I stood on the shore looking out over the lake to the hills in the distance. The lake water was clean, and the shore sloped gradually into it so that young boys could stand in the water and not be in over their heads. Farther out, the water became deep enough for diving. The main dock, which formed a T, and the diving float were already in the water. The sailboats were moored in our little harbor. Canoes, rowboats, and two large war canoes lay on shore waiting for the boys.
The campers would be arriving the next day. They would travel by car, bus, or plane. That evening there would be an opening-of-the-camp ceremony which would welcome all the boys and start the process of telling the new ones about the activities available and the schedule the camp followed.
This was my ninth summer at the camp. I had begun as one of the youngest campers when I was eight. My parents had shipped me off to camp while they went through a messy divorce. Fortunately for me, they chose an outstanding camp. I had a wonderful time making and playing with friends of all ages, learning to swim, and getting involved in all sorts of activities, but when I returned home at the end of the eight weeks, only my mother was there to greet me.
Looking around, I asked, “Where’s Daddy?”
“Your father’s moved out,” she said.
“We weren’t getting along and decided to separate.”
Tearfully, I asked, “Where is he?”
“He has his own apartment now.”
“Will I ever see him?”
“Once in a while.”
That was no comfort. I went upstairs and cried for a long time. In fact, from then on I only saw him one weekend a month, and I always had the feeling when I was with him that he’d rather have been doing something else.
School and camp became my refuges. I got along pretty well with my mother, but she was often too busy to give me much attention. Teachers and counselors were the ones who took me under their wings until I was old enough to fly on my own.
I was now 17 and on the staff at the camp. It was my second year as a junior counselor. The following year when I returned, as I fully expected to, I would at last be on the senior staff. In the summers I felt very much at home at the camp, and at the ends of the summers I rather dreaded returning home. But that’s what I did.
The camp was once owned by a military man, and some of its customs must have come from that time. I suppose for some boys it could be too structured, but others, like me, thrived on the order and stability and security of knowing what was expected of us. I found that, within the structure, I was perhaps in some ways freer to think and behave as I liked.
“Wayne,” a voice called to me. I turned to see Bob Perkins, the riflery counselor. “We’re waiting for you,” he said, so I turned and walked back up the hill with him. As we walked, I asked, “Bob, you’re a teacher aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and I find that, since my summers are open, it’s great to be working here.”
“What do you teach?”
“Middle school math,” he answered.
Remembering my years in middle school, I said, “That must take some courage.”
He laughed. “Well, not so much courage as patience and understanding. You really have to love kids of that age in order to do it.”
“I guess. I think if I taught it would be upper elementary grades.”
“Each to his own,” he replied. “I like how middle schoolers think.”
At that point, we arrived at the assembly hall, where we had a week of staff meetings before camp began.
That week was a time to get to know the new staff, to review first aid procedures, and to talk about the camp’s ways of dealing with boys and their issues. As a camper, I hadn’t realized that the staff discussed how to help boys with various problems, but I knew now that my parents’ divorce and how it might affect me had probably been discussed before I arrived that first summer.
We talked about how to treat kids kindly, how to deal with put-downs we heard from campers, and even how to help bedwetters. Yes, we got a few of those every year. Usually, they were younger boys, but occasionally we had an older one who was terribly embarrassed and tried to hide what had happened. However, very soon a distinctive odor went through the dormitory and it wasn’t long until the counselors figured it out and took the necessary steps. I had never been a bedwetter, but I certainly sympathized with those who had the problem as I watched them trudge up the hill in the morning, taking their wet sheets to the laundry.
Of course, when you had nearly a hundred boys together for eight weeks there were bound to be issues. The staff knew that any big problems we encountered could and should be discussed with the director, Mr. Presley.
Last year, I’d sometimes found it difficult to know which issues rose to the level of needing to involve the camp director and which I should handle on my own. I’d usually used my judgment, although I did once ask a senior counselor about an issue a boy of mine was having.
“How do you help a kid who just doesn’t seem to want to try anything? I think he doesn’t have any confidence in himself.”
“Well, if it’s an ongoing problem, I think you should talk with Mr. Presley. He may have some information about the boy that he hasn’t shared with all of us.”
From my years at the camp I knew Mr. Presley was a kind and wise man. I’d learned that he also listened very well and most often supported my judgment.
When I asked him about the boy, Bobby, Mr. Presley thought for a minute before saying, “Bobby’s parents have expressed some concern about that very problem. They’ve suggested that, if you just keep prodding him and assuring him that he can do something, he’ll eventually give it a try. It may be a half-hearted attempt at first, but, when he realizes he really can succeed, he’ll find he’s enjoying himself. So keep prodding him gently and get back to me if that doesn’t seem to work.”
I thanked him and, over the next week, I did as he’d suggested. Sure enough, eventually my gentle persuasion succeeded, and Bobby not only had enjoyed what he was doing, but he’d learned to trust me and was willing to try other things I’d suggested.
All the staff members were called ‘mister’ by the campers. I was Mr. Wilson. My first year on the junior staff, it had taken me some time to adjust to the name. I was called that even by the boys who had known me as a camper. It felt odd that campers who were only a year younger than me were calling me Mr. Wilson. Among the staff, when there were no campers around, we generally referred to each other by our first names. Camps seem to thrive on tradition; for us the name business was the custom, and we all quickly adjusted to it
In addition to other training, since I would be helping at the waterfront, I had to take junior lifesaving, but I had no problem with that. The camp had taught me how to swim and swim well. Because of that start, in school I was on the swimming team, which gave me an outlet, friends, and a way to avoid going home right after classes ended.
During the meeting that afternoon there was a discussion of hiking and camping procedures. We did both day hiking and overnight camping, and it was important to do both in a way that was fun but safe for the campers.
The camp was advertised as “unplugged,” meaning that no camper could have any electronic device. iPads, laptops, phones, and all other such devices were banned. Some boys, usually those who spent a lot of screen time at home, had some difficulties withdrawing, but they all soon got involved with the activities and never looked back.
Many, perhaps most, such camps have small cabins holding five or six campers and one or two counselors. Our camp, which was founded way back in the early 1900s, part of the beginnings of camping in the U.S., used wooden dormitories which housed upwards of twenty boys and a few staff members. The sides of the dorms were open from halfway up to the roofs, so there was plenty of fresh air. There were wooden shutters which could be lowered when the rains came and the winds blew.
The boys were distributed among the dorms by age. The dorm in which I would be a staff member that year was for eleven-year-olds. One or two would turn eleven during the summer, and a few would turn twelve. I had worked with a few of these boys last year, including Bobby, who would move up to my dorm. This was my favorite age to work with. Little ones, like the ones I had worked with the previous year, needed too much help. Older ones could sometimes be smart alecks. Of course, that wasn’t always the case, and there would be boys in any dorm who would test counselors, but most everyone quickly learned what was and was not okay.
Over supper that evening, the staff chatted together, getting to know each other better. We had counselors from colleges and universities all over the country in addition to one from India and one from Japan. Of course, the junior staff knew each other because we had all worked our way up through the camp and then been invited to return as staff members.
As we ate, I spoke with Aseem, who was from northwest India. “This is your second year here,” I said. “How are boys treated differently here than in India?”
He smiled and said, “Well, where I’m from, religion seems to be a lot more central to the way we live. And even if, like me, you’re not really religious, you still observe all the customs and traditions, which are quite different from here. You never reprimand boys here in religious terms, you just use a secular morality.”
When supper ended, we returned to a final meeting in the assembly hall, where we talked about who would do what to help the boys when they arrived.
Even though I had been at the camp for nine years, I always found the first day exciting as kids moved in and got to know the boys they would be living with for the next eight weeks. It was difficult for me to go to sleep that night, and it seemed like the bugle blew reveille just after I’d dozed off.
