my corner tentatively, gloves up in a bad defensive position, sort of quivering, looking like I didn’t want to be there. Luther took one look, laughed, and came at me. He came up and threw a solid, right-hand jab at my chin. His feet were all wrong, so he didn’t have much mustard on it. At the last instant I jerked my head to the side and his glove passed harmlessly. His right side was unprotected for a brief moment, and in that time I brought my left up and slapped the side of his face lightly with the palm side of my glove, more pawing at him than striking a blow, like I had no idea how to hit anyone.
I danced back and started circling away from him. He came after me and threw a roundhouse right this time, again leaving his right side open and almost stumbling, he’d swung so hard. I avoided the punch, and seeing him off balance, just sort of helped him going forward by pushing him. I yelled, “Olé” as he went by and pretended to have a cape. He fell awkwardly to the grass.
“I won, I won,” I declared happily, dancing around with my hands up in the air, while at the same time keeping a wary eye on Luther. He was back on his feet almost immediately, rage on his face and malice in his eyes.
He waited a second till my circling dance had brought him directly behind me, though across the ring from him, and then he charged. I knew where he was, and when he was almost ready to smash into me, I dropped down into a crouch and covered my head with my hands, like I was scared to death. As I thought would happen, he couldn’t get much purchase on the grass with his sneakers and he tripped over me, hitting the ground again. This time, he hit hard enough that he didn’t jump right back up.
Reggie blew his whistle. End of Round One. I pranced around the ring, hands waving in the air. “I’m winning,” I gloated. “I’m the champ!” I played it for laughs, and the campers all cheered and jumped. No one had expected me to win. Most had probably figured me for a corpse after about ten seconds. Certainly I wasn’t expected to last through the first round. I was doing much better than anyone had thought I would, even if I’d looked like a clown doing it.
Reggie, following the script we’d worked out the previous night, ran over to Luther and asked loudly, “Are you okay? He’s killing you! Want to quit? I can call it. No reason to embarrass yourself. This is just for fun.” Then he lowered his voice, but not enough so the kids couldn’t hear. “You’re doing great, by the way. All the kids see the act you’re putting on, making yourself look like a fool. You’re very good at that! Very convincing. They’re loving it.”
Luther was breathing hard. He was working much harder than I was and in much poorer shape. He just growled at Reggie, pushed to his feet, bumped Reggie aside and walked to his corner. His eyes were focused on me, and hatred reigned.
Reggie blew his whistle to start Round Two. Luther, being Luther and not having learned a thing, charged. He actually ran toward me as I simply waited. When he got to hitting distance, I stepped aside and shoved him. It was mostly his momentum that caused it, but he took four steps outside the chalk lines before he could stop. Reggie blew his whistle furiously in short blasts and raised an arm.
“Foul!” he cried. “Going out of the ring. Loss of five points. Once more and you’re disqualified.”
Luther reentered the ring and stood a moment, seething, chest heaving. Then he advanced on me a bit more cautiously, though his confidence didn’t seem to have been affected. Or maybe he just didn’t know any better. His gloves were held too low to be of much good defensively, and his footwork was shoddy; balance was of no matter to him. I was sure he was thinking one good blow would stagger me, and he could then do what he wanted. Make me suffer. Hurt me.
Time for me to play the silly fool.
I started dancing, my arms flailing all over haplessly, my feet doing exactly what they needed to do without seeming to, keeping my options open to move in any direction at any time. As he’d close on me, I’d suddenly reach out and slap him, again with the palm of my glove. I did this repeatedly; my hands on offense were much quicker than his on defense; the slaps didn’t hurt at all, but he never saw them coming and wasn’t able to stop them, and they made him look foolish, and the campers laughed. We moved around the ring like that, him getting slapped on one cheek, then the other, and me looking like I had no idea what I was doing and was just kind of having fun.
His face became bright red, whether from anger or the slaps, I didn’t know. I decided that was enough of that and suddenly stopped, right in front of him and stuck my chin out, then pointed at it as if to say, ‘Here. Hit this.’
He’d been swinging wildly and hitting air while I’d been slapping him. I figured his arms had to be getting tired by then. But he needed no more encouragement than my undefended chin to try again, and as hard as he could. He hauled off, taking it seemed to me like a full minute to wind up and swing, and aimed a terrific uppercut at my jaw.
I danced away from it at the last second, smiled, and pointed again. He came after me like thunder, and I turned and ran! He was after me immediately, and I ran and dodged and juked and faked and he trailed me all over that patch of grass, never coming close enough to hit me, but now panting like a racehorse. The campers were roaring with laugher.
