I’m surely imagining the sounds of snapping bones and rupturing insides when I recall the memory of striking a mouse with a canoe paddle all those years ago. But not imagined are the sudden limpness of the body nor the chorus of oohs and ewws when the boys in my cabin saw it dead. It had scurried from under a bunk when we were horsing around one afternoon. “A mouse!” was yelled out. It made a straight dash for the open cabin door. I, standing on the wooden planks in its path, promptly grabbed a paddle from the wall and brought it straight down on the back of the running animal — not flatly like a slap, more sharply from the high angle of my swing, such that the tip of the blade jabbed bluntly across its dorsal region. I remember being shocked that I’d actually connected and that it’d died, but there were no tears from me or my cabin mates at the unexpected rodenticide. With help from a friend holding a dustpan, I scooped the flat dead thing onto the blade of the paddle and then us eight or so boys of 12 or 13, in a procession resembling those of more cultish ceremonies, walked the corpse to the woods and honoured our kill. Though we may not have set out to hunt that day, we had; a creature invaded our home and I struck it down. Its bones perhaps still rest under the same leaves on that Lake Temagami shore. I can’t recall where our counsellors were at that time. They were not around.
Wabikon, where I bunked and blossomed for three consecutive summers in grades six through eight, still runs to this day. I look at its website now and am informed of its long history: established in 1944, “an international co-ed camp serving ages 6 to 17.” It is closed this year because of the virus so I can’t verify my memory; if I’m right, they offer some 3-week, some 2-week, and one 10-day program where campers sleep over in a cabin of their peers and engage in a slew of activities under the supervision of high school-aged counsellors. I was a scaredy cat, initially, when I was offered the opportunity of sleepover camp by my parents. I chose the 10-day program. I went with friends and that made it easier, we wrote ahead to ensure we would be put in the same cabin. One of us was two years older. The following years were the same — the 10-day program — though chosen not out of nerves, more out of deciding that was the best length of time at the camp; much longer and we expected the experience would lose its magic.
Following are some chronicles of my time at Wabikon. Insert here some form of disclaimer separating my words from the reputation of the camp. I loved my time there.
I was unwell. A pretty strong allergic reaction, I think. I used to get bad puffiness around my eyes, or itchiness, I still do, seasonally. It hit me in the night and I went to the nursing station, the Med Shed, in the middle of camp. It couldn’t have been that late — I remember the porch of the small lodge was lit with a single yellow light. Some adults were sitting there, I was escorted by one of my counsellors across camp and up the steps. He was told by one of the women there that he could leave, that I’d delivered back when I was better. There was a nurse and another older woman. They were sweet to me, the boy in need of care. I was scared, I remember. They gave me an antihistamine, the woman who wasn’t the nurse offered me a popsicle. I gave a quiet yes and became a recipient of the panacean combination of emotional and gustatory sweetness. “Come sit on my lap,” said the same woman. I did and she rubbed my back softly as I ate the popsicle. She talked with the nurse and they both talked to me, easy things that put me at ease. I learned later that the older woman was the matriarchal founder of the camp. I was better after not too long and returned to bed — I’d been cured by the godmother of Wabikon.
My older brother can attest that I used to be quite the persistent little shit. He was the usual victim of my prodding and pestering. With him, once I got a reaction, this conniving grin would slide over my face and I would run and run, giddy at my brother’s frustration and more so in getting his attention.
We had a Spanish-speaking counsellor one year — not my first summer, maybe my last. Over the days of camp, as we became comfortable with him, I started to give him the classic treatment — the one I’d honed on my brother. We had established by that point a playful roughhousing between us campers and the two counsellors. We would team up on them, they would chase us, humour our games. Towards the Spanish-speaking counsellor, who responded more intensely, I began inflicting my verbal and physical annoyances. I think he had bothered me, must have made me feel small and helpless, he was harsh. My memory is muddled regarding when my vitriol for him began — before or only after the following incident?
I had got him good — overfilled his capacity for irritation by maybe smacking him in his bed, he boiled over. It was unfair for the guy; we could be physical, he had to be tolerant. We were just kids though. He chased me across the cabin, too many days in a row of our antics, his hammer fell and I was the nail. I cowered on a bottom bunk, in the corner of the room, I pressed myself against the wall in the small space so he couldn’t get me. He got to the bunk and steadied himself on the upper bed, then swinging his leg through the gap, he kicked me repeatedly. He didn’t have shoes on but it was an obvious escalation of force. I don’t know if he knew how hard he was hitting me. I don’t remember if I cried, I do remember the hush that came after, that the game was over. No more bothering this counsellor.
In the hours and days that followed, I was angry. He had gone too far. I was helpless again, and in that place, indignant — “He Can’t Do That.” I talked to my friends about it. They agreed it was too far, but that we’d all been asking for it, that I should just leave it. I wasn’t hurt, not really. But I couldn’t leave it alone. I sought redemption in a female counsellor who I’d known to be proper and honest. I pulled her aside at the small beach across from the tennis courts during the free hour after lunch, when camp was quiet. I told her what had happened. I told myself that I only wanted to be validated about the injustice, but I knew that she would tell senior staff. I knew that I was snitching. In the wild land of camp, the child and his faraway, bill-paying parents ultimately hold all of the power. I knew it.