The morning was clear and warm, unlike opening day the previous year when it poured rain. Was that ever a mess! Boys began to arrive about 9 o’clock. The staff was busy directing them where to go and helping them with their luggage. I was assigned to stay in the dorm and welcome the boys as they were ushered in.
As each boy entered, I greeted him.
“Hi,” I said to the first boy, holding out my hand. “I’m Mr. Wilson. What’s your name?”
“Jimmy,” he replied.
I showed him where his bunk was and told him how his belongings should be placed in his bureau, telling him the shelves would be checked at inspections so he needed to keep his neat.
Soon, the dorm was full of boys chattering away. Of course, many of them knew each other from previous years. When Bobby entered, he saw me, smiled, and said, “Hi,” with a warm handshake.
“How was your year?” I asked him.
“Great,” he said, “and a lot of that was because of how you helped me last summer.”
I nodded and said, “Once you get settled, why don’t you help the new boys with their stuff and show them how to put it neatly in their bureaus. Then you can show them where to put their luggage under the dorm.”
By supper time, all the boys had arrived. They sat at tables according to their dorm assignments, with a staff member in charge of each table. As they chattered away, I watched and listened. Which boys at my table seemed comfortable? Which were new and not quite sure of themselves?
One of the new boys asked, “Were you ever a camper here?”
“Sure,” I said, “All of the junior staff were campers here. I was a camper from when I was eight until I graduated.”
“Wow,” he said, “why did you keep coming back?”
“Because I love it here. I love the things we get to do and the friends we make. I can’t imagine what it would be like to stay home all summer.”
As the boys listened, I noticed that there was one boy, Kyle Maxwell, who was silent. He didn’t look at the other boys and he didn’t eat, although I encouraged him to. He just sat staring at his plate. He was slender, dark-haired, and almost beautiful, and his mannerisms were a bit effeminate. Bobby and some others tried to talk with him, but he didn’t respond. I vowed to myself to keep an eye on him.
After we ate, we all assembled for colors. The boys of each dorm stood on the field in front of the assembly hall in rows, with the youngest boys in the front. As the flag was lowered, the bugle blew retreat. At the end of the bugle call, a small cannon, which fired blank shotgun shells, boomed loudly. I was standing with my dorm and was, as usual, amused when the new boys jumped at the sound of the cannon. From there we filed by dorm into the assembly building.
The assembly was fairly short as we knew the boys would be tired and would need extra sleep. Mr. Presley introduced the counselors, and each said a sentence or two about the activity he taught.
The watermaster, Aaron Foster, announced that the next morning the first order of business after breakfast and duties would be swim tests for all campers. Some of the older boys who had been through the swim test every year groaned.
Aaron laughed and said, “Don’t groan, boys. This is for the safety of every boy here. I know some of you have had the test before, but it’s just a precaution. If a boy who hadn’t been tested got into trouble in the water that would be very serious. So just go with the flow.” Aaron smiled as he returned the meeting to Mr. Presley.
At the end of the meeting we sang the camp goodnight song and were dismissed to our dorms. As we exited, Mr. Presley shook hands with each boy and staff member, calling them each by name and saying goodnight. The boys were expected to reply with a “Goodnight, sir.”
While the boys were getting ready for bed that night, I walked around chatting with them. Some of the new ones appeared uncomfortable undressing in front of the others. Kyle was one of them. I sat on the end of his bed and told him it was okay, that all the boys at the camp would grow comfortable undressing or dressing in front of each other because they would be doing it all the time, in the dorm, at the waterfront, and in the showers.
As I talked, I looked at his dresser, where he’d neatly stored his T-shirts. The camp had a rule that there could be no writing or pictures on the shirts, so most boys had plain colored ones, usually dark blue, dark green, or dark brown, with a smattering of bright red ones. Kyle’s shirts, from what I could see, were bright and multi-colored. They appeared to be tie-dyed. Interesting, I thought. I wonder what the other boys will say.
When the boys were all in bed, and taps had blown, one of the counselors began to read a story. The boys listened quietly and soon most were asleep. When the story ended for the night, the staff moved to the dorm porch where they sat talking quietly.
A little later, as I sat on the porch, I heard a little whimpering coming from the dorm. This was not unusual. New boys, no matter what their ages, could be homesick if they had never been away from home before. I let it go on for a few minutes, but when it continued, I went into the dorm to investigate.
Walking quietly through the dark dorm, I listened for the sound. It stopped for a few moments and I began to think that maybe all was well. Then, as I walked back towards the porch, it began again. Each time I walked near the far end of the dorm, the sound stopped. When I walked back towards the end with the porch, the sound started again. Hmmm, I thought to myself. I went outside and walked around the dorm to the other end as quietly as I could. When I heard the sound, I knew it was coming from a bed near the door and on the back side of the building.
I entered the dorm again and the sound stopped, but I walked slowly forward, covering my flashlight with one hand so that it provided a little light but wasn’t bright. There was enough light that I could make out the faces of the boys. The first two were old campers and clearly asleep, but I could see tears in Kyle’s eyes for an instant before he turned his face away.
I moved to the side of his bed and perched on the edge of it near his head. He was looking away from me. “Feeling sad?” I asked quietly.
There was no response for a minute, but then he gave a little nod.
“Missing your parents?”
“Have you ever been away from home before?”
He shook his head.
“Kyle,” I murmured, “a lot of boys who are away from home for the first time feel a little sad. It’s okay to cry. I did when I was first here. I found that when I got involved in all the activities here and made some friends, that feeling went away.”
He didn’t respond. I pulled his covers up to his neck and just held his hand for a minute. He didn’t pull it away.
Finally, I asked, “Do you know where my bed is?”
“Okay,” I said, “if you get feeling sad in the night, come to my bed and we’ll talk.”
He nodded and snuggled down in his bed.
“Goodnight,” I said quietly, patting his shoulder gently. Then I went to my bed, which was nearby, and got ready to sleep. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep. I hadn’t gotten a lot of rest the night before and the first day or two was always intense.
I slept soundly, but in the night, I was suddenly awakened. I felt a boy sitting on the side of my bed with his hand on my shoulder. I covered my light and turned it on. There was Kyle.
“Can I sleep with you?” he asked. I think those were the first words I’d heard him speak.
“No,” I replied gently. “That’s really not done here, and besides, these beds are too narrow for two of us.”
In the dim light, I could see his face. He looked sad and discouraged. I climbed out of my bed and took him back to his. When he had crawled back in bed, I said, “I’ll just sit here with you until you go to sleep. Okay?”
He nodded and turned on his side facing me. I switched off the light and just sat with a hand on his shoulder. Once, I reached over and rubbed his back for a few moments. I heard him sigh, and soon I could tell by his breathing that he was asleep.
Again, reveille came all too soon. This would be the morning when we learned which campers jumped out of bed ready for the day and which ones tried to linger in their beds as long as they could. As a camper, I had always been one of the latter, but I was supposed to set an example, so I crawled out of bed, got dressed, and then walked around the dorm, urging the sleepyheads to get moving. The boys were supposed to get dressed and strip their beds in the morning, folding their sheets and blankets and placing them neatly at the ends of their beds.
After the morning colors, when the flag was raised (with no cannon blast), we trooped up to the dining hall for breakfast. A couple of my boys who had not participated in the chatter at supper seemed to warm up that morning. Of course, all the fresh air and activity made them hungry, so they ate everything in sight. Kyle was the only one who still stared at his plate silently and without eating.
When the boys had cleared the table, I dismissed them, but I asked Kyle to remain. He sat, shoulders slumped, looking disconsolate.
“Kyle, you really need to eat something, even if you don’t feel hungry. It’s a long time until lunch and you’ll be active all morning. You can’t do that on an empty stomach. You haven’t eaten since you arrived here, have you?”
He shook his head but didn’t look at me.
“So eat,” I said, “even if it’s just a bowl of cereal.”