Reggie blew the whistle. I stopped. Luther came up and started to swing at me. I stepped back, the swing just missed, and I shook my head and him and said, “No, no, no. Whistle blew. Round’s over. None of that now!” like a bossy old woman chiding an ineffectual man. Then I turned my back on him and went back to my corner. He just stood there for a moment before retreating to his.
After waiting a minute, Reggie announced, “Last round, gentlemen. So far David had ten points, Lute has none. I think we need a knockout for you to win, Lute, but to do that, well, here’s the secret: you have to actually hit him.”
The boys all roared again. Luther looked like his head was about to do a Mt. St. Helens right there in the ring.
I’d thought about this. Did I want it to end this way? No, I wanted it to end with him on the ground, thoroughly beaten. I wanted him to know he’d been beaten by someone better than he was, and that all his size and ego and bluster meant nothing. But that was secondary. Mostly, what I wanted was for the boys to see that fighting in order to solve anything was stupid, and even the big guys could look really stupid doing it.
But I needed Luther to end up on the ground, humbled and beaten by his own desire to hurt me. Well, that shouldn’t be all that hard, now should it?
Reggie blew the whistle, and mad as he was, Luther came out more slowly. He moved side to side, coming closer, his eyes murderous, looking like a lion stalking his prey, seeking an opening. A slow, tired lion. I kind of stood there, feckless and unconcerned. “Are you planning on fighting this round?” I called out as he neared. I waved my glove at Luther, beckoning him forward, playing to the adolescent audience. “So far, you’ve done shit!”
The kids were noisy, reacting to it all. Luther didn’t answer me, just kept relentlessly moving in. For the kill, I imagined. “Maybe I should make it even,” I said, “and try it like this.” I put my left hand behind my back. The crowd laughed. Why shouldn’t they? They’d seen nothing vicious yet. No hard hits, no blood, no pain, no suffering. I’d told Reggie I’d try hard to prevent them from witnessing any of that. I hadn’t been sure he’d believed me. So far, so good.
Luther saw his opening when I half turned to the crowd and stood there with my left hand behind my back. He pounced.
He pounced right into my right hand. He came from my left, the open side, as I’d expected he would. His punch was slow, like they’d all been but even slower because he was exhausted, and it was easy for me to get my right to his chin just before his shot would have landed if I hadn’t moved my head in alongside his. His punch just hit air behind my head. Mine connected solidly, even though it probably didn’t look like much if anyone even saw it.
I really had wanted to head butt his nose, but didn’t. In looking like I was avoiding his roundhouse punch, I’d swung around and ended up facing, and my centrifugal force as I’d turned had brought my right hand up to his jaw, hard. I hoped it had been invisible, and tried to make it even more so by drawing into a clench with him after my gloved fist connected.
He’d been breathing so hard through his mouth, winded as he was, that hitting his chin like I did snapped his teeth together, further jarring his brain.
He’d have gone down if I hadn’t held him up, making it look like we’d come together accidentally during the brawl. I didn’t want him going down; I didn’t want the kids to realize I’d hit him. So I held him, arms wrapped around him like boxers often do, apparently clenching with him while actually holding him on his feet. My head was right next to his, so it was easy to breathe into his ear. “You come close to Nick again, I’ll put you in the hospital. You mess with me or mine again, you’ll regret the day you ever met me.” Then, holding him up, still clenched, I did a little impromptu ballroom dance step with him. The kids loved it! Then I pushed him away violently. He wasn’t expecting that and stumbled backward. I moved with him and took a deep breath. I filled my cheeks with air, obvious to all those watching, and, unwrapping my arms from him, suddenly blew hard at his chest. At the same time I gave his chest a slight bump with my left glove.
He stumbled, went down, landed solidly on his back, and the air swooshed from his lungs. He simply lay there, looking dazed.
Reggie blew his whistle for the last time, ran into the ring and raised my hand into the air. “The winner and still champion of all the world, and especially Camp Tonaka,” he called out while all the kids were cheering, “David the Deadly!”
I walked out of the ring and was mobbed by the Foxes. I didn’t bother to look back to see if the Potawatomis were helping their man up.
When we were back at Fox, I turned to see whether Reggie was doing what he’d said he’d do. I saw him with his fingers around Luther’s arm, taking him into his office. I figured that would be the last of the bully. Reggie had told me he’d get rid of him.
Just shows, no one can be right all the time.
§ § § §
We had the rest of the afternoon in front of us, and I didn’t want the boys to waste it clamoring all about how I’d taken down the camp bully. I sent them off to their pursuits.
That left me free. I went to find Evan.
He was in Wyandot listening to his boys debating about something. From the sound of it, it concerned boxing. Imagine that. I grabbed his arm and pulled him outside.