The next day, in a way that is surprising to everyone but the parties who’ve tipped over dominoes in quiet beachside rendezvous, the whole cabin was pulled aside. We were led to the distant kayaking dock. There the counsellor awaited us, head bowed in shame. He apologized to us. In connecting with my friend Bruce who was also there, in an effort to get the details right, I’ve been reminded it was “super awkward.” It was. Later, the counsellor who kicked me too many times, too hard, with too much menace in the act, was dismissed from camp, and our cabin continued with just one leader. I felt guilty. Then again, I didn’t at all.
I told you that Wabikon welcomes international campers. What I didn’t tell you is that during my last summer there, it also apparently accepted otherworldly ones, for there was angel in the girls cabin beside the archery station. Her earthly name was Robin. She was of beauty and allure the same way that the sun is of light and warmth. I want to tell you that I liked her, but how can I? It feels unfitting in so many ways: when one weeps at the feet of Venus de Milo in the Louvre, is one said to like the statue? When one has their breath returned after falling flat on their back, do they like the air? When a newborn wails its first cry, it is attributed to liking life? There are the limitations of language, the limitations of a mortal pining for a celestial, and the limits of reality. Robin was —is— a year older than me. Better chance at drawing her eyes were the much more grown, in body and confidence, and much more capable boys of the ninth grade cabin. All I could to was watch, cherish, and hope to be close to her in some form.
Years later, my girlfriend at the time would worry over my fondness of an older woman. She, the older woman, was one year my senior, a different girl, not Robin. I would attempt to explain to her (the girlfriend) the lifelong affliction of boys and men, that is: to foster idolizations for women we know are out of our leagues. I told her that it starts as a youngster, maybe towards your friend’s much older sister or her classmates; that later it is for a servant of the heavens at your summer camp; and then later it is a girl one year older, on the boat at the lake-house, sunbathing. In the years beyond me, I would guess it’s towards supermodels or Helen Mirren equivalents. At the time, the girlfriend wouldn’t quite understand the distinction, or she wouldn’t trust it. I say fair enough.
Robin had blonde hair, tanned skin. Her teeth were brilliantly white, her eyebrows dark and defined. She wore a silver necklace with a pendant I forget. She and her friends were indisputably closer with the older boys, but my friends and I did manage to socialize with them in a few ways over the week. I remember coming upon a few of them at the tennis courts, Robin among them, and a boy Spencer teased and intimidating us into leaving. Later, I’d see him in the halls at University and replay that moment in my head, his baring of teeth. I’d wonder how his grades were.
At the end of each camp session — and as I understand it, quite traditional for sleep away, coed camps across the continent — there were a final team challenge (or Color War) and a dance (or banquet). The Color War would be Ninjas v. Pirates or Cowboys v. Aliens, etc., and there would be a series of events pitting two halves of the camp against each other — it was all a blast, I especially remember thinking so in my first year, but by my final summer, it was all about the dance. You wanted to ask the girl you liked to the dance.
We were sitting around a fire one night, all the campers, boys and girls, of the ‘senior’ cabins — going-into-eighth-graders and going-into-ninth-graders. There was some sort of activity planned, each cabin brought their own little performance to the fire. Our cabin ended up finishing the line, one by one, “In the future, I don’t want…” I can’t remember what I said. This night wasn’t about me. My friend Bruce went last, whether pre-planned or not, he used the opportunity to make his move: “In the future, I don’t want her to say no.” In turn, we heard from the crowd a series of what’s??, and puzzled murmur. Then he pointed to a girl across the circle, sitting on a log in her oversized sweater, a friend of Robin, also a year older than us: “Will you go to the dance with me?” he said. Of course, the rows of kids started chanting, “say yes, say yes,” and the poor girl didn’t have much choice. Brucey was taking an older lady to the dance. On the phone a few minutes ago, he said he felt bad about the pressure he put on her, and that he doesn’t recall kissing her. The next day I think a grade nine boy asked Robin and she said yes. If I had the confidence I have now, that would have been me. But back then, I chose not intervene in the happenings of holy lifeforms.
My only triumph with Robin came near the end, as a small thing. One afternoon, all the senior campers were swimming between the two swimming docks and diving from the diving tower. I had by that point conversed with her and the other girls. What I said in those conversations is lost to the erosion of time and in the case of Robin, the memory-wipe that comes from speaking with Godly beings. I remember only saying goodbye and sharing a mutual assurance to befriend one another on Facebook, which we did — and later, Instagram. Perhaps the subtlest, most nervous, boyish form of flirting…
At one point, Robin’s friend stole my hat and wore it. I allowed it, knowing by then that that was a good thing. I hoped for a reaction from Robin but couldn’t tell. I have a picture from that afternoon, shortly later. We are all posed on a dock, smiling at the camera. There’s a dozen of us — an older boy has his arm around Bruce, who stands in a row with the others. It alternates, boy, girl, boy, girl. Bikinis and board shorts. I sit on the dock in front of the them, smiling widely. Sitting beside me on one side is my childhood friend, and crouched down on the other side —permitting incidental skin contact between my arm and her knee— is Robin. And she is wearing my hat.