He sighed, picked up a spoon and began to eat. By then his cereal, which had been sitting in milk since the beginning of breakfast, was a soggy mess.
“Wait here,” I said. I took his bowl to the dishwashing room and poured the old cereal into the garbage. Then I went to the kitchen and filled his bowl with cornflakes. Back at the table, I put the bowl in front of him and handed him the milk pitcher. He looked at the bowl, then at me, then back to the bowl before sighing and putting milk on his cereal.
When he finished eating, I asked him if he wanted anything else. He shook his head, so I dismissed him. He hadn’t said a word the entire time.
As I left the dining room, Mr. Presley, who always sat at a table right by the door, said, “Mr. Wilson, could you please stay for a minute.” I sat, wondering if I had done something wrong. Instead he said, “Thank you for getting Kyle to eat something. That was a good job well done. I’m concerned about Kyle. His parents told me that at his school he’s always teased and occasionally beaten. Oh, the school tries to discourage it, but the teachers can’t be everywhere. Nor can we, but I’m asking you to keep a special eye on him. Can you do that?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve already begun to do that. He was homesick last night and came to me in the middle of the night. I took him back to his bed and just stayed with him until he fell asleep. I think I know why he’s teased. Some of his gestures and the way he dresses can make him a target. I’ll keep an eye on him as much as I can.”
“Okay. For the next few days, I want you to always be where you can see him. If he gets into trouble, you’ll be there. But try to hang back so he doesn’t realize that you’re following him.”
“What about my boating activity?”
“I’ll get someone to cover that for now. I hope this won’t be too long.”
I agreed and left the dining hall.
The next thing on the schedule was duties. There was a board on the front of the assembly hall which listed all the duties: so many boys, listed by name, sweeping the assembly hall, so many boys cleaning the changing houses at the waterfront, two boys sweeping the rifle range building, and so on. Every boy was assigned a duty. The duties changed each week.
I was supposed to be at the waterfront, but I checked the board to see where Kyle would be. For the first week, he was in the assembly hall, so I looked in. Mark Bradley, the drama and music counselor, was supervising the boys. Kyle was working dutifully but certainly not enthusiastically. I knew he would be in good hands with Mark, so I just waited outside, peering in every five minutes or so to be sure everything was okay.
As the boys finished their duties, they had a few minutes before the swim call was blown. When it sounded, they grabbed their bathing suits and towels from their dorms and trooped down to the waterfront. The boys who had been at the camp before raced down so they could be among the first in line for their tests. That way, they would have more free time when they finished.
Aaron and his staff directed boys to the three changing buildings and told them to bring their towels with them for the test because the water was still cold. I went into the building where Kyle was with many of the younger, new boys. We all changed into our bathing suits, although a few of the boys, including Kyle, were shy about that. Kyle was the last boy out the door.
All the boys were lined up to take their test, which was a fairly simple one. They were supposed to walk out on the dock, jump in, and swim the short distance to the boating dock and back. If they did that without effort, they were automatically assigned to the intermediate part of the swimming area. Another test in the afternoon would separate the intermediates from the fully qualified swimmers, those who could swim off the end of the dock and out to the diving float.
One by one, the boys took their tests. A few told Aaron that they couldn’t swim. He said that was fine, that they’d be assigned to the beginners’ area and taught how to swim. Then he sent them to some counselors who began to work with them.
After a long wait, Kyle walked out on the dock. I had no idea what would happen. When Aaron told him to, he jumped in and swam quickly over to the boating dock and back. I breathed a sigh of relief. I really didn’t want him to be a beginner.
After the tests were done, there was a free buddy swim for those who wanted it. The others got dressed again and made their way up towards the field in front of the assembly hall, where they could be sure to find some sort of game in progress.
Following lunch there was a rest period in the dorms. Boys could read or write or nap, but they weren’t supposed to talk.
As the rest period ended, the boys joined in cleaning their dorm, preparing it for inspection. They made their beds and swept under them. They swept the aisle down the middle of the dorm, as well as the porch and the steps leading to the ground. Finally, they made certain that everything in their bureaus was neat and in the proper place. When all was prepared, they sat at the ends of their beds and awaited the inspectors, who came through with flashlights to check the floors. They stopped at each boy’s bed, looking to see if it had been made correctly. They also checked each bureau. Sometimes they didn’t say anything, but occasionally they spoke to a boy, either praising him or offering a gentle suggestion of how to do better. Dorms which passed inspection received points which were announced at dinner time. When a dorm accumulated ten points the boys were given an ice cream treat.
In the afternoon, during what was usually an activities period, the boys who had been classed as intermediates and wanted to be changed to swimmers went back to the waterfront. As Kyle and I walked there, I tried to engage him in conversation, but he continued to be silent. When It was his turn for the test, he swam from the dock to the diving float and back several times, using a different stroke each time. I was sure he’d be classed as a swimmer.
Walking back up the hill following the later, mandatory swim, I asked Kyle how he learned to be such a good swimmer.
Reluctantly he said, “My dad’s the swimming coach for our high school team.”
“So he taught you?”
“Yeah. He took me to the pool every weekend and, after the team finished their swim, he gave me lessons. That began when I was four.”
That was the longest speech I had heard from him. The only other time I’d heard him speak was when he’d asked to sleep with me.
“Well, he certainly did a good job. You really can swim,” I said. Kyle smiled a little at me, and it was the first time I had seen his cute smile. Oh my, I thought, he’s gonna break a few hearts.
The next morning at breakfast, Kyle was, as usual, wearing one of his tie-dyed shirts. This one was a mixture of yellows and oranges. Jamie, who seemed to have appointed himself our dorm lawyer and rule enforcer, asked Kyle, “Why do you wear those shirts? I thought all our shirts had to be plain colors.”
I looked at Kyle as he lowered his head and stared at his plate. “Jamie,” I said, “I think you have the rule wrong. The rule says that there can be no words or pictures on the shirts. It doesn’t say anything about tie-dyed shirts or shirts having to be solid colors.”
“Oh,” he said. “Sorry, Kyle.”
“Kyle,” I asked, “did you tie-dye your shirts yourself?” He just nodded.
After breakfast and duties, the schedule called for the first activities period. There were two such periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. These were instructional periods with a counselor or counselors assigned to supervise each one.
Each boy had signed up for three activities, of which, if possible, he received two. I was very grateful that I didn’t have to assign the boys to their activities. Working it all out must have been difficult. There was a great variety of offerings: everything from riflery and archery to nature, theater, campcraft, tennis, weather, photography, woodworking, crafts, and the waterfront offerings of canoeing, boating, sailing, and, of course, swimming. The full list was posted outside the assembly hall.
There were always a few boys who only got one of their choices because most activities had a finite number of places. Those boys met with Paul Jackson, the program director, who helped them decide what they would do. In addition to sorting out which activities each boy received, Paul was in charge of deciding every day what games would be played in the afternoon period and what the campfire program would be. He also had to plan for rainy days, when most of the activities couldn’t take place.
Checking the list, I saw that Kyle would be in archery in the morning and nature in the afternoon. It would be easy to keep track of him in archery because he’d be in one place. Nature might be more of a challenge as the boys often went on walks when they searched for specimens. I couldn’t tag along on the walks as I was supposed to be watching inconspicuously. Each morning I checked with the nature counselor to find out what the boys would be doing and where they would be going. Then I planned my observations so that I occasionally ‘happened’ to come across the group at a couple of points on their walks.
Kyle seemed to enjoy archery, although he never said anything to the other boys and said very little to the counselor. He followed directions and then worked on his own. Some boys seemed to aim at random, pointing the arrows in the general direction of the target. Kyle aimed his first shot and then studied it to see how he should aim next. The counselor gave him a couple of tips on how to hold the bow and draw back the arrow. As he went through his arrows, he came closer and closer to the bullseye. I know I was only planning to drop by the archery range from time to time, but I became fascinated with his progress, so I stayed to watch. Every arrow went into the target, and about half of them were in or near the gold.
