Many decades ago, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, my parents got the idea that one of their five kids might benefit from a week at summer camp. I was the designated camper, and they signed me up for one week at Camp Tuscarora, a Boy Scout camp in upstate New York, east of Binghamton. I didn’t like the idea at the outset and liked it even less when I found out that most of the daily activities revolved around swimming.
At that age I was probably 5-feet-5, and may have been out-weighed by the proverbial 98-pound weakling. There was not an ounce of buoyant matter on my bones, nor an inch of extra flesh to insulate me from the cold morning chill of that spring-fed lake water. Needless to say, I hated swimming.
Despite my protestations my parents dropped me off on a Saturday morning and left me there — about as unhappy as I had ever been in my very young life.
And so I began the ordeal of summer camp. It was terrible, and it wasn’t just the morning plunge into the cold water. On the first day a few first-time campers were dispatched to the quartermaster’s lodge to get “50 feet of shoreline.” The older kids laughed hilariously when the newbies returned empty-handed and red-faced.
One of the lowlights was the all too predictable (at least to us now) bullying exercise, in which the adolescent herd turned on the fattest kid in camp, taunting him, pulling down his pants, and then punching him in the groin. Fun stuff. I looked on in horror and thanked my lucky stars that they had turned on the fattest kid, not the skinniest.
For the first two or three days it never got any better. Because one of my rules of life is that our memories are never as good as we believe them to be, I went to the website for Camp Tuscarora and noted the following activities proudly and prominently displayed: swimming, canoeing, rowing, small-boat sailing, lifesaving, snorkeling, kayak instruction, safe swim defense/safety afloat, mile swim program, and — I told you so — the “polar bear swim early in the morning.”
By Wednesday I was at least comfortable with the daily routine and discovered I was able to tolerate it. I might even have figured out a way of avoiding that early morning polar bear impersonation event. By mid-week or so the bullies must have had their fun — at least I don’t recall any other instances. For some reason I made a few friends on Thursday, and by Friday I found myself actually enjoying a few moments.
Then on Friday night the campers gathered on the shore of the 14-acre Summit Lake for closing ceremonies. Fires were lit at a few points along the shore and various Scout leaders regaled us with tales of the native Americans who originally populated the area. Suddenly the boys on shore began to notice objects moving on the lake in our direction. Silently one canoe after another landed on the shore and “Indians” — in full war paint and armed with spears and bows and arrows — stood on the edge of our encampment. To me something from the elementary history books had just come to life. I was fascinated.
Over the years I had a few more scouting adventures. I went to the Boy Scout Jamboree in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1960, and saw President Dwight D. Eisenhower in person.
As an older scout I was in my troop’s infamous Pine Tree Patrol, led by the self-proclaimed “Looney” Terry Loney, who initiated various pranks, guided us to the brink of disciplinary action, and ultimately taught us a lesson that never would have been found in the revered Boy Scout Handbook.
On a weekend camping trip Loney (pronounced “looney” by him) taunted a senior scout named Delmar, a goody two shoes and mama’s boy — in Loney’s mind, at least — who had become a favorite of the scoutmaster. As night fell and campers snuggled into their sleeping bags, Loney began a falsetto chant: “Delmar, your mother’s calling you.” He continued for an eternity, hoping that Delmar would take the bait. Finally he did. Delmar emerged from his tent, quietly walked over to Loney’s, and then dragged him out and beat the crap out of him. A lesson: Don’t assume that a mama’s boy is also a 98-pound weakling.
A few years later, in high school, I joined a vocational Explorer post. My unit was assigned to program computers. IBM, located in nearby Endicott, donated time on one of its giant 1401 main frame computers and also assigned one of its bright new managers to guide our efforts. I can’t remember his name, but he was a chain smoker who had an edge that suggested he might have been one of the taunters if he had been in the Pine Tree Patrol with Terry Loney.
One day, before we started keypunching some of the programming cards, he let us sit in on a meeting with him. As the other participants took notes on legal pads and in looseleaf binders, our leader scrawled notes on a poster-sized sheet of blank paper. When the meeting was over he folded it up into a small square. As he walked past his office he tossed the paper — frisbee-like — toward his secretary. “File it,” he told her, drawing on his cigaret with the insouciance of Mad Men’s Don Draper. “That meeting was a total waste of time,” he announced to the wide-eyed Explorers following in his footsteps.
My memories of the Pine Tree Patrol or the vocational Explorer post are not likely to be included in any Boy Scout highlight reel. But the Friday night campfire on the shore of Summit Lake at Camp Tuscarora could be. And you would hear no argument from me.
On the Saturday after that memorable evening, when my parents arrived to take me home, I announced I wanted to stay another week. But there was a problem — the camp was totally booked. My father tried to finagle a deal with the director — no luck. And so I left, as unhappy as I was the day I arrived. But for the exact opposite reason.
The obvious lesson: That many situations, as miserable as they may first appear, have a way of working out favorably if you give them a chance. Hey kids, file it.