Despite the brevity of our stay, we would receive mail at camp. This was before every toddler and grade schooler had a smart phone wedged in their tiny hands. (What is sleepover camp like now, in this regard?) I wrote letters to my parents about how camp was going. I remember receiving news that my pregnant aunt had just found out there was not one but two little ones growing in her belly. Twins. I’m sure it wasn’t long after reading that I promptly forgot the news and rushed out of rowed bunks in the cabin at the words: “it’s our time for tuck!” — our cabin’s turn to visit the tuck shop, a small candy store across from the meal hall. We would race and line up, bicker about how to best spend our few dollars. Buy this candy, or that bracelet. After buying, we would shuffled back to our cabin, chewing and sharing, content.
A bell would ring an hour later. It would be time for afternoon activities. Each camper signed up at the end of the day for the ensuing one. Two or three activities in the morning, two or three more in the afternoon. High ropes or kayaking, sailing, snorkelling, volleyball, dancing, or fishing. I learned how to crochet at Wabikon. A couple of brothers who were counsellors for a two consecutive summers led lessons for it. Back at home, I in turn, with my mom’s help taught my brother. For a time, he and I sold hats to our school and competitive swimmer friends.
After afternoon activities were over, it was dinner. Our cabin would sit around a large picnic table in the wide meal hall, the girls’ tables would be across the aisle. There would be songs and staring. Eating. I learned how to clean a table at Wabikon, though I tried to avoid using my new skill, if I could help it. We would be eating, talking, and the meal would be whining down. Casually, the boy sitting across from me would place a finger on his nose — instantly I’d do the same, and look to the counsellors at the head and foot of the table. Sure enough, they’d be touching their noses. The boy at the end of the row, engrossed in his potatoes would, after a moment, look up and groan. We’d all be waiting, staring at him, and he would know: he was last and he would clear the table, typically with the help of one other.
I owe much to the endless games, challenges, campfire songs, paddling, gathering, and laughing that camp provided. Some things were taught, others were just learnt.
I’ve watched more reality television than I’d care to admit, and gained a certain understanding of the shows’ inner workings in my viewing. One of the tools producers employ to raise the stakes of the interpersonal drama, to make their subjects invest more singularly in what’s often termed ‘the process’ is that of isolating the subjects from the world at large. They will send all of the participants to a luxurious resort, or a remote wilderness, or a literal island. The participants will be stripped of their cell phones, they can’t read books or get news, and they won’t hear from their families. The result is this: the participants get caught up. The stakes are higher as a viewer because they are higher as a participant. With family, background, and reality taken away, the show fills in the gaps — it becomes everything. Sleepover camp had a similar effect; whether it was a nurturing back rub, a kick to the gut, or a moment of contact, that’s all there was. Reality was somewhat absent. Maybe it should be more often.
Of course, children live in worlds of their own; gossip at school can be all-consuming, where you are in line can feel critical. Of course camp is paid for by parents; children have no responsibilities beyond joy and safety (frequently forgotten), and it can’t last forever. It shouldn’t. But for a time, can’t the sole focus of a child be deciding what piece of candy to buy? For a time, can’t the sole focus of an adult be deepening a relationship? Or training a skill? The language changes from camp to something like conference. Ones for learning how to pull up your socks, or ones for learning this year’s latest innovations in financial modelling. One’s for “self help.” In my opinion, it’s not enough. Us adults, should take something away from where we send our children, how they live in those places. And we shouldn’t hope to win access to a reality TV show or wait until retirement to do it. Sure we can read books, go to a bar, put down our phones and share a meal, or take part in afterwork sports leagues — we’ve found all these ways to sprinkle in the magic throughout the day or week, ways to send reality away for a moment. But I’m speaking of camps. Day and night, with a group, participating or working towards a common goal, or perhaps individual goals, together. Cutting off the news, going to a remote village, and coming back with something gained, even if it’s just memories.
Retreats, I guess they are called. I’ve been thinking a lot of retreats recently. It’s been over a decade since Wabikon, it’s been over a year since the camp of ‘University,’ and I am craving a retreat. I’ll pay. I know that’s part of it. Isolated time, in a place that isn’t your place, with an aim in mind — not to be confused with vacations, that aim to “relax” isn’t it. I’ll admit I’m running out of steam here, but I’m saying this: focus and go to camp. Learn to crochet, or wipe down a table, long for an angel, receive a written letter from the outside world. I personally, plan to go away and write. (A live-and-write mix.)
Do it when you can, however you can, for Robin is pregnant. I stopped following her on social media some time ago, lest I see the angel lose her wings. I checked moments ago, for due diligence, and she is pregnant. For the next twenty years, she will have a harder time going to camp. Or maybe the next twenty years is camp; I’ve heard something similar to what I’m describing attributed to raising a child. I don’t have all the answers.
What a strong finish from:
B.F. Greeno, aka
Killer of Mice