During the afternoon activities period, I strolled around, occasionally coming across the nature walk. Again, Kyle said nothing, but he was clearly interested and attentive.
In the dining room that night, Mark Bradley announced that he wanted to perform his own version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. The popularity of the Gilbert and Sullivan shows had waned over the years but, with their broad humor and complicated plots as well as their very singable songs, they were perfect for the boys. He said there were parts for leads as well as openings for the chorus. He promised that the boys would have fun. Finally, he said he would meet anyone interested in the assembly hall during the next day’s rest period.
As the boys were getting ready for bed that night, I asked a few of them if they were interested in being in the show. A few said they wanted to at least find out more about it, so they planned to go to the meeting the next day. Kyle said that while he was sweeping the hall that morning, Mr. Bradley had asked him to try out, so even though he wasn’t really interested, he would go to the meeting. He said, “I couldn’t ever be on stage and I’ve no idea why Mr. Bradley asked me to come, but I couldn’t say no to a counselor so I told him I’d be there.”
Hmmm, I thought, good for Mark. As a camper I had been in some of Mark’s shows and now he had recruited me to assist him with the boys in the cast. He said he needed help with everything from practicing lines and songs to ultimately applying makeup. I had agreed to help.
After lunch the next day, as Mark and I walked to the assembly hall, I asked him about Kyle. “I’ve no idea what Kyle can or will do,” he said, “but sometimes boys who are very shy change completely when they are pretending to be someone else. Youth and high school drama clubs seem to attract two kinds of people, the shy and the very outgoing.”
At the meeting, Mark handed scripts to all the boys. I was surprised that there were sixteen of them, a very good turnout. He told the boys to read over a scene he had selected so that they were familiar with the lines. The scene was between Ko-Ko, the comic lead, and Nanki-Poo, the romantic lead. Then he had different boys read the lines. He encouraged them to be expressive and to speak up so that they could be heard in the hall.
Mark had Kyle read Ko-Ko’s part with another boy reading Nanki-Poo. Kyle was quiet and unexpressive at first, but Mark encouraged him to try again. Halfway through the second reading, a real Ko-Ko seemed to emerge. He was expressive and naturally funny. And he was giggling. I was amazed and I think Mark was too.
When the boys were dismissed, Mark and I talked about casting. When he spoke about Kyle, he said, “It would be risky casting him, but he read so well the second time I don’t see any other option. I had originally thought of him as Yum-Yum, the female lead, but I realized after I’d asked him to come to the meeting, that might be a bad move. In fact, it might be cruel, even if he would do it. So I decided to try the opposite of typecasting, and it seems to have worked out so far. Tomorrow I’ll call the boys back and have them sing.
That night, I deliberately didn’t stop by Kyle’s bed as he was getting ready for sleep. I thought I needed to give him some space and not hover so much. But while they boys were putting on their pajamas and brushing their teeth, Kyle found me. He wanted to talk about the tryouts. I turned his questions around and asked him what he thought.
“I was dead set against doing it,” he said, “but when I was reading the part the second time, I really got into it and I had fun. So I hope I get a part, anything but Yum-Yum.”
I smiled inwardly and then asked, “Can you sing?”
“Yeah. I only do it at home by myself, but Mom says I have a good voice and a good sense of pitch. I really think I can do this, even though I’ll probably be scared to death.”
Except when he was swimming, that was the first time I had seen any enthusiasm for anything coming from shy, silent Kyle. I put a hand on his shoulder briefly and told him, “Kyle, doing things you’re reluctant or scared to do makes you feel really good about yourself. They help you mature.”
The next afternoon, Mark taught all of the boys one song from the show but told them that while they would each sing the song in the tryout it was actually a chorus number and not one of the solos. He said he simply wanted to hear how each of them sang.
Kyle was the fourth or fifth boy to sing, and again I was amazed. He was right. He had a good, accurate soprano voice and a big range.
When Mark had dismissed the boys, he and I settled down to select a cast. “Well,” he said, “I guess Kyle’s a shoo-in for Ko-Ko. If he pulls this off, he’ll be the star of the show.”
By supper time, Mark had his cast set, including the chorus, and he shared it with me. He had a little doubt about a couple of the chorus boys who had difficulty carrying a tune, but he said that it was more important to include anyone who wanted to be a part of the show than it was to have a polished performance.
At supper that night, Mark announced the cast and asked three of the boys to meet him in the assembly hall the next morning. He said he didn’t intend to keep using the boys’ rest time, so he wanted to try using the morning optional swim time. All the boys seemed happy they had been chosen, perhaps not realizing that Mark had chosen everyone who tried out.
As we walked down towards the field after supper, Kyle again sought me out.
“Mr. Wilson,” he asked, “do you really think I can do this? I’ve never been on a stage before and I’m already scared. What if I get up there in front of an audience and I can’t do it?”
“Well, first of all, I’m sure you can do it. If you could read your lines well and sing in front of the other boys trying out, then you’ll be able to perform for the entire camp when the time comes.”
“But what if I’m on the stage and I can’t?”
“You’ve gotta stop worrying. If you keep this up, you’ll talk yourself out of even trying. Besides, if you get up on that stage and clam up, I’ll come out and kick your butt.”
He giggled a little before he said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been chosen for anything in my life. I’m really gonna try hard at this.”
Over the next few days, I observed the rehearsals and sometimes took a couple of boys aside to work on lines while Mark worked on the songs. I didn’t understand it, but the Kyle we saw in rehearsals was different from the Kyle we saw anywhere else. He was animated and joking and clearly enjoying himself. Why wasn’t he that way at other times?
One evening I asked him about that. He thought for a bit and then said, “In the rehearsals I’m not me, I’m Ko-Ko, and I think I’m behaving the way I feel he would. Other times, I just don’t seem to be able to talk with other boys, or joke, or simply have fun. I guess that’s just me being me.”
Wednesdays were trip days for the entire camp. Except the boys who were on an overnight campout, all the others hiked for the day by dorms, ascending and descending mountains. At the end of breakfast that morning, we all packed lunches, putting our names on them and giving them to a counselor to carry.
On the first trip day, my dorm climbed Mt. Chocorua. It was actually quite a challenging climb, especially for boys that age. We were all supposed to stay together, so I brought up the rear of the line to be sure nobody dropped out.
Fortunately, it was a good day for a climb ̶ clear and sunny but not too hot, and there was a nice breeze blowing. As we neared the summit, the trees began to give way to smaller growth and finally to bare granite. Scrambling up the rock, the boys cheered as they arrived and then looked about at the view.
Most of the new campers had never climbed a mountain before, so had no idea of the view that awaited them at the summit. They looked about them in awe. Kyle, when he had taken in the scenery, looked down to where we had begun the climb. While the exact point wasn’t in view, the more level land at the bottom was. He turned to me and said, “I had no idea what this would be like. As we climbed, I knew we were getting higher, but I didn’t know how high until now. This is terrific,” he said adding, “I guess I groaned a little on the way up, but never again.”
I nodded. “Yes, I heard you moaning and groaning, along with some of the others, but I just ignored it. I knew what would probably happen at the top.”
We spread out on the rocks and ate the lunches we had packed ̶ sandwiches, Hershey bars, and oranges ̶ and drinking from the canteens we had all carried. The boys chattered about the climb and other things that boys talk about. Kyle sat next to me. I tried to encourage him to sit with other boys, but he just shrugged and stayed where he was.
The descent introduced the new boys to another feeling, because different leg muscles are used going down. By the time we arrived at the bottom and climbed into the waiting bus, the boys were exhausted. They all fell asleep on the way back to camp.