“Wow!” he said. “You were stupendous!”
“Ah, shucks,” I said, then grabbed both arms and held him so we were face to face. “I want you to forget that. That isn’t me. I may tell you sometime why I was able to do that, but it embarrasses me that I could. It happened, you saw it, and that’s that. Please, nothing more about it. You saw someone I don’t want you to equate with who I am. Okay?”
He smiled at me, took a quick peek around, then leaned forward and pecked me on the lips. “I’ve been wanting to do that”, he said. “And more.”
He laughed, a sound I loved. “Of course. I’m a young, healthy, vital male. Of course I want to do more.”
“Oh,” I said, then realized I was parroting Nick’s reaction to what Dillon had said a few days ago.
“You know, camp’s through in a couple of weeks.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’m going to miss it. I never knew I’d be this happy again.”
“Oh, never mind that. I misspoke. Evan, I’m going to miss you, too.”
He grinned. Grinned? I didn’t expect that!
“You’re grinning,” I accused him—gruffly, too.
“Well, yeah. See, you won’t be missing me. I’m transferring from the University of Toledo to U of M. I’ll be there when you are.”
“You’re what? Why? Can a graduate student even do that?”
“Of course I can. The only problem is the money, and my dad’s working on that. He’s happy because a doctorate from the University of Michigan is more prestigious than one from Toledo, even if that is a fine school. As for the why, you know the answer to that.”
“Because of me?” I was shocked.
“You. Yes. Look, I’m 20 and in a doctoral program. You don’t do that without focus and determination. I go after what I want, and I get it. I want you. It’s that simple. You’re not quite there yet, with me. But you’re warming up. I can feel it, see it, sense it. So I’m coming to where you’ll be starting school; I figure I’ve got a good four years to trap you. Bewitch and beguile you. Isn’t that a lyric of some sort? No matter. Your falling for me isn’t something I can force, but it’s something I can encourage. I’ve fallen for you, David. You’re the one I want. I’m hoping propinquity is the answer.”
I burst out laughing, and so he did, too. He loved big words, and I did, too. But to use them as an aid to wooing? Only Evan would do that. He knew my likes and dislikes now as well as I did.
I’d figured I’d probably major in English in college, mostly because I loved the language and didn’t know what else to study. Well, that had been my thought. I wasn’t so sure now. But I did know I liked the idea of being around Evan.
§ § § §
I gathered the troops later that afternoon. “Hey guys, tell me, how many of you have been swimming since we’ve been here?”
I looked around. Not one of them met my eyes. “Just what I thought. So when we go home and your parents ask about all the great things you did, what’ll you tell them? Huh? Huh? Yeah, right!
“Well, we’re going to do something about that. Not because you want to swim but because I want you to be able to tell your parents that you did, and you camped out, and you made s’mores and hiked and did the things you do at camp. I don’t want you to have to lie about it.”
I figured I’d get a response from Nick. He’d been speaking up more now, and I hoped last night hadn’t caused a remission. He was the one, after Colley, who’d been most against doing any ‘normal’ camp activities, and I was now hoping he wasn’t too shy to protest at this proclamation of mine. I wasn’t disappointed.
“What do you mean, camp out?”
Yep, that was what I was expecting. He had great focus and had narrowed in on the one thing he’d be most wary of.
“I mean camp out—and tonight. All of us are going to go on a short hike. Then we’re going to go swimming and then build a fire and talk and maybe sing around it if you want to do that. We’ll cook our own dinner and make s’mores, and then we’ll all get in our sleeping bags and spend the night in the wilds. I, of course, being the only responsible and brave one in the group, will have to stand watch to keep all the bears and lions off you guys, but I’ll give up a night’s sleep and maybe an arm or a leg just so you don’t have to worry and can dream pleasant dreams.”
“There aren’t any bears or lions on the island!” That was Zach. Being the actor he was, he was able to copy my voice and use the same mocking tone I’d used.
“No? Well, maybe I’ll get some sleep then. Okay, what we have to do now is get ready. We have to carry the stuff we’ll need to where we decide to spend the night, and it’s better to do that now when we can see what we’re doing. So, pack up. We don’t need much. A sleeping bag, a towel, a toothbrush, no clothes because you can wear what you’re wearing now again tomorrow . . .” I continued with the list of what we’d need. Some of it I had to get from the kitchen and supply cupboard, but it wouldn’t take long for me to gather that stuff up.
