As summer-camp memories go, mine are scant. I’ve settled for the vicarious pleasure of listening to my gay pal, Mike, share his memories of charmed Cheley Colorado Camps, where kids ”bunked” in authentic covered wagons and hiked the Rockies with Daryl Hannah’s kid sister. Or, there’s my friend Chris who recounts her family’s annual summer treks through the ’70s to a Lutheran-themed family camp in North Carolina called ”Lutheridge.” As she tells it, it wasn’t much on dogma, but was heavy on teens making out.
My ”summer camp” usually meant heading off to Dad’s for the summer, or sitting inside watching TV and eating grilled-cheese sandwiches. It was too much of the latter that prompted my mom to sign me up for a week of summer camp in the summer of 1980, I believe. According to my calculations, it was the summer between fifth and sixth grades, and I’d just turned 11. As an only child — in the sense that my much older brother and sister had long since moved out — and an overweight momma’s boy, I’m guessing I must’ve exuded shades of South Park‘s Cartman. That’s not the way I remember it, but all the evidence points in that direction.
What was a mother to do? I don’t know if it was my suburban soccer coach/dentist who clued her into this camp — he sent his own son, my arrogant, golden boy, soccer teammate Chris — to this camp. Or maybe she just noticed an ad for the place while perusing the ads for military academies in the back of Washingtonian. Whatever the source of the evil seed, I was not pleased. Being only 11, I didn’t realize that pleading was useless, as the kid doesn’t find out till everything’s been bought and paid for. In just a week or so, we’d be heading off to Ashland, Va., for soccer camp at Randolph-Macon College.
Heading down I-95 from Springfield, I was not happy. I don’t remember details of the trip, but there’s perhaps a vague memory of one last attempt to change my mother’s mind once we’d arrived. Fat chance. My first impressions of the place were likely the same thoughts that young boys of Sparta had when arriving at their military barracks.
Why couldn’t I go off to some co-ed spot in the woods, on a lake, and spend my summer in the forest making God’s eyes out of popsicle sticks and yarn? Because fat 11-year-olds aren’t going to lose any weight making God’s eyes in the shade, that’s why. And where was teammate Chris? Off with the cool campers. We weren’t friends in school or on our team, and we certainly weren’t going to be friends at soccer camp, I immediately gathered, as I spotted him trotting about with the older, athletically inclined boys. That was my first reckoning of the pecking order at this camp.
The top of the heap was reserved for the oldest boys, who looked to be about 13 or 14. That might not seem like much of a difference from my 11, but keep in mind that these older boys were allowed to call themselves ”teens” and had graduated from elementary school. These were huge distinctions. The oldest boys were joined next by the most athletically bodied forwards. All the boys who relished fanfare and attention were forwards.
I was a fullback. All the fat boys were fullbacks. It demands the least amount of running, save for the goalie. But goalies owned a certain machismo for not being afraid of soccer balls flying at them full force. My only friend that week, whose name I cannot recall, was a goalie, but not a popular one. He had a sort of astigmatism that made him blink an awful lot. So much so that the Lord of the Flies boys on campus would mock this trait whenever they spoke to him. Great fun.
He was also my roommate in our dormitory accommodations. Neither of us showered that week, too scared to use the shower that joined our room to another housing two of the older, crueler boys. It seemed safer to suffer thigh-burning jock itch than to leave ourselves naked and vulnerable to whatever those two might’ve dished up. Whatever promises of adult supervision we thought we could count on, all the empty whisky bottles thrown onto the bit of flat roof outside our window by students during the school year told us otherwise.
Then came the reckoning.
Near the end of the week, the skies opened and we were told we’d be playing the evening’s scrimmage on an indoor field. It made no difference to me, being just another ring of hell. From my lumpen post at my end of the field, I didn’t have much to do but watch the opposing forwards battle each other for glory near the middle. That is, till one of the strongest, leanest, best-looking, oldest players came charging down the field toward my goal. The only soccer move I had that ever won me some popularity with my teammate — though not with coaches, as it was a strategically dumb move — was my ability to put my weight behind a kick and, in an instant, send an unattended ball just feet from my team’s goal well back to the other team’s deep zone.
This ball charging at me in this instant, though, was very well attended by the universally recognized star of soccer camp. I don’t remember his name, either. Maybe it was Curt. I do remember his dark hair, and that I had a crush on him. I also remember his face as it raced toward me. He was picking out threats on the field. Who was in the vicinity to actually challenge him, to threaten his winning push toward my team’s goal. He didn’t look at me. I stared at him and he did not give me anymore attention than had I been a garden gnome left on the field after a previous day’s garden show. So I simply stood my ground and practiced a soccer tackle as I’d been taught. Without making any contact with ”Curt,” I steadied my heavy, flat foot in the center of the ball’s trajectory. When his momentum met my foot, it was he who actually went flying into the air in cartoon fashion, landing a number of feet beyond me as the ball sat still in the arch of my foot.
He may have been even more stunned than I. I wish, however, I could say I learned something there about how hard the mighty fall. But I didn’t. It was probably something much more shallow, as I remember ”Curt” looking adorable with his body in a pile, hair tussled, looking sad. I probably learned then that there is something attractive about defeated guys.
Perhaps something in the encounter taught me that once I came into my own, thinking of myself as Curt-like hot shit, not to talk back to drag queens for fear of being put in my place. Possibly, though not nearly as likely, I may have also learned something about not judging, or fearing, people based on their appearance.