The following week our dorm went on an overnight trip. Typically, those trips were three days. On the first day we rode to the campsite and set up our tents. We had plenty of time, so after the tents were pitched, we ate lunch and the boys played in a nearby stream, another experience for the new boys who, having never been in a spring-fed stream, had thought the water in our lake was cold.
At supper, some of the boys built the fire and helped with the cooking. After we ate and it began to grow dark, we went into the woods to pee and brush our teeth before climbing into our sleeping bags. It took a while for the boys to settle down. There were jokes and giggles while the counselors asked the boys to be quiet. Eventually, the noise diminished as boys dropped off to sleep.
In the morning, it was difficult to rouse some of them, especially as there was a light rain falling. We all put on our ponchos and tried to find dry places to sit while two counselors prepared breakfast. We were supposed to climb Mt. Whiteface, in Waterville Valley. After breakfast we walked to the trail head and began the climb. As we walked, the rain fell harder. Of course, hiking in the rain is not nearly as much fun as hiking on a clear day, but our campers generally hiked in all kinds of weather unless the counselors determined that it would be dangerous. While there was a bit of slipping and sliding at first, the boys soon mastered the art of hiking and climbing in the rain.
Unfortunately, when we reached the top, we were in a cloud. Most of the boys were disappointed that there wasn’t a view, but I heard Kyle say to nobody in particular, “This is so cool!”
Rather than eat on the summit, we walked down a little until the trees provided some protection from the rain. Again, we all looked for dry spots to sit, but there really weren’t any, so as much as we could we sat on our ponchos.
Back at the base camp, the boys changed into dry clothes and waited in their tents for supper. It was my turn to help cook. Usually, a few boys helped, but because of the rain, the staff did the cooking that night. It wasn’t complicated. The menu called for hamburgers, raw carrots, potato chips, and s’mores. Getting a fire going with wet wood was the hardest part, but we eventually succeeded and soon the aroma of cooking hamburgers drew the boys from their tents. They ate everything in sight, including the rather soggy potato chips. Instead of making s’mores, they just ate the ingredients ̶ graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows. Some of the boys tried to toast the marshmallows but their success was limited. We soon climbed into our tents and listened to the rain as we went to sleep. Rain on a tent is a strange sound because the roof of the tent is so close to the sleepers’ heads. It kept some of the boys awake for a while but eventually they all dropped off to sleep.
The next morning dawned clear and dry. Some boys wanted to climb the mountain again to see the view, but there really wasn’t time before the bus arrived to return us to camp.
Back in the dorm, the boys hung their wet clothes, donned bathrobes, and took their soap and towels to the showers, where they let the warm water play over their bodies until they were warm and clean.
Rehearsals continued each day. As Kyle learned his song, “I’ve got a little list”, he began to introduce other words into the list, including the president at the time, Donald Trump, who was in the second year of his term. Changing topical words to current times was very much in the tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan. The song begins,
And who never would be missed who never would be missed.
Kyle added the line, “There’s the orange-headed leader who tweets self-serving words.” Although the president’s name wasn’t mentioned, it was clear that he was the target. The line was disrespectful, but Gilbert and Sullivan shows were not at all respectful, particularly of political figures. Even though the song was more about manners and behavior, Mark let him keep the line in the song.
Saturdays, weather permitting, usually involved some sort of competition. The entire camp was divided into two teams, the blues and the golds. All the boys participated in everything from campcraft one Saturday, to land sports on another, to water sports, and so on. On a rainy Saturday, there was a singing competition, the songs being chosen from those that were sung at the campfires. Each boy who participated got points. Scores were kept during the entire summer. If the staff had done a good job of dividing the boys, the teams remained fairly evenly matched.
There were always a few boys who weren’t at all enthusiastic about some events. If they weren’t good at campcraft skills, they tended to complain, and Kyle was no different.
“Why do I have to do this? I don’t know how to start a fire, and I certainly don’t know how to chop wood.”
“Have you ever been on a team?” I asked.
“No, of course not. Teams need people to talk to each other, and I’m not good at that. Besides, most teams are sports teams, and I’m no good at sports, either.”
“Well, the thing is, every boy here is good at some things and not good at others. But being on the team just means that you try. You contribute. If you don’t, the team loses points, so you’re expected to participate as well as you can and cheer on the other boys on your team.”
“But why can’t just the boys who are good at something participate?”
“Because then you wouldn’t be a part of the team.”
“But I don’t want to be.”
“That’s too bad. Someday there will be a competition where you excel, and the other boys on your team will participate but they’ll also cheer you on.”
He walked away, mumbling to himself. Then he turned, looked back at me and said, “I just don’t get it.”
“I’m sure by the end of the summer, you will.”
“Fat chance,” he said, and continued to walk away.
One night in the fourth week of camp, after a junior staff meeting with Mr. Presley, I decided to walk to the waterfront before going to bed. I had a flashlight with me, but there was a full moon so I could see my way without turning it on. The night was quiet except for the sound of small creatures in the woods and an occasional owl hoot.
At the waterfront, I stood looking out over the water, seeing how the moon was reflected in the lake. I felt calm and contented, just being where I knew I should be ̶ at my summer home. Looking around the waterfront, I became aware that a boy was sitting on the end of the dock. That, of course, was against the rules. He should have been in bed, and he never should have been at the waterfront alone. I walked quietly onto the dock and, seeing it was Kyle, sat beside him. I didn’t say anything about him breaking the rules. I just sat.
At last, Kyle asked in a small voice, “Why do people have to be mean?”
I didn’t answer him at first, but then I asked him what had happened. Finally, he began to speak, haltingly, with tears flowing down his cheeks.
I listened and comforted him with an arm around his shoulder. Through his tears he told me something that truly shocked me. I know boys will be boys, but what he recounted had not, so far as I knew, happened in the nine years I’d been at the camp.
When he grew silent I asked, “Kyle, you are gay aren’t you?”
He looked at me, terrified. “How did you know?”
“Oh, we gay boys have ways of knowing.”
“You’re gay?” he asked, shocked.
“Yeah, but I’m not out yet at camp.”
After thinking a bit, he said quietly, “It’s scary.”
“I know. Someday soon I’ll tell you about coming out to my mother.”
We sat side by side, our legs dangling over the edge of the dock, and talked for nearly an hour.
When we had said all there was to say, we stood together and walked back to the dorm, where Kyle went in silently and climbed back into bed.
I was upset and didn’t sleep much that night. I wondered what I could do, what I could say that would help both Kyle and the camp.
After breakfast in the morning, I went to Mr. Presley’s table and asked if I could talk with him. Mr. Presley was always willing to listen and talk. He never seemed in a hurry. I told him Kyle’s story and then I told him what I wanted to do. At first, he tried to talk me out of it, but I persisted, telling him my plan in detail. Finally, he agreed, although he told me that if anything began to get out of hand, he would interrupt me. I nodded and left the dining hall still thinking about what I intended to do and say.
I kept an eye on Kyle all day, being rather less subtle than I usually tried to be. I’m sure he was aware of what I was doing, but he didn’t say anything. He just went through the motions of participating in the day’s activities like an automaton. Even in rehearsal he was lifeless. After the boys left, I explained to Mark what had happened. “Damn,” he said. “Kyle was doing so well.”
“I think he’ll get back to that, maybe sooner than you think,” I said.
After colors, as we were heading to the campfire circle, I pulled Kyle aside and told him what I intended to do, including outing both of us to the camp. I said that I was pretty sure everyone knew he was gay even if nobody said anything. He pleaded with me not to, but I told him I had to for his good and for the good of the camp. He didn’t like my plan at all, and we argued. I asked him to trust me. Finally, just as we entered the campfire circle, he reluctantly agreed.
When the boys had settled into their places and the fire had been lit, Mr. Presley said, “Mr. Wilson wants to say something to all of you.”
