I don’t think Peter knew what he was getting into when he signed up to work at a summer camp. Peter and I worked together this summer. We lived in a bunk with seventeen 14 year old boys. At times, it was downright bizarre.
Peter’s from England. He’s proper, gracious, well-mannered, really kinda feminine — your typical Englishman. On our first night, Peter confronted the American teenage boy/man head-on.
“Please, don’t you think you’d like to join the rest of the boys, yeah?” Peter said to a camper on his bed. Peter has a patient, level voice. “They’re all looking at the dirty magazine, doesn’t that seem like fun?”
See, during orientation they taught us to never allow exclusion. They also told us that it was perfectly healthy and normal for teenage boys to explore their sexual curiosity. These kids had hit puberty. If puberty were a brick wall, they’d bulldoze right through it, smashing it with their retainers, excessive acne medication and raging hormones.
Consequently, it took less than six hours before our sixteen campers piled onto one bed to pass around a magazine which we’ll call, I don’t know, “Really Naked Girls.” As these boys huddled together to search for nipples, one camper (let’s call him Jeffrey Shrineberg), already shy and somewhat reserved, sat on his own bed reading a novel.
Peter returned and found himself torn: he knew he was supposed to confiscate the magazine, but on the other hand, this was a perfect time for bunk bonding. The next day he tried to justify his decision.
“Think about it,” he said. “I mean it’s not like they were playing sports, this was something even Jeffrey could be good at.”
So polite, pampered Peter pleaded.
“I heard they’ve got some really fit Asian women in that magazine,” he said. Peter smiled and punched Jeffrey on the shoulder. “Eh, buddy? What do you say, how’d you like to join the rest of the boys?”
Eventually our supervisor walked into the bunk to find out why there was so much noise. After examining the magazine a little too closely for my taste, he confiscated it, and we all had a good laugh the next day.
This story basically epitomizes my summer. The kids were stupid, me and my counselors were pretty clueless. All kidding aside, the camp was a terrific, well-run, safe and professional place. But still, my summer was funny because it was funny.
One night, one of my favorite campers, let’s call him, “Ryan,” pulled me aside. He told me he had to ask a serious question. I looked in his big, brown innocent eyes and thought, for a moment, “This is what it’s all about!” This would be my chance to give back — to mentor, to mold. I couldn’t help but harbor hopes that over this summer I’d form true bonds with these kids, I’d become the shoulders they cried on, the hand they would hold.
“Chaz,” Ryan said.
He always called me Chaz, which is a cool nickname if you ride a motorcycle, and have tattoos, or maybe a mullet.
“Chaz, when you like a girl, do you just tell her you like her and then have sex? Like you guys don’t still have to talk or kiss or anything, do you?” he said.
Now, I believe in our children. Like most good Americans, I see our future in their eyes. In this moment, I watched the light of Ryan’s idealism flicker — his uncertain, precarious hopes and dreams, the future he envisioned where he’d finally be rid of his orthodontic head gear. These kids were obsessed with sex and clung to the notion that as they got older their life would turn into a late-night Cinemax movie. In a way, I saw myself in his aching, hopeful smile. So I did what any sarcastic, college-age, young adult would.
“Yes,” I said.
I rubbed his back in an appropriate area just like the camp’s insurance agent had taught the staff during our orientation.
“Yes, that’s exactly what happens, now go to sleep,” I said.
The world’s best bed-time story teller I am not.
But Ryan was a special kid. His mother sent me a letter explaining he was scared of vampires and UFOs. As I understood it, it was my job, as Ryan’s counselor, to keep him away from these things. She listed the phobias next to a note.
“Also, cheese sometimes makes him gassy,” She said in the note.
Once, he woke me up at 4 a.m..
“Ryan, what’s wrong?” I asked, feeling a little lost after the previous night’s recreation.
“I can’t find my sunglasses,” he said.
He had a high-pitched, clueless voice — it sounded like someone intravenously imbibing helium 24/7.
“Oh, but it’s 4 in the morning,” I said.” You don’t need your sunglasses now.”
I was always the bunk’s voice of reason. “You don’t need your sunglasses now.”
“Okay,” he said. “So you don’t know where they are?”
I could tell he was still upset. This is how empathetic I am. Also, I was beginning to realize that this kid lived on his own planet. I promptly got out of bed, precisely because I am a devoted counselor, and also because I really needed to pee.
That night, we stayed up for a while, me and Ryan. We talked about big things like when his grandpa died that winter and littler stuff like his favorite flavor Popsicle — grape, cause nobody else likes them. He still sounded like he ate crazy sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but we were beginning to really communicate. He told me about the girl he had a crush on — Ariel, cause once she gets her braces off, she’ll be hot.
We never did find Ryan’s sunglasses, but we became friends. Ryan and I definitely weren’t perfect, but we tried our best. And for one night, I felt like I was a good counselor.
The next day Ryan asked me, with his usual desperate innocence.
“Hey Chaz, now that we’re so close can you do me a favor? On your day off, get me a porno — see if you can find an ethnic one.”
Charlie Friedman loves summer camp and has a very active imagination. Ryan and Peter are actually the names of his pet hamsters.