While I was off doing that, here came Nick. I sort of grinned to myself and kept putting bottles of water in my pack. Nick arrived, stood watching me for a moment, then cleared his throat. I turned to look at him, and he looked down like he did but wasn’t doing as much any more, then spoke. “David, I really don’t want him coming along, but we were supposed to be practicing this afternoon, and I’ll have to cancel practice, and Dillon, well, you know how argumentative and bossy and annoying he is, he’ll demand to know why, and then he’ll be hurt if he isn’t asked to join the campout, I know he will, and even though none of us Foxes really want him there, we probably should invite him because it would be the polite thing to do, and, well, do you think I should do that, just to be polite, I mean?”
I laughed and told him he could have broken that into two or three sentences, or even better, just asked me if Dillon could come, too; he really hadn’t needed to beat around the bush like that and get all embarrassed, especially not with me. He blushed. I loved his blush and the fact he did it every time I teased him.
Then I looked at him hard and said, “Nick, this is me you’re talking to. If you can’t be honest with me, who can you be with? You like him. I know that. You know that. It might be embarrassing to say that, but it’s totally liberating, too. Try it. Say, ‘David, I like him.’ Go ahead and say it.”
I’ve never seen a boy get as red as he did. I didn’t insist. What I did instead was to pull him to me and hug him, then tell him if Evan said he could come, having Dillon along was fine with me. So each boy now would have a partner. I was to be the odd man out. Maybe I actually would spend the night hunting those elusive bears and letting the boys have alone time together.
Evan, however, had a different idea. “No,” he’d said, after some thought, “I can’t let Dillon go. I’m in charge of him. Absolutely can’t let him go off camping like that.” He’d paused, looked knowingly at me, and finished with, “Without me.”
So we were eight. I got everything divided into the backpacks we all had, and we carried everything down to the lake. We walked along the shore, getting farther and farther away from camp. Evan had arranged for another counselor to stick his head into Wayandot now and then, but his boys were pretty mature and would be fine for the night—probably wouldn’t even miss him.
We got to the campsite and some of us dug a fire pit while others were collecting kindling and bigger sticks for the fire. I was glad Evan was there because we’d had two tents to carry, and I hadn’t wanted to overburden the boys. I’d carried the six-man—or in this case, six-boy—tent and Evan had managed the smaller one.
While the boys were collecting firewood, we set up the tents, spacing them a decent distance apart from each other. I didn’t want to be kept awake with all the noises that might be coming from a tent that had three, almost-teen couples in it who’d be alone together with no adults present for the first time. Who knew what a ruckus there might be? Wouldn’t it be better if we couldn’t hear them? It would certainly be better if no sounds carried between the tents, sounds carrying in all directions like they do.
Evan just looked at me when I explained all this to him, then smiled and nodded and said something under his breath that I couldn’t quite catch but sounded a bit like, “Just who’s he trying to convince?”
When the tents were set up, the fire laid, and the boys all looking at me, I yelled, “Swimming time! Let’s all get wet.”
The boys went into their tent and pulled bathing suits out of their backpacks, then brought them outside to put them on as it was too cramped to do that inside. They’d all seen each other naked every day this summer showering and getting dressed and undressed so there was no shyness, other than Dillon. He hadn’t seen anyone of my group naked, nor had they seen him. He looked somewhat embarrassed, but I could see the wheels turning in his head. If Nick could get naked in front of everyone else, so could he! So he stripped down as well.
At that point I was naked and standing there going through my backpack. I finally looked up and declared, “Well, looks like I forgot my swimsuit. But, who needs one?” And with that, bare as a jaybird, I ran and jumped into the lake. I splashed, whooped and said, “Come on in, boys. The water’s, uh, well, not exactly warm, but it’s certainly wet enough!”
They’d all seen me run and jump in naked. They looked at each other. Then Sam yelled, “Skinny dipping!” shrugged out of his suit and tossed it up in the air and was in the water before it came down.
I watched as Evan was observing all this. I saw he was more modest than I was. I assumed he’d never been in the Army, where getting naked with a bunch of other men was of no great account. You simply did it. Of course, here we were with a bunch of pre-teen boys. Still, all we were doing was swimming. He had to make up his mind; he’d put his suit on in our tent. Now he was outside with the rest of us, still in his suit, and we were all in the water. Every one of us had shucked his suit.
I think it was Rad who finally was the one who made Evan’s decision easy. “Chicken!” he shouted, seeing Evan dithering. That was all it took. Suddenly six boys were making clucking noises and flapping their arms like chicken wings. I’d swear Evan blushed, then turned his back to us, jettisoned his swim suit, to our surprise mooned us, causing the boys to shriek with delight, then ran the few steps to the lake looking a lot like a disjointed scarecrow and joined us in the water with a huge splash.
The eight of us were soon splashing each other, seeing who could hold his breath under water the longest, who could do a decent backstroke, who could do the straightest handstand partly underwater, and no one seemed to be noticing how icy that water felt.