I rose and went to the front, then stood silently, just looking at that sea of over a hundred boy and adult faces gazing back at me. Most of them just looked a little curious; Kyle looked scared. I was very nervous, but I was also determined.
I began by telling them about my walk the night before, my looking out at the moon on the lake, my seeing a boy at the end of the dock. I told them how I walked out on the dock and sat beside the boy, Kyle. How, when he asked me, ‘Why do people have to be so mean?’ I encouraged him to tell me what had happened.
“It took him a while to start, but eventually he told me that last evening, after dinner and before colors, he had been playing tetherball, and for the first time ever, he was winning. He was dancing around on his toes some because he was excited and happy. Except for rehearsals and swimming, it was one of the few times he’s been happy at the camp. Just as he was making his final shot, an older boy came up, shoved him out of the way, and said, ‘Get out of here, faggot. Fairies and queers like you don’t belong here.’”
There was dead silence. I let it sink in for a minute. Then I said, “This is my ninth summer here. This camp is my summer home and I love it here. But I didn’t love it last night and I don’t love it right now. I have never heard those words spoken here. They are as terrible as any racial slur you can think of. Who has the right to say that a boy doesn’t belong here?
“We don’t allow bullying or put-downs here. As long as I’ve been here, I’ve always felt safe. I don’t feel safe right now.
“When Kyle told me, I was furious. I asked him to tell me who the boy was, because I wanted to have him thrown out of camp, but he wouldn’t tell me. He said that he never would tattle on another boy. I kept asking him and he kept refusing to tell me. The only thing he added to his story was that there were other boys there who had clearly heard what was said and did nothing.”
Again, I let my words sink into the silence. I certainly had every boy’s and every man’s attention. I glanced briefly at Kyle, who looked terrified.
Finally, I said, “Whoever he is, he’s a bully and a coward. He doesn’t even have the guts to pick on somebody his own size. And he has destroyed our right to be free from fear. As I said, Kyle wouldn’t tell me who the boy was. Right now, I don’t care. I know that boy is sitting here, and I hope he’s listening carefully to what I’m saying. I hope he’s got the courage to say something, not to me, but to Kyle.
“But we have another problem, and we can’t feel safe again until we deal with it. Kyle told me there were other boys there. He told me that not one of them helped him or said anything to the bully. They just…let…it…HAPPEN!”
There was silence except for the crackling of the fire, but some boys looked at others.
“You all know who you are,” I went on, “and, by doing nothing you are as guilty as the bully. You have some serious thinking to do.
“Kyle is gay, and he’s open about it. That in itself takes courage. Being gay is a part of who he is, but only a part. In addition, he’s a thinking, feeling, caring boy who wants to be happy, just like all of us. Statistics tell us that it’s likely there are a few other gay boys here tonight. They aren’t out. As far as I know, they have never told anyone here. But I’m going to out one of them tonight.”
I could see the boys looking at each other, wondering who I was going to name. Kyle was beginning to smile, just a little bit.
“I was very offended by what happened,” I went on, speaking very quietly. “Yes, offended is the right word, because, you see, I…I am gay too.”
I let the words sink in as the boys sat silently. Many of them were looking down at the ground.
“My mother knows I’m gay,” I continued, “and Kyle and Mr. Presley know. Nobody else here has known until right now. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I stand with Kyle. If we are the only two who stand together on this, so be it. But you can stand with us. Whether or not you’re gay doesn’t matter. How you treat Kyle matters a great deal. Think about that.”
Without another word, I went to my place and sat down.
After a moment, Mr. Presley rose, and said, “We’re going to break with our usual traditions of singing the goodnight song and hearing a story after taps. In a moment, you will all go to your dorms in silence, you will get ready for bed in silence, and, as you go to sleep, I want you to think about what you have just heard.” He looked at me and said, “Mr. Wilson, will you please join me here shaking hands with the boys as they leave.”
The boys stood and began to leave the campfire circle. Nobody said anything except for a few quiet goodnights as they shook our hands. When Kyle came to me, he hugged me, hard. “Thank you,” he whispered in my ear. I hugged him back for a moment before he left and went to our dorm.
When all the boys had left, Mr. Presley shook my hand and thanked me for what I had said and the way I had said it.
I was on an emotional roller coaster at that moment, and I wanted to just sit and think for a bit before I went to the dorm. I sat alone in the circle, watching the fire burn down and trying to calm myself. When I decided I had myself under control, I went to the dorm. As I entered, the other staff in the dorm were all on the porch. Each one nodded and shook my hand. They didn’t need to say anything, but I knew they were behind Kyle and me.
I didn’t really think the boys would be able to go to bed without anyone saying something. They surprised me; they did. I sat on Kyle’s bed and he hugged me again before crawling in.
Soon, I too went to bed. I was exhausted.
In the morning, after reveille blew, all the boys got up without any urging from the staff. They weren’t silent, but they were quiet. I guessed that they were still thinking about what they’d heard.
Following the afternoon swim, Kyle told me quietly that all the boys who had been at the tetherball court the day before had apologized to him, that is, all except the bully.
“And what about him?” I asked.
“Not a word. But the boys told me he’s being ostracized and nobody’s even talking to him.”
I wasn’t sure I liked that, but I knew there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I let it ride. Within a day, everyone in the camp, boys and staff, knew who the bully was but no staff member said anything to him. By the end of the week he had asked Mr. Presley for permission to call his parents because he wanted to leave. He called and two days later his mother came and picked him up. Before they left, the had a long talk with Mr. Presley. I don’t know what was said, but I hoped the boy had learned something.
After that, I stopped following Kyle because I knew he would be okay. I usually only saw him in the dorm or at rehearsals.
The rehearsals were going well and the boys were enjoying them. They had all learned the songs they needed to know. It was true that there were a couple of boys in the chorus who still couldn’t match pitches very well, but somehow that added to the charm of the show rather than detracting from it.
The costumes for the show were really quite easy. Of course, we couldn’t afford to rent kimonos, but we would make do with bathrobes. Mark had bought two sets of paper fans and the boys practiced snapping them open in unison in a few spots in the show. One set was for practice and the other was for the performance. Mark had also rented four wigs for the three little maids and Katisha. All four of those parts of course were played by boys. Yum-Yum, the female romantic lead and one of the three little maids, was played by a boy who was not at all effeminate but who had the lovely soprano voice needed for the role. The boy who played, Katisha ̶ the ugly hag and the show’s heavy ̶ who wanted to marry the Mikado, acted suitably nasty and later, when Mark had made him up, he was half-way ugly but could never really have been totally so.
One other character I should mention was Pooh-Bah. Although Ko-Ko had been appointed the Lord High Executioner, Pooh-Bah was the Lord High Everything Else. He was played by Will, an older boy. It’s a comic role and Will played it to the hilt.
Towards the end of the show, Ko-Ko is convinced by Pooh-Bah that, if he wants to avoid being executed himself, he has to marry Katisha. To do that he sings a very plaintive song, “Tit Willow”, in which he, like the bird in the song, would have to commit suicide for lost love. That convinces Katisha to marry him, and once the Mikado learns he is no longer burdened with her, everything turns out well in the end, except for Ko-Ko, of course.
I mention this because it meant that Kyle had to sing two very different songs in two very different styles, for “I’ve Got a Little List” is a fast, patter song while “Tit Willow” is plaintive and almost maudlin. Kyle again displayed his talent by having no difficulty singing either song in the style intended.
The fourth weekend was Parents’ Weekend, when parents could visit their sons and even take them out to dinner. Not all of the boys would receive visits, some parents being too far away to get to the camp. For those boys it could be a difficult time. The staff tried to organize a special event in the evening for the boys who were left behind.
Kyle’s parents did visit. Earlier, I had been concerned about them visiting because Kyle had been so homesick. But now he seemed to have settled down and was much better.
When they arrived, Kyle introduced me to them. We didn’t say much because his parents didn’t really know, despite Kyle’s letters, what had recently happened, and I didn’t want to talk about it in front of him.
