Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Have fun at camp, honey...don't forget your beer hat.

"Dad, how long do you think it'll take me to stop being nervous about this?"

"The second we get there, I promise."

The school year is rounding the corner and gimping into the home stretch, with just a few unfinished tasks on the docket. Final exams and field days, locker scrubbings and library fines, yearbook signings and report cards all poke their heads to the surface during these final weeks.

Oh, and one other item of unfinished business: fifth grade camp.

As my eleven-year-old daughter and I entered her school gym this morning, she toted a pink rolling suitcase, a sleeping bag and a heavy load of tween anxiety. The room teemed with the sounds and smells of a pre-adolescent hormone potluck; girls and boys segregated themselves in gaggles of giddy excitement.

Why is it that, even though I'm sure many bathed this morning, they still exuded an earthy musk? The boys wore hats and flannel shirts, their sneakers flopping around untied and their eyes barely visible beneath shaggy bangs. The girls adorned themselves in varying shades of pink, which graduated to a brownish around the sleeve areas. Long hair plastered their scalps and tangled at the collar.

The Frisbee conked my daughter in the head just as we placed her baggage next to her assigned spot on the wall. An aforementioned male street urchin ran up and grabbed the disk as she fought back tears of pain and anxiety.

"Hang on a second," I commanded. I wanted to throttle his little turkey throat. "Why are you playing Frisbee in a room full of people?"

"I don't know." I believed him.

"I'll tell you what. Hand me that thing right now. You just hit my daughter. Now get out of  here before I find your teacher."

He did as instructed and I stood next to my girl, clutching both her the round plastic toy. I desperately yearned to call upon my mad Frisbee-throwing skills, finely honed thanks to six months of post-college unemployment, and hurl it at the young man's long-solidified cranial soft spot.

Thankfully, a calming force from within stifled the urge.

My daughter and I passed a few more minutes together along the old gym wall. We reverted to our usual roles, where I would tell her a stupid joke and she would shove me in the chest. Joke, shove, joke, shove, joke, shove and finally, she was ready for me to go.

I squeezed her for as long as she would allow, then exited quickly and didn't look back. Friday still loomed far in the distance.

As I hiked slowly back to the car, I thought back to my week at camp, sixth grade in this case, and hoped to God that her experience would be nothing like mine.

I don't think any of the guys in my cabin at Camp Auburn had read The Lord of the Flies, but they seemed to have grasped the plot quite naturally. Once we had all gathered inside Cabin Number Five, Donny, the alpha male, took over.

"Who here knows how to ride a dirt bike?" Donny had thrown down the gauntlet immediately. Eleven boys raised their hands. The twelfth did not.

I was the twelfth. Donny's beady eyes locked onto me, followed by the rest of the pack's. "Are you a fag or something?'

"No. I've just never ridden a motorcycle."

"That means you're a fag," reasoned Donny in a highly unreasonable voice.

Why hadn't I just lied? I was sure that's what guys did in prison. How many scared inmates simply made up stories about killing someone with half a Snickers Bar and two twist ties just to keep the heat off? Not this inmate, apparently.

He then examined the Olympia Beer hat my mom had bought me just for camp. "And Olympia's piss water."

Apparently, this twelve-year-old had a discerning palette for malted beverages, as well.

Fortunately, a kid named Ralph had begun unpacking his Aquaman pajamas, which drew the hiyenas' attention away from my Kawasaki virgin status. Donny, apparently harboring a healthy dose of jealousy for blond, seagoing superheroes, then labeled Ralph with the same tolerant moniker he had generously given me.
Donny would call each kid in the cabin a fag at least once during the week.
Hitting a nice stride after a few hours getting used to Donny, I eventually tolerated, if not slightly enjoyed, my time at camp. We sang songs, caught small fish and met new filthy kids. A high school-aged counselor named Claire stole my heart and I signed up for every art, craft and activity over which she presided.
I vowed to marry her some day...after I stopped being Donny's wife, of course.
I've chosen today to tell this story since my daughter is surely out of Wi-Fi range and can't be spooked by her dad's stories of mean kids and pecking orders. One thing is bothering me, however. I knew I forgot something this morning.
I didn't review dirt bikes with her.

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