ere I was at Camp Olympic. It was the summer of 1962. My parents needed a break from my whining, scavenging and shoplifting. The result, to my chagrin, was a camp on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. “Bring your children to Olympic,” said the brochure, “where they will enjoy the heights of pleasure, friendliness and discipline.” The idea of enjoyable discipline eluded me.
Before getting there I’d decided to hate the camp. The resolve grew steadfast when the camp counselor handed me a beanie and an oversized bathing suit with a big letter “O” that ended up adorning my groin. My fellow male campers were immediately in love. If the camp didn’t please them, mocking me would. On my first night two of them tried to remove my pajamas. I ran from the hut only to be tracked down by the counselor whose only response was, “Go back to the sleep hut.”
I went back.
The next day was called “pool day” and we were lined up along the Olympic pool, 14 boys, and asked to enjoy what the camp called “Swim-Crazy Time.” This meant doing laps until you began to drown, whereupon other boys began laughing and a camp counselor would intervene saying, “Go back to the poolside.”
I soon learned these counselors began all the sentences with “Go back.”
The night after pool day, my eyes reddened by chlorine, I was gathered up with the other boys for a “Wilderness Moon Trek.” When I asked the counselor why there wasn’t any moon I was told to go to the back of the pack. We were then taught how to build a fire, after which came ghost stories and pitching tent. Later, Owl and Roger, the two bullies, shucked me from my sleeping bag, removed my pajamas (a tedious pattern) and tied me to a tree, naked. Branches swayed and a storm loomed. I cried and wailed until the counselor found me. “Go back to the tent,” he said. I did.
On the third day, the counselor, called Don, who had a cleft like Kirk Douglas’, called me into his office, a glorified shack, and told me I should work harder to get along with the boys. “Life is a society in which we all must live together, young man. And that’s what you are, a young man. So behave like one.” He then told me to go back to my “quarters.”
On the fourth day we were supposed to learn to dive from the high board at the pool. I got to the edge but refused to dive. The counselor, Bob, not Don, punished me with 10 pushups. I did three before spraining my wrist. Owl and Roger howled. I cried, again.
On the fifth day my father showed up in a taxi (he didn’t drive). I had been expelled from the camp, he told me. He had come to take me home.
What, he wanted to know, had gone wrong?
They were mean, I told him. They had made me do things I didn’t want to.
At first, my father said nothing, but once home he called me into the living room (I had hidden under my bedroom blanket) and explained with unsympathetic vigor that life was not fair, that people would often behave badly to test me and to show off, that being given passage out of unpleasant situations wasn’t a given. There would be times, he insisted, when I’d be humiliated and need to rely on my own resources and cunning to restore my standing or make do.
None of this made much sense but I didn’t cry. I listened. Carefully, since he seemed to be speaking to me as an adult. He was focused but disinterested. Only I could determine my future, he said. I was then let out to misbehave for the rest of the summer.
But I didn’t.
That fall I joined the Boy Scouts, something I couldn’t have imagined doing before Camp Olympic. Five years later I became an Eagle Scout, with a little medal I still keep in drawer. “Be prepared,” it read. The scoffing and humiliation didn’t end. I was still mocked for my size and jerky movements. I was picked last for sports teams. But by then I’d memorized the mockery and turned it on end: Sticks and stones, I told myself. By 16 I’d heard it all. Confidence came in part through endurance.
Two falls after Olympic I was reluctantly picked to play in the recess touch football game. “We’ll take the stupid skinny guy,” said the captain. I walked to my giggling squad, took my position, and intercepted three passes directed to a popular boy who was two years older. At first he snorted. The third time around he just said, “You’re pretty good.”
And I thanked Swim-Crazy Time, Owl and Roger, Bob and Don, and my father. From time to time I still do.