On Parents’ Weekend we had the traditional war canoe races. The camp owned two war canoes which were assigned to the blue and gold teams. Each canoe held fourteen paddlers and a coxswain. Boys were divided up so that those of the same age competed against each other, while the rest stood on shore and cheered. This tended to be a wet competition because many of the boys had little experience handling paddles. Consequently there was quite a bit of splashing and by the ends of the races, many very wet teammates. They were prepared for this and all wore bathing suits.
Kyle would have remained a non-participant had he been allowed to, but he wasn’t, not because the counselors told him he had to but because of peer pressure from his teammates.
Like most of the rest of the staff, I stood watching and chatting with parents, many of whom I had known from former years. When the boys returned to shore after their race, some of them ran dripping to their parents, and not a few parents, especially those with more than one camper, were laughingly trying to keep their sons at arm’s length while being hugged.
After Kyle’s race, he sought out his parents and then found me. “I think I get it now.” he said.
“Get what?” I asked.
“Being part of a team. We can’t move one of those canoes unless we all work together.” Then he said, “That was fun!” before returning to his parents.
After the races, the boys dressed, and those who were leaving for the evening checked out at a table set up on the field. Another junior staff member and I oversaw checking the boys out. When they returned, we had to check them back in again. In the evening, parents could go as far as the field to say goodbye but then left their boys to go to their dorms.
When Kyle and his parents arrived back and he checked in, he gave his parents big hugs and ran off to his dorm. His parents lingered and asked if they could talk with me after I finished the check in.
A few minutes later, I found them waiting near the edge of the field. Mrs. Maxwell took my hand and said, “We just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing for Kyle. I haven’t seen him this happy for years. He spent the whole dinner talking about you and what you’ve done for him.”
I was embarrassed. They were thanking me for something I would have done for any boy. I mumbled some sort of ‘It was nothing’ remark.
“No,” his father said, “it was a very important something. When you told the entire camp you were gay, you have no idea what that did for Kyle and probably for other gay boys. Thank you so much.”
Then his mother asked about The Mikado. “We know it’s not a parents’ visiting time. Is there any way we can see the show?”
I assured them that although it was not a visiting day for all the parents, those who had a son in the performance were very welcome to attend.
With that, they both hugged me and departed.
As I was leaving the dining hall after breakfast on Monday, Mr. Presley asked me to sit down for a moment.
“I just wanted you to know,” he said, “that Kyle’s parents made an extremely generous gift to the camp yesterday. They dropped around specifically before they left for home. They told me that the gift was in honor of you and that it should be used to further some interest of yours here at the camp. It could be used for equipment, or financing a program, or anything you wish.”
I was flabbergasted and I had no idea what to say. He told me to think about it for a few days and he’d get back to me. I think I floated back down to the field.
As he was getting ready for bed one night, Kyle surprised me by asking, “Mr. Wilson, why don’t you follow me around anymore?”
I laughed. “How long have you known I was doing that?”
“Oh, from the day the first activities started. You didn’t go to your boating activity, but you hung around at the archery range. When we were on a nature walk in the afternoon, you seemed to show up quite coincidentally a few times. For a while I was afraid you were stalking me, but since you never did anything but watch, I figured you had another reason, but I didn’t know what it was.”
I laughed. “So much for being subtle. To be honest, Mr. Presley asked me to keep an eye on you because he was concerned about you.”
“Did my parents tell him about things at school?”
“Yes,” I said. “Did you mind that I kept track of you?”
“Just at the beginning. Once I figured out you weren’t stalking me, I kind of enjoyed it. A few times I tried to lose you, but you were pretty good at keeping track. So why did you stop?”
“Well, after I saw that other boys and staff had your back, I knew you didn’t need me anymore, so I went back to my waterfront duties.”
He actually looked sad for a moment before saying, “I guess I still need you, at least to know you’re around if I have a problem.”
“I’m always around,” I assured him.
Still looking sad but also wearing the beginnings of a smile, he asked, “Will you come to my school with me and take care of the bullies there?”
I laughed and he giggled. I told him that was impossible, as he well knew, but I thought maybe he had enough confidence now so that, if he needed to, he could find someone there to help him. I added that boys with apparent self-confidence tended to not attract bullies, and that he was already walking and acting more securely than at the beginning of camp.
He nodded and settled down in bed.
The next morning, as I was walking down the hill from breakfast, I saw Kyle and Will sitting on a bench and talking together. Although Will was playing Pooh-Bah and I had worked with him a few times, he was two years older than Kyle and I didn’t know him well.
They made a space for me on the bench as I sat between them. “Are you talking about the show?” I asked.
“Nope,” said Kyle. “We’re talking about something else, and Will has something to say to you.”
I looked at Will, who was staring down into his lap, not speaking. “Will?” I said.
He still said nothing. Finally Kyle said, “Will, you can tell him anything. You know he’s one of us.”
Oh ho, I thought, is Kyle saying that Will is gay? “Kyle’s right,” I said aloud. “You can tell me anything, and I’ll keep it confidential unless it’s downright illegal, dangerous, or seriously against camp rules.”
They both giggled. Then Will became serious and said hesitantly, “I’m gay, like you and Kyle, only everybody knows about you two but nobody knows about me except Kyle and you.”
“Thanks for confiding in me,” I replied, “and I promise that nobody will hear it from me.”
“Or me,” said Kyle.
“You know,” I went on, “I believe that each gay boy or man has his own lonely road to travel until he becomes comfortable with who he is and comes out to others. I know that’s hard. It was very difficult for me the other night to out myself, but I thought it was important and I felt so much better afterwards. Everyone here has accepted me and many have spoken to me. There’s been no change in the way I’ve been treated.”
“There’s been a big change for me,” Kyle said quietly. “It wasn’t until you made it okay for me to be me that I really felt free here.”
“I just don’t think I’m ready yet,” Will said. “I haven’t even told my parents. I’m just afraid.”
“Coming out to the camp the other night was the second hardest thing I’ve ever done,” I said. “The first was coming out to my mother. For many of us, that’s very difficult. We wonder if our parents will reject us or still love us when they know, and we have no way of knowing until we tell them. My mom was very accepting, and I believe, these days, most parents are, but there’s still the lingering doubt until we know for sure.”
“I know my parents love me,” said Will, “but I don’t know if they will after I tell them.”
I could see tears in his eyes. We were all silent for a little while. Finally, I said, “Tell me how you know your parents love you.”
He thought about that for a bit before he said, “Well, for one thing they tell me that a lot. My dad’s not a hugger but Mom and I often hug. I haven’t gotten in trouble very often, but when I have, they’ve always been kind and gentle. I can’t remember them ever being mad at me.”
He was quiet for a bit before he went on, “Something else I know is that it wasn’t easy for them to pay for me to come here. They haven’t said anything, of course, but I know we’re not rich and camp isn’t cheap. I guess they sent me here even though it was a sacrifice because they love me.”
“It sounds to me,” I said, “that you’re receiving unconditional love from them, and if that’s the case, I don’t think you have anything to worry about when you come out. Unconditional love means they will always love you, no matter what happens.”
He nodded, and said he’d think about it.
Kyle said, “I guess I was lucky, because my parents knew before I did. I never had to come out to them, or to anyone else for that matter.” He looked at Will. “I’m sorry you’re worrying about this, but I agree with Wayne…Oops, with Mr. Wilson. I think you should tell them. When you do, would you email me?”
Will nodded again.
“Me, too,” I said. “We’ll both give you our email addresses.”
At that point, the bugle blew for duties and we parted ways.
Something Will had said triggered an idea in my mind. The next time I saw Mr. Presley I said, “I’ve decided I would like the money to go for scholarships for boys who wouldn’t be able to come here without help. Especially, some for Will.”
Mr. Presley nodded and said, “Somehow, knowing you, I’m not at all surprised by your decision.” He patted me on the back and we went our ways.
I could see that Kyle’s participation in the Saturday competitions was, at best, still half-hearted. That is until the seventh Saturday, when we got to water sports day. He won every swimming race he was in, often against boys who were three or four years older than he was. As the afternoon progressed, the cheers for him from his teammates grew louder and longer, and for the final race, all the boys, regardless of team, cheered.
As I walked up the hill from the waterfront, Kyle caught up to me, whacked me on the back and said, “That was fun!”
“So what do you think now of these competitions?”
“I guess I see what you mean. I haven’t cheered much when my teammates were doing some activity, but today I heard the cheers and now I understand why I’m on a team. From now on, I’ll cheer a lot harder.”
As we approached the last full week of camp, rehearsals became a little more intense, although the boys were doing well. Mark was trying very hard to balance work and fun. If anything, he leaned a bit more towards fun.
“After all,” he said to me following rehearsal one day, “the boys are in it to have fun. Most of them, perhaps all of them, have never been in a show like this before. So for them, it’s a bit like climbing a mountain. You do a lot of work and the reward doesn’t really come until the end. For the mountain, it’s the view; for the show, it’s the performance and the applause. For both, it’s the feeling of accomplishment, of something well done. While we have to keep working, you and I both know it won’t be perfect and that’s okay. The rewards will still be the same at the end.”
Mr. Presley had selected two tables in the dining room, above which he had placed posters that read, “Mikado Training Tables.” The boys thought that was a good joke and the cast, Mark, and I, all ate there. It gave them a further chance to bond.
The dress rehearsal was on Friday morning. To my way of thinking, it was a disaster. Boys forgot their cues and their lines. Some weren’t onstage when they were supposed to be or were on stage when they should have been off. The singing was rather sloppy too, not nearly as crisp as it had been in other rehearsals.
After the boys had removed their costumes and Mark had dismissed them, he turned to me and asked, “What do you think?”
“That it wasn’t very good today and I can only hope it will be better tomorrow.”
“Two things you should know,” he said. “First, it’s an old adage that a bad dress rehearsal results in a good performance. Second, I’ve worked with kids enough to know that when they get in front of an audience, they rise to the challenge. So I’m not really worried. I guess I think the rehearsal today was something we just had to suffer through.”
I laughed and went off to the waterfront for the afternoon swim.
At the breakfast table on Saturday morning, the boys were subdued. Some said they hadn’t slept well the night before. I knew that was true of the ones in my dorm, especially Kyle, who got up several times in the night.
Mark, who was sitting at the end of one table while I sat at an end of the other, told the boys that what they were experiencing was perfectly normal and he’d be concerned if they weren’t a little keyed up.
Will, aka Pooh-Bah, asked, “Yesterday’s rehearsal was really terrible. Could we have another one this morning?”
Mark told him no, not to worry, that they were all well-prepared and he was sure they would do well in the evening. Some of them looked doubtful.
During the day, as I walked around camp, I saw boys sitting alone or in pairs going through their lines and songs. The cast members who were in my dorm were allowed to do the same during rest period.
By supper time, they could hardly eat. Mark and I encouraged them to eat something so they wouldn’t feel hungry or get light-headed during the performance.
We had been excused from colors in order to prepare for the show, so after supper we all trooped down to the green room, the room in the assembly building which held costumes. There the boys dressed, and Mark and I did a little makeup. It wasn’t because the boys, except those playing women, needed the makeup, it was because that was what you did before a performance and clearly the boys expected it and were buoyed by it.
I knew that many of the cast members had parents there, but the parents weren’t allowed to see or talk to the boys until after the show.
Soon we heard the bugle for colors and then the bang of the cannon. As we heard the chatter of campers and staff entering the assembly hall and sitting on benches, we went to the stage area. When everyone was seated, the lights in the hall went down, leaving only those on the stage. The audience grew quiet.
Mark began playing the abbreviated overture on the piano and the boys took their places. At the proper moment I opened the curtain. The cast listened to the music and snapped their new fans right on cue and together. There was a murmur in the hall which quickly quieted as the boys began to sing.
Through the show, I couldn’t help but hold my breath. I mean, I was breathing but I kept waiting for a disaster. It never came.
Mark had staged Ko-ko’s entrance so that he staggered on stage with a huge prop axe. Immediately, from his first lines, he had the audience eating out of his hands. Pooh-Bah and the Mikado weren’t far behind. And the Three Little Maids brought the house down, while Katisha was hilarious.
The songs went well. During “Tit Willow”, the audience became very quiet. When Kyle finished the song, there was just a little moment of silence before Katisha asked, “Did he really die of love?”
Kyle responded sadly, “He really did.”
“And if I don’t marry you, will you do the same?”
At that point, Katisha rushed across the stage and engulfed Kyle in a bear hug. It was staged so that Kyle’s face was toward the audience and he grimaced. The audience roared.
When the last song ended, I closed the curtain as applause and whistles broke out in the hall. We had rehearsed the curtain calls, so everyone knew what to do. The boys formed up in one line, each knowing his place. I opened the curtain and the applause grew louder. The boys all joined hands, stepped forward, and bowed. When they had bowed twice, I closed the curtain. All the boys went into the wings except the chorus. I opened the curtain again so they could receive their applause. Then the three little maids joined them, followed by each member of the cast individually. The last one on stage was Kyle, who came out once again staggering under his axe. By that time all the audience was standing and cheering.
The cast took one last bow together, snapped their fans, and I closed the curtain as the house lights came on. Our boys were ecstatic. Will said he never knew that acting could be so much fun.
When the hall was empty except for Mr. Presley and the parents, I opened the curtains and the boys ran from the stage and into the hall. Parents hugged their boys. Boys who didn’t have parents there were hugged anyway. Mr. Presley beamed. Mark stood quietly with him, just watching.
I went up to them and said, mostly to Mark, “Well, it was really worth all the work, wasn’t it?” He nodded, smiling.
Parents came over to congratulate Mark as Mr. Presley stood back and smiled.
As the parents left, Mark and I herded the boys back to the green room, where they got out of their costumes and we removed their makeup before they left for their dorms, carrying their bathrobes with them.
For a while it was a rather raucous evening in the dorms, but eventually the boys all settled down. I suspected that the cast members were very weary after the combination of anxiety and then the excitement of having done well. It had been a long day. Soon, everyone was asleep.
Camp was scheduled to close on Tuesday. On Sunday we held an awards ceremony for boys who had filled all the requirements for an activity. Monday night there was a final campfire. Parents began arriving about 10:00 AM Tuesday morning and their boys were called to the field. Boys who were leaving by bus or plane got onto their buses, either the one to Boston or the one to the airport. As they left, many of the boys, especially the younger ones, hugged counselors.
Kyle and his parents sought me out. Kyle gave me a big hug. Tears were streaming down his face. “Okay,” I said gently, “you cried when you came and you got past that. You’ll get past this, too. Don’t show me a sad face as the last one I see from you until next year.”
He giggled through his tears and asked, “Are you sure you’ll be here next year?”
“I’m sure. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. And I’ll expect you here as well.”
We had exchanged email addresses and once again agreed to write.
I turned to his parents and we shook hands before his mother hugged me. I learned later that they had made another donation, this one to the drama and music program.
And then they left. All the boys and parents were gone.
I knew what I would feel, for I had felt it the previous year. An oppressive silence settled over the camp. There was suddenly a huge void, a vacuum, where there had been constant activity, laughter, and joy. I sighed and went up to the dining hall for lunch with the staff.
We worked for the next three days preparing the camp for winter. I asked some staff members for advice because I had been thinking about becoming a teacher. They all encouraged me to do it.
On Saturday I drove home. I had a lot to think about and a lot of great memories to keep me